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Author Topic: "Show don't tell". Always good advice?  (Read 21860 times)

Swamp

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on: February 20, 2007, 08:08:06 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

“And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

"Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do -- using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It's one of the reasons why movies simply aren't very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies ...”

Here’s the link to the whole discussion:  http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

My opinion is that SDT is valid advice in most cases.  Usually it is trying to motivate a writer to get out of straight exposition and show emotion or reaction through the actions of the character.  Instead of writing This comment made Tom angry, we might write Upon heraring the comment, Tom pressed his lips into a tight line, while his face became red.  (not a great example, I know).  It is an attempt to help the reader view the scene rather than just hear about it.

However, I have also seen SDT used too much, and can become something people just throw out quickly without looking deeper.  I feel that sometimes we take the SDT advice too strictly and go through many gyrations in order to show everything, when there are, at times, ways to improve the prose by simply telling something and getting on with the good stuff.

Bottom line:  I think SDT is a useful guideline to make your writing more engaging to the reader, but it is not a law that should govern over all of your storytelling.

What do you think?

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jrderego

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Reply #1 on: February 20, 2007, 08:26:35 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

“And you did this because ... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations -- most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

"Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do -- using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It's one of the reasons why movies simply aren't very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies ...”

Here’s the link to the whole discussion:  http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/lesson13.shtml

My opinion is that SDT is valid advice in most cases.  Usually it is trying to motivate a writer to get out of straight exposition and show emotion or reaction through the actions of the character.  Instead of writing This comment made Tom angry, we might write Upon heraring the comment, Tom pressed his lips into a tight line, while his face became red.  (not a great example, I know).  It is an attempt to help the reader view the scene rather than just hear about it.

However, I have also seen SDT used too much, and can become something people just throw out quickly without looking deeper.  I feel that sometimes we take the SDT advice too strictly and go through many gyrations in order to show everything, when there are, at times, ways to improve the prose by simply telling something and getting on with the good stuff.

Bottom line:  I think SDT is a useful guideline to make your writing more engaging to the reader, but it is not a law that should govern over all of your storytelling.

What do you think?


There are times when exposition is necessary, and times when it is not. Most often when I hear, or say, "show don't tell" is when I hit some exposition that isn't necessary:

Example 1- all expository

John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

Example 2- much less expository

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Anyway -

It also depends on the style and POV, third person omniscient lends itself better to non-dialogue exposition, where first person is better for dialogue exposition. But that is still dependent on the situation. Exposition is like the handle on a suitcase, one is usually just right, sometimes there are two (like mine where it can be wheeled raher than lugged) but having 25 handles just makes the suitcase unweildy. The important thing isn't what the handle does, the important thing is what's inside the suitcase.

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SFEley

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Reply #2 on: February 20, 2007, 08:42:25 PM
Heh.  For what it's worth, Jeffry, I liked your Example 1 much better.  In fact I think both paragraphs work even better in sequence as a complete story:

Quote
John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Here you're telling us the premise and establishing the character, then showing us the consequences.  To me the two paragraphs are funnier together than either one alone. 

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jrderego

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Reply #3 on: February 20, 2007, 08:46:07 PM
Heh.  For what it's worth, Jeffry, I liked your Example 1 much better.  In fact I think both paragraphs work even better in sequence as a complete story:

Quote
John didn't like cheese. In fact, he hated it, ever since his father had punished him by forcing the consumption of seven pounds of rancid Muenster after he broke the lamp while playing baseball in the house. John's hatred of cheese even went so far as to extend to all dairy products, and the cows that produced them. So it was no surprise that his first act as president of the known universe was the mandatory extermination of all bovine life forms.

John signed the executive order declaring it illegal to be of bovine extraction, then smiled. His vision clouded for a moment revealing an image of billions upon billions of cows herding through a planet-sized, automated, orbiting, abbatoir. He cried "I'm sorry I broke the lamp dad! I'm sorry I broke the lamp! How you like me now!!!!"

Here you're telling us the premise and establishing the character, then showing us the consequences.  To me the two paragraphs are funnier together than either one alone. 

If I coulda worked the seven pounds of Muenster cheese into the second one It'd have been a better example, but I think Muenster cheese defies "showing".

That said, think of the example as having to choose between either of those two rather than combining them, like, I don't know, the world would explode if you combined them or something.

on edit, and who thought I could ever write a complete story in under 200 words that features both Muenster cheese AND orbital slaughterhouses!
« Last Edit: February 20, 2007, 08:47:45 PM by jrderego »

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SFEley

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Reply #4 on: February 20, 2007, 09:08:27 PM
Is the advice “show don’t tell” (SDT) given too often?  Is it a knee-jerk response?  The following is a quote from Orson Scott Card from his website.

It's good to see that Card is so far on his path to cantankerdom.  >8->

I do think it's good advice, but it's often taken too seriously.  The difference between "tell" and "show" is really not that broad.  Everything in a book or story is technically telling -- you're not literally showing anything unless it's a graphic novel.  The writer's job is to tell people what happens.  You can't do anything but tell, when all you have is words.

There is, however, a virtual camera in every story.  It's the reader's internal imagining of the physical scene, the action, and the dialogue.  I think when writers say "Show, don't tell," they mean that they would prefer to have more of the story going on within the focus of that virtual camera, and less of it happening offstage.  Not because it's wrong to have one character tell another that the fleet 30,000 light years away was just destroyed, but because it's more fun to describe the space battle.  It's not like you have a limited effects budget to work with.

