Death Of 1000 Cuts: Cut 8 – Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Welcome to the first of the new Monday editions of Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time.

In case you didn’t hear the announcement, this month, we’re going to try a little experiment. Death Of 1000 Cuts is going to go twice-weekly. Thursdays will be kept exclusively for installments of In The Barber’s Chair. Mondays will be for quick, practical advice on making our fiction less shitty. As I said in my first ever post, there’s a definite air of ‘physician, heal thyself’ in these – there isn’t a single mistake I’ve called out that I haven’t committed myself, multiple times.

As well as writing advice, I’m hoping to run some interviews with authors, agents and editors, about the art of un-sucking prose. Although I’m a published, award-winning author, and I have been editing manuscripts and teaching creative writing for a decade, let us never forget that I’m not a published fiction writer*. You need to take my recommendations with an ice-cream scoopful of salt, because credentials-wise, I don’t know shit.

For this reason, I want to speak directly to some people who are more qualified, to get their takes on the unglamorous but essential task of redrafting. I might also run the occasional Monday workshop, giving you some short 100-200 word exercises to flex your writing/editing muscles. If you have any specific questions about some aspect of writing or a particular thing you keep getting stuck on, please drop me a message via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. I’d love to do an occasional advice column – I’m sure what puzzles you is bound to be puzzling others.

Most importantly of all, can I please appeal to you to spread the word via writers’ sites, amongst your creative friends, over Facebook and Twitter, letting people know that I am looking for first pages of novels to critique. I can’t keep up the new schedule if I don’t have material to work on. It’s a chance for a free, honest, thorough critique from an experienced professional. It’d be a shame if the blog had to wind down for lack of authors, so please – point them here, where they can send me their first 250 words max, along with a title (and nothing else) via the ‘Contact Me’ link.

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

‘It is unfair, nobody ever tells… Very well then, we shall go to our marriage beds in ignorance, like Victorian ladies, and in the morning we shall be found stark staring mad with horror and live sixty more years in an expensive bin, and then perhaps you’ll wish you had been more helpful.’ …

‘I should ask the Lecturer for more information,’ I said. ‘He’d tell.’

‘He’d show. No thank you very much.’

Love In A Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford

As an author, you’re expected to yak, yak, yak. Oh, he was wearing such a coat, it had so many buttons made of mother-of-pearl, and by the way his father was a drunk and hello, what’s this? It seems he’s about to have a minor epiphany re: forgiveness.

And perhaps we can be forgiven for our susceptibility to the lexical squits. It is, after all, our first and favourite song. We describe things. We make shit up. We blab.

It’s hard then, to admit, that sometimes the subtlest and most deadly arrow in the writer’s quiver, is the one that flies without a sound. It’s a little concept I like to call: Shut Up, Stupid Head. Or ShUSH.

I’m being surly but the point holds – often, the best thing you can do as a writer is get out of the way. This means leaving artful silences, wrapping up a scene before it starts to drag. When editing, our maxim should be: in late, out early.

If you’re writing SF, it means not smothering your novel under an abundance of world-building – by all means, work out the macroeconomics and implied technologies and scribble a map on the back of a fag packet, but unless it is pertinent to the plot, unless it impinges upon your protagonist’s needs and wants, unless it is somehow an integral cogwheel in the great grinding sprawl of gears that drive your novel, perhaps you don’t need to mention it at all. A touch of local colour is fine, but it ought to be pulling double- or treble-duty. Otherwise it’s just a reminder that none of this is real, that everything we read is just the sustained confabulation of some berk with too much time on his or her ink-splattered hands.

The silences in a novel, the things that pass unmentioned, the sense of a larger world beyond the narrow sliver revealed to us through the narrative – these can exert as much of a pull upon the reader’s imagination as that which is made explicit, as actions which manifest. By artfully leaving gaps, you offer space for the reader’s own interpretation to flow in around the story, to inundate and irrigate it, to make it their own. The reader may not even be conscious of these absences, automatically threading disparate elements together, conflating their inventions with those of the author.

The psychologist Frederic Bartlett’s work on memory and storytelling features some striking examples of this principle in action. Particularly fascinating are his famous studies using the Native American fable The War of The Ghosts. He had participants read the story, then attempt to recount it later on. The story contains various unexplained or apparently illogical elements. In some instances, he had a second participant memorise the altered version, and then a third person would memorise the second participant’s memorised version, and so on, like a big game of Chinese Whispers.

Bartlett found that when participants recounted the story, subconsciously they tended to leave out or change the elements that did not make intuitive sense to them, even adding explanations for apparently unmotivated behaviour. He demonstrated how memory has a strong cultural bias; our memories change to fall in line with expectation.

It’s worth checking out the original studies, and Bartlett’s 1932 book Remembering – they make for fascinating reading. For the author, the lesson is that readers arrive at your novel armed with tools and models and lenses, with which they will analyse and dissect and interpret your work. A degree of this is out of your control – meanings shift with time, contexts change. It’s shocking to read Gordon Comstock in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, a man living in 1930s England, bitterly wishing for aeroplanes to come and bomb the city flat. The Blitz hadn’t happened when Orwell wrote this scene (although clearly tension was ramping up across Europe) but reading it now, with our knowledge of what was to come, the scene is grimly humorous and terrifying and sad.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a novelist who makes a particularly good fist of shutting up, holding back, populating his books with patches of shadow. Whether you think it works is partly a question of goodwill – I enjoyed and felt invested in Remains Of The Day and Artist Of The Floating World; I thought Never Let Me Go was fucking godawful, and felt furious I’d been conned into reading it. Some people were ‘spellbound’ though, so it just goes to show – restraint and silence make your work mercurial. The risk you take is whether your audience go ‘wow – quicksilver!’ or ‘oh Christ you’ve poured mercury all over my fingers, you utter bastard.’

* I’m working on it. Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I’ve been writing a Fantasy novel for the past two years. I’m now beginning the nervous business of hunting for a brilliant agent. If you’re a brilliant agent, feel free to get in touch. (although you really ought to have better things to do than reading the footnotes to my blog)