Why we don’t write: Seven excuses and why they’re all lame

In the spirit of adding value to the internet (and not merely thieving someone else’s value in the form of their pictures all the time. Love you, pixabay!), I took some photos a while back in hopes they would make good book-ish pictures for the ol’ blog:

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…because Gad only knows the one thing the internet needs is more pictures.

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What makes these glamor shots of the fancy journal and the old-fashioned pen there-on kind of hysterical is that the inside of the journal looks like this:

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…and has looked like this for two or more years.

I very nearly wrote a memo to myself on page 2 along the lines of…

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…but I couldn’t actually bring myself to write it in the book! I was too frightened of putting pen to paper.

Therefore, in attempt to help ease the paralysis felt by my fellow authors and I when it comes to putting words on the page, here are 7 excuses we use to put off writing our books and what makes them bogus.

  1. I’ll do it when I have time. Nah, man. Writing is like working out, having kids, or going to Ireland. If you wait until you have time, you’ll never do it. When we care about a thing, we make time for it, yes?
  2. There’s no hurry to write my book. I’m still young, yet. Yuh-huh. No car accidents, heart attacks, or unseen calamity in YOUR future, eh? Did you know there are powerful, quotable works left unfinished because their writers went to Auschwitz midway through writing their books (Irene Nemirovsky‘s Suite Franceise is likely not the only book of its kind. Its just the one that broke my heart when I learned why it was never finished)? I’d love for nothing so severe to happen in our lifetimes, fellow writer, but we should never assume the dreadful, world-shattering events can’t happen to us. 20190115_190052 bnw
  3. I’ll never make any money at it. Plausible. Runaway success as a writer is super rare. Then again, so is making money on a hobby. If you’re one of the lucky few who can make a living with your books, fantastic. If you’re not, what did it cost you, a little paper, time, and ink? You wouldn’t expect to make money on a golfing, fishing, or sky diving habit. Why put that kind of pressure on your writing?
  4. I’m afraid I’ll fail. Also plausible. Failure is an expensive and necessary part of the “try, try again,” mentality most authors require to get a book in print. One recovering failure to another, I’ve kept consistently kept my lights on by learning from my mistakes and doing my best not to make the same mistake twice. Granted, my books are not heralded as signs of the second coming of Terry Pratchett or anything. But between the writing and the “day job,” my loved ones and I still eat well enough, we have to worry about getting fat.
  5. What if no one likes my book? Um, do you like your book? If you do, start there. Learn to habitually speak and write about your book with confidence in a variety of settings. If you’ve ever gone to a trade show (a comic convention, a book fair, or something like that), you know the guy or gal who gets the most sales is not the one with the best book. Its the guy or gal with the smarm, charm, eye-contact, and enthusiasm for his product that wins the day. If you love your book, and you’re not shy about it, you will inspire others to love it with you. I promise.
  6. I’m not good enough, yet. Bad news first: your first book will almost certainly suck. It’s not your fault. There’s just a lot to learn about publishing biz -self-pub and traditional – that you won’t master until you’ve gotten a couple titles under your belt. Even if your first book is fantastic, five years from now, you’ll be a new human with a new writing style, and your first book to you will be to you what the portrait in the attic was to Dorian Gray: bedraggled, poorly aged, and a part of you that you wish you could destroy. Or if against all odds you look back and love your first book, you’ll wish the publisher had listened to you on various aspects of the formatting and the editor had left your favorite lines uncorrected and perfect the way you wrote them.  Good news: Your first book is likely not your last book. Hold on. Future you will have more to say about different, grander things than the you of today. dorian gray.png
  7. I’m not inspired. How can I write when I have nothing to say? Here’s where I disagree with almost all the writing experts on earth. Their best advice is “Write anyway.” I totally understand why they think this thing. A daily writing habit is admirable. It helps us meet deadlines and stay relevant. However, I have 2 gripes with the “write anyway” school of thought.                                                                           1) Quantity is not now nor will it ever be better than quality. I know retirees who have rhymed words on paper every day for 10 years and think they’re poets. They are not poets, and they have not in any way made efforts to be better writers in those 10 years of faithfully putting words on paper. So they don’t get better.                 2) Those who advocate the writing of more books over fewer, better books are some of the first to cry, “Hey-ho! Woe is me! The book market is over-saturated with less-than-life-changing work, and my magnum opus shall therefore have less impact on its target audience.” Do you think there’s a connection between encouraging writers to write things they don’t care about and the current market saturation? Maybe a little?                                                                                                                                   There’s nothing wrong with the writing of many books that take up space someone’s shelf, and what works for me will not work for all authors. For me, the writing frenzies start when I find something I care about, and the obsessive parts of my brain turns it into a story over then next few weeks. So, maybe the trick is to do cool things, read good books, and have stimulating conversation on a regular basis? Then, we’d care about something all the time, so a daily writing habit might lead to better AND more frequent books.

