On Writing Well – The “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule

 

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The “show, don’t tell” rule is the very heart of good writing. It’s difficult to avoid, especially when writing a memoir or some other type of nonfiction. But rather than saying a character is unselfish, show them doing something unselfish. If the story is told well, the reader will figure out that the character is unselfish without having to be told he/she is. Readers want to do some of the work. They don’t want to be told what to think, they want to think for themselves and make their own discoveries.  

The same is true of settings. Instead of simply writing “the diner was filthy”, a good writer will write something like, “I walked into the diner and was immediately assaulted by the stench of old meat. A hostess approached me who was too old to still be working, forced a smile that unintentionally revealed unfathomable world weariness, and led me sullenly to a formica table with chipped edges. As I sat and slid into my seat, a rat scurried over my foot. I looked under the table just in time to see its tail disappear into a ragged-edged hole in the ancient drywall.”

One might argue that writing “the diner was filthy” is just fine because it says it all, it’s brief, and the reader can just fill in the rest with his/her imagination. The problem is it’s boring. It’s also lazy. It doesn’t engage the readers’ senses or put them in the room. It doesn’t inspire the imagination or pull them into the story.

Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to paint a vivid picture and transport yourself and the reader to another world; a world they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. 

But here’s the catch – always leave more for the reader to discover for themselves. Don’t spell everything out too much. As Stephen King said, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

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Reluctant Poet (on writer’s block)

 

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The following is one of the first poems I ever wrote, back in those voice-finding days when I still believed in writer’s block. A bit melodramatic but accurate, which is more than I can say about many of my poems from back then. 

I had a conversation with an interesting fellow recently who said he was plagued by writer’s block and asked me what the cure was. I told him his belief in it was making it real. The world is full of interesting things to write about. All one needs to do is watch the news, talk to a neighbor, look out the window, sit in on a courtroom, read a newspaper (if you can find one), read a well-written book, or file through the thousands of memories each one of us has. With all this to draw from, how can anyone ever run out of stories?

This poem, when I wrote it, was about writer’s block, but what it was about more specifically was writing the things we know we must. The hard stuff most people spend their lives avoiding and burying. This is why authors and artists of any kind are celebrated, and should be – because they give freedom to the multitudes trapped within themselves, without the desire, ability, or perhaps the courage to excavate these emotions in themselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts.”

 

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Reluctant Poet

Words bound
through darkened corridors of my mind
like coy lovers daring me to catch them.
But I do not follow.
The darkness frightens me.
I do not follow.
I am safe in the light.
Safe from the worlds
they might open to me.
I accept myself, a fool,
until frustration with this half-life
erodes the empty shell of comfort,
forcing me to venture out,
to gape into the horrible blackness
I created
and groping, search
for what I really am
beneath the tortured, questioning facade
of awareness.

 

“Begin to write in the dumb, awkward way an animal cries out in pain, and there you will find your intelligence, your words, your voice.” (Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg)

Smash writer’s block by writing one line. It will lead to another, and another, and another, naturally following each other. Every book and poem you’ve read and every movie you’ve seen were written that way – one line at a time.

So when someone tells me they’re plagued by writer’s block, I assume that a) they’re being artsy and playing writer, b) they’re looking for excuses not to write instead of reasons to write, and c) they’re not paying close enough attention to the great, big, wide, throbbing world, to humanity, which is always bursting with stories. The hard part is choosing which ones you will devote large portions of your life to. I tell those plagued by writer’s block to stop thinking about it and it will evaporate like the fantasy it is.

People Every Writer Should Know About #1 – Joseph Campbell

 

This is the first of what will be a series of posts about great writers and others who writers can learn from. I intend to learn from these as I post them, too. After all, when we stop learning, we start dying.  

Anyone who wants to write fiction or find their own true path in life should read everything they can get their hands on by this man – Joseph Campbell.

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He wrote a couple of books –  

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He may be among the top three authors who answered the deepest questions anyone could ever ask, about religion, mythology, writing, and their own inner nature.

He said some cool stuff. Stuff that not only inspires but saves you from the soul poisons of anger, blame, resentment, etc.

