Tuesday, 7 July 2009

This post follows my audio article on Starship Sofa on writing workshops.

These are a few thoughts about manuscript agencies which may be useful for new writers seeking to get their novel published.

I won't be mentioning any names, but I have become concerned about some of the practices and directions that some of the agencies have been taking in the last year or so. Of course, these are just my views but they're born out of a lot of experience, including a period working for one of the big name agencies.

I'm not suggesting for a moment, by the way, that there are not good readers providing good reports in manuscript agencies. But something that doesn't perhaps get considered enough is the fact that agencies comprise a not always natural mix of well-intentioned readers working for owners/managers who are first and foremost business people. Of course, this dichotomy is often reflected in the publishing world at large too.

The nature of novel writing means it's very difficult to get useful feed-back at a stage that can save you a lot of time and heartache. By contrast, if I was a singer-songwriter, getting feed-back would be relatively simply, if not nerve-wracking. There are three pubs within a few hundred yards of my house that have weekly open music nights, so I could just write a song, trundle down to the pub the very same night, sing it and get instant feed-back as to whether or not I should quit the day job. Obviously, this is not so possible with novels; however, that isn't to say there needs to be such a huge gap between this kind of low-cost instant appraisal and the very expensive reports that many manuscript agencies provide.

The first thing to bear in mind is that a manuscript agency - despite what it might claim to the contrary - is not a stepping stone between you and a publisher, or you and an agent. The way publishing has gone in the past 20 or so years means agents have made themselves a major gatekeeper between publisher and agent (but not exclusively, it has to be said). Also - and this is very important - an agent is working with a manuscript he or she believes is sellable. Manuscript agencies work with any manuscript they're sent (you should take any claim that they work 'mainly through referrals from agents and publishers' with a very large pinch of salt- 'referral' just means they have an arrangement with some publishers to receive their slush pile rejects).

The role of a manuscript agency is to help you improve your manuscript. Nothing else. So you should be wary when they talk up their successes in placing manuscripts with agents. Don't forget, they receive hundreds of manuscripts, so it stands to reason that in the course of a year they will see a few that may be suitable, or near to suitable, for publication. But this would be the case anyway: if your manuscript is good enough, then an agent or publisher will pick it up sooner or later. For an editorial agency to put such a manuscript in front of an agent they happen to know is at absolutely no cost or risk to themselves. So, they aren't doing you any favours; and in fact they'll usually charge you for the privilege (more on this later).

Okay, now let's look at what an editorial agency actually does for you.

The most common service is to write a report on your novel. This will normally be around 8 pages, going into areas such as plot, characterisation, setting, dialogue and so on. Typically, they will charge you around £5 per thousand words for this, i.e. a 100,000 word novel will cost you £500 for a report, although some add VAT which means you're pushing closer to £600.

A 'reader' writes the report; however, you don't get to choose your reader (although if you happen to know one who works for a particular agency, you can always request they do it for you). Does this matter? Oh, yes. Most readers at most agencies are writers, i.e. not editors (even though agencies often call their readers 'editors'. A writer is not necessarily an editor. Writers, for example, tend to produce just one type of fiction, whereas an editor will have experience in most if not all forms of fiction. Writing and editing are two very different skills. Jenson Button is a great driver, for example, but you might think twice before hiring him to repair your engine.

Many writers who read for agencies have only published one or two books, and some have not published or even written any fiction in years. This is extraordinary, when you think about it: that someone with very little experience of a field is given the job of assessing new people who want to break into it. Also, the people who run agencies tend to have contacts mostly in a specific genre - one agency for example is packed with children's writers. Does this mean the agency will only take manuscripts covering the area it has experience with? Of course not. They're businesses, so will take them from absolutely anywhere.

Readers typically get paid only a third of the fee the agency charges you. This matters, because it can have a debilitating effect on readers after a while. Couple that with the fact they're often having to read poorly written books in genres they're not familiar with and you can perhaps guess that their reports are not always as useful as they could be. Oh, they'll talk up the odd good book they come across and say how rewarding it is to work with the author - which is certainly the case - but they won't mention the excruciation of having to write a detailed report on a book that really needs to be scrapped and started again.

Also, it's very important to bear in mind that most agencies keep separate the readers and the authors they write reports for. You can probably guess some of the reasons for this, but the main one is to do with the agency protecting itself, keeping control of its output and any possible trouble over a report. But it's not a satisfactory relationship for a new writer, who would benefit from direct contact with the person who wrote their report. Some readers talk up the fact that they have spoken personally to the author concerned, but this is actually rare with agencies who on the whole prefer not to take the risk. Divide and rule, in effect.

In essence, I would say the agencies are very close to a scam in charging £500 and upwards for a manuscript that simply does not require such a detailed report - and from my experience, this applies to most of the manuscripts they receive. The proper, and moral, service agencies should offer to the majority of manuscripts they receive is along these lines: to have a reader look closely at the first couple of chapters and synopsis and then make a decision about whether or not the book needs a full report. If, as is often the case, they can see there are major things that need doing first - e.g. no plot to speak of at present - they will offer the writer a service that entails a short report based on the reader speed-reading the rest of the mansuscript. The fee for this would normally be about a third of their normal fee for a report. How do I know? Because this is exactly the service I offer writers. Why don't the agencies offer it? Well, I'm sure you can make your own guess . . .

