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Show, Don't Tell

Show, Don’t Tell (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

Show, Don’t Tell is part of the September #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop and read some great writing advice! Or follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or visit our Pinterest board.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve discussed two oft-quoted pieces of writing advice (or bad writing advice, depending on who you ask):

I’ve covered what each phrase means, and how you can apply it to editing your manuscript. Today I’m going to cover another common writing tip: Show, Don’t Tell, which is one of the major rules of modern fiction (whether contemporary or historical, genre or literary).

But what does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel—think Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, or Charles Dickens. They told their stories as the narrator, able to see into the minds of all the characters at once.

But telling is now considered outdated by publishers, and readers. Modern readers don’t need pages describing a jungle, a panther, and how a panther moves through the jungle. We’ve seen that on the Discovery Channel.

Modern fiction writing relies on showing the story through a series of scenes. We need to show our reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene. We need to allow readers to watch and experience the story for themselves.

This isn’t new. Sol Stein said this in 1999:

A writer who wants to be read by contemporary audiences … will find it useful to study through example the differences between narrative summary and immediate scene. Keep in mind that narrative summary is telling and immediate scene is showing.

So instead of telling the reader she was frightened at the noise in the dark basement, let us hear the noise and show us her reactions—her conscious actions, her unconscious visceral reactions, and her internal monologue:

There was a thump in the basement, a pause, then scrapes and scratches as though something—or someone—was moving furniture across the wooden floor. Then steps. Footsteps. Climbing the stairs. She froze in place as her heart beat in time to the heavy footsteps, da-dum, da-dum, he-is com-ing. Where could she hide?

As Renni Browne and Dave King say:

You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

We need to show the action (and reaction) that relates to the main plot and subplots. We need to show the action and reaction that impacts on the character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts—their character arc.

But we don’t need to show everything.

I’ve yet to read a novel where a character visits the bathroom (to use the American euphemism). This is a good thing. We know the characters must need to visit the bathroom on occasion. But it’s detail we rarely need.

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.

We can tell the transitions between scenes. If scene A takes place at home, and scene B takes place in the office, we don’t need to show every detail of how our character gets from A to B—unless it’s directly relevant to the plot, or to the character’s personal arc.

This comes back to the principle of Chekov’s gun, which I touched on last week:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

Readers know and understand this principle, even if they can’t articulate it:

  • We know that if a novel shows character scrabbling for her car keys in the dark of the parking garage, there will be someone waiting behind her car (or in the car).
  • We know that if the novel shows character using her car key to open the car remotely, there will be a bomb in the car.
  • We know that if the character is shown squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush and cleaning her teeth, that there’s either something nasty in the tube of toothpaste, or someone has cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush.

There has to be a reason for any detail. If there is no reason to show the detail, that’s when you tell. We don’t want to disappoint our readers by leading them to believe something is important when it isn’t.

Next week I’m going to share three ways authors tell when they should be showing, and how to fix those “tells”.

What questions do you have about Show, Don’t Tell?

How Do I Find a Publisher?

Reader Question: How do I Find a Publisher? (#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop)

This blog post comes from a question I was asked on Twitter: could I help the writer find a publisher. It’s also part of the August #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant.

Can I help you find a publisher?

No, I can’t. Not directly.

But I can provide you with some advice that might help. First, know your genre. Then understand the paths to publishing, and choose the best path for you.

Know Your Genre

No publisher publishes anything and everything. Small publishers specialise. Big publishers have dozens of imprints, each specialising in specific genres.

Harlequin Mills & Boon (HMB) are a great example. HMB publish romance novels under a range of branded imprints. HMB are also subsidiary of HarperCollins, one of the big five multinational publishers, who publish a huge range of romance and non-romance titles.

As an author, this means you have to know your genre so you can target the specific publishers and imprints who publish your genre. Don’t submit your post-apocalyptic thriller to Love Inspired (the HMB Christian romance line). Don’t submit your historical epic to a publisher that specialises in flash fiction.

Instead, do your research and find out which publishers represent your genre. These sources might help:

Know Your Path To Publishing

There are various paths to publishing, each of which I’ve covered in detail in previous blog posts. You can:

  • Publish through a major trade publisher
  • Publish through a small press
  • Self-publish
  • Vanity Publish

I’ll look at each of these:

Major Trade Publisher

(see Paths to Publishing: Trade Publishing for more information)

Major trade publishers are probably the publishers you’ve heard of. If you read books in your genre (and you should), they are books from these publishers. You’ll find their books in your local bookstore and at your local library. And you’ll find their books in your local supermarket or big-box store.

The problem with major trade publishers is that every aspiring author wants to be published by one of an ever-shrinking number of publishers. Almost none take submissions directly from authors—instead, you’ll need to be invited to submit, usually through a recognised literary agent (click here to read my post on finding a literary agent).

If you can’t get an agent, your other traditional publishing option is a small press.

