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I’ve Got Your Show, Don’t Tell RIGHT HERE, Buddy

One of the most perplexing, vexing and generally pain in the ass phrases any aspiring writer hears from other (usually more successful and – let’s be honest – smug) writers is “show, don’t tell.”

Really, as if writers didn’t have enough problems with making rent, working the day job and dealing with friends, family and spouses who don’t really believe that you’ve been working on the book you casually (and constantly) tell them about, here comes another god forsaken “real” writer with this tired, worn-out old piece of advice that is rarely followed by a decent explanation.

And that’s the biggest part of the problem – the advice is legit, but those who dish it out rarely stop to elaborate on what the hell it means. Despite what some think, it’s not self-explanatory. Show what? Don’t tell what? What’s the difference between showing and telling? And while we’re at it, why is the chick who wrote those Twilight books rolling around naked in her own money while I’m still working as a barista and eating ramen noodles for three meals a day?

Well, some questions we might never know the answer to, but I can tell you this: There is a decent answer to the question of “What the hell do you mean by ‘Show, don’t tell’?”

And it is this: Rather than indulging in long, drawn out bits of exposition to reveal something about a character, a place or a situation, instead simply allow the details to reveal themselves in the story or – even better – bits of dialogue, relying on your reader’s imagination to fill in details.

You want some great examples? Here’s the shortest I can think of, by none other than Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never used.”

Absolute friggin’ tragedy, sorrow and desolation wrapped up in what could very well be the text for a six-word classified ad. That is some righteous show, don’t tell, kids, and even if Uncle Ernest never wrote another word after tossing those six out there, we’d still be talking about them today.

Another great place to find excellent examples of show, don’t tell is in pop songs. Why? Well, you’ve got three and a half minutes to tell a story or elucidate on a bit of philosophy. Think it’s easy knocking out even a bad pop song? Go ahead and try it. Chances are you’ll be pulling out your hair by the time you’re on your third ream of paper.

Driving around the other day, I was listening to the radio and realized Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” would fit very nicely into this discussion simply because it’s an exceptionally short song – three main verses, a bridge and  chorus in about two minutes and 50 seconds – that tell us quite a lot about the its main character . It’s essentially an entire Elmore Leonard novel in the time it might take you to shave or do your make-up.

(The punks at YouTube cut off the embedding for this, but you can link to it below. I highly recommend it.)

If you tried to convey all this information – that there’s a guy who got in over his head with spies and a Cuban casino, and is now appealing to his father for assistance both legal and illegal in getting out from under his debt, eventually escaping to Honduras until things cool off  – in a linear, expository fashion … well, you’d have the sentence I just wrote and it wouldn’t make a very good song, now. would it?

Consider what we know about this guy. First, he’s a rake. “I went home with a waitress” tells us one thing, but throw in “the way I always do,” and we have a wide open window into this guy’s libido and man-whore tendencies. Second, he’s in Havana, where Americans aren’t legally supposed to be, telling us he lives just outside the normal parameters of the law. Third, he’s a gambler willing to roll the dice on long odds, confirming the lawless assumption. Fourth, he’s probably a douchebag trust fund kid who’s putting his family money on the line and expects his father to extricate him through any means necessary – thus the title – every time he does something stupid.

Honestly, entire film series have been predicated on less information than the lyrics in this song. Just from a few lines, Zevon has drawn an exceptionally rich character that could easily carry a Steven Soderbergh, “Oceans 11”-style trilogy.

The key here is that Zevon hasn’t started with some lame “Once Upon a Time” format like many prose writers do – he jumps right in. If Zevon hadn’t already used it, this first line would make a great opening to a short story. Few songwriters have the luxury of extensive exposition over thousands of words, so to avoid the temptation to ramble on with it yourself. Act as if you have no time to get things clear.

