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Posts tagged ‘show don’t tell’

10 Tips For Becoming A Good Novelist, by April Henry

1. Read, read, read. Try well-reviewed books in genres you wouldn’t normally read – fantasy, historical novels, even westerns. Don’t be afraid to put something aside if it’s not working for you – but first try to pinpoint why it’s not working.

2. You don’t have to write what you know. Write what interests you. Do I know much about kidnappings, murders, drug dealers, being blind or assuming a dead girl’s identity? No. But I’ve written books that have gotten starred reviews, awards and have hit the New York Times bestseller list.

3. You can write a book in as little as 20 minutes a day. I know because I’ve done it. Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration. Once you are published, you’ll need to make deadlines. Write every day or, at minimum, every weekend. If you don’t know what to write about, start by getting a book with writing prompts, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

4. You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write. Sometimes you’ll find your back against the wall when you need a solution or a resolution to the story. Make yourself write something. Anything. And often what you come up with turns out to be surprisingly good.

5. You don’t have to outline – but you can. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters. Set up initial goals, throw some obstacles in the way, and see if your characters sink or swim. If your characters do swim, send a few sharks after them!

6. Tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. I still think about Jane and Tom, people I took a writing class with about a decade ago. They were the stars of our class, far better writers than I was. I was just one of the drones. Both Jane and Tom gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. If they had persevered, I think they would have been published.

7. Show vs. tell is something most writers struggles with. In movies and on TV they can’t tell you anything – at least without on-screen text or voice over. Everything is audio-visual, which means they have to show you. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and TV and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is a good way to learn how to show emotion instead of telling it.

8. Revision has gotten a bad rap. It can actually be the most fun. Most of the hard work is done – so you just polish things up, cut things down to size, make characters a little larger than life, and reorder your ideas. The best way to start a revision is to let the book lie fallow for at least a week. A month is better. Six months would be ideal.

9. To really see what needs fixing, read it aloud. Yes, all of it. It’s even better if you can read it to someone, even if it’s a toddler or your cat. Or imagine an editor or agent is listening.

10. Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll learn something from every writer you hear. You’ll see that published writers aren’t some exotic species. And they’ll be glad to see you even if you don’t buy a book.


April Henry’s author website:

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The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGirl, StolenThe Night She DisappearedShock Point    A World AwayThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels

Using Your Character’s Senses To Show Your Story-World, by Kashmira Sheth

As a writer, many of us see the story unfolding in our head. When we start putting those scenes down on the page most of them are written out as what our main character or our narrator ‘sees’. I love what eyes can see and the type of sensory details it can provide the readers but it is important to remember the four other senses too.

In real life we experience many things with sight but at the same time we also gain knowledge of our physical world through the other senses. It is important to write stories that not only use the sense of sight but also employ sound, taste, smell and touch to make the physical world of the protagonist richer and more complete.  For example, if there is spilled sugar in the kitchen our character may not see it but will experience it with other senses. How she discovers it could depend upon if she is walking barefoot or wearing shoes.  If barefoot she may notice it by feeling it on her feet but wearing shoes she might hear the crunch first.

Rich sensory details bring multiple layers to a story. A misty, foggy March morning with beautiful imagery is good. But if we take the same scene and add the sound of a bird, say a cardinal, piercing though the mist it could add a new dimension. The reader hasn’t seen the cardinal, and yet the sound can bring the image of red crested bird ready for spring. By adding sound we give an impression that beyond the veil of mist there is a world out there, a world of sound, color and life.

Similarly, the sense of touch brings texture to the story. Just observing that a wool shawl looks soft or rough doesn’t create the same image as adding how it feels to the touch. That the wool shawl felt smoother than my furry kitten or that it felt like I was holding a prickly pear gives a fuller, more accurate and vivid description.

Taste is one of the most important and indispensable tools for fiction writers. If you are writing about food, no matter how much you describe it just doesn’t do it justice. It is like going to a restaurant and getting a dish that looked lovely. The presentation is great but what you are after is the taste. Are the green beans crunchy and flavorful? Is the dressing tangy? Is the crust melt-in-your mouth flaky?  In my writing, I use the foods and spices of India to bring out the flavor of Indian dishes.

Last but not least is the sense of smell.  Smell is probably the most evocative of all the senses. You may visit a beach that you used to go as a child after twenty years. You may notice that half-a-dozen new resorts have been built, changing the look of the beach. Yet you might feel that there is something very familiar about the place. It probably is the scent of the salty, moist air. It is the scent that will take you back to your childhood of building sand castles and wading into the water.

Using all the senses to describe the place your protagonist inhabits is critically important in a YA novel. It immerses your reader fully in the scenes and settings of the story. As writer, it is satisfying to make the world come alive, one sensory detail at a time.


Kashmira Sheth’s author website:

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Keeping CornerBoys without Names     TracksAuslanderThe Traitor's KissCleopatra ConfessesAcross the Universe

Writing Teen Novels

Fiction Editor Aimee Salter Interviewed by SM Johnston

Professional manuscript editor Aimee Salter has stopped by to answer some questions that will help aspiring young adult writers tighten their manuscripts up and make them stand out from the slush pile.

What signs can writers look for that indicates they’re “telling” instead of “showing” in their manuscript?

In the bigger picture, this is a really difficult question to answer. “Telling” is one of those things you learn to identify with time and experience. But there is one form of telling that I can clearly define:

You’re telling when the point-of-view character explains to the reader what another character is thinking, feeling, or intending.

