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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When human bias creeps in…

surveytableRecently I worked on a change readiness survey for a large employer replacing their payroll and human resource systems. Among the interesting results, one area caught my attention: Employees’ perceptions of their own, their departments’, and their organization’s adaptability to change. The table shows what they said.

It made me wonder: If so many employees consider themselves adaptable to change, how is it possible that their departments and the organization as a whole lag so far behind?

I’ve had some experience with cognitive biases, errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions. A long list of biases includes “illusory superiority,” often referred to as the “above-average effect,” “superiority bias,” and my favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect,” named after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Many studies document the human tendency to rate ourselves higher than others in academic, work, and social settings, on intelligence, job performance, and positive personal characteristics. However, most research lacks an objective standard to determine if, in fact, respondents are rating themselves accurately—that is, if they really are above average. To address that gap, one study used a population considered irrefutably negative:  prisoners convicted of robbery or violent crimes.

Researchers asked the prisoners to assess themselves against the average fellow inmate and the average free man on nine positive traits. The result: The prisoners rated themselves above average on eight of the nine traits—moral, trustworthy, honest, dependable, generous, compassionate, self-controlled, and kind—against both standards. On the ninth trait—law-abiding—they considered themselves only average.

Not surprisingly, the researchers declared these results conclusive evidence that the above-average effect is caused not by rational judgments but by people’s self-enhancement needs. Other studies have shown that the tendency to evaluate oneself more positively than other people is more apparent for important traits than for unimportant ones. So, consider my client, in the throes of major change. What trait could be more important to its employees than individual adaptability?

I can’t prove it, but I’m willing to bet that the above-average effect is at work in the results shown above, and in many surveys that ask employees to report on themselves and their abilities. In the case of a change initiative, taking employee responses at face value could be a huge mistake. It might cause leadership to become complacent; or the change team to back off project communication; or employees who overrate themselves to take training efforts less seriously than they should. It might cause the change effort to fail.

In short, organizations should err on the side of caution, knowing bias creeps in. To do anything else would be to succumb to another type of bias—the tendency to believe what you want to be true.


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Let the agent find you!

As 2015 begins, I’ve been musing about the business of writing, especially the tedious and inefficient process called “getting published.” In the past, I’ve compared finding an agent to searching for a job or a spouse, but if I learned one thing in 2014, it’s that authors face a far greater challenge. While job seekers and singles can take comfort in the knowledge that two interested parties are trying to find each other, the burden of securing an agent falls almost entirely on the author.

So why isn’t there a matching service that helps agents and authors find each other? On dating sites, members describe themselves and who they are seeking—aware that others are seeking them, too. Job boards allow candidates to “Find a job” and employers to “Find talent.” Even better, the latest job search apps (see New Year, New Job) target passive candidates with a tag line, “let the job find you.”

If only it worked that way with agents, but “Find an agent” websites don’t even have a dual path. It is up to the author to search agent information—which, too often, is broad, limited, and, I suspect, outdated almost as soon as it is posted. Because agents change agencies, preferred genres, and “dream books” according to market trends, authors often feel like we’re throwing darts and hoping one hits. It doesn’t help that every rejection letter reminds us, “This business is subjective. What doesn’t ring true with one agent may click with another, so keep trying.”

There is a better option: Make the process two-way by creating a clearinghouse for authors to submit a bio, query letter, synopsis, and sample pages in standard formats to a searchable database. Imagine how much more efficient that would be for all concerned. Authors would prepare one set of materials instead of tailoring them to each agency’s requirements. Agents could read what they want to. Query letter only? No problem. If they hate it, they can stop reading. If they like what they see, they can move on immediately to read sample pages or a synopsis, even the whole manuscript if they so choose. An approach like this might even encourage a dialogue between authors and interested agents!

