Malcolm folded the papers and sealed them in the envelope. He looked at the clock. The pickup would take place in the next thirty minutes. If he were late, all his preparations would be for naught.
But he had to be careful. They were watching him, he was sure of it. They had a tap on his phone line, and he had seen watchers in the neighborhood. The surveillance wasn’t continuous, though, and he felt sure he could slip through their net. They were overconfident, and they didn’t know he was onto them.
Malcolm hurried to the window at the end of the upstairs hallway. From there he could see the entire street without revealing himself.
Damn. Across the street, one of them was parked in a gray Acura. He was talking into a cell phone, and didn’t appear to be looking at the house, but Malcolm knew better. He was waiting for Malcolm to make a move, and there was less than half an hour left. He might need a backup plan.
The watcher closed the cell phone and started the car. He looked around, not letting his gaze rest on the house, then pulled away from the curb. Malcolm waited to make sure the man didn’t circle the block to catch him off guard, then he scanned the street for other watchers.
All clear! He hurried downstairs and opened the door a crack. He still saw no one, but they could be watching from concealment.
He forced himself to remain calm, and walked toward the street as casually as possible. He looked to the left, and his heart began pounding in his chest as he saw the small white truck approaching. The pickup was early, and he had nearly missed it.
He stuffed the envelope into the mailbox and raised the red metal flag. He turned away and hurried back to the front steps just as the mail truck pulled up.
“Mr. Walker? Hold up. I got something here you need to sign for.”
Malcolm froze, then turned slowly toward the mail truck. Don’t show fear, he told himself, as his heart tried to explode and his sweat turned acrid with panic. He signed his name on the form on the clipboard, and the mailman handed him a thick envelope marked with a government seal and dire warnings against use for unofficial purposes. He watched as the mailman retrieved the sweepstake envelope from the mailbox, then turned and shuffled back to the safety of his house. At least the entry would be postmarked with today’s date, the deadline.
Once inside, he collapsed into his chair and stared at the dark face of the TV until he could breathe almost normally. The envelope was half-crumpled in his fist, but he smoothed it the best he could. It was from the United States Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, just as he knew it would.
I have often said that the story idea is unimportant, and that a decent writer should be able to make a story from the most mundane of story ideas. I've suggested that even a trip to the mailbox could be written into a story. This is no masterpiece, but it was my "put up or shut up" challenge to myself.
This is a poem I entered quite some time ago, and then lost track of. It's a double tetractys, and I used the descending count (10 4 3 2 1) followed by the ascending one (1 2 3 4 10) to suggest the ebb between two wave surges.
The surf explodes upon black rugged rocks
a roaring beast
back to the sea,
marshalling rage to launch the next assault.
This is a short piece I wrote in March, 2008. My goal was to write a scene in third person without any direct reference to what the main character was thinking, but still try to clearly convey his thoughts and feelings. I'm posting this not because I think it's a great piece of writing, but because it illustrates the difficulties of a third person objective narrative voice.
Steven clicked the Submit Payment button, then set aside the power bill and picked up the next envelope from the stack. He slit it open with the letter opener and pulled out another bill. After glancing at the total on the front, he turned to the next page, and then froze with a stunned look. Hearing the doorknob turn, he quickly set the paper down on the desk. Janet poked her head around the door.
“Still paying out the bills?” she asked.
He nodded wordlessly. She had on her suede coat, and was carrying a small handbag. “You heading out?”
She looked down at her purse and began rummaging through it. “Kelly called. She’s having a rough time and needs a shoulder to cry on.” She retrieved her keys and turned away. “Don’t wait up. I’ll probably stay there tonight, especially if we have a couple drinks.” She half turned her head around, not quite looking at him, with a tight smile. “Besides, you aren’t a pile of fun to be around when you’re doing the bills.” She walked briskly down the hall, and Steven heard the door open and close.
He stood and walked slowly to the front room. He watched her through a gap in the living room curtains as she settled into her Honda and backed out of the driveway. After she turned the corner, he continued to stare out into the gathering dusk. Finally, he turned away and retrieved a rocks glass from over the liquor cabinet. He wiped the thin layer of dust out of it with the end of his shirt, selected a bottle of Cuervo Gold and splashed two fingers into the glass.
