Monthly Archives: July 2018
Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her two cats.
Web site: http://elizabethablack.blogspot.com
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/elizabethblack
I just returned from Necon, which is a New England convention for writers held every July in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It’s mostly for horror but science fiction and fantasy are also covered. The thing I like best about cons like Necon is that they are very informal. You don’t have to wait hours in a queue and pay hundreds of dollars to get a celebrity writer to sign a book or photograph for you. Everyone is on equal footing. It’s like an informal party held at a friend’s house, but with books.
Another convention I had gone to that was in a similar vein was the Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat. That one is also for horror, obviously since it was held in the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. It was just as informal and relaxed, but in a spookier and more scenic setting.
This year’s Guest of Honor at Necon was Dana Cameron, who wrote the Emma Fielding mysteries that were made into movies on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Her main character is an archeologist. You may have seen these movies and/or read her books. If you haven’t, look her up on Amazon. She wrote Sight Unseen and Past Malice, for starters. I discovered her after my husband and I saw the two movies on Hallmark. I’d never heard of her and bought one of her books. Turns out she lives in Boston, is friendly with New England writers I already know, and has a Facebook page. Of course I friended her. When I met in her person at Necon we chatted quite a bit and she signed the book for me. She’s also agreed to appear on a podcast with Marsha Casper Cook and I. We’re scheduling that for the near future.
Another guest was Charlaine Harris, who wrote the Sookie Stackhouse books the TV series True Blood is based on. I discovered her books after getting hooked on the show. I liked how she took vampires and made them like ordinary people. They pay taxes. They need car repairs. They unclog the sink. Normal stuff. She was unable to appear on the podcast but she signed one of her Sookie Stackhouse books for me. I loved hearing her talk about world building and her characters when she was on a panel.
It’s always fun to meet your favorite writers in person. Talking to them makes them feel more accessible and it takes the “OMG!” feeling away. After, all they are just as human as we are. They shower. Drink whisky. Eat meals. Tend to their kids, spouses, partner, etc. Networking is good and meeting people, especially writers you admire, at a convention is one way to do it.
When I first emailed and talked to Joe R. Lansdale I was over the moon. He’s one of my favorite writers. He wrote the books the Sundance TV series Hap and Leonard was based on. I’ve read most of those books. He also wrote Bubba Hotep and An Incident On And Off A Mountain Road, both of which were either turned into movies or TV episodes. He was both friendly and funny. He appeared on my podcast twice and he was a pleasure to talk to each time. I kept my giggling and hyperventilating in check.
I’m always happy to meet writers I admire, and I’m especially happy to get them on my podcast. I haven’t done a podcast in quite a while and I’m ready to start up again. There are more conventions coming up this summer and fall and I’ll meet even more writers. These conventions feel like happy, informal parties and I welcome them. I tend to see the same people all the time so it’s like a reunion. I’m looking forward to the next one.
by Jean Roberta
Reading other people’s writing is a good way to see how many different ways there are to approach the same subject. And even if you specialize in erotica, reading outside your genre can show you various ways to get readers engaged with your characters, to reveal character and advance a plot through dialogue, to set up suspense (“foreplay”), to use imagery sparingly or generously, to pace the action in a way that feels natural, and to write a convincing climax (!).
I sometimes read in spurts because I’ve been asked to review someone else’s work, or I’ve offered to write a review for a specific publication. Sometimes I need to read several books quickly in order to choose one as a textbook for one of the university English classes I teach. Reading with the intention of writing a review, a summary, or a critique is a good way to remember details I might miss if I were only reading for pleasure.
Here is a list of my recent summer reading: very different books I’ve read recently for different reasons (in alphabetical order of authors’ last names):
The Marrow-Thieves (YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic Canada) by Cherie Dimaline (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2017)
So Lucky (slim book with autobiographical elements about the progress of an incurable disease, Multiple Schlerosis) by Nicola Griffiths (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
Does It Show? (quirky novel in a magic-realist style, second in a series about a set of working-class characters in northern England) by Paul Magrs (Massachusetts: Lethe Press, forthcoming in August 2018)
Perennial: A Garden Romance (slim book about second chances in love and flowers that return in spring) by Mary Anne Mohanraj (Lethe Press, forthcoming)
Warlight (historical novel set in WW2) by Michael Ondaatje, revered Canadian writer and academic (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018).
