Rambles: Book Tag thingy

On Tuesday, I was tagged by Becky to answer some bookish questions. Ooo, eck…

However…

Challenge Accepted!

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next? 

Only 20k? I must be slipping. :-) I pick books from my TBR on a whim 99% of the time, unless it’s a book I’ve been after for a long time and I really want to read it.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

I’ve never not finished a book. I’m not a quitter, and I’ve been through some turkeys: Jaws. The Road. The novelisation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. {blows raspberry} There’s usually some glimmer of light somewhere, even in the darkest reaches of the worst book I’ve ever read, so I keep going.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your Goodreads Challenge. Do you quit or commit? 

I’ve never taken a GR challenge….I like to enjoy my books and don’t want the artificial pressure of reading forty more by the end of the year. I’d rather enjoy them!

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Curl into a corner and weep for a week. Then I go out and buy the whole set again. :-) Actually, mostly I learn to live with it. After years of extensive therapy and counselling, that is.

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

Oh, you’ve heard about The Fault in Our Stars, huh? There’s generally someone who will agree with your opinion. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile to find them. Or hire a detective to find them for you…

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Oh, that’s a toughie. Pretend I have allergies, mostly. No, it’s hayfever, really…what’s that? Yes, I get it in December. Honestly.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on Goodreads? Cry in frustration?

I’m re-reading “The Enemy” series by Charlie Higson at the minute. He’s been writing these for about seven years now, and I can’t remember one from the other with all the gaps in between (hence the re-read now he’s nearly finished). A decent writer will give you some backstory to help you on your way. If I get really stuck, I’d check back on my review and then the summary on Goodreads.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I growl from the back of my throat, like a Wookiee with phlegm.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over your slump?

I’ve never had a slump with my reading…if I picked up five books and put them down again in a month, it’s ‘cos I read ‘em all.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

Not many…the school where I work has a really good library, and they listen to my suggestions of what to buy. So I borrow new books from them when they arrive. ;-)

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

Usually less than twelve hours! I’m not one to delay my reading pleasure.

This was kinda fun. :-)

I tag…

Melanie Cusick-Jones

Anna Hub

Coffee2words

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Writing tips: Tony Talbot, The Brand

When I started self-publishing back in 2008, I came across an interesting concept: The writer as a brand item and marketed as such.

It seemed a little odd to me at the time, but I see the logic of it now: Your readers see very few images of you, or even better, just one. Think of McDonalds and you think of Golden Arches and wheat field yellow and red, for instance.

Quite a few years ago, Stephen King decided he wanted to sell books under a different name, for a variety of reasons. So he quietly sold books under the name Richard Bachman with minimal publicity. One book sold about ten thousand copies or so…but when he re-published the book as Stephen King, it sold an order of magnitude more. That’s the power of a writer as a brand, as a consumer item.

So all writers do it, even the big six. They all have a Facebook page, a Twitter hashtag, a YouTube channel and countless other ways of getting their name out there. We’re all waving our arms and shouting as loud as we can, after all. It helps that everywhere you go and look for us, you know what to look for.

I’ve seen this again and again from writers…they’re asked to be A Brand. To promote their books themselves as part of that brand, go on lecture tours, do readings from bits of their books, and so on. To give people a face to attach to the name.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, a few weeks ago I changed my author picture from this 2012 pic (A very hot day in Washington State):

61EZUOfoH1L._UY200_

 

…to this 2015 one (Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire)…

TT-2015

Doesn’t seem like much of a deal, does it?

But think about it again…this author picture is the virtual image I send out to the world and the one that sits on my little business cards I give out to people. What do I want it to say about me? What brand image do I want to have?

It’s a serious business when this picture is how most of my readers see me most of the time. After all, ninety-nine percent of what I am as a writer is virtual; I’m mostly just binary.

So I asked for comments on Facebook before I went with it, and someone suggested I lighten the pic, so I did that. I cropped it a little as well and I cut off my feet (Hurt like hell). The same person also commented the stones and the countryside make me look like a writer of fantasy…see what I mean about branding? I decided I could live with that though.

There are also technical considerations. How does this picture look when it’s shrunk to a thumbnail or on one of my little business cards, for instance? How does it look on a mobile device?