Recently, I saw an agency offering an additional 'service' which I thought was a disgrace. It may even be in breach of trading laws. In essence, they offered to look at your first three chapters and synopsis to see if it was fit to submit to an agent. There would be no report on your work, but if they thought the manuscript was good, they'd submit it to one of their agent contacts. If the book sold, they'd take 10%. Which on the surface may seem like a good deal. But think about it: there's no cost to them - it takes only seconds to tell if a submission is worth reading. Then, if they pass it on, there's no loss to them if the agent doesn't take it. But there could be a big gain. One writer, for example, sold her manuscript after going through an agency, with an advance of £100,000 (caution: this is very, very rare). Which means the agency would have got £10,000 (and the agent £15,000, making a cost to the author of £25,000). This for doing nothing, basically.

Okay, the agent takes a fee but she has to work for it: find a publisher, work on the contract, help promote you, etc; not to mention risk her reputation. All this agency is doing is introducing yet another layer between the writer and the publisher - which is the relationship that counts the most. Also, they only know a few agents, so there's no guarantee your manuscript will get to the right one anyway. You could find more appropriate agents yourself. Besides, while publishers take seriously a manuscript that comes through an agent, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest an agent takes one seriously that comes through an editorial agency. Okay, they may just read it before others in the slush pile but they will only ever take on an author they believe they can sell. And if they believe you can sell, they'll take you on anyway - meaning you could have submitted to them direct. In effect, you're paying this agency for something you could do better yourself. It's win/win for the agency and lose/lose for you, basically. You lose if they place you (10%), and you lose if they don't, i.e. your confidence takes a bashing and you've wasted time that could have been employed submitting direct to an agent or publisher, while you wait for the agency to get round to telling you they haven't passed on your manuscript after all.

In summary, good agencies will tell you that they can only help you improve your manuscript, and won't charge for work you don't need; the questionable ones basically play on writers' dreams, bigging up their successes in placing books with agents and even charging you for your success which would have happened without them anyway.

I'm sure there are people who are going to respond to these comments by saying they had a very useful report from X or Y agency. As said earlier, of course there are good readers who provide good reports. But whether or not you get one, and whether or not he or she is right for your book, is something of a lottery.

Finally, there is the question of validation. It's an unwise and expensive move to make, to go to an editorial agency looking for someone to tell you you're great. Because the only opinion that really counts is the one belonging to the person who can publish your book. To go looking for validation from another writer being paid by an agency which is primarily interested in making money from writers who are at the start of their careers and who may in fact never have one, is to say the least nuts.

Apologies for such a long post, but hopefully it will at least promote some discussion about organisations that, in some cases, are becoming increasingly assertive about their perceived role in helping writers get published.


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

This article appeared on Starship Sofa on 12th November 2008. Comments, discussion, disagreement welcome.

Plot Part 2:

Plot Part 2. As usual, I'll be doing this in one take, partly because I believe in spontaneity but mostly because I don't know how to use the pause button on the recording software.

So, apparently George Clooney was driving home from the film set one day when he spotted a painting thrown away in a skip. It was of a huge, naked woman; the worst painting he'd ever seen. Instead of driving by, he did what an author would do: got a flash of inspiration and nabbed the painting.

Then, he stopped meeting his mates on a Monday night, telling them he was going to art classes instead. He said it was having a therapeutic effect and even insisted on taking them to art fairs and shops. This went on for six months, then he proudly presented what he said was his first painting to a friend, but which of course was the one he'd found in the skip, signed by him. His friend thought it was awful but agreed to hang it on his living room wall to please George. Weeks later, Clooney finally confessed on live TV, no doubt deciding that all those months were worth it for the audience's reaction and the expression he'd see later on his friend's face.

So plotting a story is exactly like pulling off a practical joke. You need an idea, a situation, a planned series of events in which your main character has no idea what is happening to him and why he is being tortured, then a climax where all is finally revealed.

This story also illustrates something said by Jeanne Cavelos, who runs the marvellous six-week Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop:

You're not just reporting events, you're shaping events.

So how do you shape a plot? Well, everyone knows the most basic plot shape of all: beginning, middle and end. However, even such a simple shape requires you to make conscious decisions about every step your characters' take. This is because in shaping a plot, you're making an essentially artificial structure. Nothing in life has a beginning, middle and end. Only stories do. Which is why we like them so much: they're a way of bringing order to the mystery and mania of life.

As for beginnings, the big question of course is 'Where?' Well, Kurt Vonnegut said you should start as close to the end as possible. The beginning and the ending of your story are the most powerful parts - like birth and death; so it's important to get them right. The beginning throws down a marker to the reader: this scene is vital; this time is the only time; this setting is part of the story; and this character is at the most critical juncture of her life.

The plot is the most meaningful segment - or arc - taken out of your main character's life. It's not an open-ended arc, nor is it a self-contained circle. This is very important, since the reader has to get a strong sense that the characters existed before the story starts and will exist after it.

Kate Wilhelm in her book Storyteller suggests telling stories to children because, she says:

Children are a demanding audience. They insist on an identifiable situation, a problem, a solution to the problem, and a satisfying, identifiable resolution . . . And you have to do it in such a way that your audience would not have thought of. Surprise them. If you can hold their attention, you can plot.

Incidentally, the sub-title of this book is, Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop. Kate Wilhelm was married to Damon Knight whose book I recommended last week, and I recommend this one too.

Ursula Le Guin in her book about writing, Steering the Craft, says:

I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax . . . plot is a pleasure in itself . . . it provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

However, she also warns:

But most serious modern fictions can't be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

I recommend reading Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was published in 1949 and is a distillation Campbell makes of the hero's journey as it appears in world mythology. The great thing about this book is its mixture of enthusiasm and erudition. You'll find yourself absorbing its wisdom about plot without really being conscious of it. George Lucas based the original Star Wars films on Campbell's hero's journey. In fact, there is an excellent DVD you can find in which Campbell discusses his work, filmed at George Lucas' ranch. Of course, there is just the smidgeon of a chance that Lucas did not base the new Star Wars trilogy on Campbell's work.