Forget the Sleepless Shores (collection of poetically-written stories, most with supernatural elements) by Sonya Taaffe (Lethe Press, forthcoming).
Read by Strangers (stories in an American realist style) by Philip Dean Walker (Lethe Press, forthcoming).
Even the spate of books by one publisher (Lethe, which originally specialized in LGBTQ speculative fiction) shows a wide range of styles and subject-matter.
As a reader/reviewer, I keep a set of questions in mind as I read:
1. What is the author’s aim, as far as I can figure it out?
2. Does the style seem to suit the subject-matter? (And if the style looks inappropriate, is that a sign of satirical intent?)
3. Do the characters come to life, even in a fantasy plot? (And there is a difference between fantasy elements in a narrative set in a very realistic or even gritty real-world setting, and “High Fantasy,” a story set in the Land of Faery, or Planet X, or some other completely invented realm.)
4. Am I tempted to keep turning the page? Are the mysteries and the tension eventually resolved?
Regarding the recent stack of books, I can honestly say that they all deliver what they promise.
None of these books are sagas of High Fantasy, but the stories with fantasy elements (The Marrow-Thieves, Does It Show? and most of the individual pieces in Forget the Sleepless Shores) seem no more far-fetched or implausible, in their way, than the narratives that reveal the strangeness of reality (So Lucky, Perennial, Warlight, and Read by Strangers).
The following are some of my impressions from my recent spate of reading, all of which can be applied to writing erotic fiction.
The same-sex attraction in several of these narratives (The Marrow-Thieves, So Lucky, Does It Show? several stories in Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) is presented in a plausible, matter-of-fact way that invites readers of all sexual orientations to care about the characters. Luckily, the current literary zeitgeist seems to have moved beyond the “coming-out” story as well as the interracial romance as something shockingly transgressive. In The Marrow-Thieves, each member of a makeshift “family” of survivors has a “coming-to” story about how they survived and found others like themselves, but these stories are not about wrestling with forbidden desires.
Characters who disguise their biological gender appear in Does It Show? and “The Creeping Influences” in Forget the Sleepless Shores. Whether such characters are cross-dressers, transfolk, or women just trying to survive in a men’s world (as in several Shakespeare comedies), they can easily come across as offensive stereotypes in current fiction.
In the human comedy of Does It Show? all the characters crave more glamour, excitement and love than they are likely to find in a small English town in the 1980s, but a supernatural realm is almost tangible beyond the illusions of “reality.” A transwoman in this context doesn’t seem more bizarre than anyone else.
In “The Creeping Influences,” a female character doing a man’s job seems downright mundane compared to the discovery of two well-preserved bodies in an Irish bog, both apparently murdered in different centuries.
Several of the authors of these books are widely known to be lesbians or gay men. In other cases, I simply don’t know anything about the authors’ love-lives. In all cases, though, same-sex attraction is simply presented as a fact. The worm in the apple is not internalized homophobia or the wrath of God, but miscommunication, or persecution in some form. This approach could be applied to more explicitly erotic plots.
Imagery (the description of anything which can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted, touched or felt) is sensual by definition, and therefore erotic. Imagery is the heart and soul of both horror fiction and sex-stories. The two collections of single-author stories (Forget the Sleepless Shores and Read by Strangers) include both spine-tingling creepiness and realistic sex scenes.
Perennial, the one book defined as a “romance,” has no explicit sex, but this could have been added without detracting from the sweetness of a story about two lonely strangers getting to know each other, and supporting each other through hard times.
In Warlight, the eventual revelation of hidden truths on a personal and collective level is both jaw-dropping and characteristic of a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story. (The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy when we first meet him.) There are no explicit sex scenes in the novel, but erotic attraction is shown to be a major motivator of human behaviour which might otherwise be hard to explain.
In short, reading and writing go together like – well, you can think of an appropriately raunchy set of pleasures. It’s probably no coincidence that when I haven’t been reading, I’ve written several stories this summer, and I have plans for several more.