Anyway, those are 7 excuses for not writing and my best shot at their 7 rebuttals. If I missed some, please, oh please, let me know in the comments section. Creative writers should have quite the epic excuses for why they can’t write, and I’d be privileged to read any I didn’t think of.

 

The Strong Female Protagonist: Who is she? WHERE is she?

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A couple years back, in a casual conversation about what I wanted to be when / if I grow up, I heard myself say, “I want to be the female Ryan Reynolds.”

I promptly forgot I said this, and life went on.

Then last week, I caught some You Tube clips featuring Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Gene Gray, and other “strong” female leads, and I noticed something remarkable.

Every female with a warrior persona was in perfect physical condition and came with 2 settings:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

So I searched the ol’ memory banks for the closest thing to a female Ryan Reynolds in recollection. It took me all the way back to Lori Petty in the 1995 United Artist interpretation of Tank Girl.

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Okay. Grainy-ness of the borrowed internet photo aside, this is what a strong, female lead should look like, y’all.

Tank Girl was gritty, sarcastic, physically fit, physically funny, and – get this – allowed to where baggy clothes in scenes when it made sense in the context of the scene, not the skin-tight leather jumpsuit you’d expect to see in a modern Marvel flick. Also, in no way were her motivations through-out the picture precipitated by her feelings for a man (except maybe the feeling of contempt for the antagonist).

This was alarming to me in a lot of ways. Tank Girl was made closer to 30 years ago than 10, and it still beats the crap out of anything Wonder Woman has done for us, lately.

It also embarrasses me a little because I’m guilty having thought I wrote “strong females” into my own work, and their settings were exactly the same as Wonder Woman or Black Widow:

“Berserker” and “Off.”

I may be giving this phenomenon more thought that it deserves, but I think I know why we’re doing this to our women of genre fiction, comic books, and movies.

The short answer: “Toxic Masculinity.”

The somewhat longer answer: Back before women’s lib, civil rights, and stay-at-home dads were a thing, there was only one kind of man and one kind of woman in most people’s minds. Men were career-minded bread-winners who didn’t talk about their feelings. Women were full time housekeeper / child-minders who were kind of allowed to talk their feelings with other women but not too deeply. When we started embracing the idea that humans are complicated, women and men each became proficient in what was hither-to perceived as “man’s work” or “woman’s work.”

Here’s where it gets sticky. There are still humans who believe the man should be a career-minded bread-winner who doesn’t talk about his feelings. And since women are now prone the a similar career-mindedness, it seems natural to paint them as stoic professional bad asses who have it all together all the time…

Like a career-minded man only more-so.

With bosoms!

Not to put that Ryan Reynolds guy on a pedestal or anything, but the reason I think he can do what he does is he started out in comedy. Then, by the time someone noticed he was handsome enough to be a leading man / super hero, he was already grounded in the self-assurance that he wasn’t just, as they say, “another pretty face.”