And there are also the number of places this picture has to be updated: Goodreads, Booklikes, Twitter, WordPress.org and WordPress.com. Facebook, Amazon US, Amazon UK. My Gravatar avatar. Two places on my website. Physically, I’m going to have to change my business cards as well.

It might look like a small matter – changing one picture to another – but even for a small writer like me, that’s a dozen or so places. If I get it wrong or change my mind, I’ll have to do all those pictures again. There are places I can’t change – reviewers who have my old picture on their site, for instance – but you do what you can with what you’ve got.

Why does it matter? Being Tony Talbot, The Brand means everywhere you find me, I look the same.

Just like McDonalds: You’ll always know what to look for.

Writing Tips: The one rule of writing I know.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Maybe not, but there’s one rule I have discovered…almost by accident really. It’s going to seem strange to people just starting to publish that they shouldn’t do it, but here it is:

Don’t respond to a review.

That’s it; Good or bad, do not respond to a review of your story. Ever.

Of course, the nice thing about rules is that they’re made to be broken, and I’ve broken this one a few times…but here’s the modifier: The reviews I’ve replied to are only to people I know. Don’t do it somewhere like Amazon, as tempting as that ‘Reply to this comment’ button is.

There are times and places to thank your readers for leaving reviews, and you have to pick them using some judgement.

So why not respond?

It’s a good question. You spent weeks or months (or years!) writing your beautiful story and someone doesn’t get the fuss you kept making about Sam’s dress being green. They missed the symbolism of it all, The Big Image You Had in Your Head.

Two sentences, you can clear it all up for them, right? That Reply button is looking so tempting…

But don’t.

It’s frustrating, I know. I’ve had someone leave a one star review saying a short story “Wasn’t true and was too short.” I could have pointed out that the story is A) Clearly listed as fiction, and B) Clearly listed as a short. But I didn’t, although I still have to restrain myself every time I go and check my reviews.

Console yourself with the knowledge that you did the best you could. Try harder next time, and accept that most people aren’t going to be on the same mental wavelength as you (Another reason editors and beta-readers are so useful, by the way).

It’s going to sound odd, but the minute someone reads your story, it isn’t yours anymore.

People take reading very seriously…and what they take away from the story might not be what you wanted them to take away. Get to live with that, because it’s true. I didn’t take anything away from The Road, for instance, but a damn dull time. I’m sure Cormac McCarthy had something else in mind when he wrote it.

If someone didn’t like your story, do not tell them what they missed. Do not tell them you’re the best writer since Shakespeare or Dickens. Brood over a bad review if you have to. Rend your garments and thrash about on the floor for a while.

Just don’t do it in public or to the people who left you a review.

Replies to reviewers scare them away.

I discovered this one on an Amazon board where the question What do you think of authors replying to a review? was asked.

I was quite shocked by the drift of the comments. One person said they felt as though the author was breathing over their shoulder as they read; another said they had trouble saying how much a story sucked for fear of hurting the author’s feelings, knowing they were checking in.

But they said such nice things!

This one is harder to deal with, I think, than a bad review. Someone gives you five stars and said your story made them cry. I can tell you, that feels damn good. Even better if it’s your intent. ;-).

But take the good with the bad. Go out and celebrate for a while. Come back to the good reviews when you feel like what you’re writing is Bantha Poodoo and take heart from them. But don’t reply, even to the good reviews.

Reviews – good and bad – aren’t there for you as a writer to gloat or weep over (although, of course, we do). It’s the obvious point, but I’m going to restate it anyway: A review is for readers. Remember that and stand back.

Writing Whimsy: The Last Page

Back in 2011, I was part of a writing class. One of our assignments was to write the last page of a book. Give it a try one day, just for fun.

