Jim & Martha: An Indie Classic for the 21st Century
Sometimes when I’m in the middle of writing and revisions I start to get bogged down by my own voice. One way that I kick myself out of a rut is to read something outside my genre, or something completely different from my usual reads. Jim & Martha is something I picked up on a whim because I was so intrigued by the idea of a tragicomedy set in an ecovillage. It isn’t solarpunk, but I thought it might help trigger some new ideas for me. I got all that and more!
From the Book Jacket:
Jim & Martha is a tragicomedy about a couple entering a major lifestyle change, transitioning from a suburban London flat to an ecovillage. Racing along a two-lane road of humour and tragedy at one hundred miles per hour, how will the lovers fare with their new environment, their new cohabitants, their mental health and each other? As the ecovillage becomes a crossroads of instability, who can trust who? Adventure or nightmare, some things are inescapable…
My Review: 4/5 Stars
JIM AND MARTHA is a wry, darkly comic novel about relationships, community, and the environment. It is not an easy read by current standards; the language is rich with imagery and symbolism, the narrative flow is at times almost “stream of consciousness” in style.
It took me a while to get acclimated to Schueler’s authorial voice. Because this is an indie book, it would be easy to assume it needed another pass from an editor. The sentence structures can be challenging and Schueler uses a rich and varied vocabulary. I even learned a few new words and I consider myself a language buff!
I assure you, the author knows his craft! If you are at all familiar with literary modernism, please give this book a chance. It is, in my opinion, a classic for the new millennium that speaks to all the dissatisfaction and cultural angst of our generation.
Once I learned to trust that the author’s language was intentional, I was able to relax into the narrative flow and really hear the character’s thoughts and feel them as my own. The imagery is raw and poignant, and often surprisingly “real” without being pretty or flowery.
Underlying the tale of the titular Jim and Martha’s voyage to an eco-village is a current of anxiety that I think readers under the age of 40 will know well. The urge to escape, to start fresh, and to rebuild is haunted by the fear that we can never truly escape ourselves.
I gave the novel 4/5 stars because I did find some of the unusual sentence structures distracting, and to my eye it didn’t serve any particular purpose. I also struggled a bit in moments where the POV character shifted from one character to another. I could have used more hints, earlier, to signify the shift as I had to reread some passages when I realized I was in a different character’s head.
However, this not detract too much from an overall wonderfully fresh reading experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the English language!
Does anyone have any great indie reads they’d like to see reviewed here? My preference is for SF&F and I’m especially interested in the SolarPunk movement. But I’m open to any suggestions! Let me know in the comments section.
One of the things I love most about being a fiction writer is that I get to explore other worlds; the depths are limited only by my imagination. Of course, my imagination is driven largely by my real life interests, and these shift and change over the years as I grow older and <ahem> wiser.
My first novel, The Timekeepers’ War (Bedlam Press, 2014) is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland known only as The City. When I first started writing this book–in a Starbucks coffee shop outside the Staples store I worked as a cashier–in 2003, the world was loving the sexy hi-tech futures of movies like The Matrix and Minority Report. I was fascinated by a darker vision, though. What if we’re hovering on the brink of the end of the world?
These questions gave rise to The City, the vast and sprawling skeleton of a once-great metropolis much like those futuristic worlds that pop culture was swimming with at the time. Centuries of brutal civil wars and an unforgiving climate have made life on the surface of The City next to impossible. The elite classes long migrated to the Ursaarian Empire–a safe-haven of towers and bridges strung up far above the ground level. My main characters–Ghost and Lynch–struggle to navigate the anarchic “rules” of life on the surface while trying to bring down the oppressive regime that keeps them there. With the help of The Timekeepers–an enigmatic group of scholars who seem to know more about The City and its past than it should be possible to know–they plot another war.
At the time that I started writing The Timekeepers’ War I was a broke student, mulling over ideas about class systems, extreme poverty, life on the fringes, and of course, the looming threat of global warming. This is the primordial ooze that birthed The City, and they are still questions that linger in my mind.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that around this same time post-apocalyptic fiction had a kind of Renaissance. Zombie movies burst onto the scene, obliterating sparkly vampires in their flesh-eating wake, with 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and its comedy counter-part Shaun of the Dead (2004) gave rise–pardon the pun–to the insanely popular Walking Dead series (2010-…). Even without zombies, futurescapes took a turn for the bleak with Children of Men (2006), I am Legend (2007), and The Road (2009).