Before he looked like…

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…he was…

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(the internet wouldn’t give me stills of this ancient scene featuring Ryan Reynolds and Nathan Fillion. I think it knows that much readily accessible sexy on our monitors would lead to some unintended euphoria / tech overdose and world break-age)

That’s where the toxic masculinisation of both sexes falls down, ya see. The courage to show people who we are, not the paragon we assume they want to see will eventually give us believable male and female leads and do wonders for our collective psyche.

In the meantime, “Berserker” and “Off” might be our best option in female protagonists until the governors of our movies, comic books, and genre fiction decide there’s money in it for’m to spring for an upgrade in the form of 3 denominational character development.

And not the 3 dimensions merely as it pertains to the female protagonist’s bosom, neither!

 

 

 

Why Publishing Guidelines Matter (Except for When They Don’t)

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Writing a novel feels like grueling futility exercise from start to finish.

We knock ourselves out writing a story so it quits ricocheting around in our brains and we can finally allocate our grey matter to something else (like that catchy Justin Bieber song we hate ourselves for knowing the words to).

Then, if we want to dispense our story to the readers who will love it, we have to either…

  1. Scrounge up the resources to self-publish / promote, or…
  2. Meet the implausible guidelines set forth by some publisher with a golden glint in his or her eye.

I mean, I get it.

I totally get that the publisher has a job to do, and that job requires the author to met some rigid guidelines:

  • Your story cannot be too derivative or the publisher could get sued.
  • Your story cannot be too different, because reps don’t know how to sell “different.” “Same” means there’s something to compare it to, and the publisher can capitalize on an audience that already exists.
  • The publishing house wants an author who can follow directions. Any diva author who acts like rules are for other people is going to be a pain in the ass and someone the publisher won’t not want to make time for.
  • Publishing is a business, and book length is a thing. Too many words / pages means the price of printing goes up, and they have to raise the book price in order to make the money back. Too few words / pages, publisher starts two wonder, “What’s the point?”

I really, truly have naught but the utmost sympathy for the publisher.

I also understand that art is only worth what someone will pay for it, and there’s no art like good commerce.

However, if you’re writing a book that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre, it’s easy to feel unappreciated and discouraged.

“I just want to tell the world this cool story the way my characters told it to me,” you grieve after months of fruitless querying. “There’s just no room for misfits on the Barnes and Noble shelves, I guess.”

For what it’s worth, some of the greatest authors in history would not be published today, based on the rules that currently govern the publishing biz. Below, in no particular order of importance, are some of those rules and the books / authors who broke them successfully:

-Keep your word count way, way under 250,000 words. Works equal to or greater than this length will frighten publishers away from your novel and relegate you to Slush Pile Hell for all eternity… Unless your name is Leo Tolstoy, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, or Victor Hugo.

Serious authors do not stop at one, great novel… unless that author’s name is Harper Lee (who technically has a sequel to her one great novel as of a few years back, but those who have read it tend to agree that said sequel was to To Kill a Mocking Bird what Return of Jafar was to Aladdin).

Books under 50,000 words long are unsellable…Unless they are, say, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at a paltry 29,966 words or George Orwell’s Animal Farm at a still more meager 28,944 words.

-Happy Endings are mandatory when writing a children’s book… unless that book is The Velveteen Rabbit, Where the Red Fern Grows, or roughly half of the stories bestowed onto us by Hans Christian Andersen.

Don’t bother illustrating your own children’s book. The publisher will want an in-house expert, and you probably suck at it, anyway… Unless your name is Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, or Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Then, the more voo-doo, you do, the better.

-Show don’t tell… unless your name is Jane Austin or Frank L. Baum in which case your plucky female protagonist and you are excused from amending your masterworks to reflect modern writing trends.

– Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly… unless your name is Anne Rice. Then, feel free to use them boldly, proudly, deftly, and literally (yowza! Hurt m’self a little with that last one).