How hard could it be to build a database, establish search parameters, and write a few algorithms to spit out potential matches between agents and authors? Monster, LinkedIn, and others have done it with resumes and work history. Match.com and eHarmony have done it with personal profiles and dating preferences. There might be a few kinks to work out–privacy, for one–but I think most authors would jump at the chance. Whoever out there wants to take this on, I’ve written an irresistible tag line for your marketing efforts: “Let the agent find you!”

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A lesson in gratitude

I didn’t set out to blog about Thanksgiving. In fact, I swore I wouldn’t. I’m a guest this year, so I’m not brining a turkey in a forty-gallon washtub or surfing the Internet for gluten-free stuffing and sugar-free pie. And the world has enough of the “what I’m thankful for” posts that crop up each year like stalks of ornamental corn. My position on gratitude is that it should be a daily practice, carried out in private. Count your blessings and thank who you wish. Just leave it at that.

Nevertheless, it is true that being grateful can become rushed and rote, like the “God bless Mommy and Daddy” prayers of my childhood. I repeated them each night, my eyelids heavy, not fully aware of what I was saying or why. Gratitude can be like that. Even in the face of poverty, illness, and suffering, it is easy to take our blessings for granted, but the source—whatever you call Him/Her/It— finds unexpected ways to make its presence known.

Mid-afternoon one day last week, I was browsing dinner recipes when I found a hearty soup that called for leeks. I headed for Publix and pulled into the lot—slowly, as I’ve seen too many parking lot fender benders not to be cautious. Usually, I leave the close spaces for the retirees who share this Hilton Head community, but that day I felt a little creaky from a new exercise class. I bypassed a few spaces and eased into one not far from the store’s entrance.

Eased is the critical word here. The landscaped islands that divide the lot into rows have low curbing that scrapes the underside of my front bumper if I’m not careful, so my foot was on the brake. I had nearly stopped when the car roared like a Ninja and leapt the curb. Suddenly airborne across a five-foot island, I saw myself crashing through parked cars and mowing down innocent shoppers. Scant seconds later, the car came to rest—gently—in the vacant handicapped space on the other side of the barrier, as if the car had overruled my choice of parking space and taken an unconventional route to get there.

I don’t know what caused my car to take off like a rocket; it may have been unintended acceleration, a mechanical defect that has caused terrible tragedies. Nor do I know what stopped my flight. What I do know is that, in a busy parking lot, I selected one of the few spaces with no vehicle parked opposite, navigated between a metal signpost and an ornamental tree, and struck nothing but a shopping cart. I am profoundly grateful that what might have been a horrible tragedy was no more than an embarrassing incident that means the next time I shop at Publix, I’ll wear Groucho glasses and a mustache.

Joking aside, I can’t stop wondering why it happened, and maybe that’s why it did. This year, I have a new definition of “what I’m thankful for” that transcends the things we ask for and do—or do not—get.  That’s why I’m sharing a special kind of gratitude: for the blessings I receive that I don’t know I need.

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Creative disruption

Last week I blogged for Steelbridge Solutions, a consulting firm that works in Human Resources technology, helping companies replace legacy systems with Software as a Service (SaaS). SaaS solutions are sworn to improve efficiency and functionality at a lower operating cost, in part, by reducing the number of employees required to manage them. All good, right? Maybe, maybe not— because providers leave the bad news out of their sales pitch: new technology disrupts an organization.

For my purposes here, the causes of disruption aren’t important. The point is that, usually, disruption is thought of as negative. Consider its definitions: to break apart or rupture; to throw into disorder; to interrupt an event, activity, or process; to destroy, usually temporarily, the normal continuance or unity of a process or thing. No wonder most human beings hate disruption. It’s difficult and painful. It takes us out of our comfort zone. We resist, making it harder on ourselves, and even as we adjust, we mourn the old order, convinced that the new solution will never really work.

But Professor Clayton M. Christensen of the Harvard Business School has developed  a concept called disruptive innovation that has a positive spin. When applied to technology, it means “any technology that displaces an established technology and shakes up the industry, or a ground-breaking product that creates a completely new industry.” Think email and “snail” mail, PCs and typewriters, or, more recently, the new Apple Watch and traditional luxury timepieces. In fact, Apple’s design head, Sir Jonathan Ive, has claimed that the iWatch will “disrupt the Swiss watch industry.