Kindle Create – https://www.amazon.com/gp/browse.html?node=16536087011 – Format your latest masterpiece by simply uploading the document file and allowing Kindle Create to do the rest.
Canva Cover Designer – https://www.canva.com/ A free online layout program that can be used for cover design for the graphically challenged.
Book Report – https://www.getbookreport.com/ – Your one-stop source for reporting Amazon sales.
Kindle Create is a new tool that Amazon is rolling out to help with the formatting of your Kindle stories. This targeted tool takes your Word document file and builds a version ready to be uploaded to Amazon Kindle. The program is currently in Beta but relatively complete.
Create searches your doc file and automatically formats the chapter heads and applies styles to your manuscript. A Table of Contents is generated for you, which is one of the most labor-intensive parts of publishing a story IMHO. At this time it doesn’t appear that TOC generation is working but I’m assuming will be available shortly.
You pretty much just import the doc file and Create does the rest. It will find chapter headings and format them appropriately. You get a list of suggested chapter heads and if it’s not a heading, just uncheck the box to remove the heading.
There are a number of styles to select from to vary the look of your finished story and when done, just upload the Create output file to publish it. I’m planning on publishing my latest story, House Party, with Kindle Create so I can see how it goes.
So far there are some loose ends such as how to create a Table of Contents, but the beta version of the program looks promising. It’s nice that you can see what your story will look like on different devices such as a tablet, phone, or Kindle e-reader.
I’m still debating on whether I will use Kindle Create as it will mean that I will have yet another version of a story to keep track of. You cannot publish the same exact story for Amazon or SmashWords, for example. Embedding a link to SmashWords will get your story instantly rejected by Amazon and vice versa. I’ve created a methodology to package stories for specific publishers that is still a work in progress but an order of magnitude better than when I originally started.
Canva Cover Designer
Canva, an online layout designer allows the user to select from a number of templates and then edit the individual elements, such as text and images to your requirements. There are a number of book templates available to start from.
This will help those without a graphics design package or problems using crayons to create a cover. Just find the template, which is laid out in the style that you like. Then replace the original text (words) with your text and the image with your image.
When you are done, simply export the image, and you have a JPG file ready to publish.
Disclaimer: I do not use Canva as my goto layout program is CorelDraw, which I’ve used for years but from my testing, I’d recommend Canva for those who don’t want to lay out the money for other products.
BookReport – An add-in for Chrome that summaries your Amazon sales in one easy to read sales report, automatically updated to the latest figures. The basic version is free if your sales are under $1,000 per month.
Book Report shows your sales between dates, such as last 30 days, top earners, and earnings per day.
Book Report will display your sales over time as well as the ranks in the Kindle Store. Your reviews are shown with the number of stars, etc.
You can drill down and examine your sales from a number of perspectives, and the thing I really like about it is how everything is in one tabbed report that is continually updated every time you refresh your browser.
Am Writing – Currently, my story de jour is House Party about surprisingly a house party. House party is an acronym of a swinger’s party with a number of twists and turns from my normal fare. I’m still not sure how it’s going to turn out but will hopefully be HEA in the end!
Thanks for reading and if it’s the 24th, it’s another bit of smut from Larry Archer. Visit me at LarryArcher.blog for more pervy stuff. Sorry, I can’t offer any cooking or house cleaning tips but if it involves abusing yourself, drop me a line: Larry [at] LarryArcher [dot] com.
Hook your reader. Keep her riveted to your story, so engrossed that she forgets to eat or drink—while tempting her to indulge in other cravings. Leave her feeling totally satisfied, or better yet with a powerful desire to go read something else you’ve written.
This is the dream of every erotic author, indeed every writer whatever the genre. Alas, grabbing and holding the reader’s attention is far from easy, especially in a longer work. What’s the secret to writing this sort of what-happens-next, can’t-put-it-down tale?
Of course, there’s no one foolproof method for keeping readers engaged. Plot, characters and style all contribute. In erotic fiction, there’s also the question of how well the sexual situations and activities match the reader’s personal interests or kinks. One technique that I use, though, is deliberate escalation.