Self-publishing is for authors who are not good enough to be published by traditional means…unless your pen-name is Mark Twain, and the book you are publishing is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So I guess there are a few things ways to handle your book if that book is one that in un-pigeon-hole-able. You can look for a ballsy publisher who’ll take a chance on your wild card of a novel, you can publish books that sell for a while before doing something you like, or you can self-promote like the proverbial Dickens and say, “To hell with y’all ( because nothing brings the publishers a- running like an author who proves he/she doesn’t need them).”

In any case, if you happen to be an author whose book seems out of place in today’s market, fear not. Tomorrow’s market will be different, and maybe your book will be the convention-defying phenomenon that makes “different” the new “same.”

Suspense: The Exotic Dance of the Literary World

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So there I was, minding my own business when I looked above the sink and saw spiderweb wherein hung a broken pencil nib where the spider should be.

Thought 1: “Neat! I gotta get a picture of this.”

Thought 2: “That would be a killer graphic for an article on suspense.”

Thought 3: “Stupid brain! Now, we gotta think of something witty to say about suspense.”

Having long been a comedy writer, my focus has primarily been on surprise, not elaborate build-up.

“Why’d the chicken cross the road? Oh, some fowl reason. Budup-bup.”

Not much suspense in the setup – punchline format, right?

It’s almost more a kin to the “Who-done-it” style mysteries of Raymond Chandler or Earl Stanley Gardner. They write Phillip Marlowe and Perry Mason into few dreadful scrapes and string us along for a few chapters, but the novel will invariably end with a big, abrupt reveal.

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Just like a punchline. Each book is like a twenty – thirty thousand word joke leading up to, as it were, a killer punchline (yes, yes. I know. Puns are to humor what soy is to meat. I can’t help it. It’s a sickness).

Then, it occurred to me while listening to a better writer than I am talk about the works of Alfred Hitchcock, “Oh, I get it! Suspense is the stripper, and surprise is the flasher.”

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No, really.

The striptease artist is all about finesse. It’s elegant, it’s slow, and the emphasis is on keeping the audiences’ interest by not revealing everything at once.

By contrast, the flasher is sneaky and sudden. At the end of his or her performance, he or she is just as naked as was the stripper, but the audience receives no build-up from the flasher. They must suspect nothing in order for his scheme to work. The reaction he’s going for is 100% based on astonishing the audience with an abrupt, hit-and-run surprise.

Both these tactics have their uses and were employed famously by a no-chinned, throaty-voiced force of nature named Alfred Hitchcock.

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Go on. Picture this man that modern movie makers esteem a world class suspend-er strutting his saucy stuff as the stripper at your next bachelor party.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

Anyway, it’s said of Hitchcock that he treated each scene as though there were a ticking time bomb in it. If the characters are allowed to calmly play out the scene, and a bomb goes off without warning, you have mere moments of shock on the heels of several minutes of  potential boredom. If you show the audience the ticking time bomb at the start of the scene, you get the shock of the exploding bomb at the end, and those preceding minutes turn from boredom to suspense.

Possibly unpopular opinion time:

I think suspense and surprise are comparably valid methods, and Hitchcock overused suspense in his films.

A lot.

And some of his movies could have been far better if he’d used so much as a teaspoon more surprise and a cup less suspense.

One such movie is a James Steward / Kim Novak Picture called VIRTIGO in which *spoiler alert* Hitchcock tells you, the audience, the beautiful blond is guilty. Then, he lets you look at your watch and impatiently stamp your foot while you wait for the hero to catch up. Had he let the audience figure out the clues along side the hero, the ending would be more satisfying, and the audience would have felt a lot more conflicted in their feelings toward the protagonist. They’d go from, “Dear Gad, why is he putting that girl through all that? This guy’s nuts,” to, “Serves you right, you cold-hearted bitch, for getting involved in that other girl’s murder.” PSYCHO, one of the few Hitchcock films I’d watch on purpose these days, is both hugely dependent on surprise AND a film that lingers in your head for a while when the movie ends due to the unsettling nature of the big reveal.

