Show and Tell 101

It’s grade three, and today is your turn for Show and Tell. You put on your best shirt, go to school wearing nerves of steel, swallow back that lump in your scratchy throat; and as soon as the bell rings and Ms. Landry hustles the others into the classroom, you reach into your desk and pull out a…

 If there’s one thing I’ve learned over these past few years, while reinventing myself as a creative writer, it’s this:  there’s a massive difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ a story.

But why does it matter?

Good fiction, to me, is all about creating a visceral and emotional link, which is done by engaging the reader’s senses. A good story, like a thief at midnight, sneaks past that intellectual barrier known as ‘disbelief’, to grab hold of our minds and dig deeper into our selves.

It makes you feel like you are really there in some magical way.

Sure, but it takes more than that!

Yes. It does! You’ll notice I’ve already used metaphor and simile, tried to show you character traits, and almost placed a smoking gun on the stage to create suspense (reference a glossary of literary devices), because good fiction does all those things too! But the difference between telling (cataloguing characters’ actions and emotions, covering ground, informing or instructing readers in some way) and showing (evoking sensations and creating images in readers’ minds) can be the difference between fair stories and remarkable ones.

In fact, you need both to write right. So let the reader  SEE it.

Here are some examples:

Tell: Lynn felt scared.

Ho hum. Blah-bee-dee-blah. Okay then. So Lynn was scared. So what?

Show: The hair on the back of Lynn’s neck pricked. Her breathing came in short rasps. She looked over her shoulder and shivered in chills…

Oh, now we’re talking… Can you relate? Have you ever felt that way? What’s happening that is causing Lynn to feel so frightened?

But what if you have a word limit? Sometimes you progress more by using more words, and sometimes you just need to say it quickly, in a few words (style matters too, but that’s another story).

Tell: Bob seemed angry lately.

Show: Bob slammed every door.

Show: Bob fumed.

Keep in mind that your choice of words can also give insight into the compelling characters that you are developing, and all of that makes for superior fiction!

Tell: Jane wanted to know why Sam kept shutting her out. He refused to answer her many questions.  

Show: Jane pelted Sam with questions like she was the Red Baron bombing London. Sam blew smoke rings back in reply.

Does that example show and tell you anything more about your characters?  If desperate Jane keeps pestering silent Sam how will he respond? Is he going to be gentle and sweet? Or is he going to explode?

And the differences can be striking or subtle but a good writer can manipulate things.

Tell: “Come on,” Judy said impatiently.

Show: “Come on!” Judy urged.

In the above example we’re told that Judy is impatient. In the second line we are shown, through use of a stronger verb and an exclamation point, that Judy, for some reason, is impatient.

Use strong verbs so you can avoid adverbs.

Tell: Lou walked down the street, happy to finally be going home.

Show: Lou skipped homeward, swinging her hips and whistling.

 Tell: Joe wrote messily on the paper (*verb needs adverb to modify and help create image).

Show: No one could read Joe’s writing (*character trait developing).

Show: Joe scribbled something illegible (* better verb choice).

Show: Joe’s writing was chicken scratch (* show using metaphor).

 

Darla walked softly up the stairs.

Darla crept up the stairs.

Darla slunk, snuck, floated, crawled, slithered up the stairs…

Darla inched up the stairs, holding her breath and listening.

 

Let the readers discern for themselves how they feel.

When reading, I dislike being told how to feel, don’t you? Like…

Tell: Lily turned and suddenly, when she least expected it, he was standing there before her.

Show: Lily closed her car door, turned around and banged straight into someone. But it wasn’t just anyone. It was him. 

Or,

Tell: Luke was the kind of guy who made Sarah feel dirty when she stood beside him.

Show: Sarah was jostled into the elevator beside Luke, with his sweat-stained armpits and his breath that smelled like yesterday’s staff meeting. She looked downward, hoping for a draft of air and dreaming of her white-tiled shower.

But don’t be ambiguous.

Tell: Karla was well-dressed.

What does that mean to the reader? What does the writer want it to mean? It’s all relative to one’s opinion of what well-dressed means, isn’t it?

Show: Karla wore a pristine silk pant-suit with a delicate crocheted shawl. Her hair was coiffed like the ladies on the streets of old Paris and her nails were manicured to glossy perfection.

The second example shows the reader what the writer thinks well-dressed means.

The writer could also say:

Tell: Karla was enigmatic.