You might also want to try The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which is fascinating although a little heavy-going in places.

Also, I'd recommend looking at a book I mentioned in the first part of this article, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. In it, Snyder gives his own definition of the 10 types of movie plot and the titles alone are very evocative, for example, 'Monster in the House', Dude with a Problem', 'Buddylove', 'Out of the Bottle'.

Okay, I hear you thinking, but where do I start with plot? All this stuff is interesting but I want the bare bones plot shape to help me write stories that go somewhere interesting. After starting somewhere interesting, of course.

Well, you can't go wrong with the Seven Point Plot shape. This appears to have first been put together by Scott Meredith, who was a top literary agent. It was later modified by Algis Budrys, a terrific science fiction writer and teacher who unfortunately died earlier this year. There are of course many other versions of a basic plot, and there are plenty of people who think this one is too simple. But the truth is that the vast majority of successful stories fit into it.

I learned about it in detail at a workshop in Oregon, USA, a few weeks ago, taken by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I hope to say more about this workshop in a later article but it was a fantastic experience, far more than I expected. Dean and Kris teach with natural authority, in that everything they propose about being a professional author has resulted from their own direct experiences. They've each published dozens and dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. Their workshop is incredibly hard work but very, very rewarding.

So, the first three elements of the seven point plot are together what should constitute the Beginning of your story. If it's a short story, you really need to establish these three in the first paragraph or two; in a novel, maybe the first chapter.

1. Character - in a
2. Setting - with a
3. Problem

Character . . . Setting . . . Problem

The main character is the one we need to care about. We need to know where he is, the setting. And this should not be arbitrary; it should be relevant to the story, as well as being interesting in itself. Beware of the white room, i.e. characters existing nowhere because you haven't bothered to describe their setting. And also beware of assuming the reader will 'get' your setting, for example, 'Intergalactic Commander Buggins strode on to the bridge' may be enough for a Trekkie but the rest of us will be wondering whether or not to picture something over a river.

The middle of the story is the where main character:

4. Tries
5. Fails

He or she must make an intelligent try - one the reader is impressed with, would have thought of himself if he'd had enough time to. And the failure should be unexpected, both by the character and the reader. It's here the problem gets much worse, and the villain if you have one succeeds. This leads to the climax where the main character makes his:

6. Last try - this should arise from the depths of his despair, when all is lost and there's no way out. Finally,

7. Validation or resolution. This doesn't mean the hero has won necessarily, but the core conflict of the story is resolved.

One way of looking at plot is to see it as the distillation of a writer's natural tendency to turn life events into satisfying stories possessing the structure and validation that life unfortunately lacks. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend on the phone about when he'd spent 4 years in a religious cult, only discovering after he'd left that the leader had been sleeping with most of the women despite claiming chastity. My friend told me he only joined because he was in love with a beautiful Italian woman who'd just joined. Then - but I interrupted him at that point, saying, "Yes, this could make a great RomCom. He joins because he loves her but once inside, he takes it seriously, becomes a teacher even. But she sees through it all and leaves, so he's torn between his love for her and his new belief; then he finally leaves too, and tracks her down but at first she won't take him back, because she doesn't trust the fact he keeps changing his beliefs but in the end he finds a way to convince her and they get together."

"Hang on," said my friend, "it didn't happen like that at all. I didn't get her in the end."

"Well, you should have," I said, hoping he couldn't hear me scribbling notes.

* * *

Now, I realise I've been talking about 'rules' or techniques - which a lot of writers like to believe they don't need to learn. I know websites where writers regularly post self-indulgent stories that are impossible to read, in the belief that their natural greatness will get them noticed sooner or later.

Yes, it's true that the best writers produce work that seems very simple - stories that zoom along, full of characters you really care about, and written so smoothly you don't notice you're reading at all.

But that level of simplicity only comes after a writer has moved away from the original simplicity of basically knowing nothing about what he's doing, through the hard work and frustration of dealing with the complexity of writing well; finally, to arrive at a simplicity that can seem like magic.

Picasso was once on French television when very old. He was interviewed by a cocky young man who at one point handed Picasso a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to sketch something. Picasso obliged and handed it back. The young man said, "I could sell this for thousands, yet it only took you twenty seconds." Picasso said, "No, it didn't; it took eighty years."

So, that's it for plot for now. If you'd like to discuss any of this, or just tell me you have a better model for shaping stories, feel free to post a comment on my blog where I'll also put the outline script for this article, at terryedge.blogspot.com.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Below is the script of my third article for Starship Sofa, on Plot (part one):

Dear Deirdre,

I went on a writer's retreat, slept with one of the students, found out later she's my girlfriend's grandmother and now she tells me she's pregnant and wants me to marry her. Help!

I've always found it curious that everyone who writes to The Sun's problem page has such great writers' instincts. They open their letters with a teaser, like a movie trailer or the blurb on the back of the book. This gives you the bare plot of the situation but without the resolution. Which of course makes the reader want to get involved, to find out how anyone could be so stupid or so randy as to sleep with a granny, and how Deirdre is going to make everything all right again. Or not.

Then the letter takes us back to the beginning of the story . . . My girlfriend and I had been arguing a lot so I thought a week in the country with a group of quiet introverts would help me regain my spiritual equilibrium . . . etc.