The Kind-of-sort-of moral of the story:

Leaning too heavily on suspense or surprise could lead stale writing. On the other hand, it could lead to predictable branding and establishing a formula for cranking out more books in your series. An eager public awaits both the stripper and the writer of the  courtroom drama, even though they know what happens in the end. So… try both until you hit your stride, I guess, or avoid both, and choose another genre in which to write your masterpieces?

One of my least favorite Hitchcock films is NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

I hate this film. Hate it. Purple passion, migraine inducing hate. Because it strings you along for 40 or 50 tremendous scenes of suspense. At the end, it’s as though Hitchcock got bored or stuck or something, because one second, the protagonists are straining to reach one another one slip-of-the-hand away from free-fall off Mount Rushmore’s iconic cliff face. The very next second, they’re in bed on their honeymoon, and all is right with the world.

Nice segue, Mr. Hitchcock. 3 or so million angry movie goers could sue your dead ass for whiplash and win!

Never the less, if that wicked, old man was allowed to end at such time as he ran out of interesting things to say, I shall keep to that theme set forth by him, and end my ravings here (for now).

Peace, ya’ll. Thanks for reading. Go forth, and write books worth burning! 

 

 

Insta-Romance: What could be worse?

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More than a few authors feel highly pressured to lustify their books with a steamy, dreamy romance or two so as not to disappoint the readers who have come to expect them.

And why not? Books are a business, and if Romance is where the money is, that’s where the majority of writers will feel obliged to go.

However, mature readers struggle to suspend their disbelief if the romance does not feel real to them. When this happens, most experts agree that the least forgivable trick the writer can play on his struggling reader is to add an insta-romance to his or her book.

Yes, the insta-romance; the fast-burning, lackluster courtship that might’ve been most succinctly summed up by The Doors in singing, “Hello. I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?” back in 1968.

Not a bad pick-up line. Intolerable as a plot or subplot.

Okay. Unpopular opinion time, guys. Contrary to expert opinion, I believe in my heart and soul there are at least 3 recurring romantic tropes that should be hated and maligned to a degree that at least equals the dreaded insta-romance.

  1. Haters who become lovers.

I get it. Opposites attract. Light needs dark. Ying needs Yang, and all that jazz. But when was the last real life experience when you hated someone at first site, and your gut instincts were wrong?

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When this phenomenon overtakes me in meeting someone for the first time, my guts tense up and send the message, “Do not trust this person. It’ll end badly for you” to my unconscious mind. My stubborn faith in human nature prevails against this gut reaction and says, “You’re imagining things. Don’t be so negative. Everyone deserves a chance.” Then, between a month and ten years later, that person turns into the villain of my next book, and my gut goes, “Right the first time. Told you so, Stupid.”

The “I hate you on sight,” thing is what our civilized, latte-drinking, litter-recycling superego dismisses as “snap judgements” and tries to squash. Listening to your superego in this is a mistake. Gut instinct is a primitive-but-effective survival mechanism that dates back to a time in human history when trust in our fellow humans was even scarcer than it is, today. Cave men and women had to make snap judgements all the time about whether or not a stranger was good for the tribe or a nuisance, suitable for tiger bait and nothing else.

That said, love-hate relationships are nice and dysfunctional, which can give you lots of  terrific, natural antagonism for your book.

I guess it makes sense for your protagonist to fool around with that guy or gal for a few chapters or even off and on throughout the series, ’til the real romance gets started.

But if the part time hater ends up being the romantic lead for real? Nah, y’all. There’s no way for that to end any way but badly. I guess that’s why most romance stories stop when they do. Maybe Shakespeare was a crap romance writer (?) If he tried to publish Taming of the Shrew, today, I’ll betcha the first 20 publishers he approached would tell him, “The psychological abuse is great, Bill, but does it have to happen after Petruchio and Kate get married? Our readers are kind of used to a wedding scene as a cue that we’ve reached the happy ending.”