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But I think my favorite is this one –  

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known – we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Jonathan Young’s interpretations of one of Joseph Campbell’s main philosophies is pretty good, too.

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He is valuable to a writer because in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he described the elements that tie together most great stories. Here’s a chart – 

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The book to start with is this one –

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It’s an interview in the 1980’s between journalist Bill Moyers and JC. It is extraordinary. A friend I urged to read it once told me she felt as if she were “coming home” – like it tied together everything she had studied up to that point.

Like most geniuses, Campbell had a way of charting the obvious, or what feels obvious once we’re made aware of it – things we knew but didn’t know we knew about storytelling, movies, religion, and the inner workings of our own hearts and minds. 

It’s important for writers to write what they know and what they feel compelled to write, but it’s also important to know the elements and, okay I’ll say it, formula that makes a story great. We don’t need to adhere to this formula slavishly. In fact, doing so can make a screenplay predictable and even boring. But if we deviate from the basic elements of the hero’s journey, we do so at our own peril.

Here’s an even simpler breakdown – 

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These elements are defined very thoroughly here – http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html

Thanks for joining me on this particular “journey.” Please look for future posts titled “People Every Writer Should Know About.” 

I hope you write a best-selling novel, hit movie, or timeless poem, and I hope this post and the others in this series help you get there.

 

Writing Greatness (short story, humor)

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Donovan Stone wanted to be a writer more than anyone had since the first hieroglyphs were scratched onto the wall of the first pyramid. He had read just about every book written on the craft, attended every fiction writing class he could, and had even changed his name to something he thought sounded more writer-ish. His actual name was Sidney Weatherwax, which he considered singularly inglorious and not in keeping with the illustrious future he had planned for himself.

In one of his writing books, the author outlined his formula for greatness. “There are three kinds of writers,” he wrote –

1. Those who stink and don’t know they stink. This type of writer’s efforts will only be a big waste of everyone’s time, primarily his own. One lifetime is never enough to overcome pure, unadulterated stinkiness.

2. Those who stink and are determined to become less stinky. This type of writer faces an uphill climb but may someday create something passable, albeit inconsistently, and then only by dumb luck.”

3. Those who are great by divine intervention or some accident of nature and who couldn’t write poorly if they were being suspended over a pool of sharks. Only this kind of writer will ever be truly great, and even he doesn’t know how he does it. If you’re wondering if you’re this kind of writer, you’re not. You wouldn’t have to ask. Quit now.

Donovan wept uncontrollably after reading this, fearing he was a category two writer. When his wrenching sobs subsided, he steeled his resolve to achieve greatness. Still, every effort was met with severe frustration. There was just nothing in there. He loved poetry but every word he wrote, nay, every letter, was a struggle he likened to childbirth.

One of his first poems read:

Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.

He saw nothing wrong with the use of the non-word “nowers” because he once read that Shakespeare created many words when ordinary language failed him.

Donovan’s poem continued:

She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I would cut off my ear, but it would hurt.

He thought the Van Gogh reference was pure genius, others not so much. In fact, when he shared it with the crowd at The Daily Grind Coffeehouse, a normally gracious group, they laughed unguardedly, assuming his poem was meant to be funny.

With sweat beading on his upper lip, he continued,
“My love is a sponge,
On our love raft, we will plunge.”

The laughter grew louder. Trembling with a mixture of embarrassment and rage, he pressed on,
“Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.”

That was it. The room erupted. He could have saved himself some humiliation if he had pretended he meant it to be funny, but he was cut to the quick. He threw his Gauloise cigarette on the floor, spit in a very French manner, and said, “You people wouldn’t know talent if it bit you on your fat, pimply asses!” He then kicked over a table and stormed out the back door into the alley. He kicked over trash cans all the way home, cursing about how most great artists were misunderstood and how that audience of barn animals was just too ignorant to grasp someone as brilliant and tortured as he.

The next week was spent in a bottomless purple funk. He drank excessively, didn’t bathe, and barely ate. If his phone ever rang, he wouldn’t have even answered it.