Or better yet,

Show: When Karla entered the room all heads turned to see.

Show: When Karla walked down the street men in passing cars honked their horns and other women adjusted their skirts and fixed their lipstick.  

Tell: Stan was mean by nature (what does ‘mean’ mean?)

Show: Stan kicked the neighbour’s dog when he thought no one was looking.

Tell: Alice was shy around others (is ‘shy’ the same as introverted?)

Show: Alice hid behind her mom’s legs whenever strangers spoke to her in public, but giggled until her body shook when playing with friends at daycare.  

The truth is, it takes all of this and more to craft a ‘good’ story that others would want to read (what is a ‘good’ story?).

But the showing is always in the telling.  

The morning bell reverberated off the painted brick walls and vibrated the vinyl window blinds until they hummed. Kids scrambled to kick off wet shoes and line them against the wall as they hopped over puddles into their dry classroom.

Ms. Landry stood at the front wearing her usual pink and white smile until the National Anthem finished singing.

“Shhhhh, take your seats please,” she said. “That’s quite the June rainstorm we’re having isn’t it? Okay everyone it’s Geraldine’s turn for Show and Tell. Johnny, sit! Would you like to come forward Geraldine?”

Every pair of eyes in the room from twenty-seven heads swivelled around to stare at Geraldine in her back row seat. She gulped, and reached into the dark spaces of her desk where her hand made a fist around the object she’d waited so long to share. She glanced at the clock and stood up, ignoring the sweat that trickled down her back as she marched forward to stand beside her favourite teacher: the one who had encouraged her to see beyond the ordinary.

“What have you got for us today?” Ms. Landry asked with eyes that twinkled.   

Geraldine lifted her closed hand and glanced sideways to smile at her teacher before thrusting her hand forward, open, with the palm facing up, for the everyone to see.

“What is it?” Johnny yelled.

Mike stood on his chair. Laura did too. Kids craned their necks and grumbled until the entire class was standing, and some were pushing their way forward, trying to get a better look the way people do at rock concerts and Boxing Day sales.

“That’s just a dumb old button.” Arlo said before he plopped back down onto his seat.

“Yah,” Bryce scoffed.

Someone else laughed.

The inseparable Maya and Luna giggled and whispered to each other, having hoped for something a little more exciting, cute and fuzzy, or larger and louder with flashing lights like the robot June’s dad had brought in two days earlier.   

“Class!” Ms. Landry raised her voice. “SIT DOWN.”

They all shuffled and stilled.

“Geraldine, please tell us what you have and why you want to share it.”

Geraldine spoke in her mouse-like voice that took everyone several attempts to hear over the commotion that one tiny button had caused.

“This is a button from my grandma’s jacket that she wore during World War II,” she whispered, staring not at her classmates but at the ornate, tarnished brass dot that rested in her open palm.

There was a collective gasp from the group.

“COOL!” Johnny yelled.

“My grandma worked at breaking German codes. She was very good at math…”  

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why This? Why Now?

Self-pub·lish

– to publish independently at one’s own expense.

– ‘private printing’ where the author remains in total control of the entire process including: design of the cover and interior, formats, price, sales, distribution, marketing, public relations; launches, promos, and, at times, catering.

– the [multi-tasker’s dream] ‘do-it-all-yourself’ approach to going very crazy rather quickly (when all you really want to do is write stories).

Why This? Why Now?

So I’ve been sitting here beating myself up over a few, itty-bitty, teensy-weensy typos found in my latest book after printing. Gasp! The shame! The horror!

Yes! It’s true. My eagle-eyed kids found a few things that myself and the editor  missed when we read the final proof x3 before going to print: not big things but things that bug [me] because they were so blatant, and simple, and should have been caught.

Let’s not talk about the comma issues, okay?

(And just so you know, I happen to love the Oxford comma: Google it).

This is the blunt truth about self-publishing, I thought, this is my punishment for taking too much on and trying to ‘play publisher’ when all I ever wanted to do was write my own children some cool stories, and gift them with the legacy of their mother’s printed words.

Cool gift, right? Huh!

Maybe not, if the reader is left considering those errors as careless omissions or worse… general lack of knowledge. Eeeeekkkk!

So I’m here now, today, to defend the rights of self-publishers everywhere, and to champion their mission!

