"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: October 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Show Don't Tell - What it Means

Rob Parnell

This is probably the least understood phrase for new writers – probably because it seems to go against logic. Writers tell stories right? No. Good writers show stories.

To me there’s really only one thing you need to remember when it comes to showing your stories, and that is a quote from Graham Masterton. He said:

“Don’t tell your story. Be there.”

Basically, it doesn’t matter how good your writing is. If you’re telling the story you are distancing your reader from it. Here’s an example of telling:

Jason knew he had to go to the Dentist. His teeth hurt so much that he told his mother about it. She suggested he call Dr Evans, a man who had looked after the family’s teeth for years. He made the call and arranged to be at Dr Evans surgery at three o clock. That would give him plenty of time to do a few errands – and be back in time for tea.

This is completely passive because the information is being related from the omniscient, non-personal viewpoint. In order to ‘show’ the story you need to become the character of Jason – and get him to relate the story, unfolding it in real time. Like this.

Jason woke at seven thirty. His jaw felt as though someone had kicked it during the night. He poked his tongue around a sensitive area in his mouth. Ouch. It felt almost raw. He got up and trundled down the stairs to breakfast.

“My goodness, Jason, you look awful,” his mother said. “What on earth is the matter?”

“My tooth hurts something terrible, Mum.” Jason used a finger to prod around the interior of his mouth. He squinted.

“Call Dr Evans. He’ll know what to do. Go on, call him now.”

Jason picked up the phone and dialed a number on the refrigerator door.

“Hello? I’d like to make an appointment…"

And so on.

Showing is achieved by taking each story event and relating it as though it were a scene in a movie. Instead of merely telling the reader what action and drama took place, you need to put yourself in the scene and explain what the characters are experiencing – as the story unfolds.

You do this with dialogue and being specific about emotions like pain, sorrow, love, whatever. Instead of saying ‘he felt pain’, you need to say where the pain is and of what type. Making bland generalizations about a character’s motivation is not enough.

Your reader wants specifics – they want to feel as though they’re actually inside the head of the characters – experiencing their world, their thoughts and their emotions.

Whenever you look at your writing, ask yourself. Is this telling, or showing?

Imagine that you have to explain to a film or TV director what you need to get a particular scene across. The easiest way to do that is to show him. You would first show him the location, the characters inhabiting that space and then write down the necessary dialogue.

If you copy this same technique to use in novel and short story writing, you won’t go far wrong.

Of course some exposition and telling is good for pacing – you can’t have your book reading exactly like a screenplay after all. However, you should be aiming for a balance of 5 to 1. Show four fifths of the time and tell just one fifth.

As an exercise – indeed as any editing process – you need to look at every sentence you write and try re-writing it – deliberately tightening it. Remember, nothing is sacred, no matter how well written.

If you can create more scenes that show rather than tell, your writing will always work better for a reader.

Gone are the days when authors can bore their readers with long passages of exposition and passive prose.

Shame really – it’s much easier to write like that!

Showing requires discipline – and going that extra mile.

The good part is that publishers and readers reward you for doing that work – by buying more of your books!

Keep Writing!

For more information on 'Show Don't Tell' go to www.easywaytowrite.com/showstudypack.html

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to Begin Your Writing Career

The trick with creating success in writing is to do what all bestselling writers have done. That is, try lots of things, find out what works - and then follow the money.

But where do you start? Here's my best advice:

Take a piece of paper. Real paper - and a pen.

Write down a list of writing activities that you believe would provide a nice balance of work for you on an ongoing basis. Then ascribe a percentage value to each. For instance:

Short Fiction - 35% of my writing time
Magazine Articles - 15% of my writing time
Fillers - 5% of my writing time
The Great Novel - 10% of my writing time

And so on. Put as many categories as you like. Then, take the same list and ascribe the monetary income you visualize your writing efforts bringing in over the course of a year. Like this:

Short Fiction - 20% of my writing income
Magazine Articles - 35% of my writing income
Fillers - 25% of my writing income
The Great American Novel - 5% of my writing income

You get the idea...

