Show, Don’t Tell

As a fledgling writer you are taught that you should ‘show, don’t tell’.  But why, you might ask? What is the harm in telling anyway?  For that matter, what do you mean by that phrase?

Let me give you an example of show first:

Michael crept across the darkened kitchen and stopped at the fridge, his hand resting on the door.  He glanced round before opening the door. The light from the fridge made his skin glow as he fished for his favourite snack, salami.  After giving it a sniff he devoured the cylinder of pork.  Closing the door, he licked his fingers and returned to bed.

And here is an example of tell:

Ever since he was a child, Michael had fostered a secret habit nighttime eating.  The first time was at the age of eleven he had woken during the night with hunger pangs.  Desperate to have something to eat, he snuck downstairs and gobbled a plate of cheese left on the side.  His mother, Maureen, wondered who had eaten their food until one night she caught him red-handed.  The scolding she gave out did not deter him however.  He knew what he was doing was bad for his health but he could not help himself as he stole across the kitchen and raided the fridge.  This time he went for the salami.

Here’s the problem, in the first example the story evolves before your eyes.  You get an impression that Michael is probably impulsive by nature.  You don’t know what the original cause was for this secretive eating, you are left to your own conclusions.

In the second example I have told you the reason.  In order to do that I had to pull away from the story to tell you.  The flow was been disrupted in order to give you this piece of character-building information.

The reason I bring this up now is because of the book I am reading ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild. Parts of the book are engaging however Hannah does have a habit of telling rather than showing.

In short bursts, I admit, it is useful to tell some back story.  When it stretches to two pages and the story to one paragraph, then I have a problem.  While I haven’t finished the novel I keep asking myself the same two questions ‘Do I need to know the motivation of every character in the story?  Do I need the life history of said characters too?’

Currently, the answer is no.

Editing Lesson No.1

Every single character must have a profile.

First I’ll give you a little bit of background to ‘Unit 16’. A couple of years ago, not long after I first started writing, I wrote a short scene.  Perhaps I should explain, I get ideas/scenes and need to get them down. Most of the time I don’t do anything with them but occasionally I do.

I liked what I had come up with and had always planned to take it further.  Two years later, I did.  This scene became the prologue for ‘Unit 16’.

When I wrote the piece it was exactly as I imagined in my head.  Which is fine, until you make a story from it.  Because the characters were not fleshed out I spent some time addressing that.  Except for one of them.

This particular character dies on page one of the prologue.  I thought to myself, why does he need a profile?  He doesn’t live beyond the first couple of paragraphs, it’ll be a waste of time. That would have been fine if he didn’t have any influence on the rest of the story.  He does.

That led to the minor (ish) crisis that was the subject of last week’s blog.  Fumdamental questions were not asked; Who is this guy?  What does he do?  Why is he about to be killed?

Answering those questions is what I’ve been trying to achieve last week.  Unravelling this character has helped pin down the time period of the prologue.  Having thought long and hard about it it looks like I can potentially keep the year as it is but possibly change locations.  It feels such a relief that I can essentially keep things as they are!

Plot Holes

How I wish I had the literary equivalent of a plaster which I could apply to any plot hole to cover them up.  Alas there is no such thing which leaves me the difficult task of correcting the error.

Plot holes are fine and dandy when they are small but when they look like they could scupper the entire story, then you have a problem.  That’s what I’m facing now and I’m not finished editing the Prologue yet!

For some reason I decided to peg my story in the real world.  Okay, so its a fictional story but what surrounds it is real.  The problem comes when reality doesn’t quite match up with what you have in your head.

The best way to get around it is to do more research until you find firmer ground.  In the last couple of days I have been lucky enough to find some, however, it is nebulous at the moment.  For one thing it brings the prologue forward by five years.  The second issue revolves around the location.  The world can change a lot in five years.

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much, after all the next firm ground occurs a further seventeen years into the future.  Picking that would incur a whole host of problems (aka re-writes).  I have already come to the conclusion that the more I edit, the more I have to learn.

 

 

Photo from shutterstock.com

Guilt, Or when you know you haven’t done enough

“I really admire your ability to write so much every day.  I know I couldn’t do that/ I don’t have the time/ I wish I could do that…”

How many times have I heard the different variations of that and thought, I’ve not done as much as you think.

And then the guilt sets in.  Tonight I shall do more, I vow.  I’ll employ my best tactics; reserve treats until I’ve got something down, turn off all distractions (phones, T.V etc).  I’ll create a space for myself, time alone.

It works, for a couple of days. But then I’ll say to myself, don’t forget to blog or, don’t forget to work on the piece for the writers’ group.  So I’ll concentrate on that before it too fizzles out. Then I’m back to square one, again.  What have I done to tackle it?  The current answer is to break it up into bite-sized chunks throughout the evening. Is it working?  I’ll let you know when I’ve got around to implementing it.

Updates

I’m excited to announce that my story is officially in editing!  Well, it would be except, you know, life and all.  I have done some editing, honest.  I have the pieces of paper with pencil markings all over it and everything.

Being a little more serious (me?) I learned a lot about editing when tackling The Pink Salamander.  Sure it’s hard writing a story but I tell you what, editing requires a completely different mindset.  For a start you need the story needs to make sense.  While I have only tackled the Prologue (I’m editing chapter by chapter simply because any other method would be too much), I’ve spotted a few plot holes and things that could be improved.

In my haste to listen to my muse and get the story down I got caught up in flow.  It felt good at the time (don’t get me wrong, you need this as a writer!) but it left a glaring error which entailed a fairly large re-write to remove it.  With that out of the way I concentrated on other aspects and am pretty pleased with the results, so far.

