The ‘show, don’t tell’ conundrum

I felt prompted to write this following the varied responses to something I posted on a Facebook authors’ group. Varied and just a little bit misinformed. Okay, there were some raging opinion-wielders but it’s Facebook so what did I expect?

If you’re an author, you will almost certainly be aware of the advice “show, don’t tell” (I hesitate to even hint it’s a ‘golden rule’ because of the raging opinion-wielders pedantically pointing out fatal errors wherever they want to see them).

Couple of obvious pointers, which are not obvious enough for some people: “show, don’t tell” does NOT mean “write long descriptions of everything” or “always try to show, never try to tell” or “follow this rule to the exclusion of any other rule, or even common sense”. And, most importantly and most often misinterpreted, “show, don’t tell” is not purely about describing what something looks like.

Now, the more pedantic and impatient opinion-wielder will want to ask this: Fine, smarty-pants, so what DOES “show, don’t tell” mean?

Easy. It means don’t bore the hell out of your readers, give them something to think about. It means don’t write “The king was evil” when what the reader needs to read is “The king liked to roast kittens for fun and drown miscreants in their own blood, even if all they had done was forget to salute his huge, obsidian statue seventy-five times each day.” It means be entertaining with your writing. Entertainment is key.

We can play around with some more examples, like this:

Sarah was happy.

That’s telling, not showing. Let’s give it some context.

Fred gave Sarah a bunch of roses. Sarah was happy because she appreciated the romantic significance of the unexpected gift.

That’s still telling.

Okay, smarty-pants, how else could you write it?

How about like this:

Sarah stared at the bunch of roses Fred was holding.
“For me?” she asked, clasping her hands to her chest. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. “They’re, oh, they’re just delightful.”

Pure gut-wrenching drivel, granted, but that’s showing rather than telling, and it gets a response from the reader. In this case, projectile vomiting.

In its most extreme form, telling becomes the infamous infodump. This is where the author wants to impart information they believe to be essential – usually the colour of a character’s eyes (green, generally) – but can’t figure out how to work it into the story so they just tell the reader about it.

Sarah looked in the mirror and saw a tall woman of twenty-three with long, frizzy blonde hair and emerald eyes.

That’s telling. Obviously. And a really painful way to describe your character.

First of all, nobody cares about the colour of a character’s eyes or the length of their hair. You generally see these descriptions somewhere in the first chapter and then never mentioned again. Unless a particular feature is essential to the plot, such as in a case of mistaken identity.

But I love how Sarah looks, protests the adamant author. It’s a huge part of who she is. I have to tell my readers what Sarah looks like.

Okay. Try this.

“You know you look like a cat, right?” Fred said.
“How dare you!” Sarah replied, gasping in horror.
“I mean your eyes, dummy. They’re green, like a big, cute, sexy cat.”
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you to notice. What do you think of my hair?”
“Looks like a Barbie doll fell in a cement mixer.”
“Aw, that’s exactly the look I was going for.”

And right there you get the description across, plus some insights into the two characters and their relationship. There are other ways to do the same thing, you just have to think like an entertainer rather than an estate agent.

Try this. It’s a tricky one:

Sarah opened the door.

That’s telling, not showing. Okay, but what if Sarah has been locked in the cellar for twenty years, without daylight? Or how about if Sarah is outside the main entrance of the castle belonging to that evil king? Or playing with a doll’s house? Or about to unwittingly open the front door to a serial killer?

Guess what – writing ‘Sarah opened the door’ would be fine in each of those cases. Adding an adverb would not improve it. Bloating it with descriptions would not improve it. But, and this is kind of important, it could be written differently because that’s up to the author and how they want the reader to feel when they read it.

No more examples, I’m sure that’s enough from me on the subject. I really need to get back to finishing the sequel to Cold Inside. Optimistically, it should be ready in the first quarter of 2019. I’ll post some more information on here as soon as I’ve got something definite to announce.

Controversial tattoo

I went to get a tattoo on my arm and I thought I’d have a bit of fun with the tattooist, while at the same time setting a challenge which would hopefully give me a truly unique and thought-provoking piece of ink art to wear with pride for, well, forever.

I told the tattooist I wanted something very special, but it had to follow a set of specific, inflexible rules.

