Show. Don’t Tell.

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Show, Don’t Tell. (Take the long road home.)

Show, don’t tell. Most writers are aware of the axiom, and many aware of the literology behind it. Yet some of us continue to persist in taking shortcuts that scrape the passion off our creative intentions.

However, since the adage is bandied about so often, perhaps it’s not always easy to glimpse that archetypal forest through the proverbial trees. Perhaps the time has come to dissect the meaning of the phrase, splatter some metaphoric blood, and see what makes the damn thing tick.

A writer I know once elucidated, rather ineloquently; “It means make love to me with your prose; don’t just fuck me with words.”

Or, as Wikipedia states: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique often employed…to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition and summarization.

Wikipedia further states: Author Chuck Palahniuk goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls ‘thought verbs’: (“Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…”) favoring instead the use of specific sensory details: “Action, Smell, Taste, Sound, and Feeling.”

I’m quoting from Wikipedia because I happen to believe Mr. Palahniuk’s essay is a particularly brilliant perception, profound and intelligent—and rather than read my attempt to paraphrase him, you can read his words here.

Simply stated, some writers are so busy telling us a bare-bones story1 that they forget to show us the underlying excitement: John came home. He went upstairs. He found his wife lying in a pool of blood. John ran screaming out the door, and then he called the police. An hour later, an old sergeant named O’Malley said; “It looks like murder, Mr. Smith. And you’re the prime suspect.”

That’s descriptive, sure—but it’s also a “shopping list” of chronological events. We might see John, but we certainly don’t know John. But by showing, not telling, the writer is breaking open John’s soul, and allowing us a long, honest, revealing peek inside.

I do equate showing with Active Voice and telling with Passive Voice. Not that sensory details and voice structure are synonymous, but they are compatible. I usually find that a writer plugged into the showing/not telling psychology is likely more aware of the importance of exciting, passionate writing. To me, a good novel is one that continually imparts basic grammar and story-telling mechanics (Subject-Verb-Object)2 with a powerful, dramatic voice.

I consider the above-mentioned exposition and summarization to be lazy writing. Or at least tired writing. (Certain stylistic machinations can effectively work, if properly orchestrated.) But let’s face it, even Hemingway used active voice only marginally—imho—and often slipped into a dispassionate “telling”. Would Hemingway be published today? Good question.

Because if you find yourself constantly beginning sentences with: “It was…” or “He was…” or “They were…” you’re pretty much writing in a passive, superficial voice that most readers will discover devoid of feeling. I guarantee that 9 times from 10, a writer can easily find a more passionate resonance. Consider: John was late for work.

With little effort, one can concoct a variety of active, far more visual solutions:

The alarm bell’s shrill scream sliced through John’s sleeping brain like a hot knife.

John hated mornings. He hated the sunlight playing peek-a-boo through his blinds, tormenting his eyelids with brain-numbing brightness.

John hazily recalled having closed Wiley’s Tavern the previous night with a final whiskey sour, and grinding out his last cigarette an hour later. He dreaded the encroaching dawn with a mental anguish that bordered on physical pain.

Thus, even the ordinary can become an unexpected and pleasurable experience for the reader. Plots are finite. Imagination is not.

Passion should be—must be—a staple constant in your novel. If you find yourself writing dispassionately, ask yourself whether the content belongs in your book. Often, you’ll discover the material extraneous, or redundant, or not fully refined, and your brain’s sending you signals. If your brain doesn’t want to be here… a reader probably won’t want to be either.

Writing is passion. If you don’t consider a novel as you would a jealous lover with expensive tastes—one requiring the diligence, the selflessness, the patience and the isolation (from all your other friends)—think again. And if you’re not ready for the commitment, perhaps its time to find a new lover.

1 Understand that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ axiom isn’t a license to kill. Numbing a reader’s senses with unchecked imaginative spewing isn’t going to play either. So stay away from this sort of showboat overload: The fiery explosion of daybreak shattered the tranquility of John’s repose, scattering his thoughts into a billion imprecise fragments that danced in tiny pirouettes throughout his subconscious mind as might a shower of meteors bursting toward far-off galaxies on their disparate journeys through the harsh, relenting silence of space, never again to know the love of a good woman or the taste of a good beer.

Because simple, coherent prose is the yin to creativity’s yang. So, yes—free the reader’s senses to run wild, but do so in basic, uncomplicated sentence structure: Cogent thoughts, simply told, in precise chronology.