I’d love to claim I was ahead of the curve, with my finger on the pulse of the world zeitgeist, when I started writing The Timekeepers’ War. Really, it just goes to show you how everyone was starting to get a bit nervous about the way the world was going in the early 2000s. Now that I’m writing Book Two in The Timekeepers Trilogy, I’m noticing another shift in pop-culture narratives. I noticed it in my own writing first.
I wrote about the rise of the SF sub-genre, solarpunk, here. At first I was thinking about the importance of positivity in fictional futures when the reality of our impact on the environment is looming large on our consciences. Science Fiction has the power to make people see possibilities–dark or hopeful–and envision the world as it could be. When we think about all of the various ways we consume fictional media–in books and movies, digital photography, fantasy art, even music like Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid concept album–it becomes undeniable that the future is a part of how we experience NOW.
We are influenced by our own visions of the future. Throughout human history, people have been turning fictional dreams into reality. In 1865, for example, Jules Verne wrote From Earth to the Moon which, in retrospect, is eerily similar to the real moon landing in 1969. The food replicators envisioned for the “Star Trek” series’ has become a reality with the advent of 3D printing technology, which can replicate using anything from plastic, metal, and glass, to the bio-printing of skin tissues for medical purposes.
Check out Science Alert‘s “15 Wild SF Predictions About Future Technology That Actually Came True” for more examples. Or do a quick google search for other historical predictions that weren’t quite as crazy as people once thought they were. The barrier between reality and make-believe is tenuous indeed. How much of modern technology was inspired by the over-active imaginations of our favourite SF thinkers over the years?
In Book Two of TheTimekeepers Trilogy, I am exploring some exiting new developments in The City. Now that the oppressive Ursaarian Empire has fallen, the Timekeepers are on a mission to rebuild. It’s a whole new world to Ghost, who has known nothing but underground tunnels and surface-side ruins for her whole life. With the Timekeepers in charge, she explores huge glass-domed neighbourhoods and towering greenhouses alongside solar-powered manufacturing sectors. It seems like a perfect world. But how much freedom is she willing to give up for the safety of a future with the Timekeepers? The shifting political landscape reveals that there is always a price to pay for security.
The Fictional Gardener
In the past few years, since moving to a property with a large vegetable plot, I have become very interested in different methods of gardening. Learning how to work with the environment in order to develop fertile earth without chemical intervention is a fascinating process. A large-scale shift away from traditional farming practices has changed our local agricultural landscape, and there are some amazing experiments going on in permaculture techniques.
I’m dipping my toes into the future of agriculture in this novel, but it’s really whet my appetite for further exploration of the SolarPunk genre. I don’t do hard SF, so don’t expect any detailed schematics on how any of my fictional greenhouses work. But I can’t wait to share with you some of the visions for the future I have, and to shine a little light into the darkness of The City.
Don’t worry, I’m not going fluffy on you. There is plenty not-right about this optimistic new regime. And as Ghost knows, there is always something lurking beneath the surface…
Share Your Dreams and Nightmares
What have some of your favourite depictions of fictional futures been? Give me the dark, the light, and the terrifying! Have you read any SolarPunk? Who are you favourite architects and concept artists dealing with the futuristic green spaces and agriculture? I’d love to hear from you!
I think of you all every day, I really mean that. I know I don’t say that often enough, but it’s true. Some of you have been with me since the very beginning, back when getting published was just a crazy dream. Some of you I’ve met later in my journey; you took a chance on a writer with only one book and nothing but frantic promises to keep you with me.
I won’t let you down.
I still mean that. I am working so hard, you guys, and it is paying off in a big way. I could whisper sweet nothings here every day and never have another book to show for it. Once upon a time I spent all my creative energy writing about writing and engaging with other writers. Some writers are great at this. They have an endless capacity for communicating with their readers, fellow writers, and their friends and family.