In real life we interpret other people’s actions through their tone and body language. As readers we do the same with characters. If the POV character tells the reader something that contradicts their natural understanding of what is shown, then they’re confused. If the POV character is just re-iterating what the reader already understood, it’s redundant. Either way, it shouldn’t be there.

Feelings need to be shown to the reader through dialogue, body-language, and tone in voice and the writing. If you’re using the names of feelings, or words like “as if” or the various forms of “seem”, then you might be telling.

(Hint: A good tool to help show character motivation/emotion is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi).

What are some clichés that writers should avoid?

That’s an interesting question. If you want to talk about actual writing clichés, the list is endless.

I couldn’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve seen dealt a fatal blow by leaning too heavily on the bad boy premise. The author wants to see all hell break loose, when really they’re just doing it by the book. When it comes to describing characters, they put in everything but the kitchen sink. Most of those details the reader sees day in and day out. The author should figure out what’s unique about their premise or character and yell that from the rooftops. It’s as easy a falling off a log: Only tell the reader something they haven’t heard before – especially when you’re just getting the ball rolling.

See what I mean? It’s way too easy to let cliché’s become part of your narration. The good news is, most of us know what those clichés look like and as soon as we know we need to look for them, we can. Worst case scenario, an editor can ferret them out.

The clichés that are truly worrying are the characters or plot-points we’ve all seen a million times.

I read a book recently by a clearly talented author that spent so much time focused on the “Good girl/Bad boy” narration, the characters were never actually developed into their stereotypes before they were rescued from them. The Good Girl appeared on the page wanting to be bad. And the Bad Boy appeared on the page wanting to be good enough for the Good Girl. It didn’t matter that the writing was good – the foundational elements of the story weren’t new. There was nothing there to hold my interest because I’d seen it all before.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to create your own version of something that’s gone before. But if you’re going to do that, it’s vital that you have something unique in your story, and that you bring that unique element to the reader’s (or agent’s/editor’s) attention immediately. Otherwise you’ll get feedback about ‘cardboard plots’ or ‘stock-characters’.

What tips do you have for aspiring authors to make their writing more active?

I have a bunch, actually. There’s a self-editing series on my website that gives several lists of commonly overused words and phrases, along with suggested replacements.

But the single most common passivity I see is the “were/was” and “ing” construction:

“We were going to the pool.” Should actually be “We went to the pool.”

“He was holding my hand.” Should be, “He held my hand.”

In present tense: “Tony is walking next to me.” Should be “Tony walks next to me.”

In a single sentence you’re only dropping a word or two but, over the course of an 80,000 word manuscript, you might be stunned how many times that construction is used. The problem is, not only does it create an extra word or two every time, it also slows the pace of the read and distances the reader from the action.

On my website, “was” is one of the first “seek and destroy” missions of the self-editing tips because it’s the most commonly used and is (often, but not always) unnecessary.


You can read more from Aimee Salter with SM Johnston at Down Under Wonderings and YAtopia.


SM Johnston bio page

Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and FilmPsychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary ResponseGotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing SchoolRevision and Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Finished Novel (Write Great Fiction)Pandemonium (Delirium (Hardcover))Cleopatra ConfessesKingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark

Writing Teenage Characters, by Sarah Alderson

When my first book, Hunting Lila, was submitted to publishers most of the feedback that came back was along the lines of ‘Wow, she has a really authentic teenage girl voice.’

What I kept quiet was that my teenage girl voice was no different from my thirty year old girl voice. I just never grew up. In my head I’m still seventeen and I think that makes it easier for me to write protagonists of this age.

However, recently my five-year old daughter started school and I realised, once I was surrounded by high school age children, that actually I was deluded and I wasn’t in fact a teenager anymore (you’d think I would have gathered that from looking in the mirror but no). After that I started sending lists of questions to friends’ teenage children, quizzing them on everything from slang and fashion and music to the unspoken rules around pulling (hooking up). This has been invaluable and so many of the stories they’ve told me have ended up in my books, as well as making my jaw hit the floor. Is there anything more cringe-worthy than a middle-aged author pretending to be down with the kids? The most important lesson for me has been inviting teenagers to read my books while they’re still in progress to let me know whether I’ve got the language right. Teens are also brutally honest. And they’re your audience so testing on them isn’t such a bad idea!

It doesn’t matter what age your characters are, your job as an author is to make them believable, and to do that you need to know them. You need to know what drives them, inspires them and annoys them – even the really evil ones or the ones you’d never be friends with in real life – you need to know what makes them that way. Writers need huge amounts of empathy – every line of dialogue or action needs to run true to the character performing it – if it’s just included as a plot device to move the story on then you lose your readers because they stop believing.

So take time out not just to picture each of your characters (I often pick an actor on whom I want to base the way they look) but to establish their character. Maybe they’re based on a friend or someone you know? When I wrote Hunting Lila I actually researched star signs to give me some ideas of what kind of personality traits Lila, Jack and Alex might have.

Then give your characters a background. Spend some time writing down information about where they were born, what their parents did for a living, what their favourite subject at school is, what their favourite food is, what books lines their bookshelves, what music they listen to, what clothes they wear, for example. Some of this information might find its way into the book, giving clues to your reader as to who the characters are.

Details are what let characters jump off the page, turning them from 2D constructs into 3D people. But remember to show, don’t tell.

My final word of advice would be to let your characters have free rein. If you’ve constructed them well and they’re fully fleshed in your head then let them run free! This might mean that once you start writing they start behaving in ways that you hadn’t imagined. This is a good sign. It means that character is real.


Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaFatedThe Christopher KillerThylaDangerously PlacedThe Dramatic Writer's Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing)Just Write: Here's How!


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