Archive for February, 2014



7666431386“Show, don’t tell.” As a writer you hear it all the time

It’s very good advice. But it’s not a rule. There are no hard and fast rules for writing. Every author is different. Every book is different. Heck, every SENTENCE is different. Unless, of course, it’s a repeat of the sentence before that, but you get my point.

Yes, showing is the preferred form to communicate with your audience. Showing draws readers into the story. It involves them, forces them to use their imaginations. They don’t just read that the character gets angry, they feel the anger. But that doesn’t mean telling isn’t just as powerful and effective as showing. What it means is that telling must be used more sparingly.

So, here are my own observations about showing vs. telling. I hope these help you if you’ve ever been confused by this “rule”.

But first, a two quick and blatant examples of showing and telling.

  • Showing: He stood quickly, pacing in front of the bench. His hands went into his pockets. They came back out of his pockets. Stopping, he looked at her, took a breath, and got down on one knee.
  • Telling: Sharon could tell Richard was nervous.

Now that even the non-writers are on the same page, let’s talk about telling:

1. Telling is great for getting information out. In your novel, there can be as many characters you can dream up. And that can mean several different points of view (POV). So Character A is obviously going to know things that Character B doesn’t know (unless the two characters are conjoined twins). You can’t walk Character B through past events. A friend can’t go back in time and relive another person’s trauma. But if Character A is that person’s sister, A can impart the information  to B. Some things are worth showing. Some things the reader needs to know, but don’t need to be detail. You see this all the time when authors summarize the events between one scene and the next. (I wish I could put in examples, but I’m not entirely certain of how to work within copyright laws.) Or when a past scene is summarized for a character that wasn’t there.

2. Telling can be extremely powerful when used sparingly. Now you don’t want to overuse this. But sometimes telling can be used to repeat an idea, for example or to communicate and emotion,

“Elaine put her hand to her forehead. It was sticky and wet. Pulling her hand away, she examined her glistening fingers. She was bleeding.”

Now there are many ways that Elaine’s surprise could have been communicated. But I wrote it the way I did, with the repetition and the blatant statement because it shows the train of the character’s thoughts. Telling is especially useful in emotional response. Sometimes you want to show the emotion move through the character. But sometimes, you want something short and sweet like, “I love you,” or “You’re a bastard”.

3. Telling can be used to show character and growth. This is kind of similar and ties in to the last point, but I feel that it’s different enough to require its own number. Let’s set up a scenario: Suppose your main character’s mom never apologizes. At the beginning of the book, you might have a scene that shows more than it tells, like this one,

“Richard’s mother blinked as Sharon finished her explanation. He’d known the truth of course, but the look of surprise on her face was gratifying.

‘Excuse me,’ Eunice said. ‘I think I need to take care of something.’ She walked off in the direction of the ladies’ room. She was gone for fifteen minutes. When she came back, she looked much the same, but it was another fifteen minutes before his mother would meet his eyes. And that she was much kinder to Sharon.”

Okay, so that’s at the beginning of the novel. She is obviously ashamed of whatever wrong opinion she had about Sharon. And she does adjust her behavior. But suppose we’re at the end of the book and Eunice is a dynamic character (a character that evidences some change over the course of the story). You might end up with a mixed scene like this:

“Richard’s mother blinked as Sharon finished her explanation. She fiddled with the clasp on her purse a moment, then she met Sharon’s eyes.

‘I was wrong,’ Eunice said. ‘I’m sorry.'”

Unlike the first example, Eunice’s change of heart isn’t implied through actions. Instead, she demonstrates her growth but outright admitting that she was wrong. As far as character growth goes, this is the more powerful scene. Maybe the previous scene set us up for this scene, but I bet you the reader is going to feel something when they finally see Eunice admit she was wrong.

Now how do you know how much you should show and how much telling you can get away with? Again, no hard and fast rule. There are a lot of variable like: genre, POV, character, audience, time period. You might have a first person narrator who operates with a 50/50 mix. Or you might have an epic fantasy novel that is primarily showing, with the telling mostly in dialogue (dialogue is almost always telling in my experience).

Before we go, a quick word about redundancy. Keep constant vigilance. I was recently rereading a favorite series and while I still think it’s well-written I noticed that the author like to make redundant statements. For example (and this is my own creation), “‘What were you thinking?’ He stood, clenching his fists and glared at her. He was angry.” Again overly simplified, but you get the idea. Be careful with this. If you’ve already shown the audience something, don’t go back and tell them the same thing in the next sentence. It clutters up your writing. Readers are smart. They’ll get it. The major exception to this is when another character makes a “Captain Obvious” observation to another character.

