Show, Don’t Tell.

Hello all. I’m having a tough time getting this chapter going today, so I thought I’d get the juices rolling by listening to myself talk about writing and hope someone out in the aether benefits from the bolivating.

Earlier today, I had a phone chat with another writer just getting rolling on his first novel. He’d let a couple different people look at what he’d done so far, and they came back with advice nearly every new writer hears at one point or another. “Too much exposition.” “Show, don’t tell.” Often, these phrases are thrown about without additional instruction, as though their meaning were inherent and self-evident. Well, I heard that same sage advice early in my career, and had no idea what was meant. The same happened to the gentleman I spoke to today, and I’m sure we are not outliers. In time, I’ve grown to understand this previously opaque advise, and I hope I can clear it up for everyone.

When someone says, “too much exposition,” what they’re trying to tell you is your story reads like a textbook or a travel guide, not a novel. As the author, you are taking the reader out of the story. In a sense, this is natural. We all spend a lot of time telling stories about where we’ve been and what we’ve done, often in exhaustive detail. But when you do that in fiction, it disrupts the flow of the story and pulls your reader away from the very place you want them to live in for a while. Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel and want to introduce a castle. The way most of us would explain a castle we’ve seen to another person would go something like this:

The castle was built in 1547 of granite chiseled out of a quarry ten miles down river, then floated to the site on temporary reed rafts.  Its walls were over six feet thick at their stoutest, and the battlements rise almost seventy feet above the ground. In 1583, it withstood a six-month long siege from the forces of the Duke of Cromwell…

Still awake? See how I just told you everything I thought you should know? I sounded like a hung-over tour-guide working a minimum wage summer job, didn’t I? That’s exposition. Avoid it at all costs. But what’s the solution, you ask? That’s where the showing comes in. Instead of droning on and on about this new castle, what you want as an author is to let your characters, and therefore your readers, explore and learn about it for themselves naturally. You can do that either through dialogue between characters, or better yet, observations made directly from your Point of View character. Here’s what that might look like:

Claire walked up the rutted path towards the mouth of the immense castle. As she passed over the drawbridge, she marveled at the sheer mass of the structure. Its battlements reached for the clouds, nearly three times as tall as the simple, two-story houses in her village, maybe taller. Its stones were old and weathered after centuries spent standing up to the elements, but they had lost none of their strength. Indeed, the whole castle had been battle-tested. Here and there, Claire spotted pockmarks and scorching on its walls, testament to the infamous siege it had survived under the notorious Duke of Cromwell. Claire smirked a little as she entered the portcullis. The evil Duke never got the view of the courtyard she was about to enjoy. As she passed through the great stone archway, she couldn’t help but hold her arms out as far as they would go. The wall was thicker than her arm-span, and she was easily the tallest girl in her county. On impulse, she scratched at the rock of the entryway with a fingernail. To her surprise, no bits of sand came free. The castles and garrison forts out in the provinces were all made of wood or limestone. But this, it was all solid granite. No wonder it had passed the test of time. At the apex of the archway, she could just make out an inscription in the capstone. They read: Laid Down in the Year of Our Lord 1547.

See how much better that reads? You are learning about the castle right alongside Claire as she explores it for herself. Not only does the castle seem like a real, living place, but you learn more about Claire in the process, making her a more convincing character at the same time. This is showing. Yes, it took a little longer, but that’s not a bad thing. It ate up some wordcount, and managed to share all of the same information contained in the first example while being a more compelling read.

I hope that helps. I’m going to go write something now. You should too.

So a Funny Thing Happened…

Many of you may not know it, but in addition to writing, I’ve taken up stand-up comedy over the last few months. My first time on stage was back in June or July on a lark. A local comedy collective here in Milwaukee called the Caste of Killers was putting on an open-mic night, which happened to coincide nicely with the bucket of Miller Light and two screwdrivers I’d already had that evening, so I signed up and took my five minutes under the light.