It takes a great deal of courage to put something ‘out there’ and even more to hold your head up high when someone calls you up with the old, “Oh, hey, about chapter 7 page 39 and that (insert wildly fantastical grammar term that no one ever knows the real meaning of/rules to) you messed up on.”

And so, here I am getting all down on myself, and blaming myself for being so single-handedly s-t-u-p-i-d, when I pick up the latest Giller-prize-winning, professionally published book… dah, dah, dahhhhhh (scary music), and find errors.

Errors?

Yes. Mistakes. Grammatical ‘incorrections’. Words that should be plural and are not. Words that should have double ‘rr’ but don’t. Words that are, ah-hahhhhh, incorrectly spelled.

(Twelve of them so far, but who’s counting?)

Yippee! I’m not the only one.

And thus, I somehow magically freed myself from the self-loathing and pity that was beginning to engulf and conquer my usual shining sense of confidence.

I AM A ONE WOMAN SHOW, with the help of TWO INCREDIBLE professional graphic artist friends (Merrick Art and Graphics in Port Perry, Ontario- they deserve the endorsement for sure) and access to a small tribe of ‘blinded reviewers’ and Indie bookstore owners (A rare breed of supremely incredible beings who actually own their own stores and support ‘local’ authors), who has managed to pull-off the greatest feat of self-publishing ever imagined in the history of self-publishing…(Well not really, but let me gloat for a second will you?), and published two novels- in as many years- for my four children: to have and to hold, forever and ever, amen.

So, thank you very much for over-looking those tiny typos, and I hope you enjoy the stories that I took six years to write and self-produce in order to maintain some kind of control over their ‘everything’.

It was sooooo worth it!

 

 

 

 

 

Q&A with the Author: New Release I.R.I.S.

Q1: What first inspired you to write I.R.I.S.?

Author Response (AR): I was writing another book and the underlying theme of ravens as spirit guides kept popping into my head. Plus, around that time, I’d be out walking my dog around the neighbourhood and I was often followed by a trio of young, playful ravens. As they flew overhead one day I wondered what it might be like if they were spying on me, literally.

Q2: Why did you choose to self-publish rather than seek traditional publication?

AR2: As an unknown writer I was keenly aware that finding a publisher in today’s changing landscape might take a long time or result in many rejections. And, it’s widely known that a book can take years to go from manuscript to actual store shelves. This book was written for my sons and I wanted them to read it before they were beyond the age and scope of the story. As it turns out, many of my readers are well beyond that age range yet still love the book; and, since it took me four years to write my kids are already older than the intended age range anyway; so I’ll just have to trust that they can still enjoy a good action/adventure story. I also woefully admit that I like having total control over a project that is so dear to my heart, and the rewards in publishing it myself have far out-weighed the alternative of seeking traditional representation where I might not have any control over important things like the title or cover.

Q3: Had you written or published anything before I.R.I.S.?

A3: Yes. I’ve stirred my spoon in several pots, or so to speak: published in community newspapers, print and digital magazines, on websites, and chapters or excerpts in the books of other authors. I’ve written a number of food and travel articles, editorials on being and raising Canadian kids while living abroad, short essays on education, health and wellness; articles on being and raising multilingual children in bi-cultural families, educational guides, and chapters in books of English as a second language for foreign nurses. And, I’ve also been something like a ghost writer for more than ten years; reviewing, editing, and translating medical and scientific research for publication in international medical journals. Last year I self-published a novel for young adults, Sumac Summer, and it has received rave reviews. The experience was so rewarding I thought I’d try it again. My short story was long-listed for the CBC’s Creative Nonfiction contest in 2015. And, I recently won first place in a writing contest for a flash fiction challenge in a new Canadian literary magazine.

Q4: Using an acronym as a title is a bold thing to do. Were you worried?

AR4: Yes, I was worried that people would connect the title to ISIS, which was practically unheard of back when I had the idea for the book but has since become commonplace. And I also worried that people wouldn’t be sufficiently intrigued by it, but so far it has done what I wanted it to do: intrigue, and boost the notion of agency or secrecy.

Q5: What more can you tell us about your micro-press?

A5: Winter Wind Press was first established in July 2015 with the aim and mission to publish unique and timeless stories in different or cross-over genres for young adults and teens who love to read. Using my own books as pilot projects I first intend to self-publish three or four stand-alone books before taking on the monumental task of publishing the work of someone else (keeping that as a future goal).

Q6: How did you come up with the name Winter Wind Press?

