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May 2010 Archives

You know by now that I am a geek, an English major, a technophile, and an increasingly passionate advocate for nonprofit social networking. I am an independent consultant; I'm also a mom. But what am I really, in the essence of my being? I'm a novelist.flashfiction1.jpg

I've actually written four novels, but the first three I don't choose to recall except perhaps in bad nightmares (no, you can't find them on the Web!). The fourth I'm quite proud of, and am currently pitching for publication. I've started on the sequel, too.

I recently took a class called, "Get Published: From Pen to Paper" that purported to teach me the mysterious ways of the publishing world and hopefully increase my chances of landing the elusive book deal. Part of the class was devoted to writing exercises, which are like other forms of exercise (read, "hard work"), and we avoid them just as much. I thought, "I write all the time, probably 1,000 words a day or more, so why should I need to exercise?"

At the same time, I was working on a project to reinterpret the Governor Jonathan Trumbull War Office in Lebanon, CT. It's a tiny museum with an enormously important story. The client wanted some kind of interpretive panels on the wall (more on that in another post) that provided a baseline story, but did not distract from the recreated interiors and reproduction artifacts (again, more on that later). Our original plan was three 38"x48" panels with 500 words each. By museum standards, that's not a lot of text.

But then I discovered flash fiction, the art and craft of telling a complete story (protagonist, conflict, and resolution) in 6-500 words. In class, we were working on the low end of that scale, 20-150 words. Dang, was that hard. I'm still not good at it - my novel is nearly 160,000 words - but over the course of the class I started to see an effect not just on my fiction but my professional writing as well.

Remember those exhibit panels? I reduced one of them by 90%. It went from three 80-word paragraphs to one paragraph of 60 words. Wow. The others slimmed down, too. I think we probably have a total of 600 words on the wall now, maybe less. With some great pictures, they look fabulous.

Here's the point: writing exhibit labels should be exactly like writing a short story. The emphasis should be on narrative, rather than fact, centered on a key individual or group of real people, with conflict and outcome. Too often we in the museum business try to "educate" or "inform" the visitor. Look, they're at our museums for fun! They want to be entertained and engaged; they want to know the people from the past in the same way they get to know a character in a story. Just like the fiction writer, we need to show, not tell.

Show, not tell.

See? It works. Come to the exhibit opening on June 12, 2010 and you can see for yourself!








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