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“Show, don’t tell” advice for writers + story updates


Good evening readers!

Tonight I bring a round-up of Million Eyes updates and some advice on a literary rule that’s habitually banged on about by editors, agents and publishers: “show, don’t tell”.

Million Eyes and Hodderscape

No, no, it’s nothing exciting like a book deal from a publisher (I wish). However, it’s a mini endorsement for Million Eyes.

Hodderscape are sci-fi, fantasy and horror publishers. One of the authors on their list is a man some of you may have heard of called Stephen King.

Now, I’ve not really been submitting Million Eyes to publishers or agents because the book is incomplete. However, Hodderscape were having an open submission period in August 2015 (which means they were accepting subs from unagented authors). So I tidied up the first 15,000 words of Million Eyes and submitted it, expecting to hear back by the end of September. I didn’t. I knew there were some delays, but I didn’t end up hearing back till April 2016 (yes, I’ve been meaning to mention this for months and keep forgetting!).

It was a form rejection, but said that “all the readers were very impressed with your work”, which I thought was unusual. They also mentioned that 1,500 authors submitted during the open subs period, and signed off by saying, “thank you for your patience while we worked through the second reads!”

Second reads? Well, that was news to me. Basically, Million Eyes got through some kind of first round, which is no doubt why it took so long to hear back, and why their form rejection included a compliment about my work.

Pretty impressive, I think, given that those 15,000 words I submitted have undergone some fairly major changes since then, and my writing has improved massively. Also impressive that Million Eyes was one of 1,500 submissions that got through to the second round. Whoop!

This time next year, I’m confident Million Eyes will be in a really strong position.

The Million Eyes Short Stories

My short story, Rachel Can See, is about to be published in Metamorphose Volume 2, as mentioned a couple of weeks ago. This will be the third Million Eyes Short Story to be published, after Who is Rudolph Fentz? and The Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller. Volume 2 should be released on November 1st.

Operation Loch Ness and The Babushka Lady are two more lengthy Million Eyes Short Stories that have so far eluded publication or placement in any competitions. I went back to these the other day and thought, oooo, they could do with a spruce-up. That’s what’s great about writing these short stories. I learn something new with each one, and my writing develops. So I’m going to tighten up the prose and make a few small plot changes, and submit again.

Meanwhile, I’ve just completed a sequel to Rachel Can See and submitted it for a critique.

That’s about it for Million Eyes news, but I do have a further announcement coming soon… 🙂

Show! Don’t tell!

Here we have a creative writing rule that all beginners fall foul of, including me. Back in 2011, when I self-published my debut novel, The Pendulum Swings, I tried to get it into a number of bookshops. One bookshop said this:

“In my opinion, you have a very interesting idea but, compared to other children’s fiction for the age-group you are writing, there is a little too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ and this stops the narrative from being as exciting as it could be.”

Then, in 2014, I took to submitting to agents and publishers an early version of Million Eyes that I see now wasn’t remotely ready. One literary agent said this:

“It is as if we are being reported events rather than things taking on their own life. I am told things in expository sentences rather than dramatically.”

If this all sounds complicated and technical, it’s really not. It’s like this: instead of telling your reader, Mr Fluffle was an angry man, show Mr Fluffle bashing someone in the face, grinding his teeth, shouting, bunching his fists, going red, etc.

When you’re telling, you’re just giving the reader information. Showing is better because, as this agent says, things “take on their own life”. This makes for a more engaging and exciting narrative that gets the reader involved. Your reader experiences your story, experiences your characters, rather than just being told about them.

The rule reputedly originates from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who gives a nice example of it: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

So how do you stick to it? Well, firstly you have to recognise that the rule is not “Always show, never tell.” There are times when telling is appropriate and desirable, and showing creates unnecessary padding (more on this in a moment).

There are large-scale and small-scale ways of employing the “show, don’t tell” rule in your writing.

Large-scale showing: plot and character development

Writers often fall foul of the rule when they’re introducing characters. The temptation is to reel off a list of that character’s features and personality traits. Instead, create a scene that demonstrates them. It could be in dialogue, the way they walk, or the way they behave and react in a particular circumstance.

And if a past event is important to your main plot, rather than report it, try and let your reader see it. This could take the form of a flashback (which comes with its own pitfalls — see my previous blog) or just an earlier chapter of the book. Don’t brush over your events, make them a part of the story.

Small-scale showing: thoughts, feelings and actions

Show the thoughts and feelings of your characters by describing their physical actions and reactions. My Mr Fluffle example is relevant here. Sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer (Triggers and End of an Era — both excellent) says in his article, On Writing:

“When writing a romantic scene, don’t tell us that John is attracted to Sally; show us that his heart skips a beat when she enters the room.”

How you describe your character’s actions might also be telling, rather than showing. Have a look at how you’ve used adverbs. For example, one of my stories had the following line in it:

“What are you doing?” I said, more irately this time, pulling back.

An editor told me to avoid words ending in –ly as often as possible because they tell rather than show. She suggested the following:

“What are you doing?” I said, yanking back.

“Yanking” is a stronger, more apt verb that shows the reader that my character is irate without me needing to use “irately”. Generally, if you use stronger, more appropriate verbs in your writing, you can cut out tons of adverbs. This makes your writing sharper, more succinct. (See my previous post for more advice on overuse of adverbs and adjectives.)

But don’t show everything

As mentioned above, the rule is not, “Always show, never tell”. Not every piece of plot or character backstory requires its own scene, particularly if it’s of little consequence to your story as a whole. Sometimes a bit of exposition is fine, as long as it’s relevant to something happening in the here and now and doesn’t destroy the pace of the story. In short, don’t overdo it.

In his article Exception to the Rule, published in Writer’s Yearbook 2003, James Scott Bell says this:

“Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”

Next week: who is the ‘Charlie Chaplin Time Traveller’?

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