Of course, sometimes it really is better just to tell us that the fleet was destroyed.  It depends on your POV decisions, the importance of the battle to the plot or the major characters, your pacing, dramatic effect...  There are no right answers.

At least, that's what I mean by it.  I know some people use it when talking about how to exhibit character traits -- "Don't tell us 'he was a greedy bastard,' show him shaking down his grandmother for her Social Security check" -- but I consider that to be an even more ambiguous question of authorial voice.  One could also correctly do both, or neither, so long as the character acts consistently within the story.

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Roney

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Reply #5 on: February 21, 2007, 01:02:49 AM
My belief is that it's given a lot -- and is 9/10 times a valid knee-jerk response -- because it's one of those pieces of advice that doesn't mis-apply itself.  I probably need to go through the examples to make myself clear.

Either you don't know what you're doing, and your story is using too much "tell", in which case "show don't tell" is a vital lesson that you need to learn.  And showing is more likely to work better than telling in most situations if you don't know any better.

Or you do know what you're doing, and you've got perfectly good reasons for telling instead of showing, and you just ignore the advice.  Until such time as you know that it's the wrong advice, and can marshall the arguments that show that this is the exceptional case where telling works better, you're likely to improve your story by listening to the "show don't tell" line.

But lots of standard pieces of advice work this way, in many fields.  Simple solutions will usually improve an amateur's game.  What improves a pro's game is considerably more mysterious.

I can see why it would irk Card to hear it too often.



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #6 on: February 21, 2007, 03:37:22 AM
What they say at the writers workshop:

You can tell anything except the character's emotional state or motivation. Those must be clearly expressed through the other aspects of the prose.

Even here, though, there's no consensus. Ethan Canin: "Show everything you can. Tell what's too complicated to show."

Daniel Alarcon, Marilynne Robinson: stories without scene are perfectly fine.

As with most things, I tend to wedge myself firmly in the middle. It's a game. Elegant narration is beautiful, but usually must carry itself on sensory appeal and gorgeous prose; a well-rendered scene can be deeply involving; a story pruned of all telling can come across as oblique when remeoved even slightly from its context, by being read by someone from a different age group or subculture even.



Xenomundus

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Reply #7 on: February 21, 2007, 08:52:05 AM
Orson Scott Card and Lois McMasters Bujold are two of my favorite authors, and they tell quite often. They know what they're doing, and the things they tell are usually witty, piercing, poignant, or wry -- and true to the characters. Even so, more than a page begins to drag.

With amateur to intermediate writers' work, the parts that most desperately need cut are usually telling: pointless backstory, POV-jarring asides, mid-action exposition, musings a psychiatrist wouldn't have time for.

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DKT

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Reply #8 on: February 21, 2007, 10:04:04 PM
I've heard several sci-fi/fantasy authors debunk the SDT rule (Cory Doctorow and Laura J. Mixon).  Basically, they said it's a good rule in general, but sometimes the most natural way of telling the story is breaking the SDT rule.  Their advice was to ground the story, then info-dump (and info-dump quickly).


GoodDamon

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Reply #9 on: February 26, 2007, 09:53:12 PM
Perhaps a good drop-in replacement for "show, don't tell" would be "set a scene and stay in it." Too often at workshop, I'll read a story with six paragraphs of exposition describing a character, his motivations, his goals, and how the death of his puppy at age six affected him without touching once on here's-what-he's-doing-and-where-he's-doing-it.

If a character -- let's call him "Steve" -- runs a science fiction podcast, I can start a story with this: Steve sat down in front of his microphone and began the day's podcast. "Today's story," he said, "takes place in the forums of a famous science fiction online broadcast..." That tells us Steve has a podcast, the means to record it, and even gives us some detail about what he podcasts. At the same time, it gives the reader a scene and the beginnings of a character to latch on to. Any other details can come as the story progresses.

I could say something like this: Steve was an intensely handsome man, with a strong jaw and chiseled features. He ran a podcast for science fiction, and everyone loved it. Steve was approximately 6'3", and athletically proportioned. He liked sandwiches. And none of these details could possibly tell you anything about what he's doing right now, because I'm intentionally avoiding setting a scene in favor of lavishing affectionate detail on my character, since that's easier.

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Reply #10 on: February 26, 2007, 10:22:47 PM
I disagree, Damon. They're different styles, but scene-driven fiction isn't the only legitimate type.

Consider Mischa's work, which we're both familiar with. He frequently creates striking character and situational depth through narration.



GoodDamon

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Reply #11 on: February 26, 2007, 11:07:58 PM
I disagree, Damon. They're different styles, but scene-driven fiction isn't the only legitimate type.

Oh, by no means do I consider it the only legitimate type. I didn't mean to imply that. But if you have long expanses in which the reader doesn't know where the protagonist is or what s/he's doing, then it necessarily distances the reader from the flow of the story.

If you can do that and get away with it, keeping the reader engaged through the exposition lumps, then do so. There's no rule that says everything has to be shown. If anything, it's a useful tool, for keeping a story exciting. By no means is it the only one.

I think remembering show/tell is most useful when you're using descriptive narration as a stand-in for scene-setting and character action. You're just never going to convince me your character is a super-cool kung-fu studmuffin by describing how awesome he looks posing for the mental camera in a blank, featureless setting for three pages with no one to interact with and nothing to do.