As a treat I thought I’d give you a sneak peek of the first character. Before joining Unit 16 (working title, by the way, needs imporving if you ask me) Mark Ladensfield was living life through a bottle.  Mark had lost his job and his wife had left him.  To console himself, Mark routinely went to his local pub where he proceeded to drink himself stupid.

During one of these sessions a man known only as Colin challenged Mark to a contest.  In one week’s time Mark was to compete against Colin in three disciplines; observation, agility and solving three dimensional puzzles while blindfold.  With nothing to lose, Mark accepted.

He sobered up in time and completed two out of three challenges faster than Colin.  It was then that Colin revealed that Mark had taken an aptitude test for a secret organisation and offered him a position.

And that, folks, is where I’m going to leave the sneak-peek.  Goodbye for now.

 

Oh one other thing, I recently posted a link to a great TED talk about Procrastination on my Facebook page.  You should go over and check it out.  It’s both hilarious and thought provoking.

 

 

The Night Manager: Episode 5

Looking back on last night’s episode I got the feeling that the success of the team is not just about a race against time, but also avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place.

We begin with a trip to the Haven,  a camp of soldiers set close to a refugee camp.  In order to avoid too many questions, Roper hands out some aid boxes on the way.  On arrival, Roper is greeted like royalty by his men.

Personally I found this difficult to watch, not least because they are essentially mercenaries.  While ‘mercenary’ is a dirty word, PMCs or Private Military Companies are numerous.  They have been taking over the less onerous tasks from the military for some years (the industry is now worth billions of dollars).  Certainly the group surrounding Roper did not have a professional feel about them.  Perhaps it is because of their diverse nature, I’m not sure.

Pine’s task was to supervise a firepower demonstration for a potential client.  While it went well, I’m not sure it gave the impression it was looking for.  By that I mean, some of the performances felt a little off.  For example, Hugh Laurie’s line about napalm was a little too close to the famous Apocalypse Now quote, for comfort.

In the meantime, Rex Maberley, Angela Burr’s boss, gets the push from his boss.  The ‘good’ side are losing friends fast, even the Americans are pulling out, too.  To top it all, a senior member of MI6 warns Angela Burr off, personally.  These deals which Roper is overseeing, are valuable to the country.

With time and friends vanishing at a rapid rate of knots, Angela Burr soon finds herself on her own.  Pine, with the arrival of Corcoran, is feeling the pressure too.  A night time excursion to deliver a message is spotted by Corky, leaving Pine no choice but to take him out.  Roper, desperate to find out who has been selling his secrets casts suspicion over everyone.  With Corky’s death, a convenient scapegoat is found.

Lastly we come to the convoy fiasco.  Angela Burr’s team, via Pine, hears about a convoy of weapons disguised as humanitarian aid heading to the border.  On interception, it is found to contain grain and agricultural equipment.

While it was a good episode, there were some scenes that did not feel right for me.  I was looking for either a gleeful, happy evil from Roper or a darker, colder one.  Instead it felt flat, neither cold nor anything else for that matter.

The performances from the rest of the cast was very convincing.  Elizabeth Debicki’s confession scene felt real.  Her lines were excellently thought out and well delivered.  Just one more episode to go for this intriguing story.

When the Story Doesn’t Come

You sit there and nothing happens.  Time halts as your fingers waver over the keyboard or the pen over the paper but the muse, or whatever you call it, has taken the day off.  Never mind, you say, It’ll come later. But it doesn’t want to come later, either.

Maybe a little bit of guilt sets in.  It’s been three days since you got something down.  Perhaps I should be worried?  What if my creativity has run out?  That’s it, its over, no longer a writer.  Lets not be hasty, you can’t expect to write all the time, right?  But what about professional writers, they write every single day, how do they get through this?

I know, I’ll look on the internet/find a book on the subject.  Someone is bound to have written about it.  This is all a distraction, of course.

Does it really matter what the real reason is?  If it is an external source, then yes, it does matter.  Remove the source or deal with it and you should be able to start writing again.  After all, we are all humans and are subject to numerous things wanting our precious resources; physical, emotional or otherwise.

Sometimes though, it is through lack of practice.  What helps for professionals is that they write all the time, but even they have struggles too.  Terry Pratchett wrote in his autobiography (which I suggest you buy, by the way) how a typical day went.  Each day he set himself a target number of words (400, if I recall) to write and this particular day it took him the whole day (I’m not kidding either) to get there.

I know you’re not going to like this but, keep at it.  Never give up, never give in.  Drive yourself.  Sit down, any opportunity you have, and try.  You might not get anything, but trying and failing is better than not trying at all.  You cannot hope to win a competition if you do not enter.  That is only the stuff of stories.

Like everything, writing needs to be worked at.  In this day of near instant gratification, taking years to get to the end goal feels like a nightmare.

I love the definition of wordsmith ‘A person who works with words, especially a skillful writer’.  Just like a blacksmith works with metal, a wordsmith works with words.  Apprentice blacksmiths may come up with something resembling a sword just like a novice writer can arrive at something which looks like a novel.  Lets face it though, the misshapen lump is best off sticking back into the furnace to be worked on.

Day after day, the blacksmith turns up at the forge hoping today will be a good day.  Each day brings a new experience and over time that experience makes them a better smith.  That is what you need to do with writing.  Imagine a world without metal because the smith gave up.  Pretty stark, isn’t it?  Now imagine a world without stories.