Stage Directions

Show, don’t tell.

Show, but don’t tell.

A linguist will tell you (that) conjunctions are often pleonastic, redundant, dispensable. A writer may become emotional about them, he hates conjunctions. Debating their necessity consumes precious polishing time, but he can’t get rid of them.

Sometimes these little beasts are required in order to make the reader understand. More often they are not. Your text loses impact if you use them anyway.

Let me quote the great E.A. Rauter once more, the only one I ever heard using the term “stage directions” connected to writing. Rauter was referring to conjunctions that, in theory, connect clauses and establish a relationship between them.

“Most of all these stage directions suggest to the reader he may be stupid,” Rauter said.

The conjunction imposes an explanation upon the reader. It establishes a direction where the reader could be fascinated by discovering it. “Faszinationsdellen” is another term Rauter coined, fascination dents. That’s what many conjunctions are, missed chances to captivate the audience.

“Some people make headlines, while others make history,” Philip Elmer-DeWitt says. Never quote it that way, erase the stage direction.

“Some people make headlines, others make history,” is what he meant to say.


The break boundaries guys

Your tone will come naturally, don’t strive for it. You will find your voice once you have mastered handling all the ingredients and spices good writing requires. Until then write and learn.

Once every few weeks a certain chef prototype appears on BBC2’s “Masterchef”: fancy haircut, designer glasses, likes to talk about his love for an exotic cuisine that you’ve never heard of. Everything about his appearance screams: “I am highly creative, I am special!”

Each of these guys will use the phrase “break boundaries”. They want to reinvent and mix established cuisines and present exciting, new food. Recently one of them brought his own plate to the show. A regular one wouldn’t do his art of presentation justice.

Unfortunately for them the break boundaries guys have to cook. All of them fail, each for the same reason: Their ideas might be valid, but they lack the basics and the craft in order to execute them properly.

Learn to fly first, then reach for the sky.

Maybe one day BBC2 will come up with “Masterauthor”. My dear author would make a terrific candidate. Breaking boundaries and sparkling creativity is what he is all about, and he is one of the many young authors out there who can’t write, but thinks he has found his tone already.

Frequently he reads out parts of his work, then asks: “Sounds well, doesn’t it?” “Maybe, but I have no idea what you mean”, would be one of my usual answers.

Clarity is the basic concept he struggles with most, he just can’t come to the point. Instead he will disguise it in a bunch of big words and suspect that I try to kill his voice when I erase them. When others don’t understand he still feels that his deep thoughts may be too sophisticated for mere readers.

Candidly I am happy the author has written a million words first and only then asked for professional help. We can use these first million in order to learn about basic ingredients and spices. His voice he may find during the second million. I only hope that BBC2 doesn’t call too early.



Everybody has a story to tell?

We are about to send out the manuscript. I am more excited than I was 25 years ago when the local newspaper printed my first reports on 11th division football matches and family parties in the community mall.

The past weeks I have spent rewriting his drafts, debating settings, characters, plots and subplots. It feels like after decades of being a professional writer I have discovered a new passion – writing.

Countless times I’ve been told that everybody has a story to tell, only mine I wasn’t able to locate. I had made peace with starving as an uninspired craftsman a long time ago. Then the author handed me all the imagination and fantasy that I lack, and he had even done most of the groundwork.

Now we’re about to have the combination of his art and my craft measured. Should it turn out to be garbage, I will be disappointed, not suicidal. I can just go back to being an uninspired craftsman. Should it turn out to be good, even better. There are more than 900.000 words left that I’d love to rewrite.

Strutting around with stillbirths

Is it presumptuous to publish a blog about writing in a language you haven’t mastered? Probably. At least I know what I am talking about, so the content should be tolerable, even though my English may be poor.

Is it presumptuous to write a book without knowing anything about writing? Yes. Everybody and their mother writes a book in these days of self publishing, and many of these authors don’t even bother to learn some basics, practice, collect critique, digest it and only then start seriously. As a result their writing bumbles about. Or worse.

Be it the former husband of my fiancee’s friend or the former colleague of my mother; constantly someone pops up who has just written a book, struts around with it and collects facebook likes for investing thousands of hours into a stillbirth.

