1. JesterLegacy
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    JesterLegacy New Member

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    Problems on describing a certain situation

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by JesterLegacy, Jan 4, 2014.

    I would like to ask, what should be written in order to describe a person that is spiritless, and simply put his or her head on the table (like face-bursting or putting his head on his arms which are on the table)? I really have no idea how to write a sentence that could state that action well enough.......

    Basically, it's like the picture attached. The only difference is that, the arms might be overlapping to support the him/her....
     

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  2. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    Are you talking about a physical description or emotional? There is always two parts. Physically, you could use words like hiding, burying, etc.

    Emotionally, words like shunning, broken, filtering, etc.
     
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2014
  3. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    Robert's suggestions are all good. Just to add...

    "...flopped his/her head down..." (if it's a more sudden action)

    Emotional words may include exasperated, or some form of tired (such as, of the world, or the people around them). Defeated.

    Of course, you're going to get a different feel depending on the word choice. For example, Robert's words are more a sense of personal shame, while my word choices would give more of, "The world around me sucks." I'm assuming that's the difference in how we interpreted the mood in the picture.

    My reason for explaining this is, if we had a bit more of the situation given, it would be easier for us to help give a word or phrase that might best describe the situation.
     
  4. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    Really? I guess we handle suckage differently. I tend to solitude in the face of suckage and if the situation sucks too much, I would feel broken, especially if I can't alleviate it.
     
  5. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    haha. It depends on the situation, for me. If the situation is causing me to feel embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, etc. then I would describe my emotions in more of the way that you described. Whereas, if the situation was caused by events that don't actually affect me, directly, and are just annoying/exasperating, I would use more along the lines of the words that I had selected.

    I'm not going to "hide" if it's someone else that's done something stupid. Nor would I, personally, describe myself as feeling broken.

    Alternately, if I were to read of someone "flopping his/her head down," my first thought would be that they're either exhausted, or frustrated.

    One says, "I just called my professor, 'mom.' Now everyone's laughing."
    The other says, "My classmate just told the dumbest ****ing joke. Now everyone's laughing."

    That's my interpretation of the words, anyway.
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    What is the point of the description? Are you trying to show what the person is feeling? If so, it might be better to describe the feelings than the outward displays of it. The latter tends to come off as reportage. OTOH, if you are describing this person in order to show someone else's reaction to them, that may be exactly what you want to do.
     
  7. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    I agree with @Robert_S that there are two parts to any action: physical and psychological. If you could let us in on the psychological half, we could offer up more appropriate, precise suggestions for the physical. :)
     
  8. Robert_S
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    There's nothing wrong with reporting. A non-omniscient third person is a valid, albeit, more difficult narrator. My first post originally asked if the narrator was an omniscient third person or not, but it somehow got wiped before I posted.
     
  9. EdFromNY
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    @Robert_S - that's why I asked the purpose of the description. If the person with his/her head down is the main character, one would typically want to place the reader in the character's shoes, in which case reportage would place unnecessary distance between the character and the reader. If, OTOH, the POV is of a different character, let's say a character who is narrating (like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird), then you want the reader to feel that distance.
     
  10. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Why describe? If you have a protagonist and you're supposed to be in that character[s POV you can't describe anything the protagonist isn't actively paying attention to without it being a POV break. So tell the reader what the protagonist perceives, as that character perceives it. The reader's attitude, if we're to have the character as our avatar, must match the character's. And the only way to ensure that is to make the reader know the situation in exactly the same way, warts and all. And once the reader knows what matters, make them know how the protagonist reacts to it and the magnitide, so they can calibrate their own response.

    The short version: show don't tell.
     
  11. EdFromNY
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    But we don't know what the OP is looking to accomplish. Any advice given without knowing that would be useless.

    As for "show, don't tell", I can think of numerous examples where that oft-repeated but overly simplistic maxim would be exactly the wrong advice.
     
  12. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Assuming you mean showing as a publisher would define it, and not "use more words of physical description," as most new writers take it to mean. Also assuming you don't mean a spot where the writer is rubber banding time to pass over unimportant detail, show a few examples of where leaving the protagonist's POV is better than a live scene.
     