Now I have some experience writing humor. The first novel I wrote, (still looking for an agent, ahem…) was a sci-fi comedy. But while I’ve always loved stand-up comics, I had no experience writing jokes per se. My first effort in the basement of Karma that night was met with some polite laughs and ended somewhat anti-climatically, but I had gotten the taste of something new. I started trying to build coherent sets. Jokes that tied together in a common narrative, walking the audience through a story. It wasn’t long before I realized just how much like writing  good stand-up is. Anyone can tell one-liners, but with a few exceptions like the late Mitch Hedberg, the best comics don’t just recite a list of unconnected material. They tell a story. Often a wandering story filled with tangents, but a story none-the-less.

In fact, the entire exercise of writing comedy feels like writing a book, only much faster. You write rough drafts, practice, prune, add new stuff, and edit, edit, edit. Then you send your story out into the world, in this case a direct audience, and face the daunting prospect of success or rejection. But instead of months of waiting, the feedback is instantaneous. You either kill, or go home wanting to kill yourself. But then you figure out what didn’t work, change it or rip it out, and edit some more. It’s just like writing fiction, but on fast-forward.

I’ve seen my own writing improve because of this experience, mostly because of fresh perspectives and training my brain to think in new ways. I find myself being less attached to my work, and more willing to identify, change, and rip out the stuff that isn’t working. Being a dispassionate editor of our own work is one of the very hardest things writers have to do, but my experience in comedy has made the task much easier. I just imagine the blank stares of a cold audience, but instead of being at a club listening to my set, they’re in their pajamas reading my book.

Many of us wind up so focused on writing that we tend to distance ourselves from other hobbies and new experiences. This is a mistake. Real life is what informs our work, gives it color and texture beyond the words on the page. I’m not saying everyone should hit an open-mic next week, but don’t lose sight of your other interests. Make time for them. They will give you the space and time away from writing to keep your mind fresh and engaged in the real world. Ultimately, no matter what our genre, it’s that real-world flavor that really separates great writers from merely good ones.

Thoughts on a Snowy Afternoon

Wisconsin finally decided to commit to the whole “winter” thing, so I’m here basically locked into the house for the day. A few things have cropped up in the community of writers and publishing in the last week or so, and I thought I’d take a minute to add my thoughts.

First, there was the curious case recently of an editor of a small, no-pay ezine flipping out on a writer who asked a simple question about her publication. The writer on the receiving end of the tirade posted the comments to social media, where they quickly went viral. Well, viral among writers and other people connected to the craft.

Now, I’m not going to weigh in on the merits of publications who only pay their writers in exposure. Most of them are small and just starting out, trying to build up subscriptions and page-views. This very closely mirrors the journey new writers have to undertake, and I wish all of them the best of luck. Personally, I believe in being paid for my work, even if it is only a token sum. I’ve been paid as little as $3 for a piece of flash fiction before, but it was still real money that was able to buy me a significant fraction of a Culver’s Snack Pack. Other writers may feel that in the early goings, exposure is a sufficient reward for their troubles, and that’s fine. The only person who can make that call for you, is you. But there comes a time in the career of every creative where people will only start valuing your work if you do. I just decided that for me, that was Day 1.

No, what was so strange about this incident was just how much of an outlier it was, at least in my experience. From the get-go, I’ve been shocked at how supportive, even nurturing the community of writers, editors, agents, and publishers is. You have to be willing to work hard, and churn out quality material, but there has never been a shortage of people willing to extend a helping hand with advice on the business, critiques, beta-reading services, etc. I cannot tell you how many of the friends I’ve made over the last few years have gone out of their ways to help pull me along and try to find success. It’s unlike any working environment I’ve ever been a part of before. There is almost a complete lack of competition among writing professionals. It’s a fraternity, and a warm one at that. I would send a shout of thanks out to everyone who has helped me, but the list would take up far too much space, and I would invariably forget someone.

So it was through this lens of camaraderie that I read this editor’s attack, and that’s all it could be called, upon a fellow writer for having the gall to ask her a politely worded question about compensation, and for the nerve to believe her work might be worth real money. How dare she believe she should be compensated for her work the way everyone else in the universe is compensated for theirs! Not only did this editor display an incredible lack of grace and professionalism, but she had somehow forgotten the people who had in their own time helped her reach what success she had achieved. I don’t care who you are in this business, someone took the time to give you constructive critiques, someone gave your first published story a break, someone volunteered to be the Beta reader for your first novel manuscript. No one does this alone, it’s just not possible.