I am not that writer, y’all. Trying to keep up with social media exhausts me, even though I’m only half-assed active here and on Instagram. It’s time I made my peace with that. I need to save my energy for the most important stuff. My books!
Okay, maybe my family, too.
Blog posts aside, I have been writing a lot! I did the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction (made it to round three) and the Micro-Flash Fiction (never made it past round one) Challenges this fall. I made the difficult decision not to attempt the Short Story Challenge this month, despite placing oh-so-close (12th overall!) in the 2019 competition. I wish everyone who is in the midst of the excitement right now the absolute best of luck. I will miss it.
But I have something more important on my plate right now.
I’m more than half way through the revisions to Book Two in The Timekeepers’ Trilogy. You can check out book one HERE. I’m hoping to have Book Two with my publisher by the end of the month.
There, I said it out loud. Now it has to happen.
I have suffered for this book. Nothing has challenged my skills as a writer and my ability to pick myself up, dust myself off, and try again. Not even the hundreds of rejections I received for the first book can compare to the crushing self-doubt I have worked through to finish the second.
This is the third time I have written this book. The first time, I got 70K words into it (for those of you who don’t speak “publishing” that’s only a couple of chapters from the end) and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. A developmental editor finally pointed out that my protagonist had no agency; she was just floating around reacting to the things happening around her, so when she was forced to act in the end… she couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t do it.
I cried after that edit. Out of frustration, and also out of relief that now I knew what I needed to do to fix my story and finish the damn book. At least, that’s what I thought.
The second time I wrote this book, I reworked my protagonist and gave her all kinds of agency. I wrote a long, detailed, chapter by chapter outline that would take me right to the end of the book. The writing went smoothly, I had more direction. But it was lacking something. I knew it was, but I didn’t know what. I felt distanced from my own story, stuck in endless spirals of backstory that didn’t leave room for my characters to move. When I realized what I had done, I cried again.
I was writing the wrong book, folks.
I had gotten so far ahead of myself that I didn’t realize I needed to write a whole ‘nother book before I got into any of the ish my characters were trying to slog through now. No wonder I was stuck!
At this point I wanted to give up. I didn’t feel like I had it in me to start all over again, to write a completely new book. I wanted to quit. But instead, I went back to the basics. I wrote short stories and I studied my craft. I read books about novel structure and about outlining. I promised myself that, at the very least, I would write an outline before I decided to move on.
I wrote the outline. I even started the draft. My writing was so much tighter than in Book One that I faced a whole new wave of self doubt. I felt like I needed to rewrite the first book before I could write the second one. Somewhere along the way, I felt I had lost my voice. After writing about 25 pages I set it aside.
I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Last November I participated in National Novel Writing Month, where writers can challenge themselves to complete a 50K word novel draft in 30 days. I attempted this feat in 2017 and even shared my attempt here! It was a lot of fun, but I only managed 22K before I lost the thread. This year, though, I had a plan. I had an outline, I had a story that wouldn’t let me be, and I had a great team of friends, family, and super-fans cheering me on.
So I committed to finishing my second book. Even if it was ugly, even if I hated every word of it, I was going to get through my outline and type THE END just so I could finally put it to rest. And you know what? I won.
That’s right. I wrote an entire freaking book in one month!
Can you believe that?
I’m still in shock.
But I did it and it felt incredible. (Many thanks to Simon Farnell over at Beyond the Infinite for being my accountability buddy. Hi Simon!)
This experience taught me a couple of things.
Outlines are my friend.
It’s totally possible to write a book on borrowed time. 15 min here and half an hour there… I averaged about 1.5 hrs a day to complete 50K in one month.
Turn off spell check when writing the first draft. My internal editor still tried to bite every once in a while, but it no longer drew blood.
Writing every day makes me a better wife and mother. When I’m happy, everyone is happy(-ier).
When the first draft is actually completed, revisions are a joy.
Persistence pays off.
Ugly drafts are not nearly as ugly as I thought they would be.
I love my book.
I love this book!!!!
I’m so glad I stuck with it. I’m so glad I made myself get up again and again after each of these setbacks. I absolutely cannot wait to share this book with you all. Thank you for being here, for listening, for believing in me.