  13. EdFromNY
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    First of all, @JayG, I have to say that I enjoy these little exchanges of ours. I have always believed that discussion is valuable if it does one of three things: 1) unearths hitherto unknown information; 2)encourages the adoption of a new viewpoint or opinion or 3) confirms the validity of an opinion already held. I usually come away from ours with a sense that I know my writing a little better than I did before.

    You may recall that I did ask the OP what the purpose of the description was, because without knowing that, advice is impossible to offer. By the manner in which you have made the above request, it appears you are assuming that the OP is contemplating a description of the protagonist. I don't necessarily assume this. It could just as easily be the protagonist's best friend, a relative, a classmate, or even a stranger in a library.

    Now, as to your request of me, rather than make stuff up, let me provide three examples, all from existing works, two from well known authors and the last from a less recognized but still successful work (according to Amazon.com, it has sold over 2 million copies). All three examples can be described as works in which the narrator is a character in the story, but not the protagonist. As such, the best (s)he can do is give us a close-up view of the protagonist's POV, rather than putting the reader "in the protagonist's shoes" (something we usually consider the best thing to do - so, if one is going to do otherwise, one had better accomplish something worthwhile).

    1. The narrator is a woman telling a story of when she was six years old in a small southern town. The protagonist is her father, who is defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Also presented for our consideration are a recluse, the girl's older brother, and a friend (who may or may not have been based on Truman Capote). We see her father a good deal, but always through her POV, not his. As such, we never see his faults, never have to consider his doubts or anger or fears (except when he is fearful for his children, which they could see). I am of course referring to Harper Lee's wonderful novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is presented to us as the ideal father (which, in fact, I always felt he was; moreover, Gregory Peck always said it was his favorite of all the roles he ever played).

    2. The narrator is a man in his thirties or forties, a member of the faculty at Cambridge in 1937. The master passes away, and the narrator is one of the group that will choose a new master from among them. There are two candidates, one of whom he supports, and the story is about the struggle within this small, closed community and the efforts to get his man elected. Another faculty member is coordinating that effort, but we see nothing from his POV other than what he tells the narrator, and the narrator shows us the whole community as individuals and sometimes in small groups, but always as he sees them. C.P. Snow's The Masters. It is the fourth novel in the Strangers and Brothers series.

    3. The narrator is a sixteen year old girl whose best friend, also 16, thinks she is mentally ill. John Neufeld's Lisa Bright and Dark. Lisa's family thinks she is either imagining things or being overly dramatic, and they brush off her concerns, but Betsy (the narrator), wants to help and listens. We only ever see Lisa (and her family, and her teachers) through Betsy's eyes, and so we don't experience Lisa's mental illness as much as we experience Betsy's desire to help combined with her sense of helplessness because she knows she is in over her head.

    It just occurred to me that F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby might also belong on the list but it has been so long since I read it that I don't think I could do it justice. Another possibility is Alice McDermott's That Night, but I won't get into that because I asked her out when we were both 14 (she lived in the town next to mine and we met at a high school dance) and she stood me up.

    I would point out that in all three of the above cases, it wasn't better not to describe the protagonist's POV, it was just a different way to tell the story. The author was willing to trade off the potentially greater intimacy with the protagonist for a different kind of insight.


    BTW, I did also have in mind the telescoping of time (a term I prefer to "rubber-banding", which to me suggests a hasty contrivance) as well as the above when I made my previous post. I mention it here because, even though you obviously wanted to address other uses of "telling" rather than "showing", I think it has other uses than just skipping unimportant details. In my current project, I use telling at times as a way of summarizing information without infodumps as well as a means of varying the pace of the narrative.
     
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2014
  14. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    She's not telling, the scenes she describes are live scenes told in real time. Telling would be if the narrator, be it first or third person has the reader with them in the narrator's "now." as against the now of the protagonist in the actual scene. There are many ways of defining the difference between telling and showing. Hemingway talked about ommission. Others use the "Could the camera see it," test. But none would have defined the narrative of that book as telling.

    I hadn't read this so I looked at the excerpt. First, it was published in 1951, so the first person viewpoint was far more verbose with trivia than would be acceptable to today's publisher. As an example of how popular that style is today, it's #268,928 on Kindle. My Jennie's Song is #205,763. So apparently I'm more popular than he is, today. :D

    But that aside, his opening scene, when the visitor finally arrives, is presented in real time, in the viewpoint of the protagonist in the moment of the scene's now, not the storyteller's now.