A6: I wanted something distinctly and whole-heartedly Canadian that would embody the idea that ‘a good book will always keep you warm so let the storms outside rage on’. My kids get credit for the name, logo and brand. It’s a family thing.

Q7: Is there a sequel to I.R.I.S.?

AR7: There is a prequel and a sequel, yes. I just need to find the time to write them.

I.R.I.S. Sneak Peek

Chapter 1- Shadows (Excerpt)

There was a noise and Jay sprang upright. Everything in his vision spun wildly for a brief second. He felt so tired. Remembering was really hard work when you were recovering from a coma; so hard in fact that he almost hadn’t noticed Maggie standing beside him, fiddling with his heart monitor and tsking.

“Oi! I thought I told yeh not ta turn it off me lad.”

It wasn’t a question.

Mrs. Margaret MacKay had a hospital name-tag clipped to the left pocket over her heart, and beside the letters RN, hand-written in sparkly purple marker, was her own definition: ‘Real Nutcase’.

She also had a miniature koala bear clipped to her stethoscope, gripped there as if it were swinging from some purple jungle vine, hanging on for dear life. Everything about this ‘jungle’ seemed to be tinted purple, from her auburn hair to the orthopedic clogs on her feet.

“Hey Maggie.” Jay might only be fourteen years old but he knew how to read people. Or at least he thought he knew how to read people before he broke his head and went bonkers. Maggie was the only nurse who didn’t baby-talk him. And when she gave him medicine she didn’t say, “Here’s your sugar pill, Honey,” like all the others.

The anti-seizure syrup was sweet enough. He didn’t need reminders.

Maggie pulled a pink Smartphone out of what she called her pocket full of tricks, and passed it to Jay.

“What? Should I order us a pizza?” he asked with a wry smile.

She laughed, “Och, lad ya crack me up, hah. O’ sorry. No puns intended ‘bout your wee cracked noggin’ eh! No, me boy, jus’ be a love and look at the screen would’ya then?”

He could tell by the lilting end to her words that she was asking him if he wanted to and so to please her, he looked: there were phone numbers, all the same, piled one on top of another like floors in a skyscraper.

“Geeze, somebody really wants to get in touch with you,” he remarked dryly.

“Yeh don’ recognize it?”  She scrunched up her round face.

He glanced again, and worried as he tried to concentrate on the numbers. He used to be good with numbers. His mom, code name Math Professor, had always been overly proud, but now she might have one more thing to fear from his accident. There were too many numbers. The call was long distance, that much he did know, but he moved his head very slowly, very gently, in the direction of ‘No’.

Maggie took the phone from his hand and waved it in front of his face, “It’s yer uncle lad, the one who lives in Berlin. That’s a nice place by the way, I went there when–,”

“–Uncle Henry?” Jay blurted.

“Yah, yah, I had to give ‘im my personal number ‘cause the girls at the station were complainin’ ‘bout him ringin’ them up all night long and they couldna get their work done.” She handed him back the phone. “He seems nice, yer uncle. Yeh should ring ‘im up, he’s worried sick about yeh.”

“But Maggie, wouldn’t that be an expensive call?” Jay frowned, and tried not to wince at the pain it caused.

She passed her phone back to him, “Unlimited international calling plan me darlin’. I’m on shift for twelve hours and maybe even a double if that useless twit Doreen doesn’t show up again, so use it any time yeh want and jus’ beep me at the desk when yer done!”

Pivoting to go she added, “An, don’t be goin’ ta sleep now eh! I’ll be back with yer medication for tha’ headache.”

“How did you know?” he asked.

She put a hand on her round hip and raised one thick, pencilled eyebrow. “I’ve been nursing a long time m’dear and I can read between the lines on them machines pretty good too.”

He only hoped that Maggie MacKay, Real Nutcase and Registered Nurse Extraordinaire, couldn’t read minds as well as she could read machines. He wasn’t ready to share his secrets or his fears.

As the door swung shut there was a flutter of movement out on the window ledge but Jay purposefully looked the other way and watched the green beats on the monitor, seeking evidence that he was alive rather than evidence that he had lost his wits.

He did not see it from the corner of his eye; no, he did not. He did not hear its sharp bill knocking at the glass, pecking at the February chill; no, he did not. His peripheral vision was not closing in on him; no, it wasn’t. He was not going crazy. He couldn’t.

But he also couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that it might be possible for a bird, his bird, to have flown twelve thousand kilometers just to sit there and watch him.

