A path lit by words


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An “American” twist on “Show, don’t tell”

Every writer has heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It usually means conveying a feature of your character or setting by “evocative description” rather than “simple exposition.” Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer uses these terms in an old but still relevant article, and offers several good examples. I thought I got it—until I watched an episode of The Americans last week.

If you don’t follow the show, the central characters are a pair of married KBG spies—Phillip and Elizabeth—living in a Washington, D.C suburb during the Cold War. They routinely commit acts of treachery and violence that I’ve considered gratuitous, designed to keep the show moving and to ensure that viewers don’t forget that these sympathetic characters are, after all, enemy agents. It’s a lot like Tony Soprano, whose entourage—kids in trouble, a mother with Alzheimer’s and terminal bitterness, a long-suffering wife, and a psychiatrist to help him cope with his anxiety—almost make us forget he’s a mob boss until one of his crew of psychopathic intimidators and assassins blows a man’s brains out or crushes a defiant shop owner against his car.

Last week’s episode of The Americans, called “Baggage,” included a scene that grabbed me by the throat and showed me how much may be lurking behind violence. An American diplomat’s wife, recruited by Phillip, is strangled while seducing a Pakistani intelligence agent. Phillip hears it all from the hotel room next door and rushes in to do damage control. The naked dead woman is laid out on the floor when Elizabeth rolls an enormous suitcase into the room. You’ve seen it before, you think. The scene will end there, because you know what’s coming. Body. Suitcase. The suggestion is enough.

But it isn’t—not for this show. While the horror-struck killer looks on, Phillip and Elizabeth force the woman’s body into the suitcase. They don’t pretend she is made of rubber; while we watch—and listen—they systematically break her arms and legs at every joint, accompanied by crunching and popping sounds. The characters do not speak; they grunt, wince, and grimace with the effort. They are grim, but not squeamish, as thorough and efficient as if they are packing a moving box with kitchen items or fitting the family luggage in an overfull car trunk. At one point, Elizabeth yields her place to the killer—and snaps a photo of him with the dead woman’s leg in both hands. The look on her face is chilling. It says, better than words, “What? I’m just doing my job.”

The sequence was both unbearable and riveting. I tried to look away, but I kept looking back because there was so much to see. Characters were developing right before my eyes, transforming in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The glances exchanged by Phillip and Elizabeth made it clear they would never again think of themselves—or each other—in the same way. The writing was brilliant and ruthless, a stunning example of “show, don’t tell.” Yes, it was TV, which by definition, shows, but there is much to be learned from it, even though we put words on the page, not images on screen.

The first thing I plan to do is watch that episode again, as many times as necessary to understand every nuance, so I can write it as if it was happening in a story or a book. And then I will scour my novel to discover where I’ve disadvantaged my characters and my story by masking a change—by being coy or squeamish, showing too little rather than too much.


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The devil is in the details

fishing boat at sunset

You’d think a guy like Robert Redford—actor, director, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, a guy who gave us Butch Cassidy, The Way We Were, and The Sting, not to mention Ordinary People—would know how to make a great movie. It turns out he made a rookie mistake in his last film, All Is Lost. The sailors who read Soundings magazine got all riled up, and one wrote an article titled, All That’s Wrong with All Is Lost.

It seems that Redford neglected to hire a technical consultant who could have educated him about bilge pumps, EPIRBs, and oh, yeah—the proper use of a life jacket. Let’s say the result was not something you’d display on your book jacket or movie review:

I spent the entire movie picking apart the implausible details, and I’m sure I missed many. “All is Lost” will have one positive value: It will provide endless fodder for discussion and laughter at dockside bars.

Ouch. But I married a sailor, and I know that community. They are fanatical about chart plotters, life rafts, gel coat, bottom paint, davits, and even electric heads (aka toilets). They attend boat shows in Miami and Annapolis, subscribe to Passage Maker and Sail, and debate—online or over a beer in the flybridge—life and death decisions like diesel versus gasoline, Cetol or varnish on their teak, and which brand of polish is best for their hulls. They care about all things boating, especially safety, and Redford and company insulted them: They failed to do their research.