Escalation means holding back at first, starting gradually, then building up the tension (both narrative and sexual) as the book continues. The idea is related to the concept of rising action in the so-called narrative arc. The early part of the story—the exposition—introduces the characters and the conflicts that will drive the plot. Then events occur that make things progressively more difficult, complex or challenging for the protagonists. Effectively written, the rising action portion of the arc will cause readers to becoming emotionally invested in the characters, so that when the climax and resolution occur, the reader experiences a pleasurable catharsis along with them.
Okay, this all sounds convincingly literary, but how does it apply to erotica, which usually offers many climaxes? Most readers who open an erotic book don’t want to wait until the end for satisfaction. You’ve got to create some arousal early in the tale, or they’ll just move on to something more explicit. One of the traditional recommendations for writing erotica suggests you need a sex scene in every chapter. While I don’t believe in slavishly following this sort of rule, it accurately reflects the typical reader’s impatience, especially with a “stroke” story. (Literary erotica can perhaps afford to delay the physical gratification of its characters, but even so, must provide some measure of erotic tension to justify the genre label.)
Hence, stroke fiction often starts out with a “bang”—sex in the very first chapter, maybe even on the first page. This creates potential problems, though. What do you do for an encore? Even the most dedicated consumer of erotica can get bored with a tale that’s just one sex scene after another. Without some sort of rising action, some progressive increase in emotional intensity, it will be difficult to keep the reader hooked.
Most of my erotic novels offer sexual situations within the first chapter. However, I carefully design these initial scenes to be less complete, less intense or less transgressive than scenes I plan for later. For instance, I might begin with the protagonist observing someone else having sex and feeling vicariously aroused. Or I might start with a sexual interaction that’s exciting but does not lead to full-out intercourse. As the book continues, I gradually raise the sexual stakes—adding multiple partners, taboo elements, or scenes that fulfill a character’s more extreme fantasies. I also play with the characters’ emotions. Early in the book, sex is more likely to be casual. Later, it becomes more serious, with more psychological impact on the characters.
For example, my most recent release, More Brides in Vegas, has the following structure of sexual elements in each chapter:
Chapter 1 – Public nudity, fetish clothing and BDSM references, FF cunnilingus
Chapter 2 – Skinny dipping, fingering to orgasm
Chapter 3 – Private penetrative sex between bride and groom
Chapter 4 – Public FF cunnilingus, FF strap-on penetration
Chapter 5 – Best man gets blow job from mother of the groom; public fingering to orgasm
Chapter 6 – Mother of the groom gets it on with brother of the bride
Chapter 7 – Private spanking role play between married couple (Laura and Steve, friends of bride and groom)
Chapter 8 – Public fingering to orgasm, spanking threats
Chapter 9 – Erotic musical chairs
Chapter 10 – Public Dom/sub lesbian penetration of the bride
Chapter 11 – Lesbian orgy
Chapter 12 – Spanking threesome with Laura and Steve plus the brother of the bride
Chapter 13 – Private masturbation, tit-fucking, multiple penetration scene between best man and mother of the groom
Chapter 14 – Voyeurism; Laura has multi-partner DP sex with husband and friends
Chapter 15 – Sex between the bride and the best man
Chapter 16 – Public lesbian BDSM strap-on sex
Chapter 17 – Gang bang where Laura takes on an entire rugby team
Chapter 18 – Female voyeur watching MM anal sex, also watching bride with the voyeur’s husband
Chapter 19 – Four-way partner swapping sex (bride and groom, best man and his wife); DP and lesbian interactions
Chapter 20 – Conclusion – the wedding – public orgasm – references to future adventures.
This book has many characters. The escalation is most pronounced for Laura, who starts out with a not-very-visible orgasm in the swimming pool and ends up taking on the Glasgow Gladiators rugby team. Between these two extremes, she fantasizes with her husband about being spanked and fucked by the bride’s brother, then makes this fantasy a reality, then further explores her inner slut with a few more friends.
Other characters have their own arcs of escalation. In addition to being more extreme or intense, the sex scenes later in the book mean more to the characters than the earlier ones. For instance, the partner swap in Chapter 19 fulfills long-held but never admitted desires for all four participants.