This exercise helps crystallize your goals and how you're going to find time to work towards them. It could be you decide that ten minutes a day spent on writing fillers will represent just 10% of your writing time and that 90% - an hour and half - should be spent on writing your novel. That's fine. It will be up to you to decide on whether the income earned over the course of a year justifies the time spent on any one activity.

At some point every year - perhaps today - you should write down your writing goals with some prediction as to their worth to you - in monetary terms if that's what motivates you. Then, each year, decide whether you want to rethink or prioritize those goals.

It could be that a novel MS reaps you an advance of $1000 - and that magazine articles secured $10,000 over the course of a year. But it could be that the advance is worth much more to you than the cash.

This is what even the most professional of writers do.

Sitting at home and writing successful books is the dream of many aspiring authors. The reality is very different for 99% of professional authors. They, like us, have to juggle priorities. They know that income from book royalties, especially fiction, is
rarely sufficient. Extra money must come from writing outside of their niche, making personal appearances, article writing, short story sales, TV and radio interviews, doing teaching gigs, mentoring, manuscript assessment, whatever it takes to provide a sufficient range of paying activities.

This is something that empirical knowledge, over the years, has taught them. It's something they just know. As should you.

In a diverse world, diversity is the key to survival. Sticking to one avenue of writing is the luxury of the hobbyist - or a mere handful of bestselling authors. The would-be professional knows different - and is willing to experiment; to do as any professional
does, to learn from experience.

Using Spreadsheets to Track Your Success

A few years back I took a government sponsored course aimed at helping small businesses to write a business plan. Of course, given my allegiance to creativity and my natural suspicion of math and numbers, I was cynical about the benefits I might garner from this.

I went along anyway, partly to move out of my comfort zone and partly, well, I'll be honest now, because the local council, through my local small business network, actually paid me to go. Who said the government did nothing for the individual?

Anyhow. I was so glad I went because it taught me some valuable lessons.

I'd been well used to self-help gurus telling me that writing down my goals - and spending time visualizing the results - helped solidify them in my mind. Little did I expect that this was exactly what a business plan can do. It's exactly the same principle!

You literally write down your goals, including their consequences, breaking everything down into little, do-able (and believably do-able is the point) pieces, and then that becomes the template for how you spend your time over the coming months and years.

The course forced me to write down how I thought I was going to make money over the course of the next five years. It made me be specific, precise and, more importantly, realistic. Scary when you do it but enormously powerful when it's done, not least in convincing others that it's a practical plan and not a ridiculous course of actions.

Especially because, as part of the deal for the course, I had to mark off whether I'd actually done the activities I'd planned I would - and report that back to the government. Talk about motivation! At least it made me focus on my objectives - and actually, like I used to dread, take action!

So, I would advise you, as a matter of urgency, to consolidate your writing plans on to a spreadsheet. Break down your goals into a series of steps, with timelines that you can tick off as you go.

Some of the writers I know, to a certain extent, do this already. They have a list of their submissions and they track whether they've been accepted, rejected, need rewriting or re-submitting. It's a useful tool, worth keeping up to date and studying - if only to remind you that you're not doing enough!

I would suggest you take it one stage further and be more business-like about it. Write down your goals in all areas of writing - even those you're not sure you're up to attacking yet - and review them every week or so to see how far you're progressing. Every week? I guess that sounds obsessive. Perhaps.

I read a quote once that I related to and thought was probably true.

It said, "The difference between normal people and successful people is simply that the successful review their goals more often - usually up to five times a day." Gulp.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What's the Secret, Rob?

There's really only one way to achieve success in writing and it's very simple to learn: to keep writing!

I know this is my call sign - but I use it for a reason.

It's based on my experience of watching thousands of writers over the years.

The truth of it is very basic.