Subject + Verb + Object (SVO); otherwise known as Active voice. Conversely, OVS is often viewed as a more passive voice. Consider—once again—the Jumping Cow Rule:

Active: The cow jumped over the moon. (SVO)
Passive: The moon was jumped over by the cow. (OVS)

Bad passive: It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow. (O,OVS)

‘It’ being an abstract representation of the object (and also a repetition of that object): Basically a clunky sentence structure… although the rare exception exists when you might find this phraseology perfect for your needs. If so, by all means use it:

“It was beauty that killed the beast.” (Fictional Carl Denim in King King.) And how could that line have been spoken any other way?

Rules can be broken…but sparingly, please.
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Action/Reaction

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Rules-headerA blog for fiction writers and impending writers. An editor’s perspective.

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Action/Reaction.

Sir Isaac Newton should have been a fiction writer. When one of the most famous minds of the 15th century proposed his 3rd Law of Motion; that For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force, he may as well have been speaking at a writer’s workshop, wearing corduroy and sipping a cappuccino.

Because old Fig was absolutely correct. This rule applies not only to the nature of the universe, but to the nature of literature as well. Because for every action one writes in fiction, one should create a reaction. Conversely, for every reaction one writes, there must be a new action (or a re-reaction.)

We shall make that Rule #10: In fiction, for every action, provide a reaction.

Life’s like that. Reality’s like that. Fiction’s like that too—at least good fiction. Why?  Because that’s the way our brain registers life.

An example:

Action: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon quite calmly at his wife’s head.
Reaction: Martha screamed.

However, let’s back step a bit:

Action: Martha stormed into the den, where her husband sat, writing a letter. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising a kitchen knife. “I’m going to kill you!”
Reaction: Jason pulled a pistol and pointed the weapon calmly at his wife’s head.

And again, another back step:

Action: Martha’s brother, Bob, a Morristown deputy sheriff, revealed on the phone that he had proof Jason murdered their mother to claim the insurance money. Bob told Martha not to “do anything stupid” until he got there.
Reaction: Martha stormed into the den. “You’re an evil, conniving bastard,” she screamed, raising the knife. “I’m going to kill you!”

One more hit, bartender:

Action: Martha’s ex-lover, Bruce, erroneously told sheriff Bob that a surveillance camera had captured the image of Jason, killing his mother. (Although the man in the surveillance photo was really Phil, Jason’s long-missing twin brother.)
Reaction: Bob told Martha that he had proof it was Jason who murdered their mother to claim the insurance money.

See how this works? (The principle applies seamlessly as forward chronology as well.) An entire novel is essentially a ping-pong game of actions and reactions—each reaction also becoming an action in its own right.

A good novel is the literary perception of the Butterfly Effect—mathematician Edward Lorenz’s example of chaos theory—in which a small change (the air movement created by the flap of a butterfly’s wing) might eventually create a much larger phenomenon; theoretically in Lorenz’s case a hurricane. Filmdom is filled with such examples (ironically including the time-traveling head-scratcher The Butterfly Effect). Another nifty example is 2003’s John Cusack-starring film, Max. In Germany, a Jewish art dealer befriends a young, unpopular, confused artist named Adolf Hitler. A tenuous friendship blossoms. Yet—sorry, a spoiler!—when Max is indiscriminately killed by thugs, an enraged Adolf Hitler forgets his budding art career and becomes—well, y’know. In terms of dramatic impact, a very good example. A terrific film.

After all, who are we as writers, if not those who can ask; “What if?”

Breaking the Rules (Sort of)

Simple? Ah, but what about this scenario:

Action: “Mrs. Tummins,” said the brain surgeon, “your loving Harold, your husband of 21 years, the father of your children, the keeper of the magic key, did not survive the operation.”
Reaction: “Thank you, doctor,” replied Mrs. Tummins calmly. She walked outside without another word, across the street to the Nuvo Café and ordered espresso and a bagel. She began flirting shamelessly with the waiter.

A valid reaction? On the surface, it’s an avoidance. Mrs. Tummins’ sudden, nonchalant detachment provides us with a delicious response—but not quite the reaction anyone might expect. If readers have already been introduced to Mrs. T as a rational, loving wife, then—for the moment—the writer’s got us hooked. But a writer has to keep us on that hook. We’re looking for an ultimate reaction. And if Mrs. T’s response isn’t ultimately revealed… then it becomes a bit of negligent plotting. (And, no—it’s not up to a reader to “determine” her rationale. That’s a cop out. It’s the writer’s job to divulge.) See: Rule #17: Don’t hide from your characters. (…coming soon.)

