Sunday, April 29, 2007

Show, Don't Tell, and Other Silly Advice

Show, don't tell

That could well be the most often repeated advice for writers. Rubbish, I say. Poppycock. Also, bushwah. (Which I believe is the sound made by Pretend President Georgette when he doesn't get his way.)

It's not that the rule is inherently silly but rather that, as is often the case with occasionally useful rules, it leads to silliness if it's followed in all circumstances. Some rules really are made to be broken.

Surely no one would write

John placed his hands on the arms of the chair and exerted downward pressure, simultaneously leaning forward and straightening his legs. Then he straightened his back. Thus he brought himself to a standing position. Once he was standing, John raised his right foot slightly, leaned forward, and placed his right foot down on the floor a few inches ahead of him. Moving steadily, he then raised his left foot, which was now behind him, advanced it to a position a few inches ahed of him, and ...

instead of

John left the room.

Arguably, the second version is telling, while the first is showing. But of course we all do that all the time in our writing. What matters is choosing what to show and what to tell.

What prompted these rather obvious thoughts was my realization that the crapocious section of Time and the Soldier that I was whining about a few posts back is crapocious precisely because it consists of boring and irrelevant showing. What happens in that part is relevant to the story, but how it happens isn't. So on some future pass through the ms., I'll chop it out with a meat cleaver (literary liposuction won't do the job with that fat deposit) and replace it with a very brief bit of telling. The book will be much improved.

And the world will rejoice. Well, I will.

Write what you know

Or maybe this is the advice most often given to writers. Thank God no one worth reading follows it.

If they did, we'd have very little genre fiction. Almost all fiction would be mainstream and would mirror the writers' lives, which means it would mirror our own lives, and so fiction would no longer serve its main function, which is to enable us to escape from our tedious, boring, pointless, aimless lives for a few hours.

God, do you realize how much of that fiction would be written by college English professors and would be all about college English professors having midlife crises? Aaaaiiiieeeee!

This rule becomes a good one if restated as, "Try to know something about what you're writing about before you write it. Don't just make stuff up. Google is your friend." But that's pretty obvious, surely.

The exception is if you're writing about the pretend president, who is entirely a creation of some PR firm and not an actual human being at all. So anything you write about him, no matter how invented, is acceptable, in the same sense that the syllogism

Whenever John eats refried beans in the morning, it rains at 6 p.m. that evening.
John ate refried beans this morning.
Therefore it will rain at 6 p.m. this evening.

is valid even though it's absurd.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wind and Rain

Denver is experiencing a few days of on-and-off heavy, cold rain and high winds. Normally, that sort of thing lasts for an hour or two here. It's unusual for it to go on for hours on end, as it has today.

So I was walking from the office to bus stop after work today, feeling cold and wet and inadequately dressed, with my umbrella in one hand and my very heavy briefcase in the other (very heavy because I've been taking my antique laptop to work every day, so that I can write during lunch), trying to switch the umbrella and briefcase from time to time because the briefcase keeps trying to pull my arm off, dealing with winds constantly changing direction and strength.

I was crossing a street. In the middle, my umbrella turned inside out, and I staggered around dealing with that. By the time I reached the far sidewalk, not only had the WALK sign changed to WAIT, the green light had turned to red. (Surprisingly quickly. I suspect that the rain had done something to the light's timer.) I heard a loud honk. Looked up from fighting with my umbrella to see that the traffic in the street I was crossing had started moving, and one yob in an SUV was honking and gesturing angrily at me because I was in his way.

So I apologized immediately, as loudly as possible, in hopes that he would hear me over the rain and wind. It was the standard apology one uses in such cases. The one that begins with "F" and ends with "u!"

I do hope he heard me.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Healing Effects of Sleep

Whew. The book improved during the night. All it needed was a break from me.

I hope that doesn't sound (too) psycho.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Crapulosity! Crapociousness!

Overnight! How did this happen?

I was performing literary liposuction on TimeSold at work during lunch yesterday and again at home in the evening, and both times the book was solid gold, converted to platinum by my careful surgery.

This evening, when I got back to it, it was crap. No one in his right mind would want to that garbage. What the hell happened? Someone sneaked into my computer and replaced that work of brilliance with this pile of, well, you know what. Aiiieee!

I'm going to bed now. I hope the literary philosopher's stone passes by during the night and effects a transmutation.