All of this made me wonder about applying disruption to writing, and then, what to call it. When I typed creative disruption into my search engine,  I found it already in use, all over the Web, by business, government, and social organizations. In every case, it means seeking disruption because it forces individuals and companies to adapt, learn, and improve.

We authors can be protective. Certain parts of our stories and novels fall just short (and sometimes not so short) of sacred. It could be a character we adore, a scene that sings, the paragraph that has opened all seventeen drafts of a manuscript, or the themes we can’t let go of, even when our books have taken a different direction than we expected.

Especially if a manuscript has languished in Query Land, it’s time to seek disruption. Blow your baby up, break it apart, and put it back together in a brand new way. At different times, I have nuked my first chapter, wiped out favorite scenes, and killed off my hero’s love interest. Once, I transgendered my hero because an agent said that to appeal to women, my book had to have a heroine. (I’m pleased to report that the surgery was reversible.)

Making changes like these is hard, and it hurts, like a bizarre form of grief with no truly dead bodies, but one day you’ll discover the startling truth: your hero’s kid brother was a pain in the neck, that clever subplot was a risky distraction, and your opening pages, once thick with back-story, are so crisp and compelling that agents can’t resist asking for a full.

Seek disruption. Start small if you have to, but challenge yourself to take manageable risks. Future readers will thank you for it.

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What’s in a word?


What’s in a word?

A lot, especially if it’s jargon.

Reading an article from Fast Company called “5 Secrets to Better Employee Engagement,” I got distracted by the author’s use of the word “brand.” The article itself was great, dead on in most ways in terms of actions and approaches that increase engagement. My comment to the author was:

“Please, whatever you do, don’t call it an employment brand in public, to your employees. The word is too buzzy, it sounds phony or pretentious, and it makes a lot of employees suspicious about your motives.”

As a communicator, I’ve been there, done that. I spent 25 years in Human Resources, land of buzzwords, acronyms, and jargon, beginning with what we called ourselves. Just this morning I googled “names for Human Resources” and dropped into discussions that were remarkable in their earnestness: Groups of people debated the pros and cons of Human Capital Management, People and Culture, People Relations Management, Talent Management, and the Center for Organization Effectiveness, to name a few. Google calls its HR function People Operations, a name I like because it’s simple. It makes it clear that people are there to work. It doesn’t get snarled up in the emotional argument that the word “resources” depersonalizes human beings.

Here’s the point: Whatever you call it, the intention is what counts, and after that, the behavior. How does the company treat its employees, associates, assets, resources, talent—whatever it calls the people who do the work? And that’s where things so often fall apart.

The article about employment branding to increase engagement set me off because it reminded me of an “initiative” I worked on. The consultants arrived with glossy presentations filled with jargon and catchy phrases that were quickly picked up by the project team, a group of people engaged in a risky endeavor—risky because their employer was notorious for being alternately oblivious to and demeaning of its staff. The project team felt threatened because their coworkers already were suspicious and tense. The consultant’s elite lexicon, with its pillars and proof points, purchase drivers and messaging matrices, made the project team feel special. It made them feel safe. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the workforce angry, bordering on hostile, first, because it excluded them and second, because it seemed to be missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for employment branding because it takes a thoughtful and deliberate approach to people, in the context of business strategy and culture. I love acronyms for their cleverness and jargon for its precision. But linguistic devices need to stay behind closed doors, restricted to those who already speak the language.

The best communication happens when you forget about yourself, your insecurities, and your needs, and speak to your audience in terms that are clear, candid, and meaningful to them. Paired with consistent, follow-up actions, there is no better way to build a dedicated workforce that returns your sincerity and respect.

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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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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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Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!

here's to you

His name was Jake and he was dating my next-door neighbor’s twenty-year-old daughter. Sprawled on the living room sofa, he spoke through a three-beer haze.

