Tell don’t show

I want you to tell me a story. I want to hear your voice like a whisper coming up from the page even though you are thousand miles or a hundred years away. I want you to command my attention like a master storyteller bringing a hall full of rowdy warriors to silence with a tale of the weird and fantastic. I want every word you use to count, because if you wouldn’t stand and say them to an audience, why print them on the page?

Please don’t show me a story. Please don’t waste tens of thousands of words describing the technicolor movie spooling in your head because I’m not going to waste my time reading them. Please don’t open your novel with pages and pages of words describing the setting and the characters in endless, pointless detail because if you can’t create the image in a sentence a paragraph won’t do it any better. Please don’t treat your novel like a screenplay, or a stageplay, or a poem, or a comic script, or a feature article, or a blog post, or a text message, or like a fucking twitter update. Because it’s a novel, and it isn’t any of these things any more than a car is a plane or a boat or a hover craft, and trying to drive it like one is going to lead to disaster.

If you don’t tell me the story first it doesn’t matter how hard your try and show it to me later, because you have already lost my attention. Which is why I’m writing this post, because I’m looking at a pile of new novels for review, and too many of them want to show me spectacular images but have completely forgotten to tell me the story first. So please, for the sake of my meagre reading time, tell don’t show.

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Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Image via Wikipedia

 

Originally published on Fantasy Matters.

In my regular blog for The Guardian, I’m on record as saying that there are only two truly great science fiction movies. These are, of course, 2001 and Bladerunner. And if I think about science fiction as a ‘genre of ideas’ then I stand by that statement. No other SF movie even comes close to the vision of these two.

But. I have a confession to make. There are other SF movies that I love rather a lot, even though they have none of the philosophical depth of truly great SF. And when it comes to SF movies lacking any philosophical depth, there are none greater than the greatest of all Star Trek movies…Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.

Let’s be frank. Star Trek taken in its entirety has nothing of any great depth to say. Yes, I know, I know. The Federation is a utopian future society. If you altered the laws of physics just a teeny weeny little bit everything on board the Enterprise-D REALLY WOULD WORK, and classic Trek episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” played around with political ideas like the civil rights movement. I grew up a Star Trek geek, I know the arguments. But let’s be honest with ourselves here for just a moment…all that stuff is just trimming around the edge of what we really love about Trek…it’s unabashed pulp storytelling.

From the opening sequence of the Kobayashi Maru, through Khan’s mind control ear wigs, to William Shatner’s greatest screen moment screaming ‘KHAN!!!’ in the Genesis caves, WoK is simply the greatest pulp adventure movie ever made.

I challenge even the most high brow cinema goer not to release a small whoop of joy when, with the USS Enterprise dead in space after an underhand attack from the hijacked USS Reliant, Kirk and Spock hack the opposing ship’s computer, lower her shields and, even as the eponymous Khan gloats over their defeat, unleash phaser hell on the Reliant. HURRAH!!

But there is more. Star Trek may not be deep in concepts or philosophy. But it does have heart and soul. Beneath all the photon explosions and vengeful villains, WoK is a film about friendship. With the Enterprise unable to reach warp speed, Spock enters the radiation filled warp chamber to fix the engines, sacrificing his own life to save those of his crew. Kirk and Spock’s final exchange, even through an inch of plexiglass, is genuinely moving. Bill Shatner overcomes his usually wooden acting style and manages to shed a tear. And I’m not ashamed to say, I do too.

 

Pick me! Pick me!

“Employees wait to be picked for promotion, or to lead a meeting or to speak up at a meeting. ‘Pick me, pick me’ acknowledges the power of the system and passes responsibility to someone to initiate. Even better, ‘pick me, pick me’ moves the blame from you to them. If you don’t get picked, it’s their fault, not yours. Reject the tyranny of picked. Pick yourself.”

Seth Godin, Poke the Box

Writers are never employees. Even when they are employed. A writers job is always to say what no one else has yet said. And you can’t wait for your boss to tell you what that is. This is one reason why those structures where writers are employed, are waiting to be told what to do, businesses like newspapers and publishers, are either collapsing or going through revolutionary change, and being beaten in to the ground by dynamic systems where writers do not wait to picked, by blogs and other social media.

Writing is now such a competitive career that saying ‘pick me!’ is hardly even an option anymore, if it ever was. Too many writers think of editors, agents and other publishing professionals as people who are waiting to pick them. The truth is that no good editor or agent interested in making a living is interested in picking a writer. The writers worth working with are the ones who have already picked themselves, who are instigating and building their own career and who understand the value of the relationship they have with other professionals, agents and editors.

What does this mean in practical terms for you as a writer? Above all else it means you need to be aware of what you need to do to instigate your career. If you have never written a word and dream of writerly stardom, you need to enrol on a good course and spend a few years learning your trade. If you have published a few dozen stories and have a strong novel in progress you need to get out and network at events where you will meet people who might publish the book. You’ll quickly find out if it has potential. If you’ve sold 400 million copies of your novels about an orphan boy at magic school it might be time to ditch the agent and the publisher all together and sell direct to your readers.

Don’t mistake a rash leap in the dark for instigating your career. Self-publishing a multi-volume urban fantasy on Lulu is just another way of shouting ‘pick me!’ at a readership swamped with other desperate hopefuls doing the same thing. But don’t fear if you happen to have done this or any of the other host of miss-steps writers take early in their travels, for a fortunate consequence of this kind of failure is that, by definition, no one will have noticed.

(But it is probably a good idea to take that 18 volume saga off Lulu well before you actually publish a real book.)

And now go and read the combined wisdom of Clarion as introduced by James Patrick Kelly.