And that’s it. If you want to read more about showing and telling you can check out Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle and Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts.

Let me know your own feelings on Show vs. Tell. Do you struggle with the ratio? How do you decide when to use one over the other?

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This blog post is a response to a Huffington Post UK article which argues that J.K. Rowling’s success is hindering the success of up-and-coming writers. If you think that sounds a little ridiculous, that’s because it is. Blaming lack of success on someone else’s good-fortune is a little narcissistic and certainly counterproductive. But I’m not here to defend Rowling (who has earned her place in world literature).

No, I’m want to address my concerns with the second paragraph. She says:

I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right?

-Lynn Shepherd, Huffington Post UK, “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing So Much She Should Stop Doing It

(A little advice: if you want your criticism of a book/series to be taken seriously, you need to attempt to read that particular work, even if it’s only a few sentences. At least you can say you tried.)

As a whole, children’s fiction can encompass a broad age range. From picture books and Beginning Readers to the young adult genre. However, when I say “children’s fiction” in this blog post I refer to the middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) genres because that is what I have the most experience with.

The idea that children’s fiction is not “stimulating” for “grown-up minds” is ludicrous.

Not because they are what I write and read the most. But because this is absolutely untrue. And that is why I love those genres. I have learned more about how to write well from books like The Lightning Thief and The Hunger Games than I have from most of the adult fiction I’ve read (and I’ve been reading in the adult section since I was twelve or thirteen).

My first issue with her statement has nothing to do with that appropriateness of an adult reading children’s fiction, it’s simply part of good parenting (or so my mom tells me):

If your child is reading a book, you should take the time to read it as well.

My mom and I were always passing books back and forth and thus we were able to talk about what I was reading (Still do, actually). It’s part of being involved in a child’s education and staying aware of what they are learning. Most of my thoughts and opinions are the way they are, not because my parents forced them on me, but because we had (and still have) frank discussions that allowed me to explore my own opinions.

Now it’s great (phenomenal!) if you take the time to read to your kids. Some of my best memories are of the half hour or so my mom would spend reading with my brother and I before bedtime (I used to get in so much trouble for staying up to read ahead). Those experiences are part of why I love to read. (Thanks Mom!) But even if they’re past that age where reading together is “cool”—or it’s not practical for your family right now—keep abreast of what your kids are reading.

That brings me to my second issue.

In the grand scheme of things, the Harry Potter series is only seven books (granted, some of them are gargantuan). Now that may seem like a lot to some people. But let’s break it down.

If the average person reads eight books a year and they start reading consistently at ten and the average lifespan is 78 years (these are based on vague internet statistics, if you have better stats, post in the comments), then an average person can expect to read 500+ books in a life time. The Harry Potter series is 1% of the total books a person will read in their lifetime. One. Percent. There will be plenty of time and (hopefully) opportunity to read other books of varying age brackets.

And that brings me to my biggest issue with the above statement.

Children’s literature is NOT inferior to adult literature. In fact, I think that authors of children’s literature probably have more difficulty than someone who writes for an adult audience.

For one thing, kids are far more likely to be…um, frank (brutal) when they don’t like something. They have no problem saying, “This is dumb. You’re dumb. Why do I have to read this?” (I used to work with kids and I still work with teens, so this is from experience.)

The other challenge MG & YA authors face is length.

A typical middle grade novel is going to be under 40,000 words (established authors may have more wiggle room). To put that in perspective an adult novel is usually double that number; Sci Fi and fantasy can end up pushing 100k words.

Because they have limited space, I find that MG & YA authors have to be more intelligent and concise in their writing than their colleagues that aim for the older audience. EVERY word counts for double. They only have 40k words (70k in YA) to develop the plot, expose character, reveal backstory and maybe throw in a theme. And it has to be entertaining. How long do you think a bored twelve-year-old will keep reading?

Now for those of you that padded your college essays with shady spacing and chili recipes, this might not seem like a big issue. But us writers? We’re the ones that spent all night trying to figure out how to cut 2500 words down to a thousand and always ended up turning essays with at least one page more than required. I’m not saying this makes us better than you, it’s just that…we like to write.

My point is that the grown-up brain can benefit from reading fiction even if it’s marketed to younger readers (and it’s all about marketing). I am consistently surprised by the depth of storytelling in MG & YA novels. If you want examples, I would suggest the Percy Jackson series, anything by John Green, Ally Carter’s books, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.