Quote
Consider Mischa's work, which we're both familiar with. He frequently creates striking character and situational depth through narration.

Agreed. And that's because Mischa has a lot of other tools available to him to reach his readers. I'm a big fan of his work.

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Roney

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Reply #12 on: February 28, 2007, 07:36:24 PM
Their advice was to ground the story, then info-dump (and info-dump quickly).

Hmm.  "tell" != "info-dump".  I'd say that telling is necessary to most stories longer than -- to pick a figure out of the air -- 2,000 word mood/scene pieces.  I'm inclined to believe that info-dumping* is never helpful in anything other than "Science of Star Trek" books.

* Where info-dumping is defined as dropping in a load of background detail without anything actually happening in the middle of it.  I thought that Turkey City had a specific term for the one that really annoys me but the closest one is "I've suffered for my Art (and now it's your turn)" which refers explicitly to research; to my mind there's too much "I've done this imaginative world-building in detail and I'm damned if I'm going to let you miss out on a single word of it".



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #13 on: February 28, 2007, 07:40:22 PM
I think info-dumping can be okay if it's well enough written, but it's a risky proposition, I admit.



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Reply #14 on: February 28, 2007, 08:04:34 PM
I think info-dumping can be okay if it's well enough written, but it's a risky proposition, I admit.

I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"



GoodDamon

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Reply #15 on: March 01, 2007, 12:03:37 AM
I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"

What if the reader's thinking, "That's cool... but what's happening?"

My rule of thumb is that info dumps should be disguised and diluted by action/activity. They shouldn't grind it to a halt. I find stories that do intensely frustrating.

Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought. But he wasn't entirely sure, not having a reference book handy. Instead of telling you whether he survives the fall, I'm going to bore you with unnecessary detail about Roger's time at an archaeological dig in Guatemala, and how seeing layers of stone atop one another affected him. I'll do this for six paragraphs.

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SFEley

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Reply #16 on: March 01, 2007, 01:32:43 AM
Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought...


On the other hand, if the book had a tongue-in-cheek tone to begin with, I would probably find this hilarious.

I think you're right as a generality.  But there are exceptions to everything.  I'm reminded of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which usually had plenty going on but every so often would stop completely and devote a chapter to, say, charting the mathematical function of a character's horniness, or the erotic story involving antique furniture on some minor character's laptop.  Stephenson has always gone wild on infodump digressions, but here he took it so far it became a spectacle.

Of course, a lot of people disliked Cryptonomicon for exactly these reasons.  But I was amused.

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ClintMemo

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Reply #17 on: March 01, 2007, 02:27:25 AM
I think it really depends on how interesting the information is. You get a lot more leaway when the readers are thinking, "That's cool"

What if the reader's thinking, "That's cool... but what's happening?"

My rule of thumb is that info dumps should be disguised and diluted by action/activity. They shouldn't grind it to a halt. I find stories that do intensely frustrating.

Roger stumbled backwards under Lucien's vicious onslaught of stabs and thrusts. "You'll never defeat me!" Lucien crowed triumphantly. "Sweet Madeleine will be mine!" With that, he drove Roger over the cliff edge. Layers of sedimentary rock rushed past.

Sedimentary rock, he mused, forms as rain and other water sources deposit layers of new soil and sediment onto each other. Over time, compression causes these distinct layers to fuse, or so Roger thought. But he wasn't entirely sure, not having a reference book handy. Instead of telling you whether he survives the fall, I'm going to bore you with unnecessary detail about Roger's time at an archaeological dig in Guatemala, and how seeing layers of stone atop one another affected him. I'll do this for six paragraphs.


I'm currently reading the Lemony Snicket books to my nine-year-old. They do that all the time. Sometimes, it's amusing, but usually, it just drives me nuts.

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #18 on: March 01, 2007, 04:09:30 AM
Right. I think infodumps can work within narration, though, if they are both interesting and well-written.

Then again, the definition of infodump seems to partially include the adjective "boring." So if it's not boring, then maybe it's not an infodump. :)



GoodDamon

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Reply #19 on: March 01, 2007, 05:24:12 PM
On the other hand, if the book had a tongue-in-cheek tone to begin with, I would probably find this hilarious.

Ah, yes, that would make it much more fun. Sort of like Terry Pratchett's footnotes, they get in the way of the action, but they're so funny that those breaks become something to look forward to.

Quote
I think you're right as a generality.  But there are exceptions to everything.  I'm reminded of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which usually had plenty going on but every so often would stop completely and devote a chapter to, say, charting the mathematical function of a character's horniness, or the erotic story involving antique furniture on some minor character's laptop.  Stephenson has always gone wild on infodump digressions, but here he took it so far it became a spectacle.

Of course, a lot of people disliked Cryptonomicon for exactly these reasons.  But I was amused.

Guhh... Count me among them. I found Cryptonomicon dreadfully boring for a rip-roaring, multi-generational, hidden treasure, computer espionage, WWII adventure story. Every time the book threatened to go anywhere, he decided it was time for another diagram. As I slogged my way through to the end, I started skipping those parts entirely, and don't think I really missed anything.