He swallowed half of it in one mouthful, and made a face as the burn spread from his mouth into a warm glow across his chest. Returning to the spare room, he picked up the telephone bill one more time and did his best to stare it down. Then he shoved it to the bottom of the stack, shut down the computer, and took what was left of his drink to his throne in the living room. Janet had long since given up trying to get him to get rid of the ugly high-backed chair. He sipped the remainder of the drink in the dark, and stared at the blank TV screen long after the glass was empty.
Finally, he washed the glass and put it away. He stood there for a moment, then switched on the light and picked up the phone.
He started to punch in a number, but switched off the phone and set it back down. Then he picked it up again and keyed in the entire number. He put the phone to his ear and waited.
“Hello, Helene? It’s me, Steve… Yes, really… I was wondering if the offer was still open… I know, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” He listened for several seconds. “That sounds nice. Let me get cleaned up quickly, and I’ll meet you there in an hour… Yeah, me too. See you shortly.” He hung up the phone, and went into the bathroom.
As he washed his face and ran a comb through his hair, he stopped for a few seconds to look at the stranger in the mirror. Then he turned away, and changed into a fresh shirt and khaki’s. He locked the door behind him on his way out.
Note that the reference to the stranger in the mirror in the last paragraph is a slip. It is a subjective reference, so it doesn't really conform to the rules I had imposed for the exercise.
Spend any time around writers, and you will surely hear the sage but cryptic advice, "Show, don't tell." But what the heck does it mean, and why do people keep saying it? Is it a hard and fast rule, or are there times you should and should not follow it?
First off, what is it? Here's a simple example:
In both cases, we know Gwen was embarassed. The first version comes straight out and tells us, while the second version shows us through her reactions.
"But wait," you say. "Isn't the second one telling us she is blushing, and that she is looking at her hands?" Yes, but you have to think in terms of the real message being conveyed. In this case, Gwen's emotional state is the message.
In this example, showing takes more words. On the other hand, her reaction reveals more than simple embarassment. It implies a bashful response, probably to a compliment, as opposed to humiliation or some other form or embarassment. It's a richer expression of her emotional state. If you really told what her emotion is, it would probably require considerably more words than the showing.
Many people assume that showing requires more words than telling. It may be true in the simplest examples, but showing is often much more concise when the message is complex or ambiguous. Emotions and sensations are often complicated, with conflicting components.
Consider point of view. When we watch two people having a quiet conversation in a restaurant, we can't read their thoughts and tap into their nerve impulses. But we can see if one person is angry, or afraid, or distressd. How do we know? By the body languiage, actions like crying or a raised or trembling voice, all the elements you would write when showing those feelings. By showing in your writing instead of telling, you help preserve the point of view.
Showing isn't limited to character moods and feelings though. You can also use it to describe setting. For example, you could describe a street as cold and windy, or you can show it though a character's reaction to it, pulling his coat tight and leaning forward to protect his face from windblown ice crystals.
Showing can help you experience the setting better than telling, because you know what such a day feels like from your own experiences.
But that doesn't mean you should never tell instead of showing. Sometimes simply saying:
is a completely adequate and concise description, for instance after he walked five miles to town from his broken-down car. There's nothing more to gain by showing him shuffling into town, slumping down onto a park bench, and taking his shoes off to check his feet for blisters.
Showing is often more expressive, but it can take more thought to do it well, and sometimes it just isn't the best choice anyway. So although it's always good advice to consider showing vs, telling, it isn't the answer in every situation.
Good writing will judiciously mix them. Show and tell.
This is a short item I posted on my personal website in the wake of Election Day in the United States.
Two days ago, America was patting itself proudly on the back for having overcome centuries of racism in electing its first African-American President.
Never mind that not one news story before or after the election has failed to mention his race. His campaign may not have been run on a race ticket, although I have to wonder whether the frequency he insisted that race was not an issue made certain that no one could forget it. We have not advanced so far as a nation that race is no more significant than height or hair color.
And while we were so proudly celebrating our enlightened state, Californians were taking a long stride backwards into intolerance. Proposition 8 ripped the right to marry from same-sex couples. What harm does same-sex marriage threaten to traditional marriage? Marriage under the law has little connection to marriage within any religion. Just as a religion may not recognize a second marriage as valid, that same religion need not recognize gay unions. So where is the threat to religion, unless that faith insists its practitioners control those outside their faith?
I am not gay. I have no personal axe to grind. Nevertheless, I am deeply, profoundly ashamed.
Separate names with a comma.