(This has happened before. Probably with every book, although I don't remember for sure. But one always fears that, with this book, the change back to wonderfulness won't happen.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Literary Liposuction

(Which I thought was a terribly clever and original phrase, but when I Googled it, I discovered that while it is terribly clever, it ain't original. Not surprising. There are a lot of terribly clever writers around.)

I'm continuing to snip and trim and tighten up the prose in Time and the Soldier. I decided that "murdering your darlings" isn't really appropriate for what I'm doing. Some of what I'm cutting out is indeed material that I thought was really good stuff when I wrote it, but most of it is extraneous words and phrases junking up my prose. I've always found a lot of that when proofreading my own writing, which is distressing, because I'd have thought that, by now, even my first drafts would be more tightly. Still, there it is. Extraneous junk. It dilutes and weakens and obscures sentences rather than enhancing them, and when I'm proofreading I always wonder why I thought it was such a good idea to include that unnecessary crap in the first place.

I used to think of this process as trimming the fat. But that applies to, say, cuts of meat - steaks, chops. A book ms. is a living thing. It's horrible to think of using a sharp knife and cutting fat off it!

No, instead one is carefully extracting that unhealthy, soft, wiggly, pudgy, obscuring excess so that the true lean, hard, shapely, healthy, active being is freed and exposed. Hence, literary liposuction.

It's much better than real liposuction. There's no question of medical danger, it's not likely that the ms. will be left with weird dimples in strange places, and, most of all, one is not left with giant tubs of horrifying, bloody fat.

I mean, insanguinated lipogenous tissue. (I made that up, but it sounds about right.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Way It Ought to Work

I'm already thinking ahead to the query letter I'll send out for Time and the Soldier. Mostly, I'm thinking about the hook such a letter has to begin with.

Ugh. I can't imagine writing a hook, even though I'll have to.

It shouldn't be that hard. The whole process should be much simpler. The query letter should be, "Me author. You agent. Here book."

The agent should then reply (almost immediately!), "Me agent. Love book. You client."

Not long after, the following letter should show up: "Me editor. Big publisher. Book stupendous. Reaching waaaay down into company piggy bank."

Update: I just thought of the perfect hook! Short, snappy, catchy. Just generally terriffic.

The book opens with a building blowing up. So now my query letter will read:


Me author. You agent. Here book.

Man, that's a killer.

Arrogant? Moi?

Today I got another attack e-mail from an observant Jew trying to explain to me the error of my ways. He didn't mention my essay Why I Am Not a Jew, but that's always the one that prompts these e-mails. He explained at some length why, because I'm intellectually arrogant, I'm the wicked son mentioned in the Seder service. Yeah, okay, nothing new there.

But the astonishing part of the e-mail came at the end, where he illustrated my arrogance one last time:

I have only read some of your posts on your website. Your essay, David Dvorkin - George W. Bush caught my attention. Now, I am by no stretch of the imagination any huge fan of our president but my lack of confidence in his competency as President of the United States probably comes from a different place than yours. Be as it may, you listed comparisons and contrasts between yourself and Mr. Bush and I thought that I would add another distinction. While Mr. Bush has many failings, he seems to me to come across as someone who is willing to engage in dialogue and contrary to popular liberal notions, someone who is willing to take suggestions.

What universe is this man living in?

Oh, and he ends with:

[I]t is pretty apparent that your god is David Dvorkin. It’s a shame because your god with all your god’s accomplishments is seriously limited by his being human and all. You may be well read, but your humility to learn from anyone seems to be seriously lacking.

David you probably will not find G-d this way. Something tells me you’re not really seeking the truth anyway.

Dude! I am God! The Flying Spaghetti Monster told me so!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm Murdering My Darlings

"Murder your darlings" has been ascribed to a number of famous British and American writers of the past. It's also been ascribed to one who's not so famous nowadays, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. I've decided that line must have come from Sir Arthur because, of all the writers who've been given credit for it, he has the coolest name.

From what I've been reading lately, I think I need to keep Time and the Solder to 120,000 words tops. It's rather longer than that now, and I still have stuff to add. Not huge chunks of stuff. Rather, I have a long list of notes -- missing or inadequately treated plot points, basically -- to take care of, and doing that will surely increase the length of the ms. So I need to trim and trim. I also need to read it from the beginning and get a new, fresh grip on the whole thing before I take care of some of those notes. So I'm starting from the first page again, reading through the ms., and while I go along, I'm wielding the author's bloody knife and murdering my darlings.