This book definitely falls into the stroke category (as if you couldn’t guess). However, I tend to use the same strategy when I write erotic romance or literary erotica. For instance, my first novel Raw Silk, which is really a romance, begins with a dreamily remembered sexual encounter and ends with a wild sexual contest in which each of Kate’s three lovers tries to convince her to choose him over the other two.
In short, if you’re looking for a technique to keep your readers interested, consider escalation. Don’t pull out all the stops in the beginning. Start slow, build the action, and make every scene more intense than the last.
Your readers will thank you.
A friend recently told me about her experiences at a workshop where the participants were encouraged to discuss a sexual fantasy that felt important to them, something along the lines of what Jack Morin called a “Core Erotic Theme” in his fascinating book, The Erotic Mind. We can identify our own personal CET fairly simply as the sexual fantasy that’s guaranteed to turn us on and pull us into an erotic reverie, even if we’re not really in the mood at first.
The stories my friend shared reminded me of something I realized a while back—that all the characters in my sexual fantasies are part of me. The more dominant characters–generally, but not always male–express my own active sexual desire. The Others in my fantasies know exactly what I want because we are one in the same. The socially subordinate characters, always someone more or less like me, overwhelm their “superiors” with their profound erotic pleasure. However powerful and heartless the dominants are out there in the “real world,” they devote themselves to my pleasure in our sheltered realm of desire. In the end, all of us have a good time, unlike in the real world, where that doesn’t happen often enough.
For me, and possibly the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey, sexual fantasy addresses the power inequities I’ve experienced in our society and temporarily heals them. I came to this understanding in the early 1990s when I read Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. The novel was one of the first to explore incest and child abuse with courage and insight. I remember hearing a discussion on Fresh Air about the way the main character, Bone, processed her step-father’s abuse. The real-world abuse happened in secret, an erasure of Bone’s free will and her welfare, but in her fantasies, a huge crowd observed and applauded her. Thus the world witnessed the genuine pleasure that she controlled.
Some of us suffer more extreme abuse that others, but I’d argue that nearly everyone experiences some level of sexual shame and rejection. Kudos to those who’ve escaped society’s messages that repress and demean our natural erotic urges—and do share your secrets of resilience and resistance! I’m certainly stronger now, but most definitely was shamed for my imperfect body and my unfeminine sexual interest in the past.
As I was pondering the topic of this column, I came upon an interesting quote in Robert G. Lee’s Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture:
“Sexuality does the political work of defining and regulating desire as well as the body, determining whose bodies and what body parts are eroticized; what activities are sexual and with whom; under what conditions those activities are acceptable; what privileges, rewards, and punishments accompany sexual behavior; and how the erotic may be distinguished from the non-erotic. Articulated by systems of race and class, with the logics [sic] of national identity, and with the organization of gender, sexuality is organized to produce and reproduce the social relations of production.” (p. 85-86)
Lee discusses the portrayal of the sexuality of Asian Americans in a nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century world that was hostile to their very humanity. Inter-racial sex was particularly compelling to Americans a century ago because it did threaten rigid racial, gendered and class boundaries. In any case, I would argue that sexual fantasy deconstructs the regulations and categories that any culture attempts to impose to control the chaos of desire. Pretty much all of my sexual turn-on’s involve mildly transgressive sexual behavior of some sort, be it the location or the partner or just the fact that sexual pleasure itself is taboo. “The forbidden is exciting” is common wisdom, but why is that so?
I don’t intend that to be a rhetorical question. Our Core Erotic Themes are a source of endless fascination to which we return again and again. What are they trying to tell us? What needs are they trying to fill? For me, a basic issue is the revelation of my sexual self and permission to enjoy it. Nineteenth-century social mores held that men had sexual desire and women had none—much has changed but this legacy is still strong enough in many of us. Yet in my fantasies I can claim both at once as my “male” side encourages the “female” to let loose. Perhaps, in their own fantasies, some men can claim the part of themselves that wants to be desired and courted and coaxed to satisfaction without all the burdens masculinity imposes.
The variations are endless, but what I’d like to leave you with is this idea: erotic stories and fantasies are not just about lowly carnal pleasure and thus easily discarded when they’ve fulfilled their immediate purpose. These stories and daydreams have much to tell us about our society, our desires, our resentments, and our deepest selves—if we listen.
Next month, we’ll talk about dreams at night and what they have to tell us!