Instead of saying, “It was cold,” have your character react to the cold in a concise fashion that might reveal something about him or her at the same time. Instead of going on in the third person about how your character was fired from her job, have her allude to it in her dialogue, with the other characters responding accordingly. Better yet, if your story is set in winter in New York City, we’ll know it’s cold, so there’s no need to even tell us, unless the character is somehow unreasonably cold thanks to poverty, a mugging, a specific costume or other unusual circumstances.

In closing let me give you a few pop culture references that keep me from telling rather than showing. The first is the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies. As Austin’s boss, he’s there to do just what his name implies – give us exposition to move the plot forward. It’s an age old device employed in almost all the James Bond movies (which the Powers series so nicely mocks), usually in the person of M, Bond’s boss.

All I have to do is remember how ridiculous Basil’s clunky film moments are, and I’m dissuaded from doing the same thing in my own stories.

The other reference that keeps me on track is the concept of monologuing, as described in the Pixar film The Incredibles. It’s an inside superhero joke shared early in the movie and later mentioned by arch villian Syndrome, in which a bad guy so enamored with his own evil scheme rambles on to the main character, describing every detail of the plan up to that point. If you ever – EVER – find yourself monologuing, step back and find a new way to say what you’re trying to say.

Assisted Development

Anyone who’s written anything of considerable length –  whether it’s a novel or a report for a class in college – knows that it’s a solitary pursuit. In fact, if you ask most writers what they like least about their craft, it will likely be the hours and hours they must spend by themselves to get the job done.

It’s this part that pro writers like to clarify for writing “civilians” when talk turns to the “glamor” of being a writer.

Really, sitting in a room (or coffee shop or cabin in the mountains or oceanside cottage) all alone, typing made up stuff into a computer is, at its core, actually pretty damn pathetic. Really, who would choose to do this? Especially when there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will ever pay off in any sort of fame or financial success, it seems like the work of a person with genuine social issues. After all, didn’t the Unabomber live like this?

But if we’re lucky, we writers aren’t completely alone in the process. Regardless of whether you’re a beginning writer or someone who has been successful at it for years, it’s important to have someone you can turn to whose opinion you respect to give you honest, non-judgmental feedback on your projects.

For some, this comes with a critique group, which is frequently a group of fellow writers who regularly gather to pass around their work and get opinions from others. It’s a fine idea and pitched as a perfect way for writers to workshop works in progress to see if they’re headed in the wrong direction or if there are massive holes that need to be filled.

I have to be honest – I’ve never been a part of a critique group per se, and I’ll tell you why: Sometimes there are folks who just don’t get it. You know the type (and, come to think of it, maybe you are the type). They seem to be fans of every genre but the one you’re writing in. Or, they ask questions about your piece that aren’t immediately relevant to the criticism you seek. Or, they’re jealous and will take every opportunity to tell you that you suck. The worst critique groups are filled with these types of people.

The best, though, have none of them and are full of open-minded, thoughtful individuals genuinely who appreciate the genre you write in and are focused on trying to help you make your story a hundred times better. And I’m sure there have been many fantasy stories written about the fabulous mythical land in which these groups exist.

If the critique group thing isn’t for you, consider what I’ve found to be an immense amount of help – my very own bar stool development editor. We’re lucky at Codorus Press to have possibly the greatest example of this “writing advisor” in the form of Tom Joyce. Tom worked alongside me, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and Codorus author Mike Argento during our time together at the York Daily Record, and early on displayed an uncanny ability to home in on what makes a story good. (Read Tom’s blog, Chamber of the Bizarre, for more of his insights).

Part of what makes him so valuable to the Codorus team is that he’s an excellent storyteller himself (you’ll get to find out just how excellent when Codorus comes out with his novel The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report in late 2012/early 2013). His skills come from both his history as a voracious reader and a dedicated reporter and copy editor.

We in Codorus Press are also fortunate that we come from the newspaper business, where honest and forthright criticism is something you learn to accept and dish out fairly quickly. There’s no room for angst-driven whining about an element of a news story being “from your soul” or part of a larger effort to offer a metaphor about the futility of human pursuits in the vast nothingness of our universe.