And here is the fundamental requirement of a plot: that something interesting, exciting, different, startling is going to happen to your character. Because, let's face it, Deirdre isn't going to publish a letter about how you went on a writer's retreat, met some lovely people, cooked a nice tofu casserole that received lots of compliments, and you learned a bit about writing too.

So, today I'm going to talk about plot. Which is the main ingredient that separates a story you tell that complete strangers will pay to read, from a story that your mates will pretend to be interested in down the pub after you've bought them a round or two. It's a vast subject, however, so this article will be in two parts, and I suspect we'll come back to it again and again in future.

Here are two quotes about plot:

Writers are always grappling with two problems: they must make the story interesting (to themselves, if no one else), yet keep it believable (because, somehow, when it ceases to be believable on some level, it ceases to be interesting).

In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it.

Samuel R Delaney 'About Writing'

On the other hand, Jon Franklin, in 'Writing for Story' says:

Every writer of any merit at all during the last five hundred years of English history outlined virtually everything he wrote.

Which just goes to show how complex this subject is. So to begin with I'm going to keep it simply and look at the basic attitudes you need as a writer if you're going to produce great plots, whether you outline them first before starting the story, or write the story first to find out what the outline is. In the second part, we'll look at the mechanics and possible shapes of a plot, and we'll stick with short stories for now.

A short story goes for a single emotional effect, ideally felt at the climax where it will have the most impact. A short story plot is about economy - one main character and one Point of View, maybe two secondary characters, and probably no more than three or four scenes. A short story is like a single, punchy memory: short beginning, accelerating middle, dramatic end with short resolution.

Because of this, short story writers need to be ruthless with their plots. They need to be like the wife who's husband comes home late, smelling of strong liquor, face covered in lipstick. "What happened?" she demands. "Well," he says, "it was a fine, sunny morning and I got the 8.35 to Liverpool Street as usual. I even got a seat and -- ". "What happened!" she repeats. Of course, what she wants is for him to start this story as near to the end as he can get. Which will be to do with drinking too much at the office party and not realising the policewoman who'd come to arrest him was not really an officer of the law.

We're all too polite when we hear other people tell us stories about their day. We nod encouragingly when they go on about the cyclist who nearly knocked them over on the way to work, and their boss who gave them a really weird look, and how hilarious it was when they hid the secretary's miniature teddy bear but it's okay they put it back before she noticed . . .

Or when your mate tells you about how he slept with his girlfriend's granny on a writers' retreat and got her pregnant - you'll laugh like a drain for a bit then settle down to suggest ways he can keep his life on an even keel.

But a writer will do the opposite: he'll look to ways he can not only prolong his mate's agony but extend it. If he's a crime writer, for instance, he'll suggest wiring the granny's Zimmer frame to the mains then leaving the country before the police start their murder enquiries. If he's a literary fiction writer, he'll have his mate move in with the grandmother and parallel his struggles to write a zeitgeist defining novel with his spiritual torment at living with someone so close to death.

And if he's a science fiction writer, his mate actually went through a dark matter conundrum, thirty years in to the future to sleep with his girlfriend as an older woman, who then stepped back in time with him so he now has to keep the two girlfriends apart or risk destroying the universe and his sexual credibility to boot.

So, a writer has to go against her social, moral and physical instincts to live a life free of danger, pain and anguish. She has to find ways to make life for her characters worse, to push them to the very brink of destruction. And even then, she doesn't let them off the hook; instead, she makes them think they've succeeded - has them actually close their fingers around the staff of power which will restore their souls and destroy the marauding demons closing in on them by the second, only to find this one is a fake and powerless. All is lost; the darkness closes in . . . Then, out of the very depths of their despair, a possible solution is found - but it's risky and will cost them dearly even if it succeeds . . .

When you're writing a story, you need to actually torture your characters. And you torture them with plot. You make bad things happen to them. Then see how they react. All sorts of surprising things happen to people when they have plots dropped on their heads. They get angry and react and change, and then affect the plot in return. Suddenly, you have a real story on your hands.

But you need to be careful. When the plot controls the characters too much, the reader feels as if she's doing The Times crossword - intellectually stimulating but rather predictable. When the characters run amok without a plot to guide them, the reader feels as if she's reading someone's diary or blog and wonders why she's paid money for this story when she could be reading someone's blog or diary for free.

Here's another quote:

A plot, then, is a series of imaginary events designed to create anticipation at a high pitch, either in the form of anxiety (in a story of conflict or mystery), or of curiosity (in a puzzle story). If you can build such a series, you can plot . . . In a plotted story, the ending may take the form of a revelation, a decision, an explanation, or a solution.

Damon Knight, 'Creating Short Fiction' - also check out his 'Common Plotting Faults and What to Do about Them' (in same book).

This book is one of those essentials for any writer, by the way. Damon Knight was a great science fiction writer who also taught at Clarion for many years. I know lots of writers, from all sorts of fiction fields, not just SF, who say this is the one book they keep close at all times.

It helps to see the plot as a causal chain rather than a series of events.

Blake Snyder in 'Save the Cat' says:

The basis of the 'Turn, Turn, Turn' rule is: The plot doesn't just move ahead, it spins and intensifies as it goes. It is the difference between velocity (a constant speed) and acceleration (an increasing speed). And the rule is: It's not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax.