It’s interesting how the pacing at the end of a book is so much different than the start. I recall the class leader said I did this almost too well: She wanted to read the rest of the story…

The Mysterious Affair of the Rose.
Settled once again at the scene of the first murder, Chelmsley eased his bulk into a chair that sighed beneath him in protest at the weight. It was a while before he began to speak, but when he did, everyone in the room listened. Marley remained in the conservatory with the comatose Colonel, organising the local constabulary, while Jacobs sniffed around him for the story.
Chelmsley steepled his fingers. “I first realised my mistake with the governess when she mentioned Dubai. No one who had ever been there would have made such an obvious mistake as leaving the hotel with a bottle of water in the daytime – certainly not whilst the locals fasted. She was, then, by deduction, lying about reporting at the Battle of al’shada-inq-suq, where she claimed she met the Colonel. If she was lying, then she could only be doing so to cover up for him. And so I discovered his accomplice.”
He shifted in the chair and studied his fingernails. “Sadly, it was too late for her. The hold the Colonel had over her I only discovered after her death.”
He removed a folded piece of paper from his inside pocket. “This letter was delivered to me this morning. A report from the mental asylum the governess attended last year -“
Rupert gasped. “The trip to Europe!”
Chelmsley nodded. “Exactly.”
Chelmsley returned to the letter in his hand. “This letter details the…dark…and sordid life the two of them led. Egged on by each others sick needs, he murdered to satisfy her.”
Margaret moved to the bar and poured herself a drink. “So Fascism was just a red herring?”
Chelmsley nodded once more. “Indeed. It took me so long to smoke out that red herring that I didn’t even hear the governess when she asked me…when she begged me, in her own twisted way, to make him stop. That poor woman.” He shook his head and looked down.
Margaret shivered. “She knew the Colonel would turn on her eventually?”
Chelmsley looked up. “Oh, yes. In a way, I suspect she even began to look forward to it.”
Marley appeared at his side and helped Chelmsley rise, and he waddled unsteadily to the door, slowly enough for them to ask the question he hadn’t been asked.
“What about the child?”
It was Rebecca of course, as he knew it would be. She dropped the question into the stillness of the study where it rippled and eddied around them. Chelmsley turned slowly, studying their faces and the personalities that ticked and whirred in their heads.
He bowed his head to her. “Madam. I can tell you the child is safe and no more.” He studied them anew, and finally only now saw in those limpid brown eyes the truth start to wake and stir.
Rebecca opened her mouth to object, but he raised a hand and dropped a wink. “You must allow an old man some secrets, after all.”
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Review: The Fault in our Stars

3/5

The cancer that seventeen-year-old Hazel survived left her lungs in tatters and tied to an oxygen bottle for the rest of her life – however long that may be. Her mother suggests she visits a support group, where she runs into Augustus Waters…

This has been at the edge of my reading-pile for at least two or three years now, and I finally picked it up. (One of the reasons I delayed was Becky’s review (Here), where she rated it…okay. Didn’t set the world on fire for her. I trust her judgement on books, which is why it’s taken me so long. But I digress.)

The first thing I noticed when I was reading this – and I’m talking Chapter One – is that no seventeen year old in the history of the world talks like Gus and Hazel. I’m a pretty smart guy; I’ve know some very smart people. I have never met ANYONE who used the word univalent in a sentence. No one. People simply don’t talk like this. Hazel knows what an oncogene is; she knows the word hamartia; Why then, doesn’t she know the word ontological?

Green seems determined to be obscure and borderline pretentious with his language and his characters, and they suffer because of it. Their conversations are superficial, for the most part; cocktail party debate on the breakfast-only nature of scrambled eggs.

I got very little from Hazel and Gus but mostly surfaces. It felt like I rarely saw the places where they lived and dreamt. Because of it, they’re as superficial as the conversations they hold, and easily forgotten.

Fortunately, the dialogue settled down after a while and approached a normal level. Green definitely has different narrative voices for Gus and Hazel, there was no trouble telling them apart. His wordplay and love of puns makes the dialogue – when it does work – sparkle and shine. Make no mistake that Green is a smart guy…but he seems intent on preening his feathers and flapping his wings to show off.

There are moments which do work wonderfully well in the book. The trip to Amsterdam was the delight of the book, the real highlight. Making Hazel’s favourite author a jerk was a masterstroke: After all, you should never meet your heroes – they’ll never live up to your expectations. And because Green wasn’t too worried about showing off with the author, he’s the most realistic character in the book.

There’s a character dies in this – no spoilers as to whom – and another character goes to their funeral. I’m pretty sure…no, I’m definitively sure…that Green never went to a funeral when he was seventeen of anyone close to him. I did. And there’s no way you would act the way the character did when they were there. You don’t have the mental capacity, for a start. You’re certainly not going to fire off witty replies to people who post on a dead characters Facebook page.

