Show and Tell: Classic Writing Advice Explained With Strippers

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Aside from “do better“, my most common editing note to myself is that classic bit of writer advice, “show, don’t tell.”

And, like most classic bits of advice–see my diatribe on “write what you know” here– it’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean you should never tell the reader things. Just that, if there’s another way, consider doing that before falling back on the good ol’ tell. Because showing is more inviting.

To put it another way, you’re trying to titillate the reader, give them a reason to continue reading. And titillation events are called peepshows, not peeptells.

I will illustrate the difference in the traditional manner: with strippers.

Imagine it’s your birthday. Imagine your friends have hired two strippers. The first arrives, drops his* pants, and then stands in the middle of the room while Depeche Mode plays for twenty minutes. He doesn’t do anything. He just stands there and allows you to admire him.

The second knocks on the door in a fake police officer’s uniform, and comes in to ‘inspect the premises’ before spending his twenty minutes putting on a show. You are involved in the show–pulling off a glove, catching a thrown hat–and while the end result is still nudity, the process is very different.

Which stripper would do you prefer?

If you say the first, you’ve probably got a good future in writing technical manuals.

This is the difference between showing and telling in writing. Telling removes the mystery, the interpretation. It’s just there, in your face. Showing takes you along for the ride, inviting you to be an active participant.

Now, there are times when the pants-off telling approach works. Sometimes showing doesn’t get to the point. Imagine Stripper #2 leaving after having taken off his hat and one shoe. There’s a guy who’s not getting a tip.

And sometimes showing isn’t necessary. It would take too long, or interrupt the narrative flow for no good reason. Sometimes you just want to see a naked dude in your living room.

Metaphorically.**

My general rule–and as usual, your mileage may vary–is that emotions, reactions, and other stuff like that should be shown if possible. Don’t tell me someone is angry; show me their clenched jaw and the spit flying as they yell. But if it drags focus from the main purpose of the passage, slows down the narrative too much***, or otherwise distracts, then telling is fine. You should exhaust the possibilities of showing first, then move on to telling. And never forget the purpose of what you’re doing.

Flash a little skin, spin your ostrich feathers, smile…and go for the big finish.

*It’s my blog, the strippers are what I say they are. Feel free to fill in the gender of your choice.

**And not metaphorically.

***Though I should point out that, if this happens a lot, your writing style might be to blame. There are quick ways of showing most things if you work at it a little.

Monday Challenge: That’s What She Said

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Yup.

I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. Again.

Just another part of the job, along with making floor plans for places that don’t exist and getting on a government watch list with every Google search. Writing fiction is telling someone else’s story in our words. Ever wonder how much of it we get right? Or, more interestingly, how much of it we get wrong?

Readers of Stephen King’s novella collection Different Seasons will remember this motto: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the teller has their part to play as well. After all, what is Nabokov’s Lolita without its fundamentally untrustworthy narrator? And I bet Vader had a different take on the lava fight than Obi-Wan.* There’s more than one side to every story, certainly, but there’s also the difference between the events as they happened and the story that is told.

Hell, we don’t even have to go that far afield. You mom probably tells the stories of your youth differently than you do. How often have you interrupted a friend who was attempting to tell a story of which you are a part? That’s not how it happened, you say. Let me tell it.Here’s how it really went…

And who’s right?

Hard to say, without a memory machine. And even then, things are open to interpretation. Which is part of the fun.

Monday Challenge, should you choose to accept it: write a character telling someone else’s story. How well do they do it? Do they get it right? Do they even try? Are they trying to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense? Or are they just doing the best they can?

*Did anyone else find that part super fucking weird? “Oh hey, you’re terribly injured and in a lot of pain. Think I’ll leave you here to die slowly. And I’m the good guy!”

Back In The Word Mines: Establishing A Writing Routine

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Psst. Hey. Hey. Hey, dragon. Hey. You wanna watch Korra?

You want to write regularly? Get yourself a writing schedule. No, not a fucking day planner. A routine that you follow in order to make sure you get ass in chair and actually write.

But making a routine in tricky. How do you make sure you have enough time? How do you stop people from bothering you? Does this mean you have to give up competitive wombat wrestling? All tricky questions.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Figure out your personal schedule. This has two parts: the times that you naturally work best, and the times you have available.

Me, I’m a morning person, especially for creative work. I like to have the grunt writing work done before noon, pouring out all the novel stuff in a caffeine-fueled rush like a hail of word-bullets. Then I save the afternoon for editing or non-creative projects, like writing copy. My editing brain sleeps in, but the creative brain is an early riser.

You might be a night person. Or a mid-afternoon person. Whatever. The key is: identify when you’re at your best.

Then look at the times you have available. If you’re lucky, the Venn diagram of your optimal time and your available time is a perfect circle. If not, you need to adjust. This might require sacrifice. I started getting up 5:30-6:00 am every morning to take advantage of my best brain time. Does it suck some days? Like a coked-out Hoover. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

2. Guard your time like a dragon with a horde. Other people will not respect your writing time. It’s not a mean thing; most of them just want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you insist on spending time banging on a keyboard when you could be playing Halo with them. You must be firm in your defence of your schedule if you hope to get anything done. Make them understand that this is important to you, and that they should respect that.