Now, I don't think it would be too controversial for me to state that the plots of the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series were rather light on causal effects. Why? Well, my theory is that they'd struck accidental character gold in the first film with Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. In that film, he wasn't the main character, which meant the plot could progress without depending on him being affected by it too much. But by the time of the later films, the studio had decided he was the main selling point, so of course they did the subtle thing and built both films around him. However, because his character was clearly a brand he was not to be tampered with. The solution? Was it to sacrifice him as the main character so the story could develop around someone else; was it to change him anyway on the basis that he'd still probably still be popular? No, much simpler to just dispense with the plot. Hence, there are lots of chases, fights, monsters, comedy characters, etc, but virtually no story development in the later two films.

To round off this section, here are a few more ways of looking at plot:

The main plot of any story is like the strings of a violin, carefully made to bear the weight of the bow and to transmit sound accurately. But a violin gets its timbre from the music box under the strings. Timbre, the resounding box in literature, is cultural allusion.

Carol Bly 'The Passionate, Accurate Story'

The plot is the alignment of progressively developed actions - conflict or instability, climax or crisis, resolution, showdown action - with the theme or focus of a story. It is the development of events and character.

Ndaeyo Uko, 'Story Building'

Characters caught in a crucible won't declare a truce and quit. They're in it till the end. The key to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away. Or they can't run away because they're in a prison cell, a lifeboat, the army, or a family.

Sol Stein, 'Stein on Writing'

* * *

Finally, I feel compelled to do some straight talking about getting into the science fiction/fantasy short story market as a writer.

In the latest edition of the Science Fiction Writers of America's Bulletin, Mike Resnik talks about how he puts together an anthology of short stories. He emails award-winning writer friends and says, "Give me a story of X thousand words by Y date," and they do. And these stories make up two-thirds of the anthology. The purpose of these friends, he says, is to "be trumpeted on the cover and produce the stories their fans know they can produce, so I can give a shot to some new writers whose names can't be used to sell the books."

So, what does this actually mean? I think it means that you the new writer has to produce stories that are actually better than the established pros'. Their selling point is their reputation; yours is just the quality of your story. So, if yours is only as good as the pros', guess who's going to get into the book or magazine.

Now, it's often said you need to read, read, read, if you want to be a writer. Which is true; but what's not so often said is that you need to read and learn to write better than the people you're reading.

For example, established writers can get away with some Tell instead of Show, or Point of View inconsistencies - and not because they mean to do it; just because the editor will make allowances for them. But if you make those sorts of mistakes the editor will be only too delighted to have a reason to reject your story. Is this fair? It doesn't matter: it's just the way it is.

Last time, I talked about the need to be enthusiastic. Yes, but you also need to be confident of your unique abilities. Alan Shearer the legendary Newcastle footballer was once interviewed after a game in which he'd played very well and had come to the notice of the wider football public for the first time. The interviewer said, "Alan - are you the second Gary Lineker?" Shearer said, "No, I'm the first Alan Shearer."

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Below is the script for my article on Show Not Tell which appeared on Starship Sofa's Aural Delights No. 39, and below that are some additional notes not included in the podcast.

Episode 2: SHOW NOT TELL

This week, I'm going to look at the most vital element to get right if you want to truly involve readers in your story: Show Not Tell. By the way, if you hear someone shouting "Enunciate!" in the background, it's my partner. She doesn't know I'm recording an article, she just thinks I mumble a lot.

Okay, now Show Not Tell can be a difficult concept to grasp. One reason is that we grow up being told stories - by parents, teachers and those hyper-active children's TV presenters with teeth that make you squint. But when we come to write our own stories, it's not a simple case of converting from being a listener to a teller; we have to learn how to show a story instead.

But rather than start with written examples, let's first take a look at how Show Not Tell also affects our lives. One reason for doing this is I believe of all writing techniques, this is the one most directly related to how we all communicate with others, whether we're writers or not.

So . . . you're in a restaurant with a girl. It's the third time you've been out together and your pounding heart says for you it's serious. You're desperate to know if she feels the same way about you. Everything depends on her answer; your entire life will change if she says yes.

So, why not just ask her? She can tell you right up front - yes or no - then you won't have to commit your nerves and expectations; you can sit back and enjoy the meal. Well, okay, you won't be too relaxed if she turns you down, but at least you'll know, and the agony will be over.

The problem is, she doesn't want to Tell you now, because she hasn't fully decided yet. She wants to Show you - indications, hints, possibilities - and see what you Show her by return.

And, even more frustrating for you and your plans, she wants to do this by talking about anything other than what you're desperate to know. It doesn't matter what the subject is - because it's what's shown by the way you talk, the actions you make and don't make, that will draw out the magic: if it's there.

And let's stop right here, because this is the nub of Show Not Tell. If there's magic in your story, it can only be transferred by how you show it working. David Copperfield doesn't come out on stage and just tell you about the elephant he could make disappear and how the trick's done: you want to see the elephant and then, well, not see it.

So, if you really do have feelings for her, and it's not just some fancy game you're playing on yourself, you'll use that talk about the country's current economical downturn to Show her your feelings. And if she has the same feelings, then by the end of the meal you can just smile at each other and know that both your lives are going to change forever. Then, of course, there's the thorny question of who pays the bill, and that probably requires some Telling, truth be told, at least until you know each other better.

Now let's look at the opening of two very different novels. Here's the first line of 'The Fourth Estate' by Jeffrey Archer:

The odds were stacked against him. But the odds had never worried Richard Armstrong in the past.

And here's the first line of 'Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman:

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

And the start of the second paragraph:

Lyra stopped beside the Master's chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly in the Hall.

So, Archer's book begins with two statements that just tell us two things about the character: the odds are against him but he's not the type to worry about it. Which is fine if we're interviewing him for a job but there's nothing for us to get involved in: the second statement simply answers the first.