An intriguing read, but it lost its way somewhere with an author determined to show off and not let his characters do the walking and the talking.

 

Rambles: The Book Six that never was

“Never apologize and never explain–it’s a sign of weakness.” – John Wayne, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, attributed.

 

But then again, why not?

I’ve done one of these posts before in 2013 (The Book Five that never was), so since I’m now into the flesh and bone of Book Six, I decided to do one again.

So, anyway, there was going to be a Book Six, but it was going to be very different from the one I’m writing…more of an odyssey than the one-location tale it is now.

However, the ideas I was developing weren’t wasted (as they weren’t when I did The Book Five that never was) – most of them found their way into what would become Medusa, and I don’t want Australian fellow writer Anna Hub to think her feedback was wasted; I took it all on board.

Sometimes the stories do get away, but that wasn’t the problem here. The problem was that I wanted the protagonist to have a new voice, something different.

So I abandoned it and started again. It’s a shame; I think it’s one of the most powerful openings I’ve ever written, and I would have liked to have known where this path through the forest went.

But as the song says: Let It Go.

I get the feeling sometimes I have to do these little opening chapters to warm myself up for the main event. That’s why they call them drafts, folks. :-)

Anyway, The Book Six that never was:

Day Four
I shot a man tonight.
I handled the rifle the way my dad taught me: Pushing the stock hard into my right shoulder, steadying my racing heartbeat and squeezing down on my rushing breath, sighting down the barrel so the world shrunk to only him and me.
Still he came towards me, convinced I wouldn’t do it perhaps, or just desperate for our supplies, coming on almost as though he didn’t hear my warning or care one way or the other. That was possible; he could have been one of the last of the Sueys, after all.
I squeezed the trigger and the rifle bucked and rose to the left, enormously loud, as I knew it would. I pulled it back to the right and down again, already lining up for another shot. The man spun a half turn, a hand rising to his shoulder. The echo of the shot came back from the mountains, scolding me.
I didn’t wait for him to turn back to me, aiming between his shoulder blades. This time there was a spray of red and white as the bullet blew him open. He fell to his knees, still facing away from me and his head dropped. He seemed to sigh.
Then he fell forward onto his face without putting his hands out to stop himself and lay still.
I just killed a man. Shot him in the back in cold blood. Took his life.
It did no good to justify it, to say to myself that it was him or me, it was him or us. It did no good to say that everyone left on the planet will be dead in a few days anyway. If I used that argument, there was no reason he couldn’t have shared his last meals with us, no reason for me to take his life.
Maybe all he wanted was not to die alone.
I just. Shot a man.
The shaking started then, the delayed shock of what I’d done rising from somewhere in my stomach. I tossed away the rifle as though it burned and my outstretched fingers convulsed, flexing and relaxing, flexing and relaxing. Bands of steel tightened around my spine and spiders rose towards my neck, ice spinning behind them. My stomach convulsed and turned, the gorge rising into my throat. Every muscle in my body loosened and shook, and I fell to my knees, staring at the stony ground between my hands, not feeling the harsh rocks cut my knees or palms.
The remains of dinner brushed the back of my throat, and I vomited and vomited until bile burned and it mixed with my sobs and mucus from my running nose, my whole body shaking and thrumming like a man in a high fever, my body a shaking wire. I couldn’t stop myself, couldn’t even look up at what I’d done.
Beside my hand, a familiar pair of boots appeared, then dad’s grip was on my shoulder and pulling me up. I fell into his shoulder, still sobbing as he led me back to the cabin, his voice full of singsong reassurances that meant nothing.
I shot a man tonight. I have to find a way to live with that in the few days we have left.

Writing Whimsy: First Flight

I was there when it first happened. The first time he ever did it, I mean. The first time he saved someone.

The media were all over it the next day, of course. With that many smartphones in the city, there were no shortage of eyewitnesses who caught him on the move. A million hits on YouTube in the first hour.