    The problem isn't that they are telling and their story proves that telling is okay, it's that your understanding of the difference between showing and telling, as the publishing industry defines it, is flawed. In general, it can be defined as: summations are telling. Real time is not.
     
  15. EdFromNY
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    Scout is not telling as far as her own experiences are concerned, but she also is not - and couldn't be - showing Atticus' POV. As you yourself said earlier, anything that she is not experiencing is a POV break. And that was my point. I'll admit that if I had given the terms of your question more careful thought, I would have realized that leaving the protagonist's POV is not necessarily the inverse of live scene (serves me right for posting after midnight). Likewise, much of The Masters can be considered live scene (as I understand the term) but none of it is from anyone's POV but Lewis Eliot's, and he is not the protagonist. Ergo, not the protagonist's POV.

    As for your lead on Mr. Snow on Kindle, my most sincere congratulations. However - and I don't want to hit this one too hard - he did have rather a good run in print (not to mention a PBS mini-series). And the fact that he has Kindle sales at all for a work published 63 years ago speaks rather well for a writer who is not exactly a household name.

    Speaking of Kindle sales, did you see the "Bookends" piece in this week's NY Times Book Review about e-books?
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2014
  16. TLK
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    If you're ever stuck on a situation like that, do the following: pretend the situation is playing out (or has played out) in front of you and that you're on the phone, describing to the person on the other end what is happening (or what has happened). Write down what you would say.

    Yes, chances are it'll probably sound pretty bad when you read it back, and you won't be able to recall that one word that's just right for the situation but, in your edits, you'll think of a better way to phrase it.

    Maybe, if you're really concerned about it, write the phrase on a post-it note and stick it somewhere where you'll see often, perhaps by where you write. Keep reminding yourself of that phrase and, again, you might think of a better way to word it.
     
  17. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    No, she's not showing his POV, but being in the protagonist's POV isn't the only definition of showing. In the Last Unicorn, my favorite example of expositional writing, we never are in the protagonist's POV. But we are in real-time, and motivation/reaction units are in play, though in a different way from a tight POV to give a feeling of interaction between reader and storyteller.

    But in today's market he doesn't sell any better than I do, which tells you how popular his approach is, now. Every day people who might be his audience grow up and become potential customers. But they don't, because the story, and the style it's told in, isn't relevant to those readers. I didn't mention my work to brag, but to show that in today's market he's not competing even with me. So he can hardly be held up an an example of how to approach the writing of work you hope to sell.
     
  18. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    The problem with that approach is that you're using a performance art in a medium that doesn't support either sound or vision. While you get an accurate record of events, the resultant prose requires the reader to hear the emotion in the storyteller's voice—but they can't, and it's not inherent to the wording. it requires them to see gesture, expression, and all the things that make the audience know the emotional part of the story. They can't see that, either.

    I mention that because while it sounds reasonable on the face of it, fully half the manuscripts that came across my desk were written as a transcription of the writer speaking the story aloud. And all of them would have been rejected before the end of the first page—most by the second paragraph because the compositional techniques being used were inappropriate to the medium.
     
  19. EdFromNY
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    No argument. That's why I said that the fault was mine for not clarifying the issue with your earlier post which had appeared to equate the two. And this brings me back to my basic premise, which is that simplistic bromides such as "Show, don't tell" do at least as much harm as good because they present two-dimensional guidance for a three-dimensional problem. Even though Scout is in real time, her ability to "show" vis-a-vis Atticus is more limited than if Lee had written from Atticus' POV, and so to at least some extent she is "telling". And it works, because it matches exactly Lee's need for this story.

    I prefer to think of showing-telling as a continuum, and each spot on the continuum has its use. as @Cogito posted elsewhere on this topic, balance is the key.

    Well, two things about that...first, Snow's work is still available in print form, so Kindle is not the whole picture of today's market. Moreover, you and he are not even in the same genre, so maybe within his genre, he's doing as well as you are in yours (I'm not saying this is a fact, I'm just speculating). But, beyond that, how relevant is a current-market comparison of a work that's 60+ years old with a work that's only recently been published? Part of being in the current marketplace is being a current writer. You're here, and can promote your work by any means you choose, negotiate any contracts you choose. C.P. Snow has been dead for more than 30 years.