Anyway, back to the list.

2. The Lovable Liar.

Liars are lovable. I’ve loved some liars. I’ve also threatened some liars with broken bottles and the terror of self-reflection when their lies get to be too much.

In your story, you are free to put in as many lovable liars as you want. They can be heart breakers, bank robbers, under *e-hem* cover agents, princes in disguise and a myriad of handsome, exciting strangers.

But is it satisfying for your hero or heroine to marry that pretender in the end? Ever wonder why there’s no Jane Eyre II? What happens when Jane’s the one locked up because Mr. Rochester got bored with her and accused her of madness?

I might be super off-base, here, but as consumers, I feel like we excuse a lot of bad behavior when the person behaving badly is hot, rich or both. Heath Ledger and Matthew Mcconaughey got the girl in the end of A Knight’s Tale and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days and the women decide they love the man behind the lies for little reason other than hotness / richness. Jennifer Aniston plays a [f, dash, dash, dash]-ing rapist in The Hangover series.  But guess what. Rape is wrong even when the rapist looks like Jennifer Aniston, and trusting a liar is futile, even if the liar looks like Heath Ledger or Matthew McConaughey.

Again, I’m not saying these liars don’t belong in our stories. Heroes and heroines getting taken in by con artists now and then makes them pretty damn relatable, and how other characters react to the liar makes for tremendous growth potential.

But maybe can we move past the idea that if you marry the liar, you can expect anything but a marriage of lies and misery?

Maybe?

3. Marry your best friend.

Sounds harmless, right? After all, romance as a genre takes us on our own, private flights of fancy with the writer as our tour guide, and at fantasy’s end, who wouldn’t want to marry his or her best friend?

Plus, it’s only fiction, anyway. The reader should smart enough to know fantasy from reality, right?

Here’s my personal problem with the “Marry your best friend” trope.

I’ve lost two best friends in my life, and it wasn’t because they died. I lost my first best friend because I wasn’t mature enough to be, “just friends.”I lost my second best friend because my friend wasn’t mature enough to be, “just friends.”

All three people involved in these 2 romantic disasters were intelligent, grounded people who were smart enough to know the difference between insta-romance and real life. Yet, two out of three of us fell for the “marry your best friend” concept because it’s a more plausible fabrication. That particular fantasy seems so attainable that it’s easy to hope that one comes true, and we hurt people, if we mistake it for the way the world works..

I’d like to let writers in on a secret in the knowledge that most of them are self-depreciating masochists who won’t go mad with power once they learn it:

Life reflects art as much as art reflects life.

Whether you meant for your book to be a frivolous pleasure read or an epiphany-inspiring life-changer, your book is going to have an effect on your readers.

Please, oh please, never assume that your words don’t matter and that you don’t have to choose them carefully. The best thing you can do is inspire your reader to do something,  to write something, or read another book. The worst thing you can do to your reader is…

I’m not sure. Waste their time, I guess.

But if in your life, the worst thing you’ve put your audience through is the dissatisfaction of an insta-romance, fret not. It could be so much worse.

Show vs. Tell: the trial, the execution, and the injustice of the verdict

Article 4.pngUnless this is the first article about writing ever you’ve read, I expect you’re keenly aware that there are a million – billion – trillion and five online writing experts who are clamoring to remind you of your need to, “show,” not “tell.”

At its most basic, the difference between the two is this:

Telling is information the reader perceives as though he is an outsider getting brought up to speed on someone else’s story:

“Jack’s mother was so angry and hurt by his naive actions that she sent him to bed without supper,” would be an example of telling.

Showing is information that helps the reader experience the story as though he were a character within its pages:

“Jack closed his eyes,  but he could not sleep. The hunger pangs were nothing new to him  since the coming of the famine, but this was the first time he’d made so costly an error as to cause his mother to cry silent tears into her apron on the other side of their one-room cottage,” would be an example of showing.