And maybe most importantly, someone teaches you the ‘rules’. Listen, we all make mistakes coming through this process. There is no creative writing program in the country that teaches you the rest of the story. Finding markets, submitting, landing an agent, negotiating contracts, running a social media campaign. branding, etc. We all walk into that part of the job blindly and stagger around in the dark for a while. Mistakes will be made, and all you can do is hope whoever catches you will be gentle and understanding.

I, for example, am still in the process of shopping around my very first novel manuscript. I’d sent it out to nearly eighty agents and publishers. And while I’ve gotten some solid nibbles, I haven’t managed to drag any of them back to the boat with this one yet. Then, late last year at World Con Chicago, I thought I was getting a break, when a side conversation with an acquisitions editor for one of the biggest sci-fi publishers in the business (names withheld to protect me from embarrassment) asked me to send him the manuscript. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I ran right back to my hotel room and emailed it to him straight away. Only later did I come to realize that another person, whom had asked for a sample of the manuscript some months earlier, was actually an editor for the same publisher. I had inadvertently gone around his back and submitted directly to his boss.

Now, this is a Four-Alarm, Gold-Plated, No-No. But here’s the thing that our meanie editor above had either forgotten, or never knew. When you fuck up by the numbers, the best possible thing you can do is fess-up and immediately apologize. Acting tough, entitled, or too important for such lowly concerns is the single fastest way to stain your reputation. And this is a very small industry, with very long memories. In my case, I hadn’t known the two men worked for the same company, but even that wasn’t good enough. Unlike submitting to agents, who expect that you are blasting your novel out to anyone who’ll listen, editors at that level expect an exclusive look. This was one of the rules I hadn’t been in a position to learn yet, so all I could do was thank the man I’d wronged for educating me, and promise not to repeat the mistake. Fortunately, I hadn’t run into a primadona, and while he was rightfully irritated, he chalked it up to a rookie mistake. Would he have been willing to do so if I’d been defensive, or given him an attitude? Would you?

The moral of all this is, no matter how far down the road of succes you get in this industry, always remember that there were people there all along to help push your cart. Someday, it will be your turn to do the same for the next person coming up the road. And that ended up being quite a bit longer than I’d planned, so I’ll sign off for today. More tomorrow on “used eBooks” and “Space Marines.”

Escaping the Pile: Part VI

Good morning internets. Before we wrap up the slush pile series, I have a couple of housekeeping announcements to make. First, and most excitingly from my perspective, I’m going to be Thursday’s guest for the Damsels of Dorkington weekly video chat. I’ve hung out with these crazy kids at places like VisionCon and GenCon. They are an absolute blast, and living proof that geeks can break every tired old stereotype without selling out what makes us different and awesome. We’ll be talking about… I have no idea; these people are ADHD as a sack full of ferrets and cocaine. But I’m fairly sure we’ll talk about my upcoming book launch and my experiments in stand-up comedy at some point.

Also, over the weekend, I recorded a brief interview for the Roundtable Podcast which asked a very simple question: What do you want in an antagonist? I’ll put up a link as soon as the podcast goes live.

But you’re not here to hear me drone on about my grinding journey down the road to success, you’re here to learn how to shorten your own grinding journey. So, without further delay, here’s the final entry into my series to shortcut the slush pile:

Haven’t I read this before? Here is where the rubber meets the road. Above all else, short fiction needs to be original. That is the deathblow for many stories I have read. They can be well written, with full characters and a complete story, but if it doesn’t feel new and fresh, then it will almost invariably fall flat.

Several times, I have read a story, only to find it is a well-known tale with the serial numbers filed off. One stands out in my memory. It was well-executed, with snappy dialogue, clear visuals, and convincing action. Alas, it was a carbon-copy of Blade Runner. when I asked him about it, the writer in question had never heard of the movie, or even the classic book it was based upon.

The best way to avoid this trap is also the most time-consuming; read lots of books and magazines, watch loads of movies and T.V., and play video games and RPGs. The only way to learn the tropes of your genre is to immerse yourself within it.