Writing Resolutions: 2020
I’m committing to 2 hours a day to get these revisions done and off to my editor. Once this book is done, I’ll start outlining Book Three. You know, the one I’ve already written a couple of times… it might need a few tweaks here and there, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got this. Maybe I’ll commit to finishing my first (third) draft for Camp NaNoWriMo this spring? Anyone care to join me?
The results are in! Well, they’ve been in for a while, but I’m slow to update. As you probably know, I have been participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story and Flash Fiction Challenges for the past 2.5 years. I highly recommend them to any writer who wants to shake things up in their writing routine. The thrill of getting your assignment, having a tight deadline to complete it in, and receiving judges feedback on each round is well worth the entry fee.
I began the first round of the Short Story Challenge this January. It was my second attempt at the SSC. The first time, I didn’t make it past the first round. It’s pretty steep competition with the first round having more than 4500 participants and only the top 750 making it into round two.
This year, I not only made it into round two, I made it to the third and final round! From the original 4500+ writers, I made it into the top 90. That feat in itself was enough to put stars in my eyes. In April, we were given our final assignments. We had 24 hours to write a 1500 word story, open genre, subject: side effect(s), and character: a gravedigger. It was a whirlwind of writing and revisions, but I did it and I was pretty happy with my submission. I tried not to think about the final results too much over the next few months…
I am exceedingly proud to announce that my story “The Caulbearer” placed 12th overall in the final round! It wasn’t quite high enough to receive a cash prize (top 10 received anywhere from $5000 to $125 USD… that’s next years goal, haha). But I did score a new writing program, and the massive honour of being in the top 20 stories out of so many talented writers from around the world. The results are posted here if you are interested in checking it out. I will be posting my story with the judges feedback in the Story Laboratory for the benefit of other writers out there who want to see what NYC Midnight is all about, or who want to see what professional critique in a contest setting looks like. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!
I just completed round one of this years Flash Fiction contest last weekend. My assignment was Genre: Drama, Location: a submarine, Object: a dozen eggs. This is my third year participating in the FFC. I have made it to the third round the past two years, but never the forth and final round for flash fiction. So this year, that is my stretch goal! I’ll keep you updated when I receive my score and feedback on round one.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on writing craft, and I figured I’d jump into thick of it with one of the simplest but most difficult challenges you can give yourself as a writer. I want you to eliminate the most common verb in the English language from your writing.
This is another one of those bits of writing advice that people love to argue about. It ties into my posts on Showing and Telling and Fillers and Filters. So I decided to break it down in a little more detail and see if I can convert a couple of you disbelieving heathens.
In actual fact, very few of you guys have argued with me on any of my writing craft posts, which tells me that a) I have a great group of open-minded writers in my WordPress circles, and b) my posts are not reaching many beginners.
Or maybe c) If you want drama, stick to Facebook.
I’m going to pretend you want to argue with me, though, and present to you my thesis. Even if you don’t disagree with me, you might want a refresher on the secret wickedness of “be-ing.”
To Be or Not To Be: What Exactly is the Question?
“To be” verbs (is, am, are, was, were, being, been, etc.) are ubiquitous. The are so common that we don’t even notice them as we read. We do, however, notice the effect they have on writing. If a description falls flat, or a scene reads like a list of actions, take a look at the verbs. “To be” verbs are the number one red flag that you are telling rather than showing.
Now, we’ve already talked about how telling is not always a bad thing and how to find the right balance for your story. So I’m not going to dig into that particular can of worms. But if you are telling a scene that should be shown, look at your “to be” verbs first.
The Quick Fix: Past Continuous
Some wicked “be-ings” are easily vanquished. Past continuous tense is almost never necessary and results in extra filler words that can be eliminated with extra work required.
Ex. 1. a) Billie was running to his play writing class. b) Billie ran to his play writing class.
It doesn’t look like much, but applying this trick to an entire manuscript can result in thousands of quick deletes. Unless the action is about to be interrupted, you do not need to use past continuous. EVER. Just get rid of it and thank me later.
Ex. 2. a) Billie ran to his play writing class. He was rounding the corner when Milton stepped in front of him. b) Billie ran to his play writing class. He rounded the corner and Milton stepped in front of him.