Sob. Some of them are sooo darling.

It's more than a matter of length, though. There's too much introspection and internal monolog and auctorial meandering and philosophizing and stuff like that -- fine for the mainstream, but not acceptable in genre fiction unless one is well established and has a large and solid fan base. So in addition to shortening for total word length, I'm also trying to make sure the story moves along rapidly. Carrying the reader along with it, one hopes.

The underlying image in the novel (I hope I didn't say all of this before) is that of the onrushing river of time, carrying the characters helplessly along. I'd like the writing to convey that feeling. Without drowning the reader. Or bashing him against rocks. Or submerged dead tree trunks. Or carrying him over a waterfall. Or --

Christ, it's just a metaphor, okay? Jeez!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Folk Etymology

David's Definitions for June:

Folk Etymology

Etymology is the history of the evolution of words over time. Look up a word in a dictionary, and, in addition to its definition, you'll find a brief version of its etymology - how it changed from a Latin or French or German or other word into the English word we now use. Folk etymology is a popular but mistaken idea about a word's etymology. It often seems to make sense - for example, the origin I gave for bistro a couple of months ago. Or it may be amusing - for example, the story that the sirloin steak got that name when an English king was so delighted with his steak that he knighted it, saying, "I dub thee Sir Loin." (Actually, sirloin comes from the French "sur," above, and "longe," loin, and used to be spelled surloin in English.) In some cases, the folk etymology catches on and the spelling or meaning of a word changes as a result. An example is shamefaced, which didn't start out referring to shame in one's face but rather as shamefast or shamfast, meaning "held fast in shame." Which is sort of how I feel about that bistro definition.

Home, Sweet Home

I've often not been crazy about our house, but it always seems like a nice one after a trip, even a short one. We got back very late Monday night from Baton Rouge, then got up early the next morning to go to work. It was a short first night back in our own bed, but it was very nice indeed to be there.

Baton Rouge is growing and spreading like mad, while New Orleans looks smaller and far less a major city. Wonderful seafood in both places, though. And beer is overly available, which made me feel obligated to consume lots of it. My father-in-law, the retired English professor, seemed astonished, offended, and a rather angry that neither Leonore nor I has read James Joyce's Ulysses and - even worse - don't want or plan to do so. But I know that he's woefully unfamiliar with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his literary successors, so there.

I was wrong about the taxes. There was more to do than I had fooled myself into believing. Tonight, I finally finished entering everything into my spreadsheet. Tomorrow evening, I'll check all the formulas and then begin copying to the IRS forms. I noticed that one of those forms is available as a PDF form on the IRS site. I.e., it's a PDF file you can type numbers and text into and then print the result. I hope all of them are available in that format. That would help the final step immensely. In any case, I'd like to have it ready to go to the Post Office on Saturday morning. Then I'd actually be able to - gasp! - get back to writing.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Finally got the taxes essentially done. There are a few deductions I have yet to add to the spreadsheet, but the hardest part is over. Phew. Now I can get back to writing.

I suppose I could take the time to answer the three e-mails I got from the rightwing wackoes, but I doubt if it's worth bothering - especially in the last one, whose writer informed me that the Nazis were socialists, because, like, just look at their name! Like, ya know, I've never heard that dumbshit argument from brain-cell-challenged wingnuts before. I've run into that bullcrap claim for decades; I wouldn't be surprised if it started in the 1930s.

The hits from that site, both here and on my Web site, have tapered off. No doubt some new bright, shiny object has caught their little piggy eyes.

I'll probably take the novelizing route, not the pointless e-mailing one. I'm waiting for advice on the matter from my high-powered advisory committee. Meetings are now underway at Dvorkin Intergalactic HQ regarding the issue.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Attacked by Rabid Rightwingers

How they do foam at the mouth!

A rightwing Web site discovered one of my essays, "We Are the Nazi Hordes", and they're ranting about it here.

They have a lot of time on their hands. I guess preschool isn't in session.

Update: One of them linked directly to this blog, which explains the troll comment. (And thanks, Daniel, for the excellent reply.)

If that essay made their little potty mouths foam so much, I wish they'd all buy and read my novel Business Secrets from the Stars. That would make their little fascist heads just exploooode! And make me some money, in the process.

I've also received a couple of e-mails from that direction today. One of them wished that my family and I would be attacked by Islamic extemists, so that maybe I'd realize blah blah blah. Oh, those wacky kids!