Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

showing-telling-ducks

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Find Your People

Writers often get a bad rap for being an anti-social bunch. Yes, it’s true: a large percentage of us lean towards introversion, which is why writing is such a good choice for us. We can express ourselves without needing to, you know, actually speak to people face-to-face. Plus, introverted or not, writing requires a lot of solitude. We need quiet to think and sort out our plots; we spend a lot of time in our own heads or alone with our notebooks or computer screens creating imaginary worlds and living the lives of imaginary people. Sometimes we even opt out of social events in order to meet deadlines, often working into the dead of night when everyone else we know (besides other writers) is asleep.

But despite all these hurdles, we’re really not as anti-social as many non-writers think. I think even we think we are—pride ourselves in it even—but I’ve been finding that’s not entirely accurate. Writers are, after all, communicators. Sure, the above mentioned hurdles prevent us from getting out as much as our friends would probably like us to, but social media for instance, especially Twitter, is crawling with writers. Cooped up inside, we crave some form of human interaction, so online we go, even if it’s just to let everyone know what we had for breakfast that morning (writing fuel, we label it) or to Instagram a pic of our fourth cup of coffee in our cute Keep Calm & Write On mug (yes, I have one of these. It’s one of my favorites).

Online interaction is all well and good; it’s important to network with other writers and industry professionals. I know I’ve learned a ton just from chatting with other writers on Twitter—things I never would have known, or at least would have had to figure out the hard way, if I’d never joined. But here’s the thing: there’s only so much shop you can comfortably talk online with who knows how many people watching. That’s why I feel it’s important to get out and meet other writers face-to-face. These are your people! They know exactly what you’re going through every day. Go hang out!

I just got back from a fantastic small get-together yesterday with other writers I met on Twitter. We all met up at a restaurant and afterward some of us went to one of our houses and stayed up late drinking wine and playing games. I considered it to be not just a get-together but really, a form of writer’s retreat, even though, here’s the thing: we didn’t actually write. Not a single bit. But we talked about it. We commiserated. We gave each other tips. We joked and told stories of writing joys and mishaps. We talked about what kinds of books were selling and what kinds weren’t and why that might be and gee, how the heck are you supposed to know these things when, by the time you see those books on the shelves, the industry has already moved past that fad, and gah, you can’t, you just need to write what you want to write and hope for the best and cry, and laugh, and shrug, and keep on trying.

It was fantastic. It was relieving, in a way, to be around other people who “get” it. These are things that, sure, I can talk about with my non-writer friends, but they haven’t experienced it. So they can offer sympathy, but they can’t say “ugh, yes, been there, done that, oh and I also did this, have you tried this?” And a lot of the things we talked about were not things we would ever talk about online (at least not in such detail) except maybe in private messages, simply because it’s not a good idea to talk about your specific querying struggles online, or complain about certain industry trends, etc. These are off-the-record type conversations only, because that’s your public face. You can get pretty goofy, sure, but you must still remain professional to a certain extent. In person, you can talk shop more. And you should. It’s important to see that it’s not just you—someone else also got a nasty rejection yesterday that made them cry, but that they haven’t given up yet and neither should you.

So if you haven’t stepped past online interaction with your fellow writers yet, I highly recommend you do so. Whether it’s by going to a conference, joining a critique group, or simply organizing a get-together with a few other local writers, get out there and find your people!*

*Disclaimer: Please be smart though. The internet is a wild place full of unpredictable characters. Meet for the first time in groups, or at the very least, in a public place until you get to know the people/person you’re meeting up with better and know whether you can feel safe with them. Use your head!
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When she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here. 

Finding Your Writing Group

I am a big fan of writing groups.  I’ve been a member of two over the last eight years (one while I was in New Hampshire, and one in Utah). Both have helped me improve my writing and up my game. Here’s why:

In a writing group you help each other.  We read each other’s manuscripts and give input. My friend Becca may have read one of my manuscripts more than me (is that possible? No?). I owe her pages and pages of acknowledgments.