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“So congratulations!” says the internet. “You now know the difference between showing and telling. Now, get out there, and write that novel!”

Thanks, internet. That’s… so much easier said than done.

For the record, it is one-hundred percent possible to write stories worth reading while doing lots of “telling” and very little “showing (see Jane Austin’s Emma for one, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for another or absolutely anything by Hans Christian Andersen, for shorter examples).”

Don’t get me wrong. I understand “showing” is a valuable technique in lending credibility to one’s story.

I didn’t come out of a box knowing this, nor did I first learn the ins-and-outs of “Show vs. Tell” by taking a creative writing course.

More than a dozen years ago, I got a scholarship to nursing school.

So to nursing school, I went.

And I hated it.

But I learned survival among bipolar women in large groups, and in the years since, I’ve gotten pretty good what writer-ish types call “showing” through the tedium of legal documentation.

Legal documentation is a style of writing at its strongest when it is light on opinions and heavy on objective observations.

Let’s say I’m on the witness stand, and I say, “Mr. Smith had an asthma attack” as though it was a matter of fact.

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“Now wait a minute,” says any attorney worth his six figures a year, “How do you know Mr. Smith was having an asthma attack? Was a doctor present? Did Mr. Smith hold up a sign that said, ‘I’m having an asthma attack’?”

By “telling” something that seems like common knowledge to me, I don’t offer any evidence of what I observed as an eye-witness, and the whole jury has now reason to doubt my word.

On the other hand, suppose I was on the same witness stand, and I said something a little more like this:

“Mr. Smith’s breathing became rapid, and his lung sounds grew coarse. His words were barely audible over the television, but I saw his eyes dart between me and the inhaler that his daughter had placed inches from his reach during her lunch hour visit.”

While my detail-rich account may not be enough sway all twelve jury members in favor of my protagonist, it certainly builds a stronger case for my credibility as a witness.

The same skill that makes lawsuit-prone medical types keen observers of humans and their conditions is the same thing that can make you a better writer the more you can practice that skill.

But an entire book of showing sans telling is boring!

That’s why lawyers make six figures a year. Few book lovers who read for pleasure are likely to go around perusing legal documentation for fun.

As you may have guessed, I love telling. Love it! Love (practically) everything about it.

We are story tellers, damn it! We got into this racket because we like well-told stories.

And the same writer-ish types who cry, “Hey-ho, show, don’t tell,” are also some of the largest advocates for writers “finding their voice.”

Your voice lives in the balance between “show and tell,” and without it, readers can’t connect to you. They might as well be reading court depositions in Legalese Hell.

If you’re still learning what your style is and whether portions of your story are better told, not shown, take some time in the rough editing stage of your project, and try a paragraph you’re not crazy about both ways.  Maybe you’re better at telling stories because you’re a snarky, indoor kid whose sarcastic voice makes your prose more interesting the more your personality shows through. Or maybe you’re better at showing stories having been an undertaker in a past life, and your clinical approach to writing is just the thing to make you stand out among posers who think they can write accurate crime scene drama.

I guess at the bitter end of the day, those whose mantra is, “show, don’t tell,” are trying to simplify everyone’s life by making a science out of an art form. But there’s only one one, right way to write a the story, and that’s yours.

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For better credentialed, less rant-like thoughts on “show and tell,” as well as other, sexy writing this-and-that, find Shaelin Bishop here and here (I have yet to find any bogus, online thingies with that lady’s name on them).

 

Themes: Better Writing Through Strategic Repetition

This past week, I learned something wondrous about the writing of themes, with the help of Professor James Hynes (the novelist and writing instructor) and Stephen King (the author and demigod).

This thing might be common knowledge to the more experienced novelist, but it was nigh unto epiphany-worthy for me. I would therefore like to share a first person, nonfiction narrative of the events leading up to the epiphany in hopes that someone besides me might use the knowledge therein to write awesomer stuff.