That kind of talk will not only get you mocked openly by your peers, but very likely thrown out the door and kicked down the street until you enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program and stop bothering people with real jobs and looming deadlines.

Newspaper folks simply don’t have time to plumb the depths of their souls when someone says, “Deadline is in 15 minutes and your story is two inches too long. Make it fit or I’m going to cut it.” So Tom respected that I had a skin grown thick from dealing with editors and reporters and knew that I could handle his thoughts without being a crybaby.

When Tom was working his development editor mojo on Immaculate Deception, for instance, it usually went like this: He would read a chapter of the manuscript. A few nights later, we would meet with our newspaper friends and colleagues for after-deadline drinks. When everyone else had departed or the crowd had significantly diminished, he would settle in over his second (or third) pint and, in his inimitable style, cover point-by-point any issues he found with story, character, plot, theme and continuity.

We would discuss what he thought the particular issues were. Then we would trade ideas – basically just a “what if?” session. Our goal was to work within the bounds of the story but make it better than it was, rather than suggestion something that would alter the entire narrative and require extensive additional exposition or character development. Then I would take his thoughts and recommendations, merge them with what I was trying to achieve and apply them – or not. The point is that they were always worthy of considering and never off-point.

His perspective was particularly helpful to me in nailing down an overarching theme of the narrative that I hadn’t even realized was there – that of real estate development run amok. It’s what resulted in the main character losing his job as a reporter and – thanks to Tom’s input –  eventually is revealed as the underlying motivation for the story’s antagonist.

And because he is Tom – friend, colleague and fellow fan of many of the same genre titles – we had a shared language and reference points to use in our discussions. He was also familiar enough with my work and my personality to not be surprised by some of the other themes *cough*sex*cough* that ran through the novel. Try throwing your over-the-top adult material into a critique group full of grandmas who just want to write a family history for their grandkids and see what that gets you.

So if you find that your experiences with critique groups just aren’t working for you, I’d suggest perhaps finding one person among the group who does seem to get you, take him or her out for a beer, and set up a regular story workshopping session over a pint or two. It might prove to be far less painless (at least thanks to the beer) and a whole lot more productive.

Sons of Beaches

Forgot to mention last week that Immaculate Deception was named a reader pick for “great beach reads” in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Summer Reading package from the June 26 edition of the paper. Find the story online here.

Full-Frontal Self-Congratulation

Great news from Codorus Press Central Command in NYC this week – Immaculate Deception was named a July Staff Pick for two of Barnes & Noble’s biggest stores, the Fifth Ave. flagship store and the Union Square location. If you’re in NYC, check it out, buy a copy for yourself and let us know what you think. Since the Nook version when live the B&N page is looking a little bare of reviews, so we’d love to see some up there soon.

Do the Hustle

There are plenty of newbie or wannabe authors roaming around out there that are still under the mistaken impression that a big publishing house will do the work of marketing and promotions for every author it takes on. Every time I come up against this misconception (usually put forth by someone who has rejected independent publishing out of hand as something that “real authors” don’t do), I do my best to correct it.

This week the Philadelphia Inquirer went a long way towards doing that for me with this story on how all authors are now responsible for a good portion of their own marketing, and are forced to be darn creative about it, too. For instance, the author who wrote a book about the New Jersey Shore has done much of her marketing – especially now that summer is here – at the exceptionally busy resort towns along New Jersey’s coast. As a result she targets not only year-round locals, but the year-round residents of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who flock their in droves as soon as Memorial Day arrives.

I have a colleague and fellow novelist, Bob Yearick, who wrote an excellent novel called Sawyer that is essentially a detective mystery set in the world of professional football, with one of the players serving as the de facto private eye. When we saw each other at a professional event not long ago, he tapped me for a little marketing advice and the first thing I suggested was that he start setting up tables to sell the novel in the dealer rooms at sports memorabelia events, trading card conventions or other sports-related gatherings. It doesn’t matter that you’re selling books and you therefore feel like all your appearances should be at libraries and book stores – the goal is to find where your readers will be and go to them.