This is what I asked for:

Three words, in the tattooist’s chosen artistic style. I honestly wasn’t bothered about the type of tattoo font that would be used because the words were going to be the focus of the tattoo.

I told the tattooist the words must NOT include anything racist, sexist, or anything else that could be interpreted as any form of ‘hate’.

There must be no curse words, not even damn or hell or bloody or heck.

No words that could realistically offend anyone (which we all know is impossible these days, but let’s pretend we’re still living in a sane world where being professionally offended hasn’t been invented yet).

Nothing about any identifiable nationality or religion, or national culture.

No puns.

No real names of any person, living or dead.

No names of fictional characters.

No countries, towns or cities, in fact no place names of any kind.

No animals. Because we can’t hurt the animals.

Nothing at all about gender or race.

No mention of war. Or peace.

And, finally, the overriding stipulation that the tattoo must be completely controversial, no ambiguity about it, and that even people who would not find it personally insulting should be seriously questioning my sanity getting such a tattoo.

The tattooist thought about it for about twenty seconds, started to smile and told me to sit back and close my eyes.

Half an hour later I opened my eyes and looked at the fresh tattoo on my arm.

It said: Tattoos are stupid.

New books on the way

While I’m still celebrating the veritable tsunami of sales (single figures at the last count) of my sixth novel – crime thriller, Cold Inside – it is of course time to be writing the sequel while simultaneously planning the next thing I’ll be writing after that.

If you enjoyed Cold Inside (it’s about a 5 in 7.6 billion chance, but let’s go for it), then I know you’re going to be excited to hear that the sequel is well on its way. A fairly accurate estimate would put it at around 35% written, which leads to a finger-in-the-air forecast of a release date somewhere around October this year. That’s allowing for my ruthless editing and plenty of time for feedback from test readers. No title reveal yet, but I do have one.

What will come next? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense; it’s going to be a doomed marketing experiment. So far, I’ve failed spectacularly to get anything more than a handful of sales in genres that are currently popular, so I’m going to put something out in a dual-genre that is probably so unpopular that it doesn’t even have a cult niche of masochistic weirdos supporting it.

If you read this far, maybe you’re going to be intrigued enough to try it out. You at least deserve to hear what the genres are: Horror Western.

Self-publishing is killing self-publishing

Self-publishing. It’s being ruined by the very people who should be supporting it and doing everything in their power to make it great. I’m talking about all the self-published authors who are happy to release books littered with bad grammar, poor punctuation, clichés, repetition, clunky sentences and a total lack of any sign that proofreading or editing has taken place.

Their books get slammed by reviewers on Amazon, Goodreads, etc., and the widespread negativity towards all self-published books, not just the legitimately bad ones, grows exponentially.

Nobody ever posts a review on Amazon to compliment an author on good spelling or punctuation because those things are expected, and should be taken for granted by a reader. Because of that, those things should be prioritised by self-published authors, not forgotten or ignored.

No reader wants to have to struggle with interpreting the meaning of a sentence because it is poorly written. Just think about that for a few seconds. Now go pick a self-published book at random on Amazon and check out the ‘Look Inside’ sample. If that sample is a load of unedited garbage, the whole book is guaranteed to be.

No reader wants their immersion in a book to be derailed by bad punctuation, missing words (or duplicated words), and the countless other mistakes that too many self-published authors don’t even bother trying to correct before rushing their novel out into the world.

The attitude is obvious: they have written their book and they want it published NOW. It took them six months, or six years, or a whole weekend to write, so they believe that they have done all the hard work and now they want the reward to which they are entitled: they want to see their book published and for sale.

If you venture onto a Facebook author group or some other  forum where self-published authors congregate to help each other decide which badly Photoshopped cover to use, or which stilted, purple-prose blurb to choose, you must never, ever tell any of them that the books they have published need a bit of editing as they’re not in a fit state to have been published. Try this, and you will be either ignored or lambasted as some kind of fascist killjoy who lives only to belittle the stalwart efforts of the self-published community.