“You remind me of someone,” he said.

“I have at least one double in town,” I replied. “A guy from work threw popcorn at her in a movie theater.”

Jake shook his head. “Not a real person. A movie star.”

“No kidding. Which one?”

“I can’t remember her name, but she’s tall and blonde and she has great eyes. We saw her on a DVD. Hey, Jen,” he called to his girlfriend. “What was that movie about the writer who killed herself?”

Sylvia,” Jen said.

I was flattered. “You think I look like Gwyneth Paltrow?”

“Not her,” Jake said. “The mother.”

He meant Blythe Danner, Gwyneth’s mother for real. I thanked him. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Then I added, “The last time someone said I looked like an actress, it was Jacquelyn Bisset.”

“Who?” Jake said.

Who indeed. That happened in the eighties—before Jake was born.

“Do I really remind you of Blythe Danner?” I asked.

Jake waffled. Maybe it was my piercing glare.  “Actually, you look more like that woman in The Graduate.”

It must have been classics night for Jen and Jake. I knew better, this time, than to guess Katharine Ross.

“Anne Bancroft,” I said. “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Yeah, her.”

Still somebody’s mother, and Anne Bancroft is old. In fact, I think she’s dead.

Later, I told my husband Jake thought I looked like Blythe Danner.

“Who?” he asked.

“Blythe Danner. We saw her in Sylvia. She was the mother.”

“What else has she played in?”

I rolled my eyes. “She was Sallie Wingo in Prince of Tides. And Robert de Niro’s wife in those Focker movies.”

“Can’t place her. And I hate those Focker movies.”

What was I thinking? This man asks, “Who?” when I mention Laura Linney or Julianne Margulies or even Shelley Long.

“Who’s Shelley Long?” he asked.

“You know. From Cheers.”

I got a blank stare.

“Sam’s girlfriend,” I nudged.

“Which one?”

“The first one, Diane. She was Fraser’s fiancé.”

“The blonde or the brunette?”

I gave up. “Anyway, after Blythe Danner, it got worse. He told me I look like Anne Bancroft.”

I prepared to list her movie credits, but my husband cut me off with a yelp.

“Mrs. Robinson? Mrs. Robinson was hot!”

“She must have been, if you remember her from the sixties.”

“I was a teenage boy,” he defended himself. Then he smiled. “How old was Anne Bancroft when she made The Graduate?”

Great save, I thought. And a great question. How old was Anne Bancroft when she seduced a young Dustin Hoffman?

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed my smart phone. The Internet can tell me. The Internet knows all. But first I typed Blythe Danner into IMDb. She was born February 3, 1943.

Yup, she’s old.

I typed in Anne Bancroft.

Real name Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. Married to Mel Brooks for forty years. Appeared in sixty movies, made The Graduate in 1967. Born September 17, 1931. Died June 6, 2005.

Rest in peace, Anne, but bless your heart, you were thirty-six when you made that movie!

“She was thirty-six,” I shouted to my husband.

“See?” he said. Then, “How old is Blythe Danner?”

I fluttered my eyelashes and smiled. “I’m sorry. Who?”



Daily Prompt: Humble Pie

Daily Prompt: Humble Pie.

I was 16, first in my class, routinely getting A’s in every subject–even Chemistry, where everyone else struggled. I blazed through it with near-perfect scores, earning the resentment of my classmates, since the teacher graded on a curve. I didn’t care. My grades were my ticket to college and I was unstoppable.

Then one day my Algebra teacher gave an exam. I turned it in, incomplete. I still don’t know why I did it, and I can’t explain my surprise when Mr. Sherman returned our papers the next day and mine had a big red “F” on it.

My teacher was clever: He had seen at once that I’d blown it, but he let me think all was well. He didn’t even comment when he laid my paper face down on my desk. He just  let me stew, mourning my perfect record and kicking myself.

Two days later, he kept me after class to deliver a fiery lecture that matched the red of his hair. He gave me a chance to complete the test–and a lesson in humility that I never forgot.