Most folks who study these sorts of things pretty much agree that the dinosaurs went extinct right after a giant meteor impact, but has anyone else noticed how impact has nearly caused the extinction of what was a perfectly serviceable if homely word?
I’m old enough to remember when impact was, for the most part, a noun, and the only things that impacted were asteroids and wisdom teeth.
It hasn’t been so long since I first noticed the word impact used in place of affect. Since I’ve made my living mostly as a newspaper copy editor (now retired, thank God), at the time I thought it was a clever way to hyper-emphasize how something, perhaps a piece of legislation, would affect the average person. In fact, I had always tried to get reporters to liven up their writing and wean them off tired fall-back hyperbolic adjectives such as the overused and usually misused massive. On that score I failed, and it continues to be a sign of lazy writing: massive fire, massive search, massive earthquake. No, kids, none of those things is massive.
Then there was the time I futilely tried to explain to a reporter why a hole could not be massive. But, I digress.
Anyway, impact took hold and spread like the flu until now it is rare to hear anyone use the word affect. Watch any weather broadcast and you’ll be told how a storm will impact your weekend. Segue to the news and you’ll be told how Trump’s trade war will impact the stock market. The word has even spawned impactful. As if we needed a new adjective.
I understand that language must evolve and new words are added every day, but I’ve always been suspicious of words that started out as nouns and somehow morphed into verbs. Don’t get me started on tasking and journaling. It smacks of cutting corners and laziness. I suppose it’s another product of social media communication, where everything is truncated or abbreviated.
Call me an old crab, if you like, but I think it affects communication, and not in a good way.
Ian Smith, ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor
Having a twice-daily commute of around fifty minutes, I’m in the habit of listening to audiobooks. I think I listen to more books than I read.
Given my other options of (a) road noise, (b) talking to myself, (c) overly-enthusiastic breakfast show presenters, or (d) politicians trying not to answer questions, audiobooks are a pleasant default choice.
Assuming the narrator works for me, of course, but that’s a different matter.
I recently listened to Audible’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, very nicely narrated by Stephen Fry, which runs for almost 72 hours. Four novels and five collections of short stories, with personal introductions by Mr Fry, a life-long Holmes enthusiast.
I’d never read any Sherlock Holmes, so I was curious to see what they were like.
All but one were written in the first person from Watson’s point of view, supposedly describing their escapades years after the events, reconstructed from memories, notes and records kept at the time. The other was written in the first person from Holme’s point of view.
Among the things which struck me was the way the stories reflect some of the changes in society over the time-span covered by the books, such as telegrams being replaced by telephones.
But most writers will know what I mean when I say that what struck me very clearly was that these stories can be described as “tell, don’t show”.
The earlier ones in particular seemed to follow this pattern:
1) someone turns up and presents them with a puzzle;
2) Holmes rushes off to solve it, leaving Watson to amuse himself;
3) Holmes returns to Baker Street and explains it all to Watson.
Although this approach results in snappy short stories, I didn’t exactly find them engaging.
Inevitably, there’s no shortage of books written (at least in part) to make money for authors telling other authors how to “show, don’t tell”. Attributed to Chekov, the idea was popularised by Percy Lubbock in his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction, which drew both criticism and praise from established writers.
I think the wikipedia entry for “Show, don’t tell” explains it rather well:
“Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author’s analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.”
Of course, Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories around a century ago, when writing styles were rather different. Although it’s a long while since I read HG Wells, I recall War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were rather heavy on the narrative story-telling and light on insights into the characters’ experiences.
I think Emma Darwin, in her thisitchofwriting blog, has captured the idea nicely:
SHOWING is for making the reader FEEL they’re in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. … we persuade the reader to read the story we’re telling AS IF it really happened, even though we all know it didn’t. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat.
TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator … It’s supplying information: the storyteller saying “Once upon a time”, or “A volunteer army was gathered together”, … it’s a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.
Here’s a single example:
The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the garden and even the beach.
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.
Now, which one works better for you as a reader? The factual one, or the more colourful and descriptive one?
No points for guessing which one F Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby.