He felt comforted by the tragic lives many great artists had. Hemingway shot himself. Plath had electroshock therapy in an attempt to cure suicidal tendencies. Dostoyevsky was exiled in Siberia for his political opinions. He felt he was suffering along with them, equally unappreciated. The more he suffered, the more romantic it felt. Unfortunately, he was the only one who felt it.

His father was no help. The last time he had spoken to him, he said, “Son, it’s time to grow up. How much of your life are you planning to waste on this pipe dream? Even the best writers struggle to eke out a living, and frankly, you ain’t one of ‘em. I found a poem in a notebook you left in the back yard and it stunk. Wait here, I’ll get it.”
He walked away and returned with a tattered, coffee-stained notebook, flipped through it and found the page.
“Oh, here it is,” he said. “Explain this one to me, if you even can. He began to read, “Flaming doorknobs tumble down my blasphemous eyebrows. The tragic sand screams oblong operettas to my parched bicycle seat. I am.”

He set the notebook down and asked, “What in hell’s blue blazes is that supposed to mean, Sidney? Why can’t you write a nice, rhyming poem that tells a story like Robert Frost or that Longfellow guy used to do?”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” he replied, “and my name is Donovan.”

“That’s another thing. That name might work if, A, it was 1957, and, B, you were a teen idol.”

“Look, daddio,” Donovan replied, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. You know who said that? Einstein! That’s who!”

“Daddio? What is this? 1968? It’s 2014! Wake up and smell the failure, hepcat!”

After a pause, his father softened and said, “Look, son. I just want you to be happy. I hate seeing you running down a dead end like this, because there’s a big, brick wall at the end of it and you’re not gonna see it coming until it’s too late. I mean, of all things to choose to be, you had to pick a writer? Nothing has ever happened to you! I did two tours in Vietnam, was a prisoner of war, and survived cancer that damn Agent Orange gave me! If anyone should be a writer, it’s me!”

“Oh, so that’s it!” Donovan snapped. “You’re jealous because I’m a writer and you’re not!”

“Yeah, I’m real jealous I don’t have flaming door knobs tumbling down my blasphemous eyebrows. Think about it, son. All the great writers lived through some heavy stuff. Tennessee Williams had diphtheria as kid, was tormented by a sadistic father, lived most of his life as a repressed homosexual, and died penniless after a nervous breakdown. But his sister one-upped him by getting a frontal lobotomy! So, again, what have you been through? What gives you the right to call yourself a writer? I would suggest you do some living first, then grace the world with your insights. You’re putting the cart before the horse, boy!”

Donovan couldn’t take anymore. He stormed out. He was good at storming. He hadn’t spoken to his father since, which was difficult because he still lived at home. Though he cursed him, he couldn’t get his words out of his mind. What did give him the right to call himself a writer? Maybe writing was so hard for him because nothing worth writing about had ever happened to him. He was forced to conclude that his father was right. He decided to change that. He would do things, dammit, and starting right now.
He showered, found clothes that smelled the least bad, and walked to a military recruiting office in his local mall. Many great writers had brushes with death, and killed many men in battle. He would, too. That would show his dad.

He tried to enlist in the Army but was rejected because the minimum push-up requirement was forty-two and he was only able to do seven. The reviewer also mentioned a comment he had made in his application about hating America for runaway Capitalism and Imperialist foreign policies.

Dejected but still determined to have something bad happen to him, he put on a white suit and costume jewelry rings, stuffed his wallet with toilet paper until it bulged, and walked through the worst neighborhood he could find on Saturday at midnight. A group of gang-bangers pulled up in a car next to him and yelled very hurtful things. His mania was such that he had no fear for his safety, but instead thought, “This will make a great story!” One of the men got out of the car and started pushing him around, but an elderly woman ran out of a nearby house and yelled, “You get on home and leave that boy alone! He’s obviously not right in the head!”
She drove Donovan home that night, gave him a lecture he thought would never end, and handed him a Bible, saying, “You need a whole lot of Jesus, son.”

Actually, the old lady’s lecture was the worst ordeal he had ever endured, much worse than being beaten and robbed would have been, so he was off to a great start.