    Finally, I'm not suggesting emulating Snow's style en toto (in fact, I never suggest emulating anyone's style en toto). I simply pointed to one device that he used quite well, and that the narrative was the better for it. I've actually never used it, but I might at some point in the future if I decide that it is the best way to tell a particular story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2014
  20. TLK
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    Of course it's not perfect and - as you rightfully and insight-fully point out - you'll have to do some editing to get it to a suitable quality and style. It is, however, ultimately better than staring at a blank screen wondering how on Earth you're going to write this certain situation.
     
  21. JayG
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    Nonsense. You're quibbling about minor nuances of a piece of advice that addresses the problem that 98% of the postings on this site and every writing site suffer from, in that the story is 100% told, either as a transcription of the author speaking the story aloud or as the narrator talking about the story as against placing the reader on the scene—showing.

    No one anywhere says that the narrator shouldn't use exposition to sew scenes together or sum up events that are necessary to mention but too short, or too disbursed over time to be worth inclusion in a scene. But that being said. Any time you stop a scene and interject telling into it you do several things that will garner a rejection:

    a) You stop the scene-clock and kill all momentum the scene may have worked so hard to build.
    b) You break POV and interject a character, the narrator, who is neither in the scene nor in the story, killing all feeling of realism.
    c) You stop presenting the story which means you stop entertaining and begin to explain. Worse yet you're explaining things the protagonist isn't interested in, in that moment.

    To describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.” ~Jack Bickham

    You can think of it in any way you care to. But to say that "each spot on the continuum has its use" implies that your view is the correct one, and your definition of that "spot" is binding. Certainly, you're entitled to your opinion but you cannot use it to refute the views of the industry and the teachers of the profession unless it can be proven to work.

    In hard cover his rating is #4,219,253, that's four million from number one. That's pretty much equal to what most self- released hard covers are doing today. So yes, it is the entire picture. Perhaps it's because he does too much telling? :)

    It's absolutely relevant to a discussion of writing style. Oliver Twist was written nearly 200 years ago and it's #1,241 on Kindle. Hell, Dickens has four times the download rate of my, Water Dance, and they're both the same price. So market place comparisons are very relevant. Dickens is obviously better at entertaining the reader than either Snow's or my work.

    That's a personal opinion. Sales data doesn't bear that out. Yes, he was competitive when everyone wrote in a style that was heavy on exposition and authorial intrusion. But that's no longer the case. Make your manuscript equally "the better for it" and who will buy it but the people who are buying his work? Ad how many publishers are willing to invest the kind of money necessary to bring it to market, given the size of that market?
     
  22. JayG
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    No. Editing won't fix it. A writer who doesn't know that a scene in fiction is unrelated to a scene in stage and film will, invariably, think in terms of what you suggested, describing what they see happening in the film. But film and books are always different because the approach to creating it is dictated by the needs of the medium. In film everything is in parallel, so the actor contributes a lot more than to stand where told and read the lines. They spend years perfecting the nuance of showing emotion and motivation through visual and auditory means. But not one bit of that translates to print. And trying to put it there not only wastes time, it hardens bad habits into concrete.

    In an eyeblink we know a huge amount about the character through means that are not available when writing fiction for the page. We have analogous techniques available but they're neither mentioned nor taught during our schooldays so we never seek them out when we turn to recording our stories. And because, when we read back our own work, we can see and hear the film version it works perfectly, for us. That is an absolute killer because we will never see that there's a problem. When we read, every line acts as a pointer to images, memories, and more, all driven by intent and all there in our mind. But when the reader turns to our words, every line acts as a pointer to images, memories, and more, all driven by intent and all there in our mind. But we're not there to explain. And of course, as everyone knows, my mind it blank unless you take the steps to place the necessary information there. But if you're not aware that you need to, how will you fix the problems you can't see in editing?

    Seems to me that staring at a blank screen or writing a story using the nonfiction techniques we learn in high school are both pretty much a waste of time. Were you to decide to do almost any job you'd not learned the basics of, you'd probably talk with knowledgeable people, or read a book on the subject, so as to avoid the usual newbie traps and screwups. Given that the rejection rate for queries is greater than 1000 for each new writer accepted, it seems that a little bit of that same sort of research would pay dividends in saved time, and might make the difference between rejection and a contract.
     