A sly writer may not reveal Mrs. Tummins’s inner truth until the next page or the next scene or even late in Act III—but her eventual reaction is crucial for the story. If Harold’s death proves unimportant to her, then why should it be important to us? So if Mrs. T’s reaction is never explained, her action remains an avoidance… and thus the action/reaction principle stalls. Miscue a few reactions as avoidances and the book may not ultimately ring true. Why? Characters can keep secrets from other characters, but the writer should not keep secrets—unless plot-crucial—from the reader.

By the way, don’t confuse the action/reaction principle with Rule #8: Inhale, then exhale. Tensing and relaxing the plot (inhaling, then exhaling) at regular intervals provides an overarching ebb and flow to dramatic impact—the calm before (and after) a storm. A good novel might alternately inhale and exhale once or twice each scene, or perhaps each subsequent chapter. (Tolstoy’s War and Peace for example. There’s war and then peace. They fight, they make up; they fight, they make up; they fight, they make up.)

Realize that the action/reaction principle can occur on the macro level (chapter by chapter) but can also function on micro levels; for instance, as immediate as alternating lines of a terse dialog—snap, snap, snap—fast and furious. One character shouts furiously and shakes his fists. The other walks away in a brooding funk. Not only is this the action/reaction principle, it illustrates the inhale/exhale principle. All the while providing valuable dramatic impact and pushing the characters or plot to deeper levels.

Both Rule #8 and Rule #10 are critically important to a novel’s success. No breathing, no reacting, and a novel will simply sit… like a lump, like a wet fuse, like a sleeping tiger, like a car idling… awaiting a foot-stomp on the gas pedal. Remember, action/reaction need not be physical attributes—for instance, love found, love pondered, love lost, love rekindled, or an internal struggle with mental illness perhaps—each depiction of internal or external action followed by a reaction, continually, like the rise and fall of a butterfly’s wing, flapping furiously, anxiously anticipating that ultimate hurricane.
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Humorous Fatherhood Book “Everything Ever After: Confessions of a Family Man” by Popular Columnist Launches Tour June 14

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Muse Harbor Publishing launches the book tour for “Everything Ever After: Confessions of a Family Man”, based on Michael Picarella’s Southern CA-based syndicated family columns at the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden’s Kids’ Adventure Garden, at 400 West Gainsborough in Thousand Oaks, CA on 6/14 from 3- 6 p.m. and on July 8, 2014 at Mrs. Figs’ Bookworm at 93 East Daily Drive in Camarillo from 5-7 p.m.

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) June 11, 2014

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, Muse Harbor Publishing will host a family fun event to launch their new illustrated humor book, Everything Ever After: Confessions of a Family Man by popular columnist Michael Picarella, at Conejo Valley Botanic Garden’s Kids’ Adventure Garden at 400 West Gainsborough Road, Thousand Oaks, CA, from 3-6 p.m. This is a special Saturday public opening of the Kids’ Adventure Garden, which is normally only open on Sundays.

Picarella offers witty and often laugh-aloud funny stories about marriage, fatherhood, family and suburban community life in his book. Recently coined a “User Manual for Dads” it is being promoted by Muse Harbor as “a great Father’s Day gift.”

Picarella will entertain attendees with hilarious and poignant fatherhood excerpts from his book at 4:00 p.m. The author will sign copies as his publisher provides food and refreshments to the public from 3-6 p.m.

The next stop on the author’s book tour is on Tuesday, July 8, 2014, where Picarella will be appearing at another fun book signing event at Mrs. Figs’ Bookworm at 93 East Daily Drive in Camarillo from 5-7 p.m. Visit mrsfigs.com.

Author Picarella (aka Suburb Man) is an award-winning writer and National Society of Newspaper Columnists member. Since 2006, he has written his column “Family Men Don’t Wear Name Brands,” for The Acorn Newspapers in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. His other column, “Picarella Family Report” for The Signal Newspaper for over two years.

Picarella’s refreshingly clean humor stands out from other humorists in an age where families are often depicted as wisecracking and argumentative. Writer/Director Gregory Poppin (ESPY Show Awards, My Crazy Life) says, “Michael’s sharp wit collides with the stark reality of trying to be a Cosby husband and father in a ‘Pulp Fiction’ world. I read about his misadventures with pity, until I realized, oh… that’s my life, too.”

Everything Ever After is also available online on museharbor.com on June 10, 2014. Muse Harbor is offering a 15% discount on both print and e-book copies when purchased at MuseHarbor.com using this coupon code: ACORN. The book is also available on Amazon, BarnesAndNoble.com and iTunes.

To read stories by the author, visit MichaelPicarellaColumn.com and his website MichaelPicarella.com.

Everything Ever After  is illustrated with clever cartoons by famed illustrator F.M. Hansen, whose cartoons have been published in numerous anthologies worldwide.