This is not to say that a story cannot include familiar elements. Sci-fi will always have space ships, aliens, and ray guns. Fantasy will always have elves, dwarves, and wizards. Your job is to find ways to tweak the conventions and make them your own, unique version. By defying expectations, you will grab the reader’s attention. Think of all the successful authors of vampire or zombie fiction.

If you follow these relatively simple steps while crafting and preparing your work, you will have positioned your story ahead of as much as two thirds of the deluge we have to wade through every time we open our inboxes.

Of course, you still have to get past the Senior Editors. But that’s another article.

Escaping the Pile: Part V

Hello again. I’m cramming in as much work as possible this week ahead of Immortal ConFusion this weekend, so let’s get today’s post rolling.

Last week, we talked about the critical importance of crafting a killer opening. This week, we’re delving deeper. Once you’ve hooked the slush reader with a brilliant line or introductory paragraph, you need to take them somewhere. There needs to be a destination.

A weakness that plagues many of the submissions that I read is a simple failure to tell a complete tale. Short stories are a challenging format, because scene-setting, character introduction, conflict, resolution, all of it has to happen inside a very small space. Like conducting an orchestra from inside a closet.

When writing short fiction, many new writers fail to include one or more of the elements that makes a self-contained story. To be complete, a tale needs characters the reader can relate to, a conflict, and a resolution.

For example, little Suzy is eight years old. She has lost her cat. She embarks on an epic journey to find her cat that will span many years, several oceans, and every imaginable mode of transportation, while being pursued by her parents, and some Somali pirates.

So, scene, characters, and conflict are all present. Now there needs to be a resolution. If Suzy spends the rest of her life in a futile search for her lost cat, which any reasonable person would know had died many decades ago, that isn’t really a story.

There needs to be some satisfying resolution to the central conflict; Suzy finds the cat under her bed. The resolution doesn’t have to be what the reader is expecting; Suzy finds the cat, but it has died. Suzy finds the cat, but an evil scientist has set up Shrodinger’s box experiment, and she can never open it out of fear of collapsing the wave-form. Suzy finds the cat, but it turns out that it contained the reincarnated soul of a man that Suzy had murdered in a past life, and traps her in a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption lifted from the Saw franchise. Whatever tickles your fancy, but the resolution has to be there.

That’s it for now. Check back next week for the grande final, Part VI!

Escaping the Pile: Part IV

Good morning, internets! I hope everyone’s New Year’s is getting off on the right foot. It’s another week, so it’s time for the next installment of Escaping the Pile.

Everything we’ve talked about so far: cover letters, formatting, word count, compatibility, has been about preparation. These are things you can do to improve the odds of any story being accepted, without changing a single word of text. Now, we’re going to dig into the content itself, and teach you the importance of avoiding…

Slow starts: Novels and short stories are a fundamentally different reading experience. With a novel, the average reader will gladly plough through the first chapter or two waiting to get snagged by the ‘hook’. People commit to reading books and realize that character building, back story, and scene-setting takes time.

Short stories are another matter. In the short format, the first page, even the first paragraph, is critical. This is doubly true for getting past slush editors, because if the first page of your story doesn’t make us want to read the rest of it, most of us aren’t going to. We don’t have the time. Odds are your story is one of anywhere from five to ten that we need to read that day, in addition to our own writing, paying jobs, and families. You have to show us that your story is worth the time we’re going to spend reading it, and you need to do it fast.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. As a writer, I find it appalling that someone would pass judgment on my work before finishing it. But as an editor, I found myself doing exactly that. Here’s why; if a story can’t hold the interest of an editor, odds are it won’t hold the interest of their readers either.

There is a simple test to determine if your story suffers from Slow Start. Find a five-to-ten year old. If this is a rare species in your vicinity, a teenager with ADHD or a twenty-something with a hangover can act as a substitute. Corner them in a room with only one door, and stand in the exit. Start reading. If they sit in rapt attention, you’re probably fine. However, if they are trying to escape through the window before you’ve finished the first page, then there may be a problem.