Okay, I realize these examples are dull, but technically you can get away with the “to be” verb in 2a. Is it necessary? 2b does the job without the “to be.” In this instance, you decide which you like better. My advice is to only use past continuous when you are interrupting and important action and you really want to highlight the interruption. Let’s spiff this scene up a bit with stronger verbs and eliminate the “to be” verbs:
Ex. 3. Billie sprinted up the stairs to his play writing class. He swung around the corner and crashed into a solid wall of muscle. Milton cracked his knuckles and grinned. He was peeling back his fist for a good right hook when Billie ducked, spun, and dashed into the classroom.
Like all of my so-called writing rules the trick is to know it, use it, and when you break it, break it on purpose WITH purpose.
Next Step: Kill the Narrator
All stories have narrators. It’s called “story telling” for a reason, right? Writers tell stories to other people. They either tell the story themselves, and are the narrators as in memoir, or they tell the story through a character who becomes the narrator in most fiction. However, modern readers are looking more and more for an immersive experience in their writing. Modern readers are extremely media savvy and modern writers have to work a lot harder to provide that immersive experience than our literary forebears. We are no longer simply telling stories, we want the reader to experience our stories for themselves as the characters.
To do this, we need to kill the narrator. We need to trick the reader into thinking they are the ones experiencing the story. We can do this in first person, second person, or third person narration with one simple (not necessarily easy) trick. Eliminate as many filter words as possible.
Filter words are unnecessary words that clutter up our stories and remind our readers that they are reading. THIS IS BAD. There are lots of kinds of filter words, and you can check out a broader example of what to look for in my article on Giving Your Writing a Fluff-Free Facelift. For the sake of this article we are going to discuss the dual offenders, “to be” verbs that are also filter words.
Ex. 1. a) There were deep lines around her sunken eyes. b) Deep lines scoured the flesh around her sunken eyes.
In 1a, the reader is being told what the woman looks like. The words “there were” act as a reminder that they are not experiencing the moment themselves, but that someone is describing it to them after the fact. The “to be” verb in this example reduces the sense of immediacy.
When we eliminate the “to be” verb we are forced to replace it, which inevitably results in a more interesting description. “To be” verbs are the most common verbs in the English language. There are also, therefore, the most boring. Apply this rule to the verb “to have” as well and really give your descriptive scenes a boost!
Ex. 2. a) Daniel had auburn hair and there were freckles on his nose. b) Daniel’s auburn hair stood up at irregular angles and freckles sprinkled his nose.
Try it yourself! Write a brief character sketch without using any “to be” or “to have” verbs. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it is excellent practice. You will be amazed at how much more colourful your descriptions become when you are forced to give up this writing crutch. Post your example in the comments.
Advanced “Be-ing” Slaying: Telling What vs Showing How
If you use the Find feature in your word processing software to search for all of the “to be” verbs, you’ll find a few examples that don’t seem to fit the above scenarios. You’re going to have to use your discretion to decide if they are necessary or not. I often use the expression “telling what vs showing how” to decide if I’m achieving the effect I want with my writing. Really, it’s just another way of looking at the old showing and telling rule. But it can be a helpful way to subdue the evil “be-ings” before they completely infiltrate your work.
Here are some basic examples of Telling What something/someone is or is doing as compared to showing how they are.
Ex. 1. a) The house was big and white and seemed somehow cruel against the lush green lawn. b) The house burst from the lush green lawn like a piece of bone, sun-bleached and jagged.
Ex. 2. a) The woman was old and there were streaks of dirt on her papery cheeks. b) Streaks of dirt blackened the woman’s papery cheeks.
Ex. 3. a) Trudy was reading so intently her eyes were starting to water. b) Trudy focused on the book so intently that her her eyes watered.
I haven’t made any major changes to these images, but eliminating the “to be” verbs has both forced me to come up with more interesting ways to describe these things and increased the sense of immediacy for the reader.
Okay, so you probably can’t completely eliminate “to be” verbs from your vocabulary. But I hope I’ve demonstrated how practicing writing without “to be” verbs will help you to expand and enrich the language you use, and how eliminating as many “be-ings” as you can will take your writing to the next level.
