Palahniuk and Pound on Showing, Not Telling

Chuck Palahniuk

While marinating ideas for my next writing project, I’ve been scrounging the web for articles on improving my prose, and I wanted to share one I thought was particularly good. It’s from bad boy Chuck Palahniuk, who’s on the warpath against what he dismisses as abstract “thought” verbs:

These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates.

And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Of all the arts, I think writing tends to veer toward the abstract and away from the concrete. After all, we’re working with words, which are abstract representations of ideas, emotions, and our experiences in the real world. Little wonder that so many generations of writers have risen up and declared war on encroaching fuzziness in both poetry and prose.

The Imagist Poets of the early 20th century vowed “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.”

Here’s an example from another bad boy of literature, Ezra Pound, from his “Cathay Translations,” his interpretation of the Chinese poet Rihaku:

The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

Pound offered the following explanation:

Note.—Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain, of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

It’s a pleasure to read and re-read this short poem to discover the richness of the images and the emotional responses they trigger. Master poets know how to energize language to evoke a bounteous experience in a condensed space. Similarly, a good prose writer packs more punch when he sheds clutter and focuses on the concrete.

Manly Wade Wellman: The Voice of the Mountains

Manly Wade Wellman

My article on Manly Wade Wellman, once known as “the dean of fantasy writers,” is featured on the Abbeville Institute’s blog:

Manly Wade Wellman never penned an autobiography, despite the fact he published 500 stories and articles, won the World Fantasy Award and Edgar Allan Poe Award, and even edged out William Faulkner to win the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award in 1946.

Yet, in one of his most famous short stories, Wellman did reveal how he must have seen himself throughout his career, from a crime reporter for The Wichita Eagle, to Assistant Director of the WPA’s Folklore Project in New York City, and finally as “the dean of fantasy writers.” In “The Desrick on Yandro,” the protagonist, John the Balladeer, has to sing for his supper to a group of “ladies and men in costly clothes.” Confident and entertaining despite his modest attire and outsider ways, John charms the crowd with forgotten classics, including “Rebel Soldier.” Like John the Balladeer, Manly Wade Wellman was a rustic but worldly singer of old ballads, as well as a walking, talking ambassador and promoter of traditional Southern culture wherever he went.

Read the rest at the Abbeville Institute, and Like here.

A Bhikku’s Tale

A Bhikku's Tale

Here’s a new work worthy of your attention. Irish writer David R. Jordan’s second novella is out, and it’s a blast. I’m not sure exactly how to classify A Bhikku’s Tale, other than to say it’s packed with surprises, humor, and action.

Set in an alternate Ireland called Inis Fail (Isle of destiny), the central character is an easy-going monk, or bhikku, named Reilly. Though he spends most of his waking hours meditating, he’s not averse to the temptation of cigarettes and good, strong drink, or wearing Star Wars tee shirts on occasion.

But Reilly’s blissful world gets shaken when the Green Man brings terrible news: Sam the Sybarite (the spirit of luxury) is spreading the news of a marauding Chinese dragon bringing terror and destruction among the peasants and nearby townspeople. Reilly and the Green Man decide to visit the horned god Cernunnos, where they run into Sam, who verifies the news, and adds that Morpheo, the bringer of sleep and dreams, is riding the dragon. But why would a normally benign god do such a thing?

The four decide they need help if they’re going to confront Morpheo and stop him and his dragon. They recruit a shaman named Murray, a girl ghost named Tracy, and a snake. The team finds and, thanks to their mighty snake, destroys the dragon. But while they were preoccupied with the dragon, Morpheo managed to steal part of Cernunnos’ horn, giving the deranged, power-mad god control over nature. The threat is now worse than ever.

As I said, it’s a tough story to pigeonhole. Twisted fairy tale? A romping mash-up of several world mythologies? Read and enjoy this novella and decide for yourself. Whatever you want to call it, it’s thoughtful and entertaining.

A Bhikku’s Tale is now available on Amazon.UK

How being pessimistic about writing can make you a better writer

Here’s some counter-intuitive but sound advice from an accomplished author.

Yet Another Crime Book Blog

Positive thinking is all over the place and for one good reason – it sells. Telling someone that they can control their own good fortune by simply deciding to think positively is a beautiful idea. And you know what? You think positive – you feel positive. It works, we’ve all experienced it, but isn’t that a little like saying, if you imagine the colour blue you will see the colour blue?

More and more, the evidence is stacking up. Positive thinking can make you happy for a short time, but it can also stop you from reaching achievable goals too.

09-positive-thinking.w710.h473.2x.jpg

Positive thinking alone won’t secure you the job you want that was otherwise unattainable or save a failing relationship. Positive thinking can make you appear to others as a confident and outgoing person, but most jobs and relationships soon dissolve that illusion, leaving positive thinkers in a worse position than…

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Unbound II: Changed Worlds now in paperback!

Unbound II

This anthology is a mind-blowing collection of science fiction and fantasy tales. Here’s what Ben A. Sharpton, author of 2nd Sight, had to say about this unique anthology: “I enjoyed M.C. Tuggle’s “Hunting Ground” for its unusual antagonist… CHANGED WORLDS (Unbound Book 2) is a great read for those wanting to spice up their lives with something new.”

Unbound II: Changed Worlds is now available in paperback from Amazon and from the publisher, Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications.

Kindle version also available at Amazon.

Hitting that Submit Button

Hitting that Submit Button

Posting has been light lately, but it’s because I’ve been busy with my latest manuscript. For me, getting that first draft down is tough. However, I love revising. (Weird, huh?) I really think I could revise a piece forever, continuously getting charged up from finding boo-boos here and tightening up my prose there.

My wife, who is also a strict critic and proofreader, recently suggested the real reason might be more than the pleasure of “getting the words right,” as Hemingway described the process of revision — it might also be fear of taking that frightening leap of submitting my work.

Yikes! She’s probably on to something. I’ll admit it IS scary to hit that submit button. For me, it’s at least as terrifying as that first backward jump in rappelling, or seeing the earth vanish from under your feet when you launch yourself hang gliding. And I’ll also admit to still being touchy about rejection even though intellectually, I know that’s part of the game. Hey, it hurts to offer your heart and have it pushed aside. But again, that’s the nature of the beast.

Here’s a no-nonsense reminder of that cardinal rule of the writer’s life, from alto at Matters of the Art:

You will be rejected. Often. Get over it early, because it never really goes away. Though realize you are not alone. In the course of my MFA, while researching for an assignment, I stumbled upon an article about author rejections. The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Fiddlehead, and every other high end lit rag has rejected every single famous writer out there countless times. It doesn’t matter who you are. Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, all know the sting of rejection.

If misery loves company, I guess knowing you have some high-caliber company eases the hurt just a bit.

BTW, I heartily recommend alto’s article. It’s sound advice I wish I’d read decades ago, not just on dealing with rejection, but on other vital truths about writing.

Anyway, I finally let go and hit that “Submit” button. My latest wip is out there, swimming upstream in a digital slush pile.

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