Or lock your door, turn off your phone, and invest in a couple of guard monkeys. That works, too.

3. Don’t waste your time. You’ve gone to all the trouble of setting this schedule up only to find yourself obsessively refreshing Twitter instead of writing. #amwriting should be #ampretendingtowrite.

Like you were firm with others, be firm with yourself. Set a word count and meet it. Try the Pomodoro technique (I’ve used it, and it works very well). Or, for the hardcore among you, download Write or Die and set it to Kamikaze Mode, which deletes words if you stop writing for more than thirty seconds or so.

4. Reward yourself. Yeah, yeah, in a perfect world, doing the writing itself would be reward enough. And, for me, most days it is. But others I need the extra spur.

Likewise, when you’re first trying to establish a routine, it pays to make like Pavlov and have the reward coming. Finish 1,000 words, get an episode of Orange Is The New Black. Or an hour of video game time. Finish a chapter, get a new comic book. Eventually you won’t need them, but, especially in the beginning, these little carrots can be hella helpful.

When I finish this novel, I get a robot. You’ve been warned.

So, what do you guys do to establish a routine?

 

Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

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This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

By request, I added a Feedly Follow button to the sidebar. Make with the clicky-click to get posts delivered to your newsfeed!

 

Monday Challenge: Abominable Journey To Planet X!

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Action! Adventure! Exploring space with a dust ruffle attached to your boobs!

It should come as a wild galloping shock to absolutely no one that I love pulp fiction. The genre, not the movie.* You can keep your poignant tales of ennui and evocative period dramas; give me the spacemen and cowboys, the monsters and robots, the gruff detective and the dumb-ass high school kids who go parking in the wrong place every fucking time.

While my lovely and intellectual grad school colleagues were going to see moving films about ballerinas in Chernobyl, I was burying myself in cheap paperbacks covered in intrepid explorers, destructive machines, and busty redheads with chain mail bikinis.

I’m not what one would describe as ‘tasteful’.

But, by Loki, I love those things. I love the unapologetic brashness**. And, with the advent of New Pulp and the rise of some very interesting authors, I get to see that shit come back in a big way. There’s even a new take on the quintessential chain-mail bikini heroine, Red Sonja.

Monday Challenge, hobgoblins: write the plot synopsis for one of these randomly generated*** pulp titles:

Assault Of The Titanic Bee-People

Cannibal Wednesday

The Chromatic Kid

Nuns Of Fear

Android Breaker: The Return

I Was An Atom-Age Caligula!

Go forth and write something that would have had parents of 1958 worried about the hearts and minds of their children.

*Though the movie’s not bad. Not great. but not bad.

**This also explains my love of hair metal, punk rock, giant robots, and Jack Daniels.

***This generator, along with other fine random generators, can be found at The Seventh Sanctum. The fan fiction generators are particularly recommended for those with neither qualms nor taste.

 

Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

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Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.

 

The Bride of Frankenstein: Making Your Own Beta Reader From Scratch

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“What do you think? Why did you laugh? Do you liiiiiiike it?” “For fuck’s sake, Clarence, shut the hell up and let me read.”

There comes a time in every writer’s life cycle–shortly after shedding the cocoon of old Dorito bags and scotch labels, but before growing the carapace and fangs that mark a fully developed member of the species–when s/he wants to share the product of their labours with another.

It’s a very special time: the search for a beta reader.*

But, how, among the scads of online critique groups and meatspace people, do you find The One?** Is there a questionnaire? Can you sign up for online manuscript dating?*** Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best?

Here’s an idea that I don’t see much: you can make your own beta reader.

No, not from parts. Put that brain in a jar down.

What I mean is that, if you know someone who is willing and able, you can teach them what to look for.

But they should meet a few criteria first. Here’s your checklist for a trainee beta reader:

1) They should be literate. Or you will have a buttload of other teaching to do.

2) They should be willing to read your stuff. And ‘willing’ here means ‘enthusiastic’. Not ‘will do it because otherwise you might withhold sex/friendship/the necessities of life’. Subtle difference.

3) They should be willing to be honest. And you should be willing to accept their honesty without going batshit, even if you don’t agree with it.

4) They should be willing to put in the time. Because what you’re asking is not small. You’re asking them to do for free what professional editors do for a living. Respect that.

After that, it’s a matter of showing them what to look for. In the case of the Husband, one of my beta readers, I asked him to note where he got bored, and why. And where he had questions: ‘who’s this chick? what happened to that guy’s head?’ It helped narrow down problems because it showed me what goes through someone’s head while they read my work.

Final note: opening yourself up to beta readers is hard. Not like digging ditches hard, but still fucking hard. Krys likened it to telling someone that you like like them: you’re letting all your messy bits hang out there in the hopes that it’s reciprocated. And it might not be. But that’s a risk you have to take.

Because if you can’t open your work up to someone you know, how the hell are you ever going to open it up to a submissions editor?

*There’s some disagreement over whether it should be alpha reader or beta reader. I prefer beta because, of course, you are the first reader of your story.

**Or, depending on your needs, The Two. Or Three. Or Dozen. Whatever, I’m not judging.

***Actually, this is a good question: can you?