Writing groups give you actual deadlines. I am not enrolled at school. I don’t have papers due. I can’t usually trick myself into producing something by a certain time just for the sake of it (I’m too clever for that J). But I work well when something has to be completed by a certain date. Currently, my writing group meets once a month. Sometimes life happens and one or two of us don’t bring anything. But we still meet. And we motivate each other.

Writing groups motivate you to write well. I want people to like what I’ve written. In my current group, we read each other’s manuscripts aloud (this is a great exercise—you notice things in a different way when you’re listening to your words in someone else’s voice). With an audience, I can gauge reactions—Does this work? Where did I fail? What could I improve, where?

You learn about writing (and about life) from your writing group. I love to read Jenny’s quick wit, Emily’s just right voice, and anything by Amy who can make the most ordinary of things beautiful with her word choice (I could go on—truly, everyone brings something good to the table…).

Your writing group members understand and support you. When you read each other’s work, you can’t help but get to know and love each other. And when success happens (publishing or otherwise), it’s a full-on dance party.

Joining a writing group is a chance to meet with people who are different from you (and hurray for that!) but who share a passion and think deeply. I mentioned in a previous post how going to writing group is like therapy. Writing and meeting together is a chance for antisocial writer-me to be social. It’s fun! It’s something different from my everyday life, and I love that.

While it would probably have been easier for me to become a member of a writing group when I was a student (I took classes and peer review for granted then), both of my writing groups evolved from post-graduate writing classes. One evolved from a workshop that was part of a larger conference (sometimes big conferences feel overwhelming, but smaller workshops make for instant friends), and one came from a class listed privately on two of my favorite authors’ blogs.

Both of my writing groups have made a big difference in my work and in my life.
For those of you who have a writing group: Where have you found them? How have you come together? [I worried about finding a new one when we moved]. What has being part of a writing group done for you?

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Emily Manwaring spent her childhood in Wales, her adolescence in Utah and the time since in England and New Hampshire respectively. She has a degree in English Literature from BYU and currently lives in Northern Utah with her husband and children. She likes to sleep [mostly she just misses it], read, and write [this makes her sound very lazy].  She is currently working on a picture book series.

I Wrote a Book…Now What?

For every step on a publication journey, there are new questions and challenges. For this post, I wanted to answer a question that’s been asked of me more than once, and one I asked myself a few years ago after finishing my first manuscript.

As hard as it is to complete a manuscript, it’s sometimes even harder to know what to do when you’ve finished it. Should you revise it? Should you stick it in a drawer and hope nobody ever reads it? Should you send it to agents and editors right away? (For the record, the answers to those questions are almost always, Yes! No! and Heck no!)

I asked some of our regular contributors to pitch in and answer a couple of questions. First, what did you do with the first book you ever finished? (Because if you’ve just finished your first book and are feeling semi-paralyzed, it’s nice to know that others have been there too, and that the paralysis doesn’t last.) Second, what advice would you give to authors who are at this stage of just having finished their first book?

Here are our contributors’ responses:

Jenilyn Collings: After I finished my very first manuscript, I printed it out and gave it to my mom for Christmas–my poor, poor mother!–then immediately started writing something new. You’ll notice that I didn’t ever say I revised my first manuscript because, well, I didn’t. I also never sent it to anyone to critique, which was bad for the manuscript and lucky for anyone who might have been on the receiving end of that story. It was really, truly terrible. I occasionally pull it out to have a good laugh. Seriously, it’s that bad.

Probably the best advice I can give about what to do after finishing a manuscript is to let it sit for a while. Put the actual words away, but let yourself daydream about it. Fill in the blanks and gaps that you know are there and daydream about fixes for the scenes that aren’t quite right. I do make a list of changes that I want to make and ideas I’d like to include, but I try to stay away from actually making any changes for a few weeks. For me, I prefer to get critiques on a full manuscript, usually after I’ve done at least one revision (unless, of course, I am needing pats on the head and someone to tell me that it’s not REALLY the worst novel ever written and that it’s worth revising). I’ve found that if I get feedback as I’m writing, it messes me up and I end up trying to write the story for certain people instead of staying true to the vision I have for the story.