The footage is all the same in essence: Shaky, blurry movement as the camera pans up and up the side of an apparently endless skyscraper. Then it steadies, and the eye can focus on the shape falling. A second later, and it becomes clear the shape has arms and legs and long hair streaming behind her, arms and legs that are flailing at nothing, trying to grab air as though it will save her, her mouth a black hole and her eyes wide. On the good phones, the sound of her scream follows her down like a merciless harpy. Then an updraft smashes her into the unbreakable glass of the building, and the screaming stops. The arms and legs become limp, the left arm twisted to an unnatural angle. At least she won’t feel the ground when she smashes into it at a hundred miles an hour is your cruel and merciful thought as you watch, powerless.

Then the impossible: The grey blur rising from the bottom of the screen, nothing more than a smudge. But it slows as it nears her, and it becomes obvious that this blur also has arms and legs, ones that are under a lot more control. And then the blur slows and slows, and it snatches her from the air as easily as I would catch an apple falling from a tree.

From below, the screams turn to disbelief, disbelief turns to laughter and finally become relief as he reaches the ground and lays her on the cold cement that should have killed her. Then he is gone, rising and rising into the evening sky, breaking every law of physics that humanity has ever known, and everything we knew about the universe changed with him. Everything we thought we knew was blown away. Even something as simple as gravity couldn’t be trusted anymore.

We knew a man could fly.

There were the usual cries of fake and hoax, as everyone expected. Then he saved that oil tanker, and then there was no doubt who he was and what he stood for. Not after something that big.

Comic books – or graphic novels, if you wish – would have painted him in bright reds and blues. We all knew what to expect from our superheroes after all, even if they didn’t actually exist before he appeared.

He wasn’t anything like they would have you believe though; no cape, for a start. And he managed to wear his underwear under his clothes. At least, I imagine he did; I don’t believe any reporter he’s ever spoken to has ever asked.

I know something about him though, something no one else knows. I watched the first steps he took. I saw the look on his face when he saw that woman falling to her death. I saw what it took, that first time.

I was checking the stock on the deal I’d just signed in a boardroom forty stories above me, my head down when I came out of my office. So I didn’t really pay attention when someone pushed me back out of his way. Not until I looked up into his eyes.

He wasn’t even looking at me, but at the building across the street, his eyes raised and calculating. The brightest shade of blue I have ever seen, like a Caribbean sea in the mid-day sun. As I said, no bright blues and reds here, no capes or symbols across his chest. Simple grey boots and a tight grey outfit. The spandex was the only part that looked right. Nothing that made him stand out in a crowd or blend in. Apart from his eyes, so intense and focused.

It was one of those odd empty gaps in the city crowds, and of course, by now everyone was watching the woman drop from across the street. So I was the only one who saw him, the only one who saw what happened next, the next few seconds that decided whether that falling woman lived or died.

He stared at his feet and the ground between them as though willing something to happen, taking in a breath and clenching his fists until the knuckles were white. His jaw clenched and shook and the muscles in his arms and shoulders jumped and danced; there was no doubt that what he was doing required his every ounce of strength. He inhaled once more and his eyes closed. And there was no doubt, at least to me, that he had never done this before.

Then it happened, something I had never seen before, something that no one on the planet had: The man I was staring at rose an inch from the ground, then an inch more, wobbling as he did. He spread his fingers as though to steady himself on invisible supports.

Then he smiled, and his face was transformed. His eyes opened and his arms spread wider. Only now seeing me, he winked once in my direction, then was gone across the street.

Everything changed for the world that day. But it changed for me as well. I watched someone try something they had never done before and succeed. And the result was a difference between life and death for us all.

It took a long time – years – for me to track him down, and took even longer for him to teach me what he did that day. But he was patient with me, and tonight I’m ready to fly. To claim my place beside him.

He’s going to push a man out of a window across the street from me in five minutes, as his predecessor did for him. A rite of passage for me, and my first flight.

I hope.

Writing Whimsy: The Man of Your Dreams

Heston Strongthigh strode into the room. Heston always strode; to describe his method of getting from one place to another using his feet as walking would be like describing the Pacific Ocean as a bit of damp.

Heston always strode because the wardrobe he had for the…shall we say, lower part of the body…was always tight. Tight enough to inspire jokes about reading coins in his pocket and other witty ripostes I feel should not be mentioned in polite company.

“Woman!” Heston roared towards the female in the room.