On the other hand, I didn't really read those interludes as comedy, so maybe if I approached it from that perspective I'd appreciate it more.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


GoodDamon

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Reply #20 on: March 01, 2007, 05:27:56 PM
Then again, the definition of infodump seems to partially include the adjective "boring." So if it's not boring, then maybe it's not an infodump. :)

A fantastic point. I guess the lesson here is "don't be boring." Use as much exposition as you want if it keeps the reader's eyes glued to the page.

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Mfitz

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Reply #21 on: March 02, 2007, 06:16:15 PM
Related to the dreaded Info-Dump the Stage-Setting dump.  We are currently working though this problems with a woman in my critique group.  She writes pages of description at the start of every scene.  It really slows her story down.  The problem is that description is her strong point as a writer.  It is wonderful, vivid, sensual, lyric, lush, and far better than any of the rest of her writing. 

The evil little voice in my head wants to tell her to stop waisting time in fiction and look for a job writing copy for catalogues, because I think she could seduce people into buying also anything with her prose, but I know that's not kind.



ClintMemo

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Reply #22 on: March 02, 2007, 08:21:18 PM
Related to the dreaded Info-Dump the Stage-Setting dump.  We are currently working though this problems with a woman in my critique group.  She writes pages of description at the start of every scene.  It really slows her story down.  The problem is that description is her strong point as a writer.  It is wonderful, vivid, sensual, lyric, lush, and far better than any of the rest of her writing. 

The evil little voice in my head wants to tell her to stop waisting time in fiction and look for a job writing copy for catalogues, because I think she could seduce people into buying also anything with her prose, but I know that's not kind.

Suggest she take it up as a day job.  :P

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #23 on: March 02, 2007, 08:38:02 PM
Lit. people are generally more tolerant of that kind of pacing, too. She's writing SF?



Mfitz

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Reply #24 on: March 02, 2007, 09:41:53 PM
No she calls it "feel good" books.  Her plot involves travel to other countries, rich doctors, stately country estates, and amnesia, and seems sort of soap opera to me.  Her hero is Nicholas Sparks, but I've not read him so I can't say if he uses the same style.



Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #25 on: March 02, 2007, 09:47:26 PM
Travel books often do that kind of thing.

Which is not to say that she's doing it right or anything, but that may be the vein she's working in.

Different genres have different rules. In my MFA classes, I've been drawing fire for having pacing that's too fast.



GoodDamon

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Reply #26 on: March 02, 2007, 10:45:10 PM
Different genres have different rules. In my MFA classes, I've been drawing fire for having pacing that's too fast.

A friend of mine majored in literary fiction, and told me the same thing on one of my sci-fi pieces. I read one of his literary stories in return; the prose was profoundly beautiful... and dreadfully slow-paced.

To each their own.

Damon Kaswell: Reader, writer, and arithmetic-er


Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #27 on: March 02, 2007, 10:56:27 PM
Marilynne told me on Tuesday that, "Young writers have social anxiety disorder. They feel they have to run into the room, blurt out what they have to say, and run out again before anyone can express disapproval."

I was a bit taken aback (I don't usually get criticized for my prose), but to be fair, I think she was right that my emphasis on "lean! lean! lean!" was damaging my writing.



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Reply #28 on: March 02, 2007, 11:32:44 PM
Some questions for Palimpsest and GoodDamon or anyone else who's writing literary SF:

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you're writing/telling stories?

In what ways do you expect the reader to connect with your stories?

Do you feel more connected to one fiction community over another?

Lately, these are some things I've been wondering about. Due to my cultural, educational, and economic background, I feel that my interests as a reader straddle both literary fiction and what's considered accessible/popular fiction. Right now, I feel that literary SF seems to be tackling situations and characters that are more representative of my experiences, but at the same time offering fluid pace and engaging storytelling that's easy to follow.       

I would write more but I need to go to work.

 




Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #29 on: March 02, 2007, 11:47:27 PM
Quote
Do you have a specific audience in mind when you're writing/telling stories?

I have several first readers that I like to please. I suppose they're my audience.

More broadly, I write for people who are interested in the weird, who are interested in science, who are intrigued by that which is not real, and at the same time who are interested in stretching their view of the world, and who are more interested in character and beauty than fight scenes. (Not that we don't all like a good fight scene from time to time.)

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In what ways do you expect the reader to connect with your stories?

Politically, imagistically, intellectually, and through character identification. I hope those things sum up to emotional effect, but it's not my first aim.

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Do you feel more connected to one fiction community over another?


I feel more connected to the SF community, perhaps because I did Clarion West before I entered my MFA program, and perhaps because SF is where I"ve published. I used to only write very, very lightly SF stuff, stuff that was incredibly literary. Now most of my work is solidly SF.

I've found the SF community very supportive. Wiscon rocks. Clarion West rocks. Almsot all the writers I've met through other means also rock.

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Lately, these are some things I've been wondering about. Due to my cultural, educational, and economic background, I feel that my interests as a reader straddle both literary fiction and what's considered accessible/popular fiction. Right now, I feel that literary SF seems to be tackling situations and characters that are more representative of my experiences, but at the same time offering fluid pace and engaging storytelling that's easy to follow.       


My first, nitpicky reaction to this is: Easy to follow, or accessible is... in the eye of the beholder. I consider "Stone Born" quite accessible; I imagine some of the readers here would disagree. Within SF, I think Scalzi is a good benchmark for accessibility. Within SF, my work has been called inaccessible. Within the lit community, my work is often considered too accessible.