As he lay in bed that night, it dawned on him that he was going about things all wrong. Instead of trying to make bad things happen to him, he would do bad things himself! Be pro-active! His father always said he lacked initiative and was hiding in writing as a way to avoid taking real chances in life. This would show him once and for all!

The next morning, he bought a pellet gun at Big 5 and a pair of nylon stockings at 7/11, walked to his local credit union, pulled the stocking over his head, pulled out the gun, walked in and yelled, “This is a stick up!”
None of the customers paid much attention because his voice lacked the requisite amount of bass to properly scare anyone. A teller nearby recognized his voice because he chose to rob a bank he’d had an account at for several years.

“Sidney, what are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s not me,” he said. “Uh, I mean, who’s Sidney?”

“I know your voice, Sidney,” she replied.

He was then tackled by an elderly security guard who had been awakened by the conversation. However, due to his advanced age, he began to clutch his chest. He had a heart attack and was dead in under a minute.

The trial was only a formality. Due to a recent rash of bank robberies, and because he had induced the guard’s death, the judge made an example of him. He received the maximum sentence of thirty years for robbery and involuntary manslaughter.

During his first year in prison, he was subjected to every atrocity imaginable, but his mania to amass colorful experiences to someday write about still overrode even his own retched misery. Finally, he was experiencing something extreme and dramatic, fodder for great literature. Talking to his cellmate one day to pass the time, a psychotic, sexually ambiguous brute nicknamed Crusher, he said, “I’m here voluntarily, I’ll have you know. All this stuff that’s happening to me, including what you did last night, is going to be in a book someday. Remember my name because I’m going to be famous.”
“Cedric Weatherwax?” Crusher replied.

“No! Donovan Stone, man!”

Crusher laughed and said, “Don’t you know federal law prohibits you from profiting from your crime or anything that happens to you in here? You’ll never get that book through the bars!”

After a few months of severe depression, Donovan signed up to read a poem at the prison talent show. Surely, he thought, this menagerie of nincompoops would be impressed with his talent. He walked to the stage, cleared his throat, and said, “Her love reminds me of flowers. I don’t need her tomorrow but nowers.”

The prisoners laughed and laughed, and Donovan stormed back to his cell.

Etched in Stone

I do a lot of walking around my neighborhood in Burbank, California. It’s an old town so the sidewalks have a lot of etchings from bygone days. I started noticing them while walking my daughters in their stroller. After a while, I started photographing them. They interest me for the same reason I write – the “authors” of these etchings had one chance to write something meaningful in cement that was rapidly drying. I feel that way about my own writing most of the time. What am I going to say in this short life? What will my life mean when it’s over? Will I ever write anything socially redeeming enough to become “etched in stone.” Life is a lot like rapidly drying cement.

Here’s my collection so far.

 

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The four-pointed star symbol in Christianity, also known as the Star of Bethlehem or natal star, represents both Jesus’ birth and the purpose for which He was born.

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Friend made along the way.

 

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I have always wondered how something as light as leaves make impressions in cement, even when it’s wet. Explanations from scientists and/or physicists are welcome!

 

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Dogtown was a popular skateboarding club back in the 1970’s. A movie called Dogtown and Z-Boys (or something like that) was made about them recently.

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” “Beach Boys Forever.” This could have been written anytime between 1965 and today.

 

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Love – always a good reason to vandalize cement. I hope Barbie and Kenny are still together.

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Here’s a guy who used his one chance at immortality in a slightly less mature manner.

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“Rodene Wilson + Bob ’56”

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Definitely from the 1960’s. LOL

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“Surf Naked” – a popular phrase from the 1970’s, and something every self-respecting Californian needs to do at least once.

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This one is as solid as the name Jack is. This particular Jack didn’t even bother putting his last name or initial. He’s Jack, dammit, and anybody who doesn’t know exactly which Jack he is can go straight to that hot place!

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The winner for the oldest one I’ve found so far. 1940. And apparently written by a European who puts the day before the month.