The female in question rolled her eyes, inured to his shouted proclamations after three months. She found it particularly annoying when she was the only woman within a hundred yards and Heston issued his shouts from right beside her.

Heston stood with his feet far apart and thrust his stomach forward, his hands on his hips. This had the unfortunate effect of emphasising part of his anatomy that needed no emphasising, which is why he did it. Constantly. When he wasn’t striding, he was thrusting, if you know what I mean.

“Woman!” he roared again. Heston was also a fine one for roaring, if you hadn’t already guessed.

She sighed, barely flicking a glance in his direction before she carried on what she was doing (which we will get to in a minute). “My name is Jennie, Heston. How many times do we have this conversation?”

Heston rolled his head back, opened his mouth and roared with laughter, the cords on his strong neck popping out like high voltage cables. The rolling of the head wasn’t really necessary, but it did give you a nice view of his very flat and very muscled stomach and pectorals that would put The Alps to shame. Heston inhaled and almost ripped his shirt in two. It helped that it was already split down to the navel.

Heston raised one thigh and slapped it with the flat of his hand. “Thou art so amusing, wench. What is thy bidding?”

“Bidding?”

“Thoust did call me from my slumbers. Doest though wish to dance the dance of love?”

At this point Heston did something with his hips and hands that doesn’t bear describing.  Jennie sighed again. Despite his pantomime antics, she had to admit Heston was good at the dance-of-love thing. She smiled. Heston was very good at the dance of love thing, actually. She felt a tingle down her stomach and decided to throw Heston a bone. As it were.

“Mmm, maybe later. Right now I need you for something else.”

Heston faltered. His hips stopped doing the thrusting thing and he seemed to shrink.

“There…there is something else?”

Jenny studied him. She really shouldn’t have played around with that magic kit and that Barbara Cartland book when she was drunk. But it seemed so harmless…have the man of your dreams, just a little bit of dust blown on the pages. She’d woken up the next day with a huge hangover and a huge over hung man beside her.

Not being able to go out with him in public was the worst part. She got stares and children pointed. Adults pointed, for that matter. And they pointed at things they were not supposed to point at.

She reached beside her and threw a dishcloth at him. It was time to domesticate this beast. “Can you dry these dishes?”

He looked at the shiny wet things beside her. “These?”

“Those.”

He blinked. “I rub them with the cloth?”

“You rub them with the cloth until they are dry, yes.”

Heston pondered this for an ice age or two, looking from the cloth to the pots and back again. He pursed his lips thoughtfully.

“Then we dance the dance of love?”

Jennie sighed through her nose. Men, she thought, always one thing on their mind.

“Yes, then we dance the dance of love.”

Heston smiled, his teeth a brilliant white against the dark tan of his skin. He thrust his stomach out again and Jennie regarded the proffered part of his anatomy.

Could be worse, she thought. Could have been reading Inspector Morse.

 

Rambles: I am what I am

I remember one New Year’s Eve party in particular. My dad was in the Territorial Army (An army reserve he went to on weekends) for most of his life that I was a part of. This was a NYE party they were holding in their big hall in their barracks, and the whole family were there, plus about a hundred other people. Lots of food and a disco – you know the deal, right? It must have been perhaps 1982 or 1983; that’s the best date I can put on it, anyway, and the year doesn’t really matter.

The reason it doesn’t matter is because here’s the thing I remember the most about that year-going-into-the-next, the thing I’m here to talk about: I spent the seconds across midnight in the empty and mostly dark gym that looked over the hall. On an exercise bike. Alone.

I was more comfortable up there than down on that floor singing Auld Lang’s Syne with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I was more comfortable in a dark room than taking part in the fun down there below me.

Does that seem strange to you?

Parties, you see, even ones where I know people, aren’t my thing. Even small ones at some-friends-my-parents-knew house, with ten people there. I’m just here for the food thanks, please don’t talk to me.

Neither are wedding receptions; park me next to the buffet and leave me alone, please. Neither are meetings where you have to talk or contribute (You know…most of them). Neither are being parts of a team and networking, something my work friend likes doing constantly. He likes talking to people you see. Mostly, I probably come across as rude and indifferent; mostly I only talk when I have to.