Many years ago in a land called Illinois, I was pretty good at writing funny songs. Since I fancied myself a playwright as well as a lyricist, twenty-something-year-old me thought the thing to do was to write a musical.

Good job, twenty-something-year-old me. If you’d have told present-day me your plans over coffee, in a parallel universe somewhere, present-day me would have laughed in your face pretty good.

Anyway, in those days, I’d heard an underrated score writer named Kurt Heineke speak of how he did not write movie scores in order from beginning to end. Instead, he would write a theme for each character. Then, whenever the character appeared on screen a variation on that theme would play in the background: fast for drama, slow for sadness, drums for battle scenes, piano for melodrama… Different musical arrangements would be used to set the mood, but they all had the same melody at their core.

For evidence of other writers employing melodic themes effectively, look no further than John William’s legendary Star Wars score. The empire, the princess, and the triumphant hero all have their own themes. The visuals and the dialogue could be taken away completely, and you would know who should be on screen based on the soundtrack. Or themes can be used to foreshadow things we’re not seeing yet, like the subtle strains of the imperial march in Episode II as Anakin confides in Padme about his recent massacre of the sand people.

In the astonishingly different Ghostbusters score, we tend to remember the catchy, pop-style songs, but when Dana’s on screen, her theme takes the form of a sweet, little melody being played on a distant theremin.

Even far less epic television scores use the strategy of theme variation. Remember the happy-go-lucky Brady Bunch song? It was both an upbeat, musical bookend for starting / wrapping up each episode and a mournful trumpet solo when Marsha has a moral dilemma or Greg hurts Jan’s feelings or whatever.

Today, I’ve retired from play / score writing in favor of writing books (and the peasants rejoiced), but I’ve only been working in this medium for a half-dozen years. Like any new convert, I’ve been struggling to understand some basics, such as exposition, word count, and what makes crucial scene-setting different from boring, extraneous rubbish. As a playwright, I’d gotten used to the actors, costumers, and property masters setting the scenes and telling the actual stories. All I did was give them snappier dialogue and some stage directions with which to do it.

With a book, there are no accents, hairstyles, architecture, dance crazes, idiosyncrasies, or details unless I, the writer, put them there.

So I struggled. And I quagmired.

I’d been trying to perpetrate the literary equivalent of a comb-over, turning my forty word paragraphs into forty-five words in hopes of concealing my story’s bald spots, as I listened to a creative writing lecture by Professor James Hynes. He spoke of setting, time period, and characters as the tools a writer uses to reflect an overall theme. The peeling paint and leafless trees of a once vibrant, well-kept estate may evoke the physical or moral decay of the people who live there. A foolish decision the protagonist made when he was small might come up again and again in the form of a manipulative antagonist who’s great at finding weaknesses and exploiting them.

Once Professor Hynes alerted me to this phenomenon, it dawned on me that themes in a book and themes in a musical score are amazingly similar. They’re both strategic repetition used to build a better story around your protagonist and carry him to the next part of his journey.

The very next movie I saw was the late remake of Stephen King’s incredible classic, It. The theme of It, aside from eye-widening, teeth-gritting, ass-clenching terror, is “United, we stand.” A bunch of misfit kids are tormented by the entire town of Derry long before the apparition known as Pennywise appears, but “it,” like the predatory people of Derry, works most effectively when he can isolate his victims. The children help each other stay alive two (or more) times before coming together to fight Pennywise at the climax of the picture.

I guess the take-away is that not everything we were told in English class was wrong, but, “Quit repeating yourself,” might have been an over simplification. “Quit being redundant” is valid, but repeating yourself in interesting ways is good storytelling when it helps get a specific point across to your readers. Hell, some of the best loved literature in print is older than the exclamation point. In those days, repetition was the most effective tool they knew of to stress their points.

So take that, high school! You were wrong, and the dumb armatures with life experience and no tenure were right. Again.