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My first podcast appearance

Today marks my first time on a podcast. It's with the crazy bunch of guys from the Self Publishing Podcast, and we're basically gushing about Scrivener the whole time. It was fun!

I'd love to hear what you thought, or what you love about Scrivener that I didn't get to mention.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons.

Show and tell

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. ― Ernest Hemingway

Writers are frequently admonished to show not tell, but what does that mean exactly? I’m no master yet, but Mary Buckham’s recent Body Language and Emotion class has helped a lot.

(Seriously, if you get the chance to take anything she teaches, spend the money.)

Think of the movies. The best actors are those who can convey their thoughts and emotions without saying a word. In a well-written book, the characters do the same thing.

In my own work, I have whole scenes where the characters talk and move around the imaginary space, but the scenes feel like they move too fast. They're flat and lacking emotion.

I don’t want over-the-top drama, and there are times when it makes sense to just “tell” and move on, but part of the reader’s experience is the vicarious emotion of the characters. If we don’t give them that, they won’t come back for more. To get them involved, we not only need to tell them what the characters are doing, but more importantly, show how the characters are doing it.

Here’s an example of telling:

Jenny gave him a nervous glance. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin didn’t believe her. He could always tell when she lied.

The passage above gets the point across, but I’m telling you what kind of look she gave him, telling you that he didn’t believe her, and telling you why. Wouldn’t it be stronger and more interesting if I showed you what each character was feeling and let you name the emotions yourself?

Here’s my effort to rewrite with nonverbal cues to show you what’s going on:

Jenny met his gaze briefly, then dropped her focus to the woolen rug near her feet. She tucked an arm across her stomach and smoothed her skirt repeatedly with her palm. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin snorted and shook his head. She gave her away her lie with every move.

That could probably use an editor’s red pen, but still, I think the second passage is richer. It involves the reader more. I didn’t name a single emotion, but I’ll bet you figured them out anyway.

Next time your hero crosses a room, show the reader how he does it. Instead of merely walking he could stomp, stalk, or skip even. Don’t let the heroine hold a letter in her hand just to break up a paragraph of dialogue. Have her fold it into careful pleats, squeeze it in her fist, shred it, or clasp it to her chest.

Combine those actions with a few other telling, er, showing moves and your story will come to life.

We have to move our characters around their world—what Mary Buckham calls choreography—so why not make those moves mean something?

Image credit: Kuroda Seiki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Old work

I'm at least better than this guy.

I’ve been working on Scrivener For Dummies nearly non-stop since the end of February, but I finished edits last week, which means I can finally focus my efforts on my fiction again.

I have four completed manuscripts under my belt, but I have at least as many that I’ve started and not finished for one reason or another. My plan is to go back and look at those unfinished works with a fresh eye and figure out how to get the story moving again.

Last night I stayed up too late reading a manuscript I started almost two years ago. It was fun to read words that I didn’t even remember writing. Like doing a critique for a friend.

Best of all, I could see how much progress I’ve made since then. While my writing now isn’t perfect—whatever that means—my development is clear. I used to write super-short scenes of 300-400 words, which makes for a very choppy book. Now my scenes are usually at least 1000 words, and sometimes up to 3000.

The change is in the details of setting, internal dialog, and providing adequate page space for character actions and reactions.

I used to be horrible at grounding the reader at the beginning of a scene, so things like POV, location, and time were unclear. I’m now much more aware of the importance of the opening lines, especially when starting a new chapter.

(If you struggle with setting—or pacing, or body language—I highly recommend Mary Buckham’s classes. Any class you can take by Mary is well worth the money. She’s an amazing teacher of craft and I gladly open my wallet for her.)

The manuscript I went over last night also had a lot of procedural detail—my hero is a DEA agent—without anything to break it up. You could tell I’d done my research for this one. I’d like to think I’ve learned to be more subtle about that kind of thing, while still being accurate so the story rings true.

I learned one more thing from reading my old work. I’m not bad at this writing thing. Despite the technical problems, I got into the story, was pleasantly surprised by how I’d set up certain plot elements, and enjoyed the characters.

I needed the reminder that I’m a storyteller.

How about you? Read any of your old work lately? What did you think?

Image: By KaterBegemot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing actions with consequences

Sam Worthington, who plays David in The Debt.

In a well-crafted story, every item introduced or action taken has a purpose or consequence. Simple in theory, but not easy to implement in practice. However, I recently watched a film–The Debt–that struck me for how well it made use of every single action.

I didn’t like the ending very much, but the execution was excellent (both in script and acting). David, Stephan, and Rachel are Mossad secret agents living in East Berlin, trying to capture a former Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel.