Picarella can be reached for further Radio, TV, Print and Online interviews by contacting Margaux (at) museharbor (dot) com. Friend Michael Picarella on Facebook for his latest humor and news.

For more information on the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, visit www.conejogarden.org/KidsGarden.

Muse Harbor Publishing was founded in Camarillo in 2011 as an organization of “writers helping writers, in service to our readers.”

 

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A Busy Weekend at The Harbor

postpicThe Harbor being, of course, wherever our authors or their books are.

Through a quirk of scheduling, we’ll be having two book signing events this Saturday, June 14. Everything Ever After: Confessions of A Family Man author Michael Picarella will be, appropriately enough, signing his stacks of books at the Kids’ Adventure Garden, while Shalanna Collins, author of the magical adventure April, Maybe June will be doing the same at Lucky Dog Books.

It’ll be difficult – but not impossible – to attend both. Michael’s signing is in Thousand Oaks, California, and Shalanna’s is in Dallas, Texas. Still, that’s only three hours flight time if you get a non-stop flight. If anyone shows up in each venue we’ll all be very impressed, and somewhat frightened.

Lucky Dog Books is a bibliophilic Dallas institution that’s marking its 40th anniversary this year. Anyone who’s been following the seismic upheaval in the book selling business over the past couple of decades should appreciate what an achievement that is, and we’re pleased to help John and the rest of the Lucky Dog crew celebrate their longevity with Shalanna. That’s magical all on its own.

The Conejo Valley Botanic Garden’s 33 acres are dedicated to environmental conservation, education, and recreation, and include a dozen unique garden areas and trails, bird and butterfly habitats, and – my personal favorite – a rare fruit garden. The Kids’ Adventure Garden is designed to sneakily teach science by disguising it among tree houses, hydroponic pods, and other kid-friendly things. On Father’s Day weekend, Michael – our teller of family tales – will be holding forth in a place built for the upcoming generations.

Muse Harbor Publishing is growing as well, and it’s taken a lot of work to get this far. We’re happy to help Michael and Shalanna present their stories to the world. That’s what we’re all about. We’re also about having other positive effects on the world around us, however small. So we’re also happy to help bring some attention to a long-lived bookstore, and to a non-profit environmental educational center. If you’re in Dallas or Thousand Oaks – or both – this weekend, stop by and say hello!

 

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Lucky Dog Books Dallas Launches YA Magical Mystery Novel Series “April, Maybe June” on 6/14

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Popular Author Shalanna Collins Debuts “April, Maybe June” Novel as Book One in the Bliss Sisters Magical Adventures Series from Muse Harbor Publishing

Dallas, Texas (PRWEB) June 09, 2014

On Saturday, June 14, 2014, Muse Harbor Publishing’s popular author of six published novels, Shalanna Collins, debuts her new Young Adult (YA) mystery novel with a magical twist, April, Maybe June, at the Lucky Dog Books launch event in Dallas, TX from 11:00 – 1:00 p.m. Lucky Dog Books is located at 10801 Garland Road (just south of 635, between Easton Road and Jupiter). Collins will sign books and discuss her path to being a professional YA author. Muse Harbor will provide food and soft drinks at no charge to the public.

Collins’ clever YA novel April, Maybe June finds homeschooled siblings April and June Bliss inadvertently sucked into their older cousin Arlene’s troubled life when the street-savvy 17-year-old disappears, then sends for their help via an inscrutable grimoire and a mesmerizing silver ring. When life turns supernaturally spooky, April and June must pull together to survive.

April, Maybe June is available on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, iTunes and Museharbor.com in paperback and e-book versions. Muse Harbor Publishing will be offering a 15% discount. Click on museharbor.com and use coupon code: LUCKYDOG.

Collins, who also writes as Denise Weeks, has had her fiction published in several genres, including mystery, fantasy, chick lit, and romantic suspense. The author has a strong web and social media platform which can be seen on her blogs on writing for teens and other genres at shalanna.livejournal.com and shalannacollins.blogspot.com. Fans can friend her on facebook.com at Shalanna Collins Books and follow her on twitter at @shalannacollins.

Collins teaches how to be an author in today’s digital world. The author is available for radio, TV, online interviews and speaking engagements at writers conferences. If you’d like to book Shalanna Collins for your show, blog or event, please contact margaux (at) museharbor (dot) com.
For more information on the book signing at Lucky Dog Books, please visit luckydogbooks.com.

Based in Santa Barbara, CA, Muse Harbor Publishing was founded in 2011 as “writers helping writers, in service to our readers.”

 

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