Social situations of any sort are exhausting to me, and I want to get out of them as quickly as possible. Stay and make small talk? No thanks. Office parties? Never been to one; never want to go to one. If someone invited me to one, I would decline.

What always puzzled me was how many people think this was (and is) a deliberate choice on my part. How many teachers would write in my school reports “Tony needs to get more involved and speak up more” as though it was as easy as changing socks.

There seem to be a lot of people who want to cure me of the way I am by “getting me involved”; not to draw too many parallels, but I see the way introverts are treated in much the same way as homophobia: “Have you tried not being quiet?” Well…have you tried not being noisy?

I always ate my lunch alone when I was in college, and never in the canteen (eating in public is something I avoided for years), hunting out the quietest corner I could find if it was too cold to eat outside – and you’d be surprised at how high that outside-eating bar could be raised. I’d eat with freezing fingers on a park bench and only move inside if it rained. If I had a free lesson, I’d go for a walk rather than socialise.

If you’re curious about how I was able to make any friends with all this static, believe me it wasn’t easy. So I tend to keep the ones I made, and if they vanished, I didn’t make many new ones.

And if you want to know what it was like being a teenager in a world like mine, go read Black Shark, my short story. A friend read it and commented, ” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with the level of anxiety that the main character experiences.” Well, yeah…you kinda have, albeit virtually. ;-). (This isn’t a plug for the story, by the way)

So I thought there was something wrong with me for not enjoying being at a loud disco or nightclub. I used to think it was only me who had this odd affliction for not wanting – not needing – to be around people, but I discovered only recently that there are many people out there who are like me. They very rarely get together, you see – as you can imagine, the annual meeting of the Socially Anxious and Introverted doesn’t get many people turn up, and when they do, it’s a quiet affair.

Growing up, of course, forces you out of your shell whether you like it or not. For the most part, that is. But I will always be on the edge of the crowd and looking in. I will always be the last person to speak up, and certainly not voluntarily.

This drives my wife a little mad at times. She’d love to go out dancing at a nightclub. I’d love to sit in the car and wait for her to come out. Or I’ll sit at a table all night and be uncomfortable, thanks. You go have a good time and try not to drag me to the dance floor. Please.

I’d rather not have anything to eat than have to order it myself, and she’ll do it for me if we’re in Starbucks. I’d rather not go into the chip-shop and order if she’s willing to do it for me.

Don’t get me wrong (and don’t call me lazy) – I can do these things if I have to. But I don’t enjoy doing them. I don’t relish going into a shop and making small talk with the girl behind the till or the chip-shop owner. I don’t enjoy crowds. I don’t like people’s leaving parties at work and meetings are to be dreaded and sat through like a dental appointment.

And you know what it’s taken me a long time to realise? It’s the way I am, and the way I’m made. And I’m good with that.

Finally, after all the years of people saying there was something wrong with me standing on the edge and looking in: I’m good with that.

I am what I am.

Writing Tips: Show-not-tell with dialogue

One of the things they always tell writers to do is show and not tell. “Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass” to paraphrase playwright Anton Chekov. Chekov was talking about describing the world, but here’s another way you can use that show-not-tell: to describe your characters using only their dialogue and body language.

It’s certainly one of my favourite ways of doing it. Here are some snips from my own Eight Mile Island:

Mum comes out onto the deck from the cabin behind me and weaves along it towards me. …

“Dylan?”

I ignore her for a minute, pretending not to hear my name until she says it louder. I turn from the waves and face her. “What?”

“You’ve got to come inside. You’ll be washed away.”

“So?”

“Please, Dylan. Don’t start. Not today.”

And these are the first word you hear Dylan say…half a page in, one surly question and you know you’re dealing with a boy with attitude and a mother helpless to do anything about it.

Neat, isn’t it? And it’s not magic or sleight of hand. We all make conscious and subconscious judgements about people we meet by the way they talk and the words they use. It’s the same for readers, and it’s something you can use – should use – in your dialogue and your character’s body language.

What I’m not talking about here, by the way, is stereotyping. Don’t bother with the gay character who talks in a high pitched voice and is flaming all of the time. Most of them don’t, and you shouldn’t either. Make it subtle, folks. One hand movement or high-pitched comment can be enough.