That also means going beyond the physical world and deep into the virtual, targeting bloggers that can help spread the word for you in a much quicker, more efficient and, most important of all, less expensive (often free) way.

I’ve seen written a number of places that as much as “launch parties” can stroke an author’s ego, there’s really no payoff for the ordinary – and certainly not for the independently published – author. You’re announcing a party to a public who has no idea who you are and frankly doesn’t really care. Aside from giving friends and family a chance to congratulate you in person, such an event is really pretty useless as far as building the buzz needed for a book to succeed.

For me, the target market  for Immaculate Deception from the very beginning has been split between science fiction fans and folks interested in how we’ve gone about setting up Codorus Press. As side markets, there are the coastal areas of South Carolina, in which the novel is set. The only real “signing” I’ve done was in my home town, where I knew I had a ready base of buyers from my time spent there as a child and as a newspaper reporter during adulthood.

Otherwise, the press itself has done larger events like the Philadelphia Book Festival and other regional book events. This fall we’re shooting for, among other things, the Collingswood Book Festival and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Book Festival, as well as PhilCon – the Philadelphia area’s huge science fiction convention.

We’ve also made shameless use of our former (and current) newspaper connections. Some of the best traditional press I’ve received so far has been from newspapers I used to work for. We’ve also used the editorial judgement we developed on the desks at a number of papers to craft better and more effective press releases. We know what editors see as a story, and we try to give it to them each time we send out a release.

So in marketing your work, make sure you explore all angles, both the most and least obvious. It’ll result in a better payoff for you all around.

Work That Mojo, Baby

If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my career as a journalist, it’s that you can’t be afraid to put yourself out there when it comes to people you don’t know.

In journalism school at the University of South Carolina, one of the first assignments we received during our senior “practicum” semester, was to go somewhere we would otherwise be completely uncomfortable. For instance, the prim and proper middle aged woman from England was sent to a truck stop.

I was sent to a gay bar. I don’t think it was because of an obvious homophobia on my part, but instead because I came off to others as so vigorously heterosexual. Suffice it to say that it was no big whoop (after you see your first guy in assless chaps, the rest don’t really make much of an impact), but it proved to me once again that people were people, even if what they’re up to at a given moment might seem a little out of the ordinary based on your own personal experience.

We weren’t assigned to actually interview anyone, but that would come later. The purpose of the exercise was to get us a little more comfortable with otherwise uncomfortable situations.

As a reporter, those would more often than not be hostile police departments, the offices of less-than-friendly politicians or situations where someone had died in an unpleasant fashion, and rather than just making it through a couple of drinks (and politely refused propositions), I was required to actually speak with those people and extract from them important information they were often reluctant to share.

Now, as I ply the waters of indie publishing, I’m finding those “putting myself out there” skills are coming in handy again. As ID has made its way into Barnes & Noble stores nationwide, we at Codorus Press have mounted a concerted effort to make sure that the other stores where it really should be have them on the shelves. Those include, most importantly, the New York City stores (where big-shot reviewers and tastemakers could stumble across it) and the Southern stores, where readers will recognize the places and characters in the novel most clearly.

That’s involved what most people dread – cold calling. Every day, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and I are on the phone and paying visits to the folks who can make the decisions to get us in front of even more readers. We don’t know these people and they don’t know us. In addition, they’re wary that we are trying to sell them on a product that might somehow be inferior or unprofessional. Not only must we be bold about introducing ourselves, but confident enough in the product we’re pushing to make them take notice.

To paraphrase the Kinko’s guy from Jerry McGuire, sometimes you just have to hang ’em out there. And that’s essentially what aggressive marketing is – hanging them out there and hoping they don’t get cut off.

And speaking of mojo, I just couldn’t help including this. Enjoy.

The Love That is Linkage

I was just tipped off by Wayne Lockwood, the wise and mighty shaman of Codorus Press, that our great neighbors at the Philadelphia Book Festival gave us some link love via their blog Me Want Food.