That is sad, and so unnecessary. There really is no excuse—except laziness, arrogance, or cluelessness—for writers not to learn everything they can about the details that matter to their audience. These days, in particular, you can become an armchair expert by trolling the Internet. Even better, you can find  a real expert. They’re everywhere, and they’re surprisingly generous with their time and knowledge.

Here’s an example: When I was writing a mystery set on the South Carolina coast, the inciting incident was a murder. A hospital CFO went fishing to unwind after a disastrous public meeting. My villain was waiting to kill him and dispose of the body. Clueless how to write that scene, I reached out to a fishing guide service in Georgetown, South Carolina—Delta Guide Service, Gene Dickson, if memory serves—and asked for help.

Thanks to Gene, my CFO was fly-fishing on a creek, for speckled trout (it was June), in a seventeen-foot Boston Whaler, at dusk, when my villain, a diver, sneaked up on him. He hovered under the Whaler’s overhang (one finger in the bow eye), and yanked his victim overboard when he reached down to net his catch. The killer drowned him by holding him upside down in shallow water and drove his boat to a marker buoy. He sank the body with his weight belt and an anchor and followed it down to the bottom, stabbing it multiple times to release the gases that would have made it float. He tied the body to the buoy, where the “crabs and other creatures that lived in the weeds and debris that clung to the anchor and chain would make a fast meal of the corpse.”

Neat, eh? Plenty of details for a 1,600 word prologue.

Never forget, the devil is in the details. It makes sense to take time to learn them.


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To blog is human

blogging

I’ve been writing a novel for a while now, which means that people keep asking, “Got that book published yet?” As if it’s easy. As if I could be published if I wasn’t so lazy, dumb, and distracted. With that kind of pressure, it’s hard to think about anything but what you can do to make your book better. To draw the attention of an agent. To get a contract and be published.

A few months ago, after a request for a full manuscript ended in disappointment, I put my book aside. I didn’t write anything, and with time on my hands, I started reading about the business of writing. Want to get published? You need a website, a Facebook presence, and a blog. Writers really need to blog.

Oh, man. Really? Bloggers are narcissists. They are relentless self-promoters. The world already has too many bloggers. And so on.

I’ll spare you the details of my conversion journey, but I rolled up my sleeves and built a website on WordPress. I’ve been blogging since November 2013 and I highly recommend it. Here’s why:

  • A blog demands a commitment. Unlike the essays, short stories, and books that languish in forgotten Word files, “in progress” doesn’t work for blog posts. They must be completed and posted, on a schedule—once a week, or ten days, or two weeks. Finishing a piece of writing feels good.  I’ve written on deadline—usually someone else’s—so setting my own deadlines and sticking to them was a discipline I needed to learn.
  • A blog teaches you to be concise. Like any writing, a blog is a story—in 500 words or less. Beginning, middle, end. Tell the story. Notice what you had to cut to reach the right length, and apply the same principles to your other writing. Try it on short-short stories.
  • A blog gives you objective feedback. When you’re writing a book, your only readers are people you know, people you ask—too often,  because they’re friendly and safe. With a blog, your fans (and your critics) self-select. They tell you what they think. Whether you like it or not.
  • A  blog makes you human. It shows who you are as a person. Imagine an agent reading your dozen or so posts and saying, “Hmm. How interesting. I’d like to get to know her.” The same is true for any business person. Blogging puts you out there and makes you approachable.
  • A blog connects you. Writing is lonely, even if you love it. Writers need isolation, but we also need companionship to feed our minds and our hearts. Following others’ blogs helps you make a different sort of friend, one who shares your interests—and often your concerns.

Blogging will make you a better writer. It will expand your confidence, and if you let it, your self-knowledge. Sometimes what you learn will make you cringe; other times it will make you smile. All of it will help you move through life—as a writer and as a person.

So yes, I admit it: I love blogging.

But I still hate Twitter!


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Start at the beginning

the beginning

So it turns out that the editors at The Quotable nominated my story, “Dementia,” for the Pushcart Prize. I’d already “lost” by the time I found out, but I’m thrilled with the nomination and grateful for the reminder that, in addition to my carefully laid plans, there is action going on behind the scenes that I don’t control. Knowing that there are forces at work on my behalf, keeps me working on my behalf.