My mother reads a lot of lit, but she sometimes has trouble teasing meaning out of more advanced texts. She, I think, in some ways, is my benchmark for accessibility. If my mother, a librarian who reads every day of her life, can't follow what I'm doing, then perhaps I've gone too far. My theory is that MFA students sometimes get caught trying to write only for other MFA students, and I think this is a bad trap. I guess that gets further to the audience question.



SFEley

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Reply #30 on: March 03, 2007, 03:08:33 AM

Within the lit community, my work is often considered too accessible.


I have a comment for your lit community:




(Once again, the truth from xkcd.)

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ClintMemo

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Reply #31 on: March 03, 2007, 04:42:06 PM
My theory is that MFA students sometimes get caught trying to write only for other MFA students, and I think this is a bad trap. I guess that gets further to the audience question.

That reminds me of something I heard a jazz musician say once.  To paraphrase, he said that if you are doing a show and everyone in the audience looks just like you do, then your music is dead and you need to move on to something else.

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


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Reply #32 on: March 03, 2007, 07:16:35 PM
The cartoon is completely funny.

However, I think I let some snark get in when I said my work is characterized as too accessible. No one really calls anything too accessible.

They call it too obvious. Which is to say, most MFA students have read enough and are so familiar with the mechanics of stories -- and are sufficiently afraid of obviousness and melodrama (as they should be) -- that one has to be very, very subtle to please them. This leads to a lot of stories where the whole thing turns on an unidentified element that you have to read very closely to pick up. It leads to other things too, some of them clear, many exceedingly beautiful.

My issue is just that in the MFA classroom, sometimes the audience disappears, because we're writing "art." But what I or another MFA student, who read stories all day, find obvious in the context of picking up another one, may not be obvious to the sort of person who reads short stories for fun, a subgroup that includes MFA students who've left the school. I try to bear the concept of the audience in mind; I find that it's less important to most of them. But this is simply a reflection of different aims, not any lack on their part.

And, of course, we try to avoid obvious in SF, too; the benchmarks are just different, I think.



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Reply #33 on: March 04, 2007, 12:09:57 AM
.
Within SF, I think Scalzi is a good benchmark for accessibility. Within SF, my work has been called inaccessible. Within the lit community, my work is often considered too accessible.


He is very accessible, but that was planned on his part.  I heard him talk a while back and he said he wanted to write SF that the sort of person who usually reads Carl Haason would enjoy reading.  I think he hits that mark well with Android's Dream while at the same time still writing a book that someone who usually reads David Brin, or Nancy Kress would enjoy, which is a good trick.




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Reply #34 on: March 04, 2007, 12:34:57 AM


Do you have a specific audience in mind when you're writing/telling stories?




I think that is great question.  I understand the value of art for art's sake, and the value of writing to exercise your inner spirit and all that, but I completely don't get people who don't write to be published, or at least read by other people.  I also completely don't get the whole you must suffer for your art, and nothing with a happy ending is truly artistic things, but that's another whole argument.

I'm the realworld-grounded black sheep in an super artsy family.  When I admitted to my family that I was interested in writing they were all thrilled to death, until they realized I wanted to write SciFi ,and worse yet, not literally or social commentary SF but Space Opera with Romance undertones (Horrors!)

Anyway, I write the sort of stories I'd like to read at the end of a high stress workday, when the option is, read a good book, eat a pound of fudge, or think about taking up drugs or alcohol.  I know I'm writing escapist brain popcorn, fluff. I' think there is a place for that sort of entertainment intoday's world, and I'd like to think I'm producing well written fluff. :-)
« Last Edit: March 04, 2007, 02:08:03 AM by SFEley »



Roney

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Reply #35 on: March 04, 2007, 06:46:22 PM
Within SF, my work has been called inaccessible. Within the lit community, my work is often considered too accessible.

YA M John Harrison AICMFP.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_are_X_and_I_claim_my_five_pounds

 :)



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Reply #36 on: March 04, 2007, 06:51:51 PM
I'm sorry, I don't really know who John Harrison is. :) Is my brain leaking again?



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Reply #37 on: March 04, 2007, 07:13:40 PM
I'm sorry, I don't really know who John Harrison is. :) Is my brain leaking again?

M. John Harrison -- British writer, part of the New Wave, also won the Tiptree in 2002.  FWIW, I've never read anything by him either, though he's in the Oort Cloud of writers whom I keep hearing about as major influences on other writers I like, so I expect I will someday.

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Roney

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Reply #38 on: March 04, 2007, 08:18:28 PM
M. John Harrison -- British writer, part of the New Wave, also won the Tiptree in 2002.  FWIW, I've never read anything by him either, though he's in the Oort Cloud of writers whom I keep hearing about as major influences on other writers I like, so I expect I will someday.

He was in my Oort Cloud (nice way of putting it); I read some; I'm not so keen to read any more.  I can see what other people see in him and he seems to be a really good influence on other writers, but his magic doesn't work on me.

That explanation of the comparison isn't so flattering to palimpsest, so I'd like to make it explicit at this stage that my comment was only for fun.  Her interesting "accessibility" point just fired some random neurons.



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Reply #39 on: March 04, 2007, 08:19:47 PM
*grin* Ah figgered it was the accessibility.

For a second, I thought he was the author of "The Catgirl Manifesto," but that's Richard Calder.



