Below is the remaining script for Starship Sofa on Show Not Tell, plus some additional thoughts I made for the show notes.
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 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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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 the work 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 instead 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 too, 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 more learning and enthusiasm.