To be or not to be? Not if I can help it.
What do you think? Is this something you can use and apply to your own writing? Can you think of other ways these “to be” verbs can help or hinder your craft? Let me know in the comments.
Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.
I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.
I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.
The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!
I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.
Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.
July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…
I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!
May is more than halfways gone and I haven’t done a single post! Sorry about that. I’ve started coaching soccer and t-ball, and I was away up north for an education outreach thing and somehow the month has slipped away from me.
I just wanted to give you a quick update on what’s going on here. I found out last week that I placed 2nd in my heat for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition with the dreaded “Romantic Comedy” genre. I complained about it HERE.
I’m incredibly excited to even be in the third and final round. The first round had over 4500 competitors, round two we were narrowed down to about 750, and now we’re down to only 90 people in round three. Before this year I hadn’t even made it to round two in the short story competition.
So I have 24 hours to complete a 1500 word story. The genre is open, the subject is “a side-effect”, and the character is “a grave digger.”
I decided to go with a ghost story. I’m done the first draft and am awaiting feedback from my faithful readers, those who are available at the very last minute, haha. There are just under 8 hours left now. So I hope I don’t have to make any major changes.
I will keep you update, and hopefully will be a little less busy after this and be able to post more frequently. Thanks for reading!
Well, this has been a great week for me in writing news! I just found out that my story “Cheese-Head” (Genre: Fairy Tale, Theme: Superhuman, Character: A Cheese Maker) placed second over all in the first heat for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, and I’m moving on to round two! Which means I’ll be glued to my computer for the better part of this weekend.
I have three days to complete my next challenge. The prompt is Genre: Romantic Comedy, Theme: Anxiety, Charcter: A Brewer.
Now, Rom-Com is pretty close to as far from my comfort zone as I can get aside from full on Romance. I’m not super comfortable with Comedy, either, but my comedy flash fiction piece “Pi in the Sky” placed third in its heat last year, and “Cheese-Head” is as much comedy as a fairy tale, so I think that part might go okay. Romance though… ugh.
Wish me luck!
I have to submit this piece by midnight on Sunday. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, if you head over to the Story Laboratory and read the above-linked comedy piece, you can let me know what works and doesn’t work with my previous attempts at humour. I need all the help I can get!
Writers love rules. Or love to hate them. If you spend any time in writers groups, or read a lot of craft articles, one of the rules that get tossed around a lot is “Show DON’T Tell.”
The reason this rule emphasizes showing over telling is not because one is better than the other. It’s that beginner writers tend to “tell” their stories exclusively. Other, equally new writers like to point out at every opportunity when others are “telling” and offer up terrible examples of how to show instead. Usually the result is an overuse of flowery adjectives (which are actually just fancy “telling”) or the purplest of purple prose.
In this post, I’m going to try to clear up what showing and telling are, and when to use them. Yes, both of them. Because showing and telling each have a place, and finding the right balance will vary depending on the type of story you are trying to write. As with everything, there are good and bad examples of both, and we’ll look at those, too.
What is Telling?
“Telling” in fiction writing refers to any time the writer makes a statement without providing any evidence. They are asking the reader to just take their word for something, that Jake was tall, that the sun was setting, that the wind was cold. Any time a writer “tells” the reader something, they are removing the reader from the sensory experiences of the POV character. Telling allows the reader to see something happening without feeling it.
Telling is usually the fastest, most efficient way of conveying information to your reader. It is most effective in action sequences, and to cover the more clinical aspects of your story: things you want your reader to know, but not necessarily to dwell on.
When a story is “told” exclusively, though, it comes across as emotionally distant. Your reader will know what happens, but won’t necessarily care. This is because most readers require a certain amount of sensory input in order to empathize with a character.
Exceptions to this occur when the writer has a particularly strong narrative voice, in which case the telling itself shows the characters’ personality well enough that the reader can identify with them this way.
The balance of show vs. tell in action and humour writing leans more toward telling.