A slow start isn’t the end of the world, however. Fixing one is as simple as trimming the fat from the beginning of the story and coming to the point more quickly. The first page and paragraph shouldn’t be about back-story or world-building, those details can come later. You should be focusing your opening on getting the action moving. Don’t explain the where’s and why’s of the story until later. Often, correcting a slow start is as simple as moving exposition deeper into the story. This has the added benefit of building mystery and suspense in the reader’s mind, perking their curiosity and pulling them into your story further still.

Incidentally, this advice applies equally to novel-length work, only over a proportionately longer amount of text. The best stories trickle out details, letting the reader learn as they go instead of forcing them to sit through an introductory course in the first chapter or scene.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll be talking about making sure your work is a complete story. Now go write!

Escaping the Pile: Part III

Well, the two week long fugue of parties, presents, food, ball games, and drink is over, and it seems we’ve stumbled into another new year without too many casualties. So it’s time to return to real life. While we were all busy, Sarah Hans accepted my short story “Coffee and Collaborators” for her debut anthology effort, “Sidekicks”. Sarah is funny and whip-smart; I’m confident she’ll assemble a first-class collection for you all to read. Check back here for updates.

But back on track. Last week, we talked about the importance of respecting a publisher’s submission guidelines. This week, we’re moving on to talk about Market Compatibility:

There are many hundreds of paying literary markets, each trying to carve out their own audience. Think of it as a market ecosystem, with every magazine, website, and anthology series acting as a unique species.

Just like in nature, markets evolve to fill specific niches in their environment. Some are generalists that publish work from diverse genres. However, most markets are specialists who have built a reputation around a specific genre, be it high fantasy, hard sci-fi, urban supernaturalism, steam punk, space opera, etc.

The market I read for established a reputation for horror and suspense stories with a fantastic or supernatural bent. It’s what their subscribers have come to expect. Yet still I was sent stories every week that contained no horror elements. Many of them are quite good, but were incompatible with our goals; so back they went.

Before you hit the ‘Send’ button, or lick a stamp, take some time to read a handful of selections from the market you are considering submitting to. Figure out the genre and tone of the stories the editors liked enough to print. If your story feels like it’s in good company, send it along.

However, if it doesn’t mesh, then don’t send it to that market. This wastes not only your time, but the time of the reader on the other end, which won’t endear you to that editor should you send another story in the future. Some of us have surprisingly long memories for that sort of thing. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of paying markets. You can always find one that will be a good fit for whatever you choose to write.

One of the best tools I’ve found for sifting through markets is the excellent website, Duotrope. With over three thousand markets to search, and a super-handy submissions tracking system, Duotrope will slash anyone’s market research time, and help you keep your queries organized. As of yesterday, they have moved over to a pay model, whereas before they had worked on donations only. Still, I believe it’s well worth the cost.

Now if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take a moment for a shameless plug. Last year, a couple dozen of us writerly types got together and wrote a World-Building textbook of sorts for authors and game masters of any stripe. Each chapter deals with a specific aspect of crafting a realistic world setting, from ecology, to economy, religion, geography, even the physics of building whole solar systems. It’s called Eighth Day Genesis, and you can pick it up in eBook or trade paperback. Give it a try.

Escaping the Pile: Part II

Hello world. I’m not going to lie, I’m dragging something fierce to pull myself out of the post-Christmas malaise. I’m full of too much lasagna, Andes mints, and seasonal beer to be a valuable member of society, and next week, we’re going to do it all over again. However, I promised you the next segment of this blog series, so here goes.

Today, new writers, we’re talking about the importance of obeying the rules and customs of Formats and Guidelines. This should go without saying, but please, read the submission guidelines of the market you’re submitting to, and make sure your story or article meets it. Pay particular attention to the formatting instructions. Twelve-point, Times New Roman or Courier font, and double-spaced is a good place to start. This may seem like common sense to many of you, but I am consistently amazed at the number of manuscripts submitted that do not follow this standard formatting. And when you’re up against dozens of other stories per week, ignoring simple instructions from the publisher doesn’t reflect well on your level of professionalism.