I wrote a story recently for an Australian competition and sent it off to a ‘Straylian friend for her input. She returned it with a comment about stereotyping an uneducated train driver and I cleaned up the dialogue. Here’s the first version:

He smiled, but it faltered and failed quickly, and he returned to gnawing his lip. “Thought so. That aftershave your wife buys you stinks somethin rotten.”

“Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person for you to be talking to right now. You need a doc.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word of it.”

I moved to the table and sat down opposite, looking towards the two-way mirror Tom couldn’t see. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back as far as his bolted down chair would allow. “What did they tell ya?”

Now I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doc. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood and darted back into his mouth. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward and his breath was foul, his body odour sweet and sickly and I retreated from it. “What I want…is for them to kill me.”

Here’s the modified version:

His nostrils flared. “That you Bill? I can smell that bloody aftershave your wife buys you.” Even though spasms racked his body, the voice was still solid.

“It’s me, mate.” I paused. “Tom, I don’t think I’m the right person to be talking to. You need a doctor.”

“Siddown, Bill. I gotta tell someone. Cops out there wouldn’t believe a word anyway.”

I sat opposite him and glanced at the two-way mirror. The man I am looked back at me, and that man looked scared out of his wits.

Tom leaned back in his bolted down chair. “What did they tell you?”

I fidgeted. “That you wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. That you, uh…you –”

“They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

“Uh, Tom…I really think you need a doctor. For that lip, at least.”

His tongue tasted the blood. “Let it bleed. Maybe it’ll be enough to end it.”

“Is that what you want?”

He leaned forward, his body odour sickly. “What I want…is for them to kill me. So I don’t have to dream about those women anymore.”

What I’ve done is make Tom and Bill’s dialogue slightly more formal throughout, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance,

They think I killed them? Yeah, merciful if I did, I’d say. Best thing for them.”

…instead of the more direct

“I killed em both, Bill. Merciful, it was. Best thing for em.”

You can also subvert dialogue. A good example is in John Wyndham’s Day of The Triffids. A character named Coker – working class, superficially poorly educated – sometimes pops up with words and references beyond what you would expect him to know. The main character asks him about it, and discovers that Coker found out that the better educated wouldn’t listen to him unless he spoke as if he was educated; and poorly educated people wouldn’t listen to him if he did. Sometimes he drops it for a word or two, just for effect.

Give your characters different voices and you won’t many need dialogue attributes. It’s a way to show who’s speaking and not just tell again. Here’s a phone conversation from Eight Mile Island:

“Yeah?” a rough voice speaks in my ear.

“Hello, is this Mr Yates?”

“Who the hell wants to know at this goddamn hour?”

“Uh…you don’t know me, my name is…is, uh…” I look round the kitchen and a box of cereal catches my eye. “Uh, Teddy Graham. I’m trying to contact Cassie. About a reunion we’re having at the school for former pupils.”

“What the Christ you callin me at this hour for?”

“S…sorry, I forgot about the time difference. So, anyway, if I could talk to her, maybe…?”

“Well, son, if you want to talk to her, go ahead. I got no objections to it. Why not ask her yesself?”

What?

“You mean she isn’t there?”

“No, for Gods sake, you stupid or sumthin’? She’s at the school, ain’t she?”

“Uh, yeah, sure. I misheard you, sorry.”

“Yes. Cassie is happy at the school. Doesn’t ever want to leave there. Happy there. Don’t even have to call her to check she’s all right.”

I hang up as quickly as I can make up an excuse, my legs going weak.

…because we have a good idea how Mr Yates ‘sounds’, when something odd happens at the end of this conversation, it jumps right out.

 

So, just a final exercise: How old is this character from Fidget? How did I show you without telling you?

One morning in the big school holiday, when I got up after a long sleep, I went downstairs into the kitchen. Mummy was outside, hanging the big white bed sheets out on the clothesline, and I went outside to see her, even before I had breakfast.

I ran my hands down the sheets, pretending I was a pirate and they were sails on my ship, the wind making them blow and huff. I got to the end of the clothesline and stopped. The big red flowers were in front of me off to one side, and the big trees behind them were bending with the wind. The day was bright and blue and hot on my head.

 

I hope all that helps you see how you can make your characters do the work for you when it comes to show-not-tell!