Lately I’ve turned to books about writing to help me improve my novel. I’ve focused on the beginning, based on the unassailable truth that you’re toast if you don’t get that right. Agents don’t keep reading your book until they get to the good part. They move on to the next one.

Of course, I’ve read tons of books since I started writing. In fact, I read so many that a frustrated friend begged me to stop reading and just write, for God’s sake. Back then, I was imagining the day my first novel would emerge, whole and perfect, just because I’d read Ron Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Fascinating, illuminating, and invaluable; I go back to them–and the other twenty-five books on my writer’s shelf–from time to time.

But it’s a whole different ball game when you’ve completed a manuscript you think is pretty good, and you’re trying to figure out why agents don’t agree. Two books I’d recommend, thanks to my writer friend Martha, are Jeff Gerke’s The First 50 Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Next up is Bickham’s Scene & Structure. I’m reading my opening scene, checking for the ten core components. I’m pruning backstory best saved for later. I’m raising the stakes and I’m strengthening my villain.

Now I know that when my old friend, Bill, said, “Stop reading and write,” it was only one stage in the process. I did what he asked; I wrote. Now I’m reading again, to make my book better. I’m  “going to school” on my scenes, my structure, my words, and my characters, and it’s helped me learn in a deeper way than the excellent examples included in the books above. Not to mention the fact that when I get the next request for pages, I’ll be that much farther ahead!


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Guest blog at The Quotable

I’m excited to be posting a link to my guest blog at The Quotable literary journal. My story, Dementia, will be published in The Quotable’s Issue 11, with the theme Memory. In the meantime, they asked me to submit a blog, as they do all of their upcoming authors. I wanted to do it–desperately!–but I had no idea what to write about, until I picked up the Sunday newspaper. It was a very cool reminder where inspiration comes from.

While you’re on The Quotable website, look around. It is a well-regarded journal published on-line and in print, featuring short stories, essays, poetry and artwork based on a specific theme and quote. Submissions for Issue 13, Luck, open December 1.

“The only sure thing about luck is that it will change.”
– Wilson Mizner

Follow this link to my guest blog : http://thequotablelit.com/blog/characters-and-convertibles-2


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The birth of a blog

path for blog

When “a path lit by words” popped into my mind, it sounded ungrammatical, but exactly right to describe this journey I’m on. Words, always words—learning to speak them, then read them, and finally, write them creatively—have fascinated me, inspired me, and given me purpose. They’ve been a constant, even when I’ve denied that this writer’s path is the right one for me.

My first fanciful image of “a path lit by words” featured lanterns, glowing warm and mellow on wrought iron posts, and soft amber path lights set among cobblestones. Lately, another image has claimed right of way–times when a colleague, family member, or trusted friend blurted words so true that they blinked like neon inside my head. Today’s word is one of those. It starred in a thoughtful rejection I received yesterday from a literary agent who had requested my full manuscript. She was “intrigued by the premise” but there were “way too many coincidences.” It was, in short, implausible.

I zombied through twenty-four hours, and this morning I forwarded the agent’s email to my writer friends. “See!” I said. “This is what candid feedback looks like.”

Somewhere between Martha’s never-say-die advice (So what? Try the small presses) and Stephanie’s encouragement (That agent said you’re a talented writer!), a light bulb went off: I held back on this book. I didn’t commit.

Shifting Sands grew from a spontaneous vision during my morning meditation. I awoke in a painting when the artist’s brush touched my shoulder. “That tickles,” I told him and we started to talk.  Implausible? Of course–as are the conversations between my protagonist, Jamie, and the young girl who appears on his canvas just when he needs her. When he’s most desperate, grieving the loss of his mentor and guardian, resentful of a decades-old slight, awash in doubt that his talent is real, and unable to paint, weeks away from a last chance show.

Do I believe that mystical forces would choose that moment to cause Jamie to paint a girl on a beach who unlocks his memory? Would they lead him to clues that help him resolve the secret that’s destroying his life? Absolutely. But I shied away from saying so because it might seem implausible. I soft-pedaled the woo-woo stuff. And now–Eureka!–I know what to do.

A single word can light our way–as a spark of imagination, a flash of brilliance, or, in this case, a ray of hope.