Emily Manwaring: Wait for a while (at least a month) after writing your first draft, read it again and revise before sending it out to readers for input. I’ve been excited and have sent things out early–to readers and to agents, and it’s always better to wait, step back, fix things (because there’s always something to fix after time!), and then submit.
It’s kind of old-school (esp since there are so many resources online), but the the Writer’s Market is a great resource–the original one–for all things query, agent, and publishing related (it includes how-tos as well as current agent and publishing information). If you don’t want to buy a copy, I’ve found that most (if not all) libraries have a copy at the front desk.
Rosalyn Eves: The first “book” I wrote was in seventh or eighth grade. My sister read it and adored it and it went otherwise ignored. I wrote a much longer manuscript my senior year of high school. I asked a generous author I knew to read it–he gave me some helpful feedback, and I spent the next year or so revising. I sent exactly one query letter out and never heard back.

When I finally sat down to seriously pursue publishing, I wrote another book. I workshopped parts of that book at the wonderful Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference and came away with a much better sense of how the publishing industry worked. I found people to read my work-in-progress (and they remain some of my best readers!). And then I jumped into querying after reading some blog posts on how to craft a good query letter and how to go about researching agents.
Then I started getting feedback, and realized I’d jumped the query gun. Since I’m naturally impatient, I struggle with this a lot. I want to launch my manuscripts into the world as soon as they’re finished. But this is generally a very bad idea, mostly because you waste your chance with agents who might be a good fit. As soon as I realized I’d queried too soon, I stopped sending out queries. I got more feedback on my story. I went to more conferences to learn more about publishing and querying agents. I spent more time researching. And then, finally, I started querying. That manuscript didn’t get me an agent–but it taught me a lot. And the next manuscript *did* get me an agent.
I think the next step after finishing should be some combination of: get feedback and let the manuscript sit. Often you can do both at once. Writers need readers–it’s almost impossible to catch every issue with our story on our own. And getting some distance from the story can help you make the  necessary changes and revisions. Once you’ve polished it as best you can, based on outside feedback (from people who know something about writing, not just family members or friends), then it’s time to figure out what publishing path you want to pursue and researching that.

Tasha Seegmiller: My first step with my first book was to sort through the mess. I had heard lots of people who were pantsers and said that the discovery process was what fed their creativity so I gave it a shot. I ended up with a jumbled mess. I had to create an outline of what I intended the story to be in order to have any chance of making what I had written work.
Also, I queried that book, entered it in lots of contests, placed well in a few based on writing, but time and again was told “the concept isn’t strong enough”. After my writing has improved and as I have been studying the craft, I realize that is true and know how to fix it, but it will require a total rewrite.
My best piece of advice is to find writers and other professionals in the industry who, through books or blog posts, speak to your writerly soul. Find a group, a strong network and even an organization of like-minded people. As a writer of women’s fiction, the group is much smaller than pretty much all the sub-genres of YA and at times, I felt lost. When I found people who wrote like me, had a process like me, and spoke truth regarding what I thought my work should be, I hooked on, became as active as possible, and learned at every opportunity. My writing has vastly improved because I understand it better.
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Elaine Vickers is the author of LOST AND FOUND (HarperCollins, 2016) and loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. She’s a member of SCBWI and represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption. 🙂

Giving Back to the Writing Community

One of my absolute favorite things about being a writer is being a part of the writing community. When I first started writing, I was at one of the lowest points in my life–feeling lost and lonely and wondering what I was doing with my life. I had a business I enjoyed, owned my first house, and my husband and I were starting to think about a family. But I just wasn’t excited about anything. I wasn’t excited about what I saw when I looked into my future.

 Then I started to think about writing my first book. I did a lot of research about how to do this. I mean, do normal people write books?! It was right around that time that I discovered National Novel Writing Month and a whole new world was opened to me–that of the writing community. As I connected with people who had the similar goals, I felt like I was coming home. It wasn’t just about the writing, it was that these people seemed to view life the same way I did. They understood that writers are writers down to the very core of their being and nothing in life makes sense until, at 5 years old or 55, we find our way to the page. I was home.

