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.

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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.

Branded (more writing tips & opinion)

Your protagonist has a phone. Heck, yeah, we all have phones. But your protagonist only needs “a phone”.

Cody reached into his pocket and pulled out his Samsung Uberphone ZX81 and…

No, no, no. And no. It’s a phone. Your reader will imagine it to be whatever phone they want it to be. But not if you tell them the make and model. They could even begin to despise the character because of the phone he or she is using, but mostly they just won’t care.

The same goes for tablets or e-readers. Either don’t mention the damn things or just mention in passing that Cindy was reading. Does it really matter to your story or plot whether Cindy was reading a paperback or on a Kindle? No, it doesn’t. Unless she’s being stalked by the Kindle Killer, in which case it’s essential that we know (or at least suspect) that she is reading on a Kindle.

But 99.9% of the time we do not need to know what make or model of electronic device a character in a book is using.