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Reply #40 on: March 05, 2007, 03:47:43 PM
He was in my Oort Cloud (nice way of putting it); I read some; I'm not so keen to read any more.  I can see what other people see in him and he seems to be a really good influence on other writers, but his magic doesn't work on me.

Thank you, Roney, you make me feel less alone in the universe. 

I read his book Light, because I kept seeing people rave about him and rave about that book in particular (not least of the ravers was Neil Gaiman) and man, I found it totally ehhhh.  And, like you, I could see the flashy tricks at work, but by and large they left me cold.  I couldn't connect.

Thought it was totally just me.

Huzzah, a partner in disdain.

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Reply #41 on: March 05, 2007, 07:53:06 PM
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I could see the flashy tricks at work, but by and large they left me cold.  I couldn't connect.

Ha, that's how I feel about Gaiman.



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Reply #42 on: March 06, 2007, 07:33:57 PM
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I could see the flashy tricks at work, but by and large they left me cold.  I couldn't connect.

Ha, that's how I feel about Gaiman.

Me too. He's confusing.



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Reply #43 on: March 06, 2007, 08:14:53 PM
I don't find him confusing, personally. I'm just not particularly interested in his variety of angst, or the comic book-in-novel form thing.

I may have been spoiled for Gaiman, on accounta having heard what a genius he was for too long before picking up his books. :) I've also been told I picked up the worng ones.



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Reply #44 on: March 06, 2007, 09:07:37 PM
I think he writes well enough, but I just don't find the stories he tells all the interesting, or fresh.  I think other people do urban fantasy better.  But, I've not read any of his comic or graphic novel stuff so maybe if I did I'd think otherwise.



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Reply #45 on: March 06, 2007, 09:19:50 PM
I don't find him confusing, personally. I'm just not particularly interested in his variety of angst, or the comic book-in-novel form thing.

Interesting.  I'd never thought his novels were distinctively comic-bookish.  His comic books definitely are -- the Sandman series isn't consistent in quality, but at its high points I think it has some of the best storytelling I've encountered in any medium.  There are moments in The Kindly Ones  that still give me chills.  But yes, it is a very angsty series.  Dream's not a very upbeat fella.


Quote
I may have been spoiled for Gaiman, on accounta having heard what a genius he was for too long before picking up his books. :) I've also been told I picked up the worng ones.

Have you tried Stardust?  Not angsty at all.  It's a fairy tale, one that doesn't try to be anything else.  Of his prose work it's far and away my favorite, with Coraline, that creepy children's horror novel, coming in second.

(If you need to calibrate my taste, I'm the odd one out, the Gaiman fan who didn't like American Gods.  To me it was like a really loud school bus on a field trip that wasn't going anywhere fun.  I'm slightly annoyed that it's considered his "breakout" novel.  I did like Anansi Boys, because it was funnier.)

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Reply #46 on: March 06, 2007, 09:29:45 PM
LOL, American Gods is indeed my pet peeve.

Coraline was okay. It didn't stand out to me, particularly, but there were some interesting images. I read it on a plane flight coming home from Australia. It kept me entertained.

I'll add _Stardust_ to the list of things I really ought to read. :)



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Reply #47 on: March 06, 2007, 09:37:20 PM
Just wanted to add that Stardust is a super quick read. 

I'm bumping into several fantasy people lately who hated American Gods. I liked it a lot but my personal favorite is Neverwhere, flaws and all.


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Reply #48 on: March 06, 2007, 10:19:23 PM
LOL, American Gods is indeed my pet peeve.

I have a friend who says, of American Gods, that he "liked it better when it was Sandman."  I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, because even though I enjoyed American Gods, I did feel like we were retreading some of the same territory that Sandman explored.

Have you tried Stardust?  Not angsty at all.  It's a fairy tale, one that doesn't try to be anything else.  Of his prose work it's far and away my favorite, with Coraline, that creepy children's horror novel, coming in second.

(If you need to calibrate my taste, I'm the odd one out, the Gaiman fan who didn't like American Gods.  To me it was like a really loud school bus on a field trip that wasn't going anywhere fun.  I'm slightly annoyed that it's considered his "breakout" novel.  I did like Anansi Boys, because it was funnier.)

Actually, I'll be odd with you.  I liked American Gods, but I never recommend it to anyone I'm trying to pimp Gaiman to, and I don't think it's anywhere near Gaiman's best work.  It's kind of lumpy in places.  Anansi Boys is much, much better and yes, largely because of the humor.  Also, love love loved Coraline, but it was pretty much written to order to hit all my favorite story kinks, so my love is probably deeply subjective.  I also like quite a few of the short stories, particularly the one about the goldfish from Smoke and Mirrors, whose title is escaping me at the moment.  I revisit that one, mentally, a lot.  But honestly, my favorites are "The Wolves in the Walls" and "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish" and you can read both of those standing in the aisle of your favorite bookstore in about ten minutes.

I need, maybe, to re-read Stardust.  I don't remember anything at all about it. 

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Reply #49 on: March 06, 2007, 11:54:17 PM
Wow, take a forced sabbatical from these forums, and each thread grows by two to three pages...

Someone asked "Do you have a specific audience in mind when you're writing/telling stories?"

I'd have to say it depends on the story. I'm always part of the audience, because I don't like to write what I don't like to read. But beyond that, who it's targeted at -- if anyone -- varies wildly based on what prompted me to write it. Some stories just show up in my head full-formed, and have to be written in a particular way that has nothing to do with who I'll market it to. My more literary or slipstream efforts tend to fall into that category, and when they're finished I have to do market research.