  23. EdFromNY
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    I would go further than that. I think there are effective ways to do that while avoiding the pitfalls you mention. But the person who blindly follows the advice "show, don't tell" may eschew those very techniques. It is the absolutist manner in which the advice is so often given to which I object.

    Well, obviously, I think my view is the correct one. Otherwise, it wouldn't be my view, would it? But you miss an important point: I accept the fact that others have opposing views, and my goal in our discussions has never been to "win" but rather to simply give voice to my view and place it alongside yours (for one of the three outcomes I mentioned earlier).

    Since I have not attempted to define any particular "spot", this makes no sense.

    No, it isn't. He has 60 preceding years worth of sales. Now, that would be the entire picture. Have tastes changed since 1951? Sure. And tastes will also be different 60 years from now, so that your work may be viewed differently than it is now.

    Now, you're getting silly. I never compared C.P. Snow to Charles Dickens, who is one of a handful of truly iconic writers in the English language.

    I guess you missed this:

     
  24. Fitzroy Zeph
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    I would think you need to view this in the context of today or the near past only. If it's not selling now; it's not popular now. There are many extenuating circumstances to why this may be the case but most likely it just doesn't appeal to anyone anymore. I would note that if it's still in print after all that time, it should get some kudos. I could hope for as much.
     
  25. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    That belief and a couple of bucks can get you coffee at Starbucks. And that's about all. You believe it. I certainly have no objection to that. You also believe that you can intuit the techniques various authors used in writing through reading the finished product, and that at some undefined time in the future that technique will garner you a writing contract. You can't back that up with the words of one of the publishers you hope to impress. You can't back it up with the words of the people who make their living writing—not even the authors you're studying. That sounds more like a religion than a profession. And as a scoutmaster I have to point out something we often told the scouts: the difference between a dream and a goal is a timetable.

    I know that may sound like an attack, but I don't mean it as such. I just can't reconcile your studying an author's writing to ferret out the processes common to the creation of fiction, while at the same time rejecting the idea listening to the writer tell you what he actually did. Are you really telling me that if an author you regard as a success offered to sit down with you and give you their views on things a writer needs to take into account you would reject it with "No thank you, I'll get it by analyzing your writing."?

    Isaac Asimov's wife reports that she and Issac attended a lecture on his work at an Ivy league college. Afterwards, they talked to the professor, and Isaac said words to the effect: I really enjoyed your analysis of my work, the themes, and what I was trying to accomplish. It's all nonsense, of course, but I really enjoyed it." So a professor, who spent a great deal of time analyzing the man's work didn't get it right, but you believe you can?

    Certainly, you're free to approach the job in any way you see fit. And I honestly wish you luck. But until it proves successful, it's just an unproven supposition. It's also one shared by many other prepublished writers. I've heard it espoused many times since the beginning of writing sites on the Internet. I have not, though, seen one instance where someone came back and reported success. One would think...

    Something to think about: Successful writers like William Faulkner have said things like "Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window." That gives the impression that he's advising your approach. But when you look at the people advising that, surprisingly, they did not follow that advice. Faulkner had a lot of help and mentoring, and the others who advise that approach are the same. I've heard it advanced, and seed evidence, that they said that to protect their income. They learned their profession, but they set the average person on a wild goose chase to keep down competition. Certainly, I believe advice more redily if the one giving it followed it and achieved success that way.

    Those aren't my books on writing I'm quoting. You're comparing your personal belief to the that of teachers and successful writers—a very different thing. And you're taking the view that your opinion, without personal success based on it, should be treated with the same gravity as the teaching of Bickham, a man who successfully wrote and sold seventy-five novels and achieved success in the field of teaching; as Sol Stein, who sold fiction, screenplays, and stage plays, and who also achieved success as both an editor and publisher; as Dean Koontz, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Nancy Kress, and Stephen King. These are people who are respected and successful, who presumably know what they're doing. And each of them took the time to sit down and talk about what they believe matters—and are in surprising agreement. Forgive me, but I'll stick with the pros.

    So what? He was a successful writer. In today's market I outsell him, and were he to submit that or any of his manuscripts today no one would be interested. But if he lived today he would be writing in the style that the public demands. He was trained as an English teacher and mentored/tutored by a writer, so the equivalent today would be Stephen King.

    But here's the point: The only way you have of convincing me that your method is viable is to have it be viable. Perhaps that's unreasonable, but success does tend to make the point.
     

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