Good Telling vs Bad Telling
Let’s look at a few of examples that show the difference between good telling and bad telling.
a) Billy punched Jim and knocked him to the floor. Jim shook his head to clear his vision. When he tried to stand, Billy kicked him in the stomach. Jim pushed himself up onto his knees, swaying with the spinning in his brain. He wondered how he was going to get out of this one. Then Billy delivered the knockout blow and Jim knew nothing but blackness.
b) Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw, knocking him on his ass. Jim shook his head. He rolled onto his side and tried to push himself up. But Billy wasn’t against kicking a man when he was down. Air shot out of Jim’s lungs when Billy’s foot connected. He swayed on his hands and knees. How was he going to get out of this one? Jim didn’t even see the knockout blow. Billy smashed a boot into his temple and Jim was out cold.
In this scene, both examples are “told.” The difference between the bad telling in a) and the better telling in b) is in the strength of the word choices, and the elimination of some of those pesky filter words we discussed HERE. There is also a hint more narrative voice in the second example, which allows you to tell “with style.”
Some people will argue that “Billy slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw” is showing “Billy punched Jim.” Technically this is showing, but it doesn’t call up any extra sensory details (beyond visual) so I’m going to call this a grey area. Feel free to debate in the comments!
Let’s look at another example of telling with style.
a) It was morning. The sun came up. Melissa was filled with a feeling of vague disappointment. She didn’t want to face Jordan again today. He was always so happy all the time and it made her feel even worse about herself. She wished she could disappear. Or, if nothing else, that he would.
b) Morning, again. The sun comes up, again. Of course it does. No matter how hard she wished otherwise, the days kept turning over and Melissa was still here. Alive. The last thing she wanted was to see Jordan’s smiling face knocking at her door. It was like he was being happy at her, to spite her for her own misery. His cheerful “Hello” made her want to die. Or made her wish he would.
Again, both of these examples are telling. Yet we have a much clearer idea of who Melissa is in example b) and we are able to empathize with her thoughts and emotional state even though we have very little sensory details to immerse ourselves into. This is the power of a strong narrative voice.
Adverbs: Telling in Disguise
Adverbs often show up in over-written purple prose, but contrary to many people’s understanding of show vs. tell, adverb abuse is a telling problem. Why? Because adverbs are shortcuts around showing. Writers often think they’ve shown a bunch of extra detail by tacking on some exotic adverbs, but really they’re just writing lazy, fancily.
a) Cautiously, Mary stepped precariously toward the edge, feeling her heart beat fearfully.
b) The tree was enormously tall, and John wrapped his arms around the magnificently thick bark and stared wonderingly into its trembling branches.
Arguably, these sentences are “shown” more than if I had simply said:
a) Mary stepped toward the ledge, her heart beating fast.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree and stared into its branches with wonder.
But all the extra adverbs don’t really tell us anything about HOW the character experiences these things. Really, the second version is better. It doesn’t tell us anything more, but it doesn’t clutter up the narrative with a bunch of extra words, either. “Her heart beat fearfully” is just a fancy way of saying “She was scared.”
Here’s how those sentences look with a bit more showing:
a) Mary stepped precariously toward the edge with her heart lodged in her throat.
b) John wrapped his arms around the enormous tree. Above him, branches whispered secrets to each other. He stared into their dancing leaves, his eyes stinging with tears.
Better? Worse? It depends on the effect your going for, of course. But I don’t think anyone will argue that the third set of examples is the easiest to imagine.
What is Showing?
If telling is a statement without evidence, then showing is evidence without a statement. Showing allows the reader to delve into the sensory world of the POV character, it gives the reader something to experience rather than simply observe. And contrary to what a lot of writers seem to think, it does not have to be done in a flowery, poetic way.
There are degrees of “showing” as there are degrees of most literary devices. The above quote from Chekhov is simultaneously loved and hated by writers, and it has probably led more than one beginner down the garden path to Purple Prose Land.
Showing slows the reader down, gives them something to imagine in a way that they can relate to, and is an important tool for highlighting important moments in your story. If your story has too much showing, it will be slow and meandering, and probably horribly over-written. Your reader isn’t suffering from the emotional distance of an over-told story, rather they are drowning in it.
The balance of show vs. tell will lean more heavily toward showing in romance, fantasy, and literary fiction.