At other times, I'll get inspired by a particular market -- for instance, the Machine of Death anthology (see http://machineofdeath.net) handed me an idea on a platter, specifically designed for that market. I have no idea where else I'd submit it if they reject it.

Still other times, I make a conscious decision to write a good old-fashioned, rip-snortin', yee-haw, hard sci-fi yarn, full of space ships, explosions and flawed heroes overcoming the odds and themselves to save the day... Yeah, these you can market just about anywhere. You'd be surprised how hard it is to write a solid, hard sci-fi piece, and they're the milk and meat for the large markets like Analog and Asimov's.

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Mfitz

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Reply #50 on: March 07, 2007, 03:13:48 PM
[[(If you need to calibrate my taste, I'm the odd one out, the Gaiman fan who didn't like American Gods.  To me it was like a really loud school bus on a field trip that wasn't going anywhere fun.  I'm slightly annoyed that it's considered his "breakout" novel.  I did like Anansi Boys, because it was funnier.)

Actually, I'll be odd with you.  I liked American Gods, but I never recommend it to anyone I'm trying to pimp Gaiman to, and I don't think it's anywhere near Gaiman's best work.  It's kind of lumpy in places.  Anansi Boys is much, much better and yes, largely because of the humor.. 
[/quote]

Has anyone read Changer by Jane Lindskold?

http://www.amazon.com/Changer-Jane-Lindskold/dp/0380788497/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-7893562-5485629?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1173280029&sr=8-1

It covers much of the same ideas and territory of American Gods, and I think it's a much better book, but maybe that's just because I read it first a few years before American God's came out.

I also agree Anansi Boys is a far better book than American Gods, but I though Stardust was a complete bore.



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Reply #51 on: March 07, 2007, 05:28:19 PM
I'll agree that for me American Gods was not new territory. I don't think it's just cuz I read it really late (though I could be deluding myself). It seems to me that I had encountered many/most of the ideas in other people's fictions. Plus, Shadow drove me nuts, felt very cliched to me. And I got really annoyed at what I felt was a habbit of stopping the text to describe what the comic book page should look like before we got back into the dialogue, and I didn't think the plot revelations were particularly satisfying.

You know, really it was entertaining and fine. It just didn't move me at all.

I tend to prefer more experimental/literary stuff, but not exclusively. I thought Scalzi's Old Man's War was very entertaining and smart and funny. The last book that really bowled me over was Hopkinson's Salt Roads (which I also got to late). I found it engrossing and detailed and rich.



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Reply #52 on: March 07, 2007, 09:01:35 PM
The last time I went to a con was Boskone a few years ago. Gaiman was one of the guest writers.  There was a group of probably a hundred "groupies" that followed him around everywhere like a rockstar.  It's the only time I've ever seen anyone treated that way at a con.

The other guest of honor was George R.R. Martin.  He had a lot of fans there as well, but didn't get the same treatment.

In retrospect, the most interesting "guest" I met was a woman who runs her own movie review site.
http://flickfilosopher.com

I don't always agree with her reviews but her review of "Tomb Raider" is fabulous.
http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2001/06/tomb_raider_review.html


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Reply #53 on: March 21, 2007, 03:29:49 PM
Actually, I'll be odd with you.  I liked American Gods, but I never recommend it to anyone I'm trying to pimp Gaiman to, and I don't think it's anywhere near Gaiman's best work.

I agree.  I like American Gods, too.  But it's really for folks who want Gaiman to write more Sandman. Which I didn't know I did, until I read it.  Gaiman's short stories are his best stuff, really.  Stardust is great, but his short work is nigh perfect.



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Reply #54 on: March 24, 2007, 09:21:44 PM
[snip]dissing M John Harrison[/snip]

Thank you, Roney, you make me feel less alone in the universe. 

I read his book Light,[snip] couldn't connect.

I wouldn't like anyone to get the impression that M John Harrison isn't good.  I am never going to stand in a room with China Miéville, Michael Marshall Smith and Iain Banks and disagree with them.

Light did annoy me, though, because I read it after finishing a short story anthology from MJH that I rather enjoyed.  (Yes, I bought two of his books without vetting because he'd been so warmly recommended.)  It tended towards magic realism, which is fine as far as I'm concerned: there are many more markets for fantasy in the UK if you can pretend that it's not.  Some of the stories are excellent.  I really like his work in the short form.

But.

Reading Light there were at first turns of phrase that seemed familiar, then there were sentences, then there were entire paragraphs that I'd read before.  I had thought that the words very neatly defined a character, then the same lines were suddenly applied to someone completely different.

I don't always agree with her reviews but her review of "Tomb Raider" is fabulous.
http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/2001/06/tomb_raider_review.html

That was much more enjoyable than the film.  :)



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Reply #55 on: April 19, 2007, 07:27:18 PM
...
I think you're right as a generality.  But there are exceptions to everything.  I'm reminded of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which usually had plenty going on but every so often would stop completely and devote a chapter to, say, charting the mathematical function of a character's horniness, or the erotic story involving antique furniture on some minor character's laptop.  Stephenson has always gone wild on infodump digressions, but here he took it so far it became a spectacle.