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On the sidewalk bordering the park where my six-year old plays tee-ball. Was this Beaver’s (from Leave it to Beaver) brother, Wally? If I could travel back to any year in my hometown, 1955 would be it. See below for etchings by Wally’s friends that same day.

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Wally’s buddy Charlie started his own Grauman’s Chinese Theater walk of fame with a handprint.

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Shorty, a friend of Wally and Charlie, no doubt. I wonder where Shorty is now. He’d be in his 70’s or 80’s, but the name the boy he was carved in cement is still there, after 63 years.

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This one is in my own backyard. My house was once owned by Owen Engle, the original founder of the Burbank Road Kings, a hot rod club in the 50’s and 60’s. In fact, the steel girder beam they wedged between the walls of the garage to hang engine blocks on is still there. They cut all the rafter ties to get it in, which I had to rebuild to prevent the garage from falling over during an earthquake, but it’s still cool to own a part of Burbank Road Kings history. They were and still are a pretty big deal in classic car circles.

If you came across some wet cement today (and nobody was looking), what would you write? As Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society said to his class, “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

 

 

On Vanity Publishing

When I was very young and desperate to get something published somewhere, I came across a poetry contest online hosted by a company with a very important-sounding name like The International Consortium of Master Poets. (I just made that up, but you get the drift.)

I submitted something for it and, to my surprise, received a glowing letter a few weeks later stating the poem had been “reviewed by a panel of judges” who deemed it to be of the highest quality and “worthy of publishing.” I didn’t know who this judging panel consisted of but I pictured something like this –

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A bunch of highly-educated old men, all laboring over the merits of my little poem. Man, oh man. Things were gonna start happening to me now!

I was overjoyed until I continued reading beyond the flowery praise to the request to pay them for the high honor of having my poem included in their annual “anthology” of poetry. This request was so deftly worded that I almost didn’t notice that it was the polar opposite of legitimate, traditional publishing wherein the author gets paid by the publishing house. I was also so talented, according to them, they would even allow me to pay them some more money to see my poem printed on a plaque, and even a coffee mug!

Fortunately, I didn’t fall for it. I was naive, but not too naive to smell a rat that big and stinky. So for a laugh, I entered another poem into their contest under a fake name to see if that poem would also be deemed the height of literary mastery by their panel of judges. A friend and I laughed ourselves sick writing it at the beach one day. Our goal . . . to pen the worst love poem of all time. Here it is –

My Gal Penelosquat

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Her love reminds me of flowers.
I don’t need her tomorrow, but nowers.
She really makes me feel groovy,
like that Mona chick at the Louvie.
She’s hot, like a jalapeno squirt.
I’d cut off my ear, but it would hurt.
Her love is a towel
cooling my weary browel.
My love is a sponge.
On our love raft, we will plunge.
She’s just so – I can’t find the word.
Her hair is so . . . you know.
Her nose is so big, though.
And that name . . . Penelosquat McSchmultzerd.

I typed it out and sent My Gal Penelosquat off in the mail. Sure enough, two weeks later, I received the same letter stating that this high crime against the English language was as brilliant and worthy of publication in their anthology, plaque and coffee mug as the last one was! Imagine my surprise. 

I post this as a warning, but not a condemnation of anyone who has been taken in by vanity publishing. There’s nothing wrong with paying a company to print a poem in a book, or on a plaque or coffee mug, as long as one doesn’t think it’s published and knows these companies are just offering a service and will take money from anyone willing to buy their anthology, no matter how horrific the poem is. It’s their deception in making each writer feel special that is repugnant to me.

Unfortunately, I’ve met people over the years who proudly stated they had a poem published by one of these companies, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them any of this. Some people just don’t have a very strong rat detector. But I hate to see fellow writers, baby eagles with downy wings, struggling with words for the first time, taken down by con artists selling them a bill of goods. They take more than money, they take self-respect. I mean, if they’ll take My Gal Penelosquat, they’ll take anything.

Twitter Launch Party for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s New Book – Miracles and More

Join me and many of the other contributors to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s new book, Miracles and More, today at 11:00 A.M. Pacific Time. The information is below. Should be fun and inspiring!

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