Good Showing vs Bad Showing
Bad showing is as much about what you are choosing to show as it is about how you show it. Showing calls the readers attention to whatever it is that you are describing, so a well-described image could be bad if it’s not being described for a purpose. Imagery is all well and good, but nobody cares what colour the curtains are unless the colour matters in some way. Deciding which details are important is another article for another time, though. So let’s just look at some other kinds of bad showing. That is, purple prose…
a) Stan strolled through the garden, gazing delightedly at daffodils as yellow as morning sunlight, blades of grass like tiny green soldiers, and droplets of dew glittering like the tears of angels from heaven. A delicate bouquet of floral tones cascaded through his olfactory passages like a rainbow bursting out of a rose-shaped prism. His tremoulous sigh shuddered, as if from the very soul of his being, across the blossoming field.
b) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils bobbed their heads gaily in the breeze, bright spears of grass shot through the footpath, and dew glittered across everything. A delicate bouquet of air washed over him and he smiled with every inch of his body.
c) Stan walked through the garden. Everywhere he looked, there were yellow daffodils, green grass, and droplets of dew. A floral scent filled the air. He smiled and sighed.
Here we have a) over-written showing, b) showing, with a purpose, and c) telling. What do I mean by showing, with a purpose? Well, let’s have a look at another way we could have shown this scene.
d) Stan strolled through the garden. Daffodils drooped their heads against the wind, sharp brown grass speared the footpath, and a drizzle of dew drenched everything. The sodden scent of rotting foliage oozed over him and his lip curled into a vindictive smile.
Example d) hits all of the same points as b) but with very different results. Showing is a very powerful tool in your arsenal. We see, not just the scene, but how your character feels about the scene when you show it to us through his senses.
When you tell too much and too often, you are missing a valuable opportunity to shape the world and the characters for your reader. When you are missing sensory details, the reader is free to fill in that information any way they like. This freedom can be disastrous to your intentions, if they fill in the blanks with the wrong information.
Now, that was an admittedly “flowery” example of showing. But not all showing has to be pretty or poetic. The way you show is as much a part of your voice as what you show.
Kendra twisted the knife into Billy’s chest. With a satisfying pop some internal mechanism gave way and his blood sluiced over her hands in a wave of regret as thick and black as motor oil.
Dave peeled his eyes open like he was trying to get into a squashed bag of chips. Crusty bits clung to his eyelashes. When he rubbed them, his fingers came away feeling slightly greasy.
Weak sunlight oozed out from between the trees. It pooled in the divots left by Graham’s feet in the gravel but never made it ahead of his shadow. He walked, perpetually, into darkness.
In order to show effectively, you first have to decide WHAT to show. WHY is it important? HOW are you going to show that? It’s not as simple as finding fancy ways to say things; your imagery should always serve a dual purpose. Imagery should evoke a feeling in your reader, usually the same feeling that your POV character is experiencing. And for the sake of your reader, you only want your POV characters to notice and experience things that are important to the development of your story.
Choose wisely, and show with caution.
Finding Your Balance
How do you know if you are showing and telling the right way, and in the right places? Know your readers, and then ASK them. If you are getting feedback that your story is dragging, disjointed, or wordy, you may be showing too much and at the wrong times. If you are getting feedback that your writing feels superficial, or that it isn’t ringing true emotionally, you may be telling too much and at the wrong times. This can be really useful feedback.
But knowing your readers is very important here. You don’t want to give your experimental literary masterpiece to someone who solely reads military sci-fi. I hear that my own writing is too imagery heavy ALL THE TIME. I only sometimes listen to those people. I personally love imagery, and to an extend “showing” is a key part of my authorial voice. On the other hand, you don’t want to give a fast paced spy thriller to someone like me, because I’m going to want to slow down and smell the gunpowder.
Just kidding, I’m pretty good at separating my personal preferences from my critiques on other people’s writing. But I will point out opportunities to dig into really great sensory details to get more out of your fast-paced action stories.
What do you think? Are you a shower or a teller? Do you have a strong preference one way or another? What other writing rules do you love or love to hate? Show or tell me all about it in the comments.