Since then, rarely has a day passed that I haven’t touched base with “my people” in one way or another. It’s writers who assured me I wasn’t alone in following this crazy passion of mine, no matter how hard, misunderstood, and sometimes fruitless it can be. It’s writers who encouraged me and lifted me up during the hard times, even when my hard times weren’t always writing-related. It’s writers who, through their blogs, critiques, craft book suggestions, workshops, conferences, and extensive online chats, taught me how to write. I don’t know where I’d be in my career or my life without this amazing group of people.

But not only have I been rewarded by the kindness of others–giving back has been just as fulfilling. The further along I get in my journey, the more I try to return the favors that have been extended to be over the years. First, because it makes me feel even more tied to this community I love. Second, because I know how hard it can sometimes be to bridge the gap from beginning to intermediate and intermediate to advanced writer. Third, because for me, there has been nothing more fulfilling than knowing I’m helping other people follow their passion and get excited about their own futures. The writing life is full of ups and downs, but it’s a beautiful journey most people never get to experience. 

Sharing your experience with others makes it even more beautiful. No matter how long you’ve been writing, there are always ways to give back.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Blogging. I’ve learned probably 90% of what I know about writing and publishing from blogs such as these. Even if you’re just starting to learn about the craft, there are always people hopping on the train behind you and who have yet to learn the lessons you already have. Share what you know.

Offer Up Your Specific Skills. Most writers are not just writers. Some are lawyers, life coaches, runners, stay-at-home parents, or like me, tech junkies. Whatever particular skills you already have can help other writers, from giving tips on balancing writing and fitness or writing and parenting to offering publishing legal advice or creating writing tools.

Critiquing. Sometimes the hardest part about being a writer is trying to figure out what you’re doing on your own. Giving objective feedback on another writer’s specific strengths and weaknesses can help them move forward leaps and bounds. And you’ll learn a lot from reading objectively too.

Volunteering for Writing Organizations. Most writing organizations are completely volunteer run and every single position is important. They are always looking for help.

Creating Connections. If you come across a romance-writing friend who needs a critique partner and you write fantasy, reach out to your other romance-writing friend and see if they’d be interested. If a friend has a research question about the medical field, ask your doctor cousin if you can pass on the questions. These seemingly little things can make a huge difference.

Just Being There. It’s hard to balance writing and life alone without taking on additional responsibilities, I know. But most of the time, the best thing you can do for other writers is let them know they’re not alone–you’ve been there, you understand, and they’ll get through this too. And, more than that, you’ll be there to congratulate them on their successes along the way, just like they’ve done for you.

In what ways do you give back to your fellow writers? What has the writing community meant to you?

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Jamie Raintree writes Women’s Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing–her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

Feedbackers

Writers crave many things–publication, success, validation–but those who are serious about really developing themselves as writers crave feedback just as much. And not just the pat-on-the-back, I-loved-every-syllable kind of feedback, but honest and sometimes painful feedback, as long as it’s given with care and the intent to help. I’m talking about these kinds:

     “I didn’t have enough reason to care about your main character.”

     “The plot really dragged in the middle.”

     “I can tell this part is supposed to be funny, but it really isn’t.”

     “This big moment of discovery feels pretty contrived and forced.”

     “Your story starts in the wrong place. You should probably just rewrite the first four chapters.”

I’ve had variations of all of these things said to me, and after the initial “ouch”, I’m so grateful for them. Because in every single case, my feedbackers have been right. And when I make the main character more loveable or amp up the plot or make the funny part actually funny, the story is stronger.

I’m lucky enough to have two great groups of feedbackers: a critique group and beta readers. My critique group meets together every two weeks to critique each other’s projects 10-15 pages at a time. My beta readers read the whole manuscript when it’s completed and semi-polished and give feedback on the entire thing, both the big stuff and the small stuff. And I do the same for them.

Writers can pay for feedback. There are freelance editors who are extremely talented and lovely and will help a writer fix everything in her book from large to small. But it would be a mistake (and really expensive) to rely entirely on this kind of feedback, because it elminiates half of the learning process: giving feedback. It’s incredibly instructive to figure out what works and doesn’t work in others’ writing.

If you don’t have feedbackers yet, don’t despair! There are lots of great sites like cpseek where you can connect with other writers. So find your feedbackers and be a feedbacker! Your manuscript will thank you.