Of course, a lot of people disliked Cryptonomicon for exactly these reasons.  But I was amused.
I loved some of Stephenson's works.  Diamond Age and Snow Crash in particular are two of my favorites.  I read Cryptonomicon and felt elated at the end to have read such a massive and dense work but not much else.  The story was interesting, if not a little too convoluted, but I found the humorous segments to be the best parts.  His Quicksilver opus was too much for me.  I bought the first tome anxiously awaiting a new Stephenson's tale and was greatly disappointed.  I've never finished it or read any of the other parts. 

Ultimately I put Stephenson in the Verbose category of writers and find his science fiction works in a world wholly his own to be his best works. 

Another author I lump in this category is George R.R. Martin, though I think he lost his way in writing book 4 as it just didn't have the same connection to me as his other works.  Or perhaps it was his nearly 4 year delay in writing it that ruined it for me. 

Which brings up a question about series, etcetera, how do you prefer to read them.  Personally I prefer to wait for all of a tale to be published and to read it book by book cover to cover.  This isn't always possible but it is my preferred method. 



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Reply #56 on: April 19, 2007, 07:52:17 PM

Which brings up a question about series, etcetera, how do you prefer to read them.  Personally I prefer to wait for all of a tale to be published and to read it book by book cover to cover.  This isn't always possible but it is my preferred method. 

I always tried to wait until all the books are out. I made that decision after reading the first Wheel of Time book (which at this point I barely remember).  There were only three or four of them out at the time and I heard he was going to write ten.  The only conscious exception I have made to that are the Harry Potter books, since they are such a cultural event and since the last book is due out in a couple of months.

Lately, I've been thinking about abandoning this strategy.  It's hard to know when and if a series is finally over.  Didn't Tolkein die about 30 years ago? :P

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Reply #57 on: April 20, 2007, 12:57:04 AM
Just wanted to jump in here.  Some telling is expected out there in the markets.  The most frustrating rejection I ever got was thus:

"I felt you were showing, and not telling enough".

(That story did go on to be published elsewhere)

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Reply #58 on: April 20, 2007, 04:28:06 AM
Just wanted to jump in here.  Some telling is expected out there in the markets.  The most frustrating rejection I ever got was thus:

"I felt you were showing, and not telling enough".

(That story did go on to be published elsewhere)

 :o I have never heard of that rejection line before...


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Reply #59 on: April 20, 2007, 06:46:20 AM
I don't think it's an unreasonable rejection. Michael Swanwick told us at CW that he thinks there's a real trick in knowing what information to just lay out flat. If your character's a time traveling lesbian vampire (as was the case in the story we were discussing), just say it in the first sentence. If you have to waste 10 pages expositing that, that's ten pages the action doesn't happen.



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Reply #60 on: April 20, 2007, 04:31:19 PM
Oh yeah, I get what you're saying about wasting time -- you need to be efficient.  I've got no problem with info-dumps and world building (apologies to M. John Harrison), as long as it's done well.  It's just the "I felt like you were showing, and not telling enough" comment was a new one for a rejection.  Usually, it's the other way around.


SFEley

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Reply #61 on: April 20, 2007, 07:14:03 PM
I don't think it's an unreasonable rejection. Michael Swanwick told us at CW that he thinks there's a real trick in knowing what information to just lay out flat. If your character's a time traveling lesbian vampire (as was the case in the story we were discussing), just say it in the first sentence. If you have to waste 10 pages expositing that, that's ten pages the action doesn't happen.

Depends.  If it's a ten-page vampire lesbian sex scene in the Roman baths, perhaps that's exactly when you want to show and not tell.  >8->

(If you are writing that sort of story.  I am sure it's possible to write a non-erotic time traveling lesbian vampire story...but why?)

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #62 on: April 20, 2007, 07:21:22 PM
http://www.amazon.com/Blood-Sisters-Lesbian-Vampire-Tales/dp/1555838839

(The story I wrote for the anthology -- which was not about time travel, I fear -- was declined. It's in Cthulhu Sex 13.)



SFEley

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Reply #63 on: April 20, 2007, 08:43:21 PM
http://www.amazon.com/Blood-Sisters-Lesbian-Vampire-Tales/dp/1555838839
(The story I wrote for the anthology -- which was not about time travel, I fear -- was declined. It's in Cthulhu Sex 13.)

Clearly you just need to rewrite it with some time travel, then go back to 2005 and get it accepted.  >8->

...
...

(Jots down sudden fully-formed story idea)

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Reply #64 on: April 27, 2007, 06:50:03 PM
Ah, nothing like the urge to answer a question two months after it was asked....

While "Show, Don't Tell" can be carried too far, I think it gets bandied about so much because it's the antidote to a bad habit a lot of writers, particularly beginners, seem to fall into.  Either extreme can and will bring your story to a grinding halt, but I've seen an excess of Tell a lot more than I've seen an excess of Show.



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #65 on: May 02, 2007, 07:06:42 PM
While "Show, Don't Tell" can be carried too far, I think it gets bandied about so much because it's the antidote to a bad habit a lot of writers, particularly beginners, seem to fall into.  Either extreme can and will bring your story to a grinding halt, but I've seen an excess of Tell a lot more than I've seen an excess of Show.

Good point; I don't think I've ever read a book and thought, "Y'know, this writer "shows" too much, I'm bored."
« Last Edit: May 02, 2007, 07:09:43 PM by JaredAxelrod »