That is, the Universe favors those who do not give up.

It's obvious really.

If you set out on a path and commit to it, many things in the world need to change for you to accomplish your goals.

People around you need to think of you as a writer.

Publishers, agents and readers need to know that you are a writer.

They need to see you working and taking your craft seriously.

You need to be building a catalogue of work - articles, short stories, novels, non-fiction work, ebooks, websites, blogs, anything that proves that you live your life through writing.

The Universe needs to see you improving - and wanting to improve - so that it can then do its bit: creating unseen connections for you, working behind the scenes on your behalf, setting up relationships between people you may not meet for years.

Every writer needs to believe that their time will come - whether sooner or later.

It's an act of faith, to be sure, especially when it seems as though you're not getting anywhere, are ignored or unappreciated, or constantly rejected.

But hey, as my first coach used to say, no-one ever said that following your heart was going to be easy.

Quite the opposite.

We know from history that every great battle, every movement forward was preceded by persistence and tenacity and the self-belief of those who would be taken seriously.

Why should our careers be any different?

Yes, some people seem to get there quickly - but mostly, if you study these things - this is an illusion.

Even if you have famous parents, are rich enough to kick butt, or get a few lucky breaks, you still have to deliver the goods once you get there.

You need talent and staying power to reach the top of your game.

Just because it may appear that some people hit the big time out of the blue, doesn't mean that's what has actually happened.

People with talent - especially writers - are noticed, then nurtured, then thrust upon the scene largely by their own volition - and then the public must decide whether they are worthy.

In the modern world nothing much happens by accident.

Instant fame is, more often than not, planned carefully by many people behind the scenes - and usually based on endless positive feedback - and, of course, sales.

It takes a lot of faith from artists to keep to their path and not give up.

I would argue it takes a lot more faith from a lot more people to support an artist.

If you want to be a successful writer, you need to be a rock of dependability - an inspiration in your own right.

You need to show others that you are focussed on your writing, committed to your writing, and convinced of your own worth as a writer.

A tall order?

Perhaps - given that most artists are tough on themselves - and not always convinced of their own talent!

But that's the first hurdle - something I've dedicated my career to overcoming. The Writing Academy was set up to help writers get over their self-doubt - to fill them with confidence.

Writing, like nail biting or overeating, is habit based.

Writing needs time - your time, no-one else's!

As much as we might like things to be easy, there are dues to pay.

There are hours to spend doing the actual work at the coal-face.

No-one and nothing can write for you.

All the software, the gizmos and the will in the world won't eradicate the blank page that needs your words to fill them.

As I've always said, it starts with your mind.

Your mindset is the beginning - and you need to get that clear first, before anything else.

Your must be clear on what being a writer means to you, you must have good reasons why you want to be a writer, and you must have the confidence - even if you need to fake it at first - to continue, knowing that things may not always be easy along the way.

The most successful writers just stick with it.

They take rejection and failure - sometimes years of it - in their stride.

They just keep going, gently pushing, improving all the time, until finally the gates of opportunity open up and the Universe's gatekeeper is there saying, "Okay, now it's your turn."

I hope by then you will have learned your craft well - because you're going to need every ounce of talent and tenacity to hold on to that opportunity.

But there's hope - because writing really can be easy, once you get your mindset in the right place.

And the best part about that is you can do it right now.

You've always had the power, inside, just waiting for you to tap into it.

Trust me, it's there.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What You Should Know About Being a Commercial Author

This week a writer asked me a great question - something I take so much for granted that I realised I don't talk about it much!

The question was simple:

"I love what you teach, Rob, but can you give me the names of any popular novels that exemplify and reflect your teaching?"

Where to start?

First, take a look at the top 100 bestselling novels out there at any one time! All of them contain the elements I teach. All of them.

You name a successful author, and I can tell you exactly what they do that makes them commercial and popular.

Anyone from Jeffrey Archer to Poppy Z Brite.

The Fact Is...