Pullman doesn't tell us anything directly about Lyra. He describes her moving in the dark, taking care not to be seen, doing something she probably shouldn't be. So we're instantly drawn in: why is she doing this and what sort of person is she? We're on her journey with her. And of course ' . . . her daemon' is another great Show: what is it and where can I get one? Next, Pullman shows her stopping, letting her curiosity overcome her fear of discovery, to play with a glass - and not just any glass: the Master's glass. So already we know a lot about her: that she's rebellious and reckless, and full of curiosity - yet none of this has been told. There may even be a character clue in the fact she pings the biggest glass; or they may not be. A more telling author would have told us that she flicked the biggest glass because it was in her nature to always take on the toughest challenge. But in just showing it, Pullman creates some space around a character, like a little vacuum that we want to fill with our interest, not necessarily right now.

By contrast, blockbuster characters tend to be unmemorable: because you're simply told that they're brave, funny, witty, etc. To go back to our couple in the restaurant - he could try telling her he's got a good sense of humour and is considerate of others' needs; he might as well tell her he's rich while he's at it. But guess what? She's not going to commit to him until she actually sees his humour and consideration of others in action.

Now, here's a passage from 'Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack' by M E Kerr, a young adult novel published in 1972:

P John Knight got up in Creative Writing and read his new story, 'Answered Prayers'.

It was science fiction.

It was about a future word entirely under the control of one man and one woman: Mama and Papa. Everyone took dope which Mama and Papa gave them. Everyone had the same last name: Love. The people with high IQs became slaves, and took care of the machines which did all the work. Everyone sat around in stupors, listening to television and saying, 'Mama loves you. Papa loves you,' and watching the word 'Love' spelled out in endless animated designs. There were no wars and no one went hungry. Everyone liked everyone else regardless of race or color, except for the 'brains' who lived in automated prisons guarded by automatons.

Notice how she doesn't tell us a single direct thing about P John Knight but we know a lot about him from this, and we're involved. We want to see why he thinks this way; if he really hates his mother and father as much as he appears to; and if he really is an outcast because of his intelligence or because he likes to wind up the liberals in his class, or both.

Now, M E Kerr could have just written this:

P John Knight hated his mother and father, and hated the liberal views of his classmates. He also disapproved of drug-taking and saw himself to be cleverer than most others.

But this is flat and uninvolving, and basically not as much fun as seeing him directly challenging his classmates. Also, and most importantly, it doesn't allow for the shades of feeling P John actually has for his parents and class mates. Which is very important for his later development. For example, when he sees the real quality in Dinky, where everyone else including her parents tend to patronise her because she's overweight and dresses badly.

Another kind of Telling is dialogue 'tags'. Why 'tags'? Well, because they're like sales tags, that say 'sofa' when you're looking at a sofa, just in case you don't know what a sofa is. Dialogue tags tell you what a piece of dialogue is; for example:

"You asked to see me, sir," Jenkins said apprehensively.

"Yes, I did, Jenkins," said Sir inscrutably. "Sit down," he added unambiguously.

"Thank you sir," said Jenkins obsequiously.

And so on. Now, this is very strange, not least because people don't do this in real life. Imagine, for example, you're sitting next to our couple in the restaurant. You hear him say, "Isn't this great wine I say hesitantly." And then she says, "Yes, isn't it, I reply noncommittally." Then he says, "What do you think of the current economic downturn, I say suggestively." To which she can only reply, "It's not looking good, I say ironically."

Or, they hire a writer to sit between them so when he says, "That's hilarious!" the author says, "he laughed." She says, "I'm not sure how I feel," and the author says, "she frowned."

So, why put tags in fiction? Well, one reason is the author doesn't have enough confidence in his dialogue to let it stand on its own. And he may have a point; in which case he needs to re-write it until the way it's constructed, in keeping with each character's nature, resonates with feeling. Tags indicate the author wants to make sure you get the point; so he just tells you. But the trouble is with this is that readers get lazy if they're told everything, which means they don't invest any energy in imagining the characters, which means they end up not caring about them.

Besides, people rarely say anything with just one inflection. For example, they can be, say, two thirds angry with someone but one third frightened for them, too. So a tag which says, "he said angrily" truncates the full range of feelings involved.

Essentially, when you see a lot of tags it means the author is not working hard enough to infuse his dialogue with meaning in its own right: he's just using easy to reach, flat-pack, speech then slapping a display tag on the end so you know exactly what kind of furniture it is he's trying to sell you.

Here's how to use dialogue without tags to show character movement. This is the scene in 'Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack' where P John and Dinky meet for the first time:

'How do you do,' P John said, and then he turned back to Dinky. 'You must have another name besides Dinky.'

'It's Susan,' said Dinky.

Mrs. Hocker said, 'Dinky is our affectionate name for her.'

P John held his arm out as though Dinky were his partner for the grand march at the beginning of a fancy dress ball. 'Shall we be off, Susan?'

Basically, Showing creates meaningful space in which the reader can invest her own appraisal of a character.

For example, I once went to a bazaar in Cairo and found a jewellery box I wanted to buy for my girlfriend. So after establishing that the stallholder spoke English, I said, 'Look, I'm going to say this price then you'll say something higher, then we'll end up in the middle: so to save time why don't you just tell me what you want and I'll pay it.'

The stallholder looked offended but fortunately for me chose to explain why. He said, 'The point of bartering is that I get a chance to see what kind of man you are and you get to see what kind of man I am, and the final price is part of that.'