The reason for double-spacing may not be immediately apparent to many of us who grew up writing and editing on computers, but it’s pretty simple. Back in the days of yore, when dead-tree copy ruled the land, editors preferred double-spacing because it gave them a place to make in-line corrections and revisions that would be easy for the author to understand and change later. While most publications have moved to all digital submission systems, some still hold onto paper. And even among those who do take electronic submissions, there are many editors who simply prefer to hit ‘print’ and make their corrections with a trusty pen and paper, just as there are readers who will always take a real book over an e-reader. Myself included.

The next item to tick off your pre-flight checklist is word count. Most publishers of short fiction work within tight constraints, especially those printing hard copy. As a result, most prefer stories of a certain length. For example, the market I worked with has a hard cap of 7,500 words. This should be self-explanatory, however I returned between one and three stories unread each week because they exceed our limit. This doesn’t have to happen.

I have, on occasion, sent in work that was over the word count limit by a few hundred words in such situations where I’d rather start cutting off toes than cut any more of the story. However, if this is necessary, make sure to query the publication for permission to submit a larger work. It is only polite.

That’s it for now, kids. We’ll pick up again next week with Part III, where we’ll be discussing Market Research and Compatibility. Now, quick, look busy for the next couple days, then we can all go assault our livers during the long weekend. See y’all next year!

Escaping the Pile: Confessions of a Slushie Machine, Part I

Good afternoon, aspiring writers! Today, I’m starting a six-part series on what you can do to kick your work to the top of the pile and start getting noticed. But first, what makes me think I can tell you anything? Well, I’ve managed through hard work and a generous helping of luck to get over a dozen short stories, articles, and novellas accepted by all sorts of different publications. But, perhaps more importantly, I’ve spent time working for the other side as well.

For just over a year, I was a slush editor for the excellent publication, Apex Magazine. During that time, I was on the front lines, reading through upwards of 40-50 short stories per week, trying to find the gems that were good enough to send up the chain to Cat Valente, who was the Senior Editor at the time. She has since gone on to win a Hugo award for her fanzine work, so she probably had some idea what she was doing. I strongly recommend to all writers that they volunteer to read slush for one of the many wonderful publishers to make industry connections, and gain insight into the process. Since working with Apex, I’ve given panels on this subject at a number of conventions and writer’s workshops, which have always proven to be very popular. But, not everyone can attend, so it’s my hope that this blog series will be able to help a wider audience. Let’s get started!

Though writing often feels like a solitary pursuit, the slush pile reveals otherwise. Without careful management, it can quickly grow to overwhelming heights. These stories aren’t writing themselves, at least not yet. There are thousands of writers pecking away on their laptops in the hope of nabbing one of a finite number of publishing slots. Your job as a writer (and never forget that it is a job) is to cut down on the errors that annoy slush editors. For your story to get through to the actual decision makers, and therefore have any chance of seeing print, you have to escape the pile.

But how? There are as many ways to self-destruct a story as there are writers, but the bulk of unforced errors fall into a handful of categories. In rough order of obviousness, these include: Cover Letter Crimes, Formatting/Guidelines, Market Incompatibility, Slow Starts, Where’s the Story, and Haven’t I Read This Before? Today’s installment will focus on the first.

Cover Letter Crimes: In short fiction, less is more. Cover letters should consist of your name, a pseudonym if you use one, the title of your story, word count, and a handful of your most impressive publishing credits; if you don’t have any yet, no problem. Got all that? Good, now stop.

Wait, why are you writing a three-hundred word summary of your three-thousand word story? Stop that. Your last thirty publishing credits? Cut it out, I mean it this time. All the authors you’ve talked to at cons and books signings? Now you’re just making me angry.

And for the love of ink, if you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t come out and say so. Do you want to know that the guy about to cut into your chest is doing his first lung transplant surgery? It would make you a little apprehensive about what came next, wouldn’t it? Well the same is true here. There is no reason to put a Las Vegas sized neon light over your story, blinking ‘Unpublished Author’ before the eyes of the person who is about to read it. Clear enough?

We’ll continue next week, (provided the world didn’t end) with the next segment focusing on formatting and the importance of reviewing guidelines. If you have any questions about this week’s topic, please don’t be shy. Stick them in the comments.