Finally, children’s fiction is just as capable of making us to question society and our own opinions. More so I find sometimes. Most of the adult fiction I’ve read feels more geared towards escapism. It’s the YA books that make me sit up and think about the world. Don’t believe me? Read the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy.

And don’t forget, some of literature’s favorite classics are classified as “young adult”. For your perusal, I present this list (cross-referenced between Barnes & Noble’s website and Goodreads.com). Tell me you don’t recognize some titles that cover issues we still talk about today:

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • White Fang by Jack London
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

So what do you think? Do you enjoy middle grade and young adult fiction? What are some of the reasons you like these genres? Can you think of any examples where a MG or YA author displayed fantastic story-telling?

Many thanks to my friend Dot Hutchison, who can be found at dothutchison.com, for answering all my questions and children’s lit. Also, you should check out her book, A Wounded Name. It is one of the two versions of Hamlet I approve of (the other being The Lion King)


Mind Games is finished.

Thank. God.

Actually, MG was finished last June (The 29th to be precise and I can be, because I finished the day of my brother’s 22nd birthday) and I’ve already slogged through a second draft. That was painful. But, more on that in a minute.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends and family about what I’m doing next and in interest of informing the greatest number of people possible, I thought that it was time to dust off the old blog.

It’s been forever and a day since I was last on here, hasn’t it?

I may have gone through a writing funk for a good part of last year.  Partly because I was settling into a new job. Partly because I lost said job in March. Partly because, I’ll admit it, I am lazy.

Writing of any kind repulsed me. I wasn’t even interested in writing fan fiction (up to that point, I have always been able to write fan fiction, ideas usually abound). Then about, oh, June I decided that enough was enough.

Did I feel like writing? Nope. But I also knew that if I followed my outline, I was literally pages from the end. So after ignoring the book since January, I sat down and cranked out six chapters over the course of seven days. According to my computer, Draft 1 was finished at 2:06 a.m. on June 30th, 2013 (although I count it as June 29th, my day doesn’t end until I go to sleep).

I felt like an idiot. I’d been sitting with a nearly finished book since November of 2011. All it took  finish a few hours over the course of a week.

I took a few months off to delve into some world-enriching research and then throughout October, November and December of last year I went through the excruciating process of editing my book.

Oh, editing. I think some part of my subconscious went out of its way to make it horrifying. It was a mess. I was a mess. If I could do it again, I would edit a chapter at a time instead of waiting until I’d gone the whole way through. Had time travel been possible there were no fewer than a dozen times that I would have gone back and smacked myself with all 243 double-spaced pages. Mostly, mostly the frustration came  when I ran across one of these:

Image

Just one of maybe twenty.

I mean, how unhelpful is that? Here’s another one:

Image

Unhelpful and creepy

I learned a very important lesson after that edit: My memory requires details. I know that I had specific things that I wanted to do in every instance. But my vague notes did little to jog my memory. Next time, I will be specific and detailed. And much more timely with my edits.

So update over, what’s next? Well, I plan to focus on three tasks, which I will probably be working on more or less simultaneously.

  1. The Final Polish– At least, I hope this is the final polish. I’ve decided (for now) that three drafts is my limit for a book. Two to (hopefully) get the novel nailed down and sorted and one final draft to get it ready for step two (see below). Now I’m flexible on this one. I’m hoping that when feedback comes in, there won’t be anything drastic that needs changing (in other words, anything that would require a major rewrite). As a writer, I know I could tweak until kingdom come and still find more to work on. Hence, the self-imposed limit.
  2. Find an Agent– The time has come to start researching agents. Which means, going through guides and websites to compile a list of agents that might be a good fit for my book. If I were trying to publish in a small niche market (i.e. Schnauzer grooming), I might be skip this step. But alas, I am a YA author and that market seems to abound with hopefuls. If you’re at this step or close to it, I recommend the Writer’s Market 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, which seems to offer a larger selection than say the 2014 Writer’s Market or the 2014 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market (though it does have a decent selection of literary agents). The other two, however, have more in the way of contests and book publishers, if those are your interests.
  3. Start a New Project– Or in my case return to an old one. I am currently in the process of doing research for a fairytale retelling that was put on the shelf in 2010 so I could focus on MG. Now that MG is finally in the editing and submitting phase, it’s time to think ahead. Everywhere I look writer, after writer, after writer (including the famous ones, like Stephen King) recommends starting the next novel when you reach this phase. So that’s where I’m headed.
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