Finally, one more example from life that I hope will encapsulate the value of Showing above Telling.

When I was a student I once shared a house in Swansea with nine girls. Needless to say, I learnt a lot about girls from that experience, and not all of it fragrant. Anyway, I used to like Sunday mornings when the girls would drift downstairs to the living room and share stories about what they got up to on Saturday night. I'd sit in the corner and pretend I wasn't there. Some of the stories they told about boys and sex were hilarious, which was interesting since I didn't find sex all that funny, especially if I was involved.

Of course they knew I was there. They were showing me their stories, instead of just telling me. If they'd said - "Hey, Terry, we think boys and sex are hilarious" - that would have made their views definite. And definite views can be disagreed with, even rejected. Instead, they let me see their views, which is not a case for disagreement - you either share in them or not.

So, showing also preserves the integrity of the author and the reader. The magic becomes a shared experience, not a confrontational one. I don't know about you, but Telling in stories tends to make me doubt the author's ability to be so definite.

And now a writing tip, which is kind of related to what I've been talking about and is to do with enthusiasm.

About two and a half years ago, I took a long trip with a friend and one of the subjects we discussed was my frustration at not getting my novels taken on by publishers, even those who'd published me in the past. My friend, who'd built up a very successful coaching business from scratch at a fairly advanced age, urged me to be more outgoing: network, he said, find a mentor, join groups. I was very resistant to this, believing that all that counts is what you write.

But later, I gradually and at first reluctantly thought he might just have a point. So I joined some groups; as I mentioned last time, I went to Odyssey and Milford; I chaired panels at fantasy conventions; did a lot more editing/mentoring. Sometimes, I came away wondering why I'd done it - because I couldn't see the direct benefit, or thought I hadn't received the benefit I'd expected. But here's the thing: all those activities pumped my enthusiasm, which in turn now affects the way I approach editors and agents. For instance, I put a proposal to an agent a couple of weeks back, in which I talked a lot about all the stuff I'm involved with in SF, including this podcast, and she came back the very next day to say, YES YES YES - and I don't think she was washing her hair at the time with that over-excitable organic shampoo. Now, I don't know what will come of that proposal, but it doesn't matter: the main thing is I've seen how important enthusiasm is. And guess what? Enthusiasm also back-flows into one's writing, and when you think about it, is the most important element of all in making it attractive.

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Additional Notes:

Showing a story treats readers with respect, providing space for them to infer the characters; basically it includes the reader - Telling doesn't: it keeps the reader at arm's length.

Showing reflects the ambiguities and uncertainties of life; Telling removes them all which is why characters in blockbusters tend to behave so predictably.

Just as being an eccentric is much harder than telling people you're one, learning to Show rather than Tell means you have to completely change your mental approach to the way you write.

Writing tip on output and a bit more on enthusiasm:

Here are two contrasting examples. Jay Lake the science fiction writer was talking recently about how he has to write in one-to-two hour patches but in that time will produce 5,000 words, and typically he produces around 200k words - easily enough for a novel - in 35-40 days.

A children's author I know - one book published so far to excellent critical acclaim - recently talked about how he has a job which only takes up three days of the week; in other words he has 4 clear writing days and seven evenings if he so chooses. He said he was setting himself a target of 2,000 words per week. So, let's say he can manage 40 hours in a week, that's around 50 words per hour, compared with around 2 to 3 thousand for Jay Lake. Lake also has a child, while the children's author doesn't. It's no great surprise to me that this author is also worried about working on his second novel not going too well.

Now, I know all the arguments against simply sitting in the seat and writing. I've used them myself. But then my partner was never fooled by my explanation that I was not having a 'kip' whenever she found me stretched out on the study floor but allowing my creative mind the time and space it needs to produce something more original than would appear if I simply bashed out the words. And I'm not really convinced, either. The fact is, the process of writing generates enthusiasm which in turn gives the writing integrity. So what if half of what Jay Lake writes has to be discarded eventually, he's still got 100,000 words of good stuff down in under a month.

We all have this sly self that lives inside us and is incredibly clever at nudging us away from the writing desk. It knows our weaknesses and only has to whisper the suggestion that the ironing needs doing, or how great it would be to cook a proper meal tonight instead of making do with a sandwich - hey, writers have the cleanest and best-stocked larders of anyone - and of course, it's excellent at convincing us that we'd have so much more energy to write with if we just watched the second half of the Chelsea game first; well, better make that the first half, after all, you've paid for Sky Sports, haven't you; might as well get your money's worth.

What works for me is simple but somewhat unimaginative. I just sit in the chair and keep myself there by saying as often as I need to, 'Just keep writing; just keep writing'; and sometimes I add: 'Come on, you can do it; just keep writing'.

How do you retain enthusiasm when your stuff is getting rejected all the time? Keep improving your writing; keep sending it out; keep yourself informed; join in with other writers - workshops, conventions, online critique groups. And above all, remember that success is not one big publishing deal that changes your life forever - the media love that stuff but it's incredibly rare. Success is little movements forward in this area, then that, and one over there until bit by bit you find you're heading up the path you always wanted to be on, which has no end, just a lot of learning and enthusiasm.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Below are some additional notes to the podcast article I did recently for Starship Sofa on Point of View (POV).

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Look at the Sherlock Holmes stories: here we have a main character who's brilliant but aloof, insightful of others yet often disdainful of them too. Yet we care about him. Why? Because Conan Doyle was clever enough to use first person POV, not omniscient. If Doyle had used omniscient POV, we'd have hated Holmes and wanted Moriarty to have beheaded him, not just dragged him over a cliff into a gorge, ensuring the arrogant bastard could never return.