Leigh Ellwood and Kat Lively had the booth next to us on that particular very rainy day. Leigh writes erotic lesbian fiction and Kat writes rock-themed mysteries. Both of them were very cool ladies and seemed to really appreciate some of our clever little bits of marketing (like the faux Church of the New Revelation religious tracts – specially designed to look cheap and cheesy, just like the real thing!). For our part, we really like their style and the whole vibe of their booth (which featured a sign declaring “Ass Kicking Fairies!”).

A funny story – I realized toward the end of our damp day that I had actually shared some time with their boothmates previously when I appeared at The York Emporium in York, Pa. (birthplace of Codorus Press) at this time last year for their Sci-Fi Saturday event. There’s video of my interview with Jim Lewin, owner of The York Emporium, from that appearance, as well as a reading. Check out the interview below and follow the link for more of the event (thanks to Codorus team member Tom Joyce for shooting).

Speaking of events, I’m looking forward to some other events later in the summer and into the fall, both focusing on ID and Codorus Press. As the marketing word gets out, we’re hoping to get more interest in presenting our indie publishing road-show, The Wandering Heretics Independent Publishing Tent Revival and Old Time Medicine Show, at book stores and other locations. We’re also planning for a couple of book-related events, including the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, N.J., and PhilCon, the annual convention of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

We love interacting with fans of ID and anyone interested in indie publishing, so we hope to see you out at these and even more events throughout 2011 and into 2012.

The Never-Ending Explanation

I’ve been fortunate over the last few months to have received some great positive response about ID  from Barnes & Noble, probably the largest remaining major retail book store chain now that Borders has gone completely belly up.

As part of that, I and other folks from Codorus Press have been on the phone with customer relations associates at individual stores that don’t already carry the novel to spread the gospel of why they should. One of the nicest bits of feedback we’ve received is, “Wow, you guys really did your homework.”

In other words, the folks in charge of acquiring books at the stores have dealt with a lot of amateurs – self- or vanity-published authors rolling in the doors with a crate full of their books expecting B&N to be obligated to carry their work, and storming out shocked and offended when the store offers to take two or three – on consignment.

As a small press, we at Codorus vowed from the beginning that at every turn, we would make our operation as professional as possible, especially in dealing with the book stores and the distribution networks through which they order their stock.

It was reassuring to hear such nice words from pros in the book biz, and it wasn’t the first time. Repeatedly, we’ve been told that our method is not just revolutionary, but exceptionally forward-thinking in this rapidly changing market.

But we still come up against the stereotypes of the self-publisher again  and again, so it requires constant explanation on why that’s precisely what we are not. I went so far as to put together this YouTube animation explaining the differences.

Still, some folks just don’t get it. Back in the fall, I appeared at a meeting of the National Writers Union. At the meeting was another writer who later blogged about how the Codorus Press model of cooperative publishing sounded like “self-publishing, but as a group.”

Well, yes and no. If it was self-publishing, it would just be me. There is a capable and highly qualified team that makes up Codorus Press, which by the very defnition of self-publishing takes it out of that category.

The proof in the pudding will be this fall, when my talented colleagues at Codorus Press start rolling out their very own novels, guidebooks and children’s literature.

So, so much for that whole “self” thing, and kudos to us for doing our homework.

Not Our Manifesto, But a Pretty Good One

I never considered myself as having come from radical roots, so when I embarked upon the great adventure that has been (and still is) the publication of Immaculate Deception, I looked on it as a pretty radical thing. Here I was, circumventing a lot of the conventional wisdom of the modern publishing industry with little more than a firm belief in myself and my partners in Codorus Press going for me.

Here’s a piece from someone who does have radical roots and who eloquently writes on how we independent publishers and publishing groups are blazing a new trail for not just ourselves, but the readers who no longer have to depend on what the big publishers want to feed them and can instead seek out and discover things they like all on their own. Check it out here.