I believe Hemingway was notable for his “show don’t tell” style, but I must admit I’ve not read any of his work. One of my mild rebellious tendencies is to avoid anything people tell me I “must” do.
The style relies on the reader being able to imagine the character’s experience. If the writer can get it right, they don’t need to include all the nitty-gritty details, as the reader will readily fill in the gaps using their own imagination.
I’ve only posted one review on Amazon for a book I didn’t actually finish. It’s also the worst review I’ve posted, and the headline was:
“The title is the best thing about this story. Interesting enough story idea, poorly written.”
No, I won’t share the title here… but feel free to ask privately.
The book is nominally 327 pages, but I only managed two chapters. There was one line of dialogue in those two chapters, short and wooden. The bits I read were all tell and no show. Straight “tell”, with no effort to even describe what the characters were thinking. As far as I could tell, the blurb summarised the entire storyline, so I had a good idea of what I missed out on.
Obviously, we can mix “show and tell” in our writing in a way to help us tell our story. Sometimes an infodump or a section of narrative keeps things ticking along, keeping your reader’s attention until the next scene, incident or event. But you can always use a character to help “show” your fictional world in science fiction, fantasy, or even historical stories, by persuading the reader to see this world through the character’s senses.
In the end, it’s something you can use in your writing as much or as little as you want.
It’s your story, after all.
Even today, this approach has its critics. In 2017, Cecilia Tan argued in Uncanny Magazine that the common writing advice to “show, don’t tell” is both a cliché and an inherently colonialist idea.
Or, if you enjoy an entertaining conspiracy theory, you might like to think about the suggestion that “show, don’t tell” was propaganda funded by the CIA during the Cold War.
Like all these writing rules, “show don’t tell” has its place.
You want to tell your story as well as possible, after all.
by Ashley Lister
Last month I mentioned that characters can be built through four elements: appearance, speech, action and thought. As we looked at appearance last month, I figured this month would be a suitable time to consider speech.
The basic rules to writing speech in fiction can be summed up in one word: clarity. So long as your reader understands what your character is saying, you’re doing it right. And one of the most frustrating ways of messing with clarity comes when readers give their characters regional accents.
The following examples comes from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
The first and third line of dialogue belong to the broad Yorkshire character Joseph. Those who are familiar with Wuthering Heights will probably be familiar with the intrusion of Joseph’s dialogue in this otherwise entertaining tale.
Perhaps I’m biased here. I grew up in Yorkshire and Brontë’s representation of Joseph’s accent strikes me as being a long way from what I encountered from friends and family. But, more importantly, I find this to be a distracting piece of text. Instead of concentrating on Joseph’s message, I’m trying to work out how to pronounce ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld.’ This is a novel and I’m supposed to be engaged with the story and the characters. I shouldn’t be trying to work out how to say words.
Elmore Leonard in his 10 Rules of Writing says, “Use regional dialect and patois sparingly” and it’s a rule I would fully support. Dialogue is intrusive and, regardless of how much fun the author things the reader will have in decoding a phonetic transcript, the truth is most of don’t want that added nuisance.
If it’s important to your character to have some regional flavour in their speech, allow them to use the vocabulary of an area rather than the dialect. For example, in the extract above, Brontë could have written, “The maister’s down in the fold.” We’ve got that single word ‘maister’ which suggests a Yorkshire accent, but is sufficiently close to ‘master’ so we’re not puzzled by the content. And we know that Joseph isn’t going to simply utter one word in this dialect and then articulate the remainder of his speech in BBC English. To my mind, this is a more effective way of conveying regional difference without interrupting the reader’s suspension of disbelief and their immersion in the narrative.
This is not to say that no one should ever write characters with a regional accent. I’ve just come back from a writing conference where a very clever lecturer explained that no writing rule is an absolute and there will always be scope for subverting rules under some circumstances.
I agree with what he said and I believe, if you’re writing a piece and it’s essential that your character says, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him,’ then you should follow your authorial instinct and produce the story in that distinctive fashion. However, if your beta-readers and your editor say that some parts were a little confusing, or dragged them out of the story, I don’t think it will take long to work out where the problem is.
I’ll talk more about creating characters through speech next month but for now, as always, if you want to share any of your dialogue in the comments box below, I’m always happy to read and respond.