And here's where Conan Doyle showed what a great author he was, because he chose for the first person POV Holme's friend, Dr Watson. The obvious choice would have been Holmes, because then the author had the perfect vehicle for telling the reader every brilliant thought passing through the great detective's mind. But then readers don't want brilliant thoughts coming at them like an AK-47 (incidentally, that's a POV violation), they want to feel wonder and mystery and magic and emotion. Holmes doesn't have time for any of that wimpy stuff; he probably doesn't even believe in it. But Watson does. He's clever, too, but can't usually keep fully up to speed with Holmes because a large part of his psyche is fuelled by empathy and compassion. And it's those qualities that draw us in to the story. From inside Watson's humane view of the world we can admire Holmes but not hate him as we would if forced to sit inside his immense but somewhat detached brain for the duration of the story.

Now, when they came to make films of Sherlock Holmes, there was a problem: the story couldn't be told from inside Watson's head. Therefore, there was no contrast and conflict between the empathic Watson and the some would say sociopathic Holmes to draw in the viewer's interest. Instead, they followed more of a music hall approach - which early cinema tended to follow, rather than the novelistic method - and created a very obvious contrast between the two main characters: clever and stupid. Watson became the straight man for Holmes, except Holmes wasn't very funny. Watson was the bumbling fool against which the director could easily show Holmes' brilliance. This would have been impossible in the books, even if Doyle had wanted to do the same, because we were in Watson's head and therefore he had to be at least clever enough to understand Holme's explanations when presented to him. But in film, Holmes just had to tell the camera.

As film making matured, and equipment improved, Watson's intelligence and empathy were gradually restored, at least in some versions, and as a result Holmes can be seen as less than omniscient - freed from that point of view - and be far more attractive as a result.

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I want to raise an issue to do with POV which is rarely if ever mentioned, which is the need for the author to deepen his own perceptions of his main character.

We live in a world of shifting viewpoints, basically. We get most of our stories now from screens where there is no steady POV. We also believe in diversity and appreciating other people's religions, nationalities, sexual preferences and choice of football team. The problem with this is that our appreciation tends to be shallow and only succeeds, if it really does at all, because no one ever challenges its depth.

I see a lot of manuscripts by new writers in which it's clear they do not know how to stick with a POV and deepen their insight of it, and thereby their readers' insight too. Instead, they adopt a camera-like POV which skits around their characters' faces, or describes them standing under a lamppost lighting a cigarette with smoke curling into the light, their eyes in shadow - as if that tells us something about the character. It doesn't: it's just a camera direction.

For a writer to produce a convincing POV he has to buck the modern trend of superficial, short-sighted, appreciations of one character after another, and instead stick with the one, gather his courage in both hands (well, one hand 'cos he'll need the other to write with) and go in deep, to the uncomfortable truth that lies at the core of all of us. He has to be unfashionable, like people who still want to get married. Marriage is so restricting, surely; it inhibits your choice; it's boring. Maybe, but it also can teach you more about another person and yourself than a history of picking up and putting down of partners according to the current fad.

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On Starship Sofa, I mentioned Brian Clough, a famous now deceased, football manager. Here's another Clough story:

One time, a load of fans ran on the field after a match - a big no-no - and Clough ran after them, clipping a few round the ears and forcing them off. This upset some people and I saw Clough interviewed about it afterwards. This young reporter said, "Mr Clough, some people might say you acted irresponsibly . . . " Clough said, "Now, young man, who are these 'some people'; are you one of them? Because if you are, say what you have to say like a man." End of interview; power struggle won - fixed POV defeats shifting ('some people'). Wonder intact.

Modern life is like that reporter, like a group of friends in the pub: one's talking while he's flicking through a magazine; the others are texting while they're sort of listening. Worse still, most people now get most of their stories on screen and in TV/film POV is not really an issue, where the camera shifts around from point to point. But here's the good news: the written story can do what no movie can - get you inside the main character's head. And what is it that has had millions of children sitting still for hours at a time, concentrating on just one thing: a written story about a boy wizard. So POV is still something people respond positively to, even if they're usually unaware of its presence.

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I hope you're beginning to see that the very limitation of POV is its power. I believe this is because the truth about another person - or a non-POV character in your story - lies more in the accumulated unseen clues they're not aware of presenting: what they don't consciously say or do; what's in their aura and their body language. In omniscient or shifting POV, the author takes the easy route of simply showing you what each character is thinking. But there's a problem there; because in real life, even if you ask someone to tell you the truth about themselves and even if they agree, the result will be a long way from the truth. This is because we don't know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.

So, it's the author's job to anchor the POV in the most appropriate character for observing the truth about the other characters, who in turn can intimate the truth about the main character. Then he has to do the work of selecting exactly the right expressions, movements, silences, unconscious habits, etc, in those characters that imply their truth to the reader, through the medium of the POV character. That way we are given two half-truths - how the POV character perceives himself to be and how he perceives others to be - which allows us to provide the other two halves. Implication is magic, in other words; whereas simply listing all the front brain thoughts and spoken words of your characters will turn your story into a nice, bright, shiny, risk-free, travel brochure.

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  • No one can teach you to write but somehow you have to get yourself taught.
  • There are no rules to what makes a great story but you can't be a real writer unless you know the rules in every cell of your being.
  • You have to write stuff that the market wants but no one knows what the market wants.
  • The story you're writing now must become a finished piece of work but you as a writer will never finish learning how to be one.