SPOILER ALERT! Below are a couple of the seemingly small actions I remember that led to much larger consequences: pulling away from a kiss, and breaking a bowl of oatmeal. How could those have life-altering consequences for the trio? Here’s how.

  • David and Rachel almost kiss, but David pulls away. Rachel, feeling rejected by a man she’s come to care for, seeks solace in Stephan’s bed. No big deal, right? Except that David finally gives in to his attraction later on, and just when we think he and Rachel have a chance, she turns up pregnant from her night with Stephan. Talk about tension in that tiny apartment. Feeling obligated, she laters marries Stephan, but she and David pine for each other for decades.
  • They’re holding Vogel captive in the house after a failed attempt to smuggle him out of Germany. While David is trying to feed Vogel, the doctor makes inflammatory comments about the Jewish people that anger David enough that he smashes the ceramic bowl full of oatmeal. Stephan takes David out of the apartment to calm down, leaving Rachel alone with the doctor, who’s tied up. Again, so what? Well, the doctor finagles a shard of the innocent bowl and uses it to cut the ropes binding him, attacks Rachel,  and escapes.

See what I mean about lovely set up? Each initial action seems small or even secondary, maybe there to add tension or characterization. Yet both actions ultimately lead to staggering consequences. One rejected kiss sets off a chain of events that brings a lifetime of misery for the would-be lovers. A single loss of temper eventually undoes the whole mission.

Now if I could just master that trick in my own work. Got any tips? Any examples of seemingly ordinary actions with big consequences?

Photo credit: By Abutorsam007 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Getting into the Games

My household's thoroughly read copy.

After much nagging from my kids, urging from writer friends, and the debut of the movie–which I thought was really well done–I finally decided I needed to read The Hunger Games.

I’m not big into young adult fiction–though I loved the Harry Potter series–but I can see why Suzanne Collins’ books are such a big hit.

She not only delivers on the emotion, she does just about everything right.

Sympathetic characters? What’s more sympathetic then a group of oppressed people with tragic lives and little hope for the future, who work hard to survive?

That would probably be enough to draw you in, but Collins also gives her characters bravery, loyalty, interesting skills, and selflessness. You couldn’t be apathetic about Katniss, Peeta, and Gale if you tried.

Conflict? The Hunger Games has it in spades. How’d you like to be allies with someone you’ll eventually have to kill if you want to live?

And Collins keeps twisting the knife as the book goes on, but I don’t want to give too much away, in case you haven’t read it.

Setting? North America in some dystopian future where the Hunger Games arena can be anything the Gamemakers can dream up. It’s Gladiator meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies. I dare you to snore.

I’m not saying everything was perfect. Some of the build-up could use tighter pacing, especially in book two (Catching Fire), but even if young adult books aren’t your usual thing, I think all of us could learn a thing or two about writing compelling fiction from Ms. Collins. And, enjoy ourselves along the way.

What’s not to like about that? Next chance I get, I’m curling up with Mockingjay.

Have you read any of the books in the series? What did you think?

Flashback: Get passionate

You thought this post was going to be about writing sex scenes didn’t you? 😉 Sorry, but I’m talking about passion in the larger sense as defined by the Mac dictionary: strong and barely controllable emotion.

What are you passionate about? Global warming? U.S. involvement in the Middle East? Sea turtles? Education? Adoption? Animals? School arts programs? Immigration?

Pick your passion—no matter what side of the fence you’re on—and find a way to write about it. I don’t mean a position paper or a letter to your editor, though you could. I mean imbue your character with that passion and build a story around it. Or structure a book or series around a group that fights for or against your cause. In researching opposing viewpoints, you might even see the subject in a new light, and it should be easy to make the sparks fly between your characters if they’re on opposite sides of an issue.

Laura Griffin’s Tracers series features a forensics lab that’s dedicated to processing all crime scene evidence and helping law enforcement catch violent criminals. She came up with the idea after she found out that much forensic evidence is never processed or entered into a crime database. She took her frustration and created a fictional group with the passion to make it happen.

Michael Crichton made a fortune writing books about what could go wrong with the research he read about in scientific journals. Jurassic Park, Timeline, and Prey hit a chord with readers because he took a stand on a topic and built a story around it.

Robin Cook did the same thing for medical topics. Just try to eat a fast-food hamburger after reading Toxin. I dare you.

If emotion is the key to memorable characters and keeper-shelf books, then by writing about a topic that gets you emotional, you might just find that all-important element easier to write. And an interesting topic makes the research more fun.

So, figure out what shocks, angers, or delights you, and build a story around it. You might even teach your readers something and get them passionate too. Good luck!

Originally posted September 14, 2010.

Photo credit: SCREAM © Forca |