I have made it my business over the last twenty five years to study all kinds of popular fiction - in all kinds of commercial genres: thrillers, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror and science fiction - hence, my expertise and my ability to teach these genres.

I have made similar studies in popular film making - hence, I would have to say, our recent successes is screenplay writing.

And just for good measure, I was a pop star once, which gave me huge access to the art of composing and songwriting techniques.

I'm actually a bit of geek when it comes to popular culture. I know lots of trivia too about films, books and music of the 20th century - so much so that in days gone past I was always the guy chosen to answer those questions in local quiz nights!

More important - the thing that makes me different I would guess - is my ability to not just enjoy art and craftsmanship in fiction, movies and music - but to also be able to assimilate, dissect and understand exactly what goes into creating commercial 'art'.

More than that, I can teach exactly HOW YOU CAN DO IT TOO.

I know this because people tell me all the time - daily, and have done for more years than I care to ponder.

I don't know how I picked up this ability - or what it's really for - I just know that if it is a gift, then I should use it - not only to help further my own 'artistic' career - but to help other people achieve their dreams too.

I like to think that's what I do.

If I thought I wasn't teaching people to become successful, confident and motivated artists, I would stop doing this tomorrow!

There would be no point, would there?


Here's a FREE Breakdown of My BEST Advice

1. Choose the direction you want to go in

This may be the hardest part for many - to know with certainty the genre or the road on which you want to travel. Many artists and writers may spend decades discovering the kind of stories they want to write - and the kind of writer they want to be.

But unless you're some kind of polymath, then specialization is the key to success. Choose one area in which you wish to excel and focus on that alone.

If you're not sure, choose something related to what you love already. If you love romance, write romance, study it, learn the genre requirements and live the life of a romance writer.

Don't fight the genre requirements, God no, not yet, absorb them, understand them and write to show publishers you get it.

This advice is true for any artistic pursuit.

Being different is okay once you're there - but if you don't show people you know what you're doing first, then you're never going to get to the point where you can experiment.

This holds true for all great authors - from Stephen King to JK Rowling, from James Patterson to Patricia Cornwell: they proved they can handle their genre first, then put their own stamp on it.

2. Find Out Everything You Need to Know

Read anything and everything related or connected to that genre or direction you'd like to focus on.

Become an expert on your genre. Study its authors.

Learn how the greats have done it. Work out exactly how writers structure their sentences, their paragraphs, their chapters, their entire novels - it's not that hard to do.

Even if there are authors that you're not crazy about, and yet they are successful and popular, study them too. Work out why their writing is effective to their fans.

3. Constantly Improve Your Technique

Make it a lifelong goal to improve your writing - to get better.

Study the basics often. Study all you can about spelling, grammar, style, writing technique, planning and all of the myriad advice around regarding fiction and creative writing.

You can never hear good advice too many times.

And to think you are above the basics is to kid yourself - there is no such thing as a writer who does not find all of the nuances of writing - including the most trivial - absolutely fascinating.

If you don't, then take up gardening. It will probably be more rewarding for you!

And I've saved the best advice for last:

4. When it comes to telling stories, develop the concept fully.

The modern world of commercial writing is not primarily focussed on creating or even acknowledging good writers. You can be the most fabulous writer in your community BUT if you can't tell a half decent story, you will struggle to become a successful author.

Look at all of the bestselling authors of the 20th and 21st centuries - what do you see?

Not the writers. No, their characters, their worlds, their STORIES are what stand out.

Think about James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Think about Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code.

It's the concepts that sold these stories to millions of readers.

You don't even have to be a great literary writer.

Once they had a good idea that was well thought out, all of the most successful authors of the last 100 years had to do was immerse themselves so fully into their concepts that they were merely recording their worlds for others to share.

That, my friend, is all you need to 'get' if you really want to be a commercial bestselling author.

That's my best advice (for what it's worth!)

Thanks for letting me rant.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!