Sorry, but every unedited, mistake-laden self-published book that gets released contributes to the growing negative attitude of readers to self-published books. That’s a fact. I don’t care if it’s not a popular fact, it’s still a fact. There are lots of potential readers out there who will never go near one of my self-published books because they have already suffered too much at the hands of impatient self-published authors who were only interested in writing something and publishing it, and not at all interested in writing something, checking it, asking one or two other people to check it, and doing everything they could possibly do to make it the best that it could be.

It’s your book. You wrote it. You have to care about it being genuinely ready for publication, because nobody else will.

I’m not talking about boring stories, copy-paste characters, illogical plots, or sub-literate rambling bollocks masquerading as science fiction. I’m talking about actually caring about the quality of your finished product at a fundamental level. Because a hell of a lot of you clearly don’t care, and don’t want to hear about it from your peers.

“I sell plenty of books,” is one of their standard, brush-off replies when told that their books need to be proofread and edited before publication. Yes, I’m sure you do sell books. But then the people who bought your books will read them, see that you can’t even string a coherent sentence together, or understand the basics of punctuation, and the self-publishing negativity grows a little bit more.

I probably put more effort into checking and editing this rant than a lot of self-published authors put into editing and proofreading their own books.

I certainly put a hell of a lot more effort into editing and proofreading my own books.

And yet, some mistakes do slip through. I accept that, and I’m more than happy to not only admit it, but to applaud and thank anyone who spots something wrong in one of my books and lets me know about it. If I missed it, and my test-readers missed it, then whoever finds these mistakes deserves that applause and thanks.

If you’re a self-published author and you put as much effort, or more, into editing as you put into writing your books, then you have my gratitude and my congratulations. All you need to worry about are the same things I’m ranting about in this post.

If you’re a self-published author, and you read this post and thought ,”Ah, screw him, he thinks he’s some sort of grand-master punctuation expert who can lecture me on how I write…” I think we all know what I think of you and your rushed, ill-considered publications.

Have a great day. Do some editing. It won’t kill you.

Crime novel blog part 11 – Cold Inside gets a rave review

The first review of Cold Inside has been published by Stuart Carter on his (mostly science fiction book reviews) blog.

Here is the link to the review.

Some of my favourite quotes from the review are:

One of the things that helped me warm to Cold Inside the most was the fact that Dan Blacksmith isn’t a “maverick” cop; he’s a good, smart, mostly by-the-book policeman, doing his job exactly as you might hope he would if there was a serial killer on the loose in your town.

This science fiction reader was fascinated to discover how interesting and enthralling a crime thriller can be; my only fear now is that I’ve been spoiled by beginning with such a top-notch example of the genre.

“Cold Inside is a tight thriller with a slight period flavour – and no help at all for insomniacs!

Thanks to Stuart for reading and reviewing Cold Inside.

Crime novel blog part 10 – people are reading Cold Inside

People are finding, and reading, Cold Inside, in spite of everything I’ve done with this one to buck the tedious trends of popular crime novels, and by that I mean I’ve deliberately not included any of the following:

  • A first-person viewpoint that shifts between characters in each chapter, optionally where the chapter is named to show exactly which character is narrating that part
  • An unreliable narrator (drunk, insane, just plain stupid, etc.)
  • A rabidly militant protagonist cop, railing against authority for no apparent reason
  • A protagonist with relationship issues, seemingly only to make the character ‘interesting’
  • A book title suffixed on Amazon with ‘a gripping thriller with a twist you won’t see coming’
  • A twist that leaves most readers feeling cheated and/or deliberately misled (see unreliable narrator)
  • A male protagonist who beats up a bunch of people and ends up in bed with pretty much everyone else (not that I have anything against Jack Reacher)

I like visual statistics such as this ‘KU pages read graph’ below, because they suggest that someone read Cold Inside in two sittings. Tell me you enjoyed it. Better still, post a review on Amazon – please!

Crime novel blog part 9 – Cold Inside published for Kindle

Cold Inside is now available on the Amazon Kindle store. Links for Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk pages are below. If you’re in a different region, you can find the book by searching Amazon for the unique Amazon reference code B0768HNCF4.

You can get all the details about this book, and the Amazon links (also included below), on the Cold Inside page on this site.Cold Inside

  

If you are interested in finding out even more about this book, please get in touch via the contact page on this site. The same goes for anyone who fancies an advance review copy, or just wants a free copy of the finished version.