The author is an exception. He has gifts to work with that most people lack. Never have I met anyone with an imagination this vivid and a vision this versatile. Digging through pages and pages of his meandering unclearness and redundancies is tiring, but each time I know I will find a reward that makes it worth it. I love to let these buried diamonds shine, be it a a spot on description or a phrase that is more striking than anything I would ever come up with.

Should I complain about amateurs writing books? Certainly not. If only more of them would call for an editor.

The stumbling block

Writing having to be “fluent” is a common misconception. We don’t want our words to flow down our reader, we want them to stick with him. Writers make cuts, writers use rhetorical figures like the oxymoron to have the reader sit up and notice. Good writing requires the occasional stumbling block.

“But what about the flow?”, you might ask.

I’m not about to reject the flow as a relevant concept. It’s abstract and hard to pin down, but it needs to be there – for the most parts. Breaking the flow from time to time is not a bad thing.

Good writing needs rhythm, flow and a tone. It requires clarity and consistency. If you catch someone pondering about writing being “fluent” or not, there’s a good chance he is just drifting, desperately looking for a block to stumble upon.

You are about to see the next scene

“No transition is the best transition”, E.A. Rauter used to say when teaching me and other future editors the craft of writing.

If you have something to say, say it. If you want to change the topic, do it. Never waste your audience’s time and attention by announcing that you are about to say something.

“Keine Überleitung ist die beste Überleitung”, is what Rauter actually said. But what is “Überleitung” in English? I was torn between “bridge”, “connection” and “transition”, so I looked it up and found the advice of internet inhabitant Courtney. While Courtney knows her vocabulary she is clueless about good writing.


“Good writing is characterized by transitions from one topic to the next”, she says. The opposite is the case, Courtney! If you were about to direct a movie, would you fade in signs saying “You are about to see the next scene”?  No, hopefully. You would make cuts instead.


The author likes to build bridges between paragraphs, between sentences even, and he wants writing to be fluent (after months I am still unsure what he means when he uses the f word). Tomorrow I expect a fight about this, and this time I need to make a stand in order not to damage the already questionable beginning of the manuscript.

Originally he wanted to begin the first chapter by explaining the universe and the circle of life, then his galaxy, then the landscape on the hero`s planet, then the anatomy of the hero’s race. 50 pages at least before the story actually starts. I tried to explain that we should do it the other way around: Focus on a remarkable, surprising detail first, wrap an episode around that and then successively roll out the universe he created. “No”, he said and rejected the two possible alternative beginnings I outlined. He has created a universe, put a ton of effort into developing races, machines, landscapes, and of course he wants to show to the world what he has done. I get it.

But this one I couldn’t let go. The beginning is where you either catch the reader or lose him.

At least I managed to prevent a disaster. He has a prologue now in which he can reflect about the universe and life in general, and he managed to cut this part down from 20 pages to less than one. I was proud of him. Still, there were the overdescriptive anatomy and landscape parts left. In order to loosen them up, I suggested to mix them with a different plot and switch between the eternally prowling hunters in the steppe and their people in the village who actually do something.

Between the steppe and village parts I indented – cuts. He erased the cuts and wrote transitions, announcing “we are now switching from the steppe to the village” and such. I erased the transitions and indented cuts again. This time they stay.

No glimmer of hope

To measure a piece of music, my friend Hartmut listens to the end first. What finishes with a flourish, a fanfare or any kind of bang is most likely garbage. Pieces that fade out instead, that disappear, are worth listening to. They have the potential to keep stimulating the listener’s brain even when the sound has already vanished.

Hartmut’s system works for texts as well. If you haven’t read “The boy in the striped pyjamas” by Irish novelist John Boyne, do so. The end will leave you shivering long after you have stopped reading. With the cruelest part yet to come the conclusion goes just far enough, the reader’s imagination does the rest. Boyne’s work is the only book of the few I have read that I remember for its ending particularly.

The third chapter ends with a funeral on a rainy day. Once every body is buried, the author concludes with the most stereotype bang possible, a clap of thunder. I immediately hated it for being too obvious and turned around the tone of the final paragraph. My version ended with a glimmer of hope that rises in the darkness.

I would’ve bet huge amounts of money on the author not liking it that way, and of course I would have won. He has to offer a surprising variety of cool, original bangs, unfortunately he still wants to stick to the banal ones as well. Like this clap of thunder at the end of the funeral.

I erased the glimmer of hope. Once again, it wasn’t worth the fight. At least I managed to tone down and hide the thunder.