Jay’s curiosity overcame him. He glanced out the window. The shadow shifted, turned, and peered through the glass directly at Jay, watching him.

 

Anticipation

It’s that sweet build-up of wonder, the feeling of exhilaration mixed with the unknown: who’s hiding around the corner, what’s going to happen, where’s this going next?

You feel it coming on like a distant thunderstorm before the first crack of cloud and rain. The sky around you subtly changes colour. The cows bed down in their fields. And, is it your imagination or does the air taste different too?

BOOM!

SPLASH!

It takes skill to craft the right amount on tension in writing. It takes practice and time to lead the reader onward and forward. Hooking them is easy enough, if you’ve got a way with words, but how do you keep them wondering? Guessing? Wanting more? Then, how do you leave them hanging off that proverbial cliff just so they’ll want to climb again?

In this age of media bombardment and hyper-stimulation it’s not as easy as it once was to catch and keep your readers’ attention. So it’s more important than ever to know how to draw them in and keep them within the boundaries of the limitless story you’ve created. You want nothing more than to pull them into the pages of your work just so you can engage their minds to fully roam and explore that world, those events, and these characters.

There’s no greater compliment to a writer than, “I couldn’t put your book down,” or “I devoured your story.” Good tension is one of the best ways to achieve that goal.

“The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” -Oscar Wilde.

CRACK!

BOOM!

Here’s how I attempt to create suspense in writing.

  1. Create characters that have something to work for, an objective or a goal; then make them engaging and memorable, and give them an opposing force or antagonist.
  2. Invest your characters in the pursuit of their goal. Make them work for it. Don’t give things to them easily (other than real flaws, which help readers identify with them).
  3. Raise the stakes, push characters away from their goal enough that readers feel it might not be possible to achieve; but use hope constantly, in the background, to make readers want the character to succeed (play on reader empathy and concern).
  4. Use each chapter as a mini-backdrop in the whole book’s ‘rise, peak, and fall’; but at chapter breaks leave the reader hanging off each mini-peak with a leading question or uncertainty (until the moment when the climax is reached and the main conflict is fully resolved, when the ‘fall’ becomes story conclusions).
  5. Inject multiple sources of tension into the storyline. Make secondary characters or other events important and weave them together with the main plot to create more wonder, being careful not to over-do it (too many unrelated conflicts/characters can get confusing depending on the age of your audience).
  6. Infuse urgency into the scenes that require more anticipation through word choice, dialogue, and action: cut off sentences, make characters move, drop the ball and let it roll away…, then make the readers chase it.
  7. Engage readers’ senses in the writing.         It’s raining sheets on the other side of the lake, moving closer as if pushed from behind by giant hands made of wind. I blink and the sky changes colour from summer blue to fire-pit grey. The air around us suddenly tastes and sounds like it’s chewing on tinfoil, spitting out sparks. We wave the kids in from the dock against their pleas to stay. “Hurry! It’s coming! RUN!” Arms flail. Feet slip on grass. Goosebumps prickle my thighs as Danger speaks to the dark corners of my mind, ‘Get out of the water, take cover or I’ll get you.’ Metallic air crackles as they reach the porch just in time, soaked and laughing. Thunder roars overhead. We towel them off and wonder how long it will last as rain smashes on the cottage roof and the storm engulfs us. “Did anyone bring candles?” 
  8. Balance dramatic tension with calmness (used similarly to protagonist-antagonist).
  9. Use plot twists in unexpected moments and places to push your character/story in interesting directions and keep readers engaged.
  10. Keep dialogue real but tighter, condensed, more intense and less boring than everyday talk. Don’t speak about the weather, spread niceties or humdrum details of everyday life. Let characters speak and act through dialogue as they tease, argue, and mislead and interrupt one another. Never use dialogue to teach the reader something that the ‘speaker’ should already know.

The storm passes and the sun peeks out from behind the curtain of cloud like a shy child.

“Let’s swim,” she says. 

“It’s safe?” he asks. 

“Lightning’s gone Dumbo.” She runs to the waterfront. His shorter legs chase behind; her perpetual, younger shadow. 

They count to three and jump from the dock into the water that now feels like a bathtub compared to the air around. 

“No more lightning but did Mom tell you about the huge fish that live in here?” she asks, and then slips beneath the surface where he can no longer see her.

Something brushes against his ankle…