Small Press

(see Paths to Publishing: Small Presses for more information)

You probably haven’t heard of many of the small presses, although the better ones will be represented in your local bookstore or library. Many accept submissions directly from authors (although some only accept submissions from recognised literary agents).

The main problem with small presses is that they are small, which means they can’t do everything well. They might be good at editing, but have mediocre cover design (or vice versa). They won’t have the distribution networks a bigger publisher has—you might find your novel in your local Christian bookstore, but you won’t find it at the supermarket or airport.

Some offer digital-only or digital-first contracts.

This means your book is only produced as an ebook, probably because the publisher can’t afford to invest in cheap offset printing without having a print distribution network (and perhaps can’t make a profit of the more expensive print-on-demand).

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the better small presses. But if you choose to publish with a small press, you need to make sure they are doing a better job than you could if you self-published.

Self-publishing

(see Paths to Publishing: Self-Publishing for more information)

Self-publishing means you wear multiple hats. As the author, you write and revise your book, and you have primary responsibility for marketing. (That’s the same no matter what path you take to publishing.)

You then have a role as a publisher, where you’re responsible for all the business aspects of publishing: finding one or more editors, getting your book edited, proofread and formatted. Finding a cover designer and agreeing a cover. Finding reviewers and influencers. Sending your book off to print (if you’ve decided you need a print run—many authors don’t). Converting your book into ebook format, and uploading to the various retailers.

Self-publishers still need partners to distribute their book. The most common distributors are:

For paper books:

These distributors list your book in their online catalogue, then print it when an order is received, and ship it directly to the purchaser. As the author, you receive the profit on each sale (i.e. purchase price less printing, handling, and distribution costs).

For ebooks:

There are two main formats of ebooks: epub, and mobi. All retailers except Amazon sell ebooks in epub format. Amazon uses mobi, their own proprietary format. Distributors such as Draft2Digital and Smashwords will sell books in a range of formats, as selected by the purchaser.

As an author, you receive the sale price less a distribution fee. This distribution fee varies from 35% to 70%, depending on the retailer and the sale price. For example, if you publish on Amazon Kindle, you keep 70% of the sale price on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and 35% for cheaper or more expensive books.

There are an increasing number of companies who advertise themselves as assisted self-publishers.

Some of these are legitimate companies providing quality services to authors (e.g. editing, cover design, formatting, or printing services). But many are vanity presses, charging a lot of money and not delivering a quality result.

Vanity Publishing

(see Paths to Publishing: Vanity Publishing and Author Services for more information)

This is not my recommended route. In fact, it’s one I recommend you avoid. These publishers might tell you they are self-publishers (but they ask for money), or they might tell you they are traditional publishers (but they ask for money). They may call themselves a co-operative publisher, a hybrid publisher, a partnership publisher, a self-publisher, or even traditional royalty-paying publisher.

What they won’t call themselves is a vanity publisher. But that doesn’t change what they are. But you can learn to recognise them: vanity publishers ask for money.

Check out their website: are they trying to sell books to readers, or publishing packages to writers? A genuine publisher makes their money by selling books to readers. A vanity press makes money without ever selling a single book. They don’t usually offer editing, and their books are often overpriced relative to the market. The contract may well assure you that you earn 100% royalties, but 100% of no sales is nothing.

If you have any doubts, don’t sign.

To my Twitter questioner:

No, this doesn’t directly help you find a publisher. But I hope it helps you understand the publishing industry, and brings you a few steps closer to finding the right publisher for your book. It might just be you.

Are you a published author? Which path to publishing did you choose? What advice do you have for my Twitter questioner?

This post is part of the August #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, hosted by Raimey Gallant. Click here to find other blogs participating in the Hop.

Introducing SocialJukebox

Introducing SocialJukebox | An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post

Last week I talked about how I use Buffer as my main tool to manage my social media sharing. This week I’m talking SocialJukebox, the tool I for ongoing sharing of evergreen posts (posts that aren’t time-sensitive).

What is SocialJukebox?

SocialJukebox is pretty much what the name says: a jukebox, but with a modern spin.

SocialJukebox started as TweetJukebox. Users created Tweets and added them to a vitual “jukebox”, which randomly posted Tweets during predetermined times. When everything in the jukebox has been posted, it starts again. And again. And again, until you turn it off or the zombie apocalypse wipes out the interwebz. Read more

Best Book Marketing Websites

#AuthorToolBoxBloghop: 9 Best Book Marketing Websites

This post is part of the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop, the brainchild of  Raimey Gallant. There are over thirty authors participating in the blog hop this month, each sharing on a topic related to writing, publishing or marketing. There are three great ways to follow the blog hop:

  1. Check out the list of participating websites on the main blog hop page
  2. Follow the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop hashtag on Twitter and other social media sites
  3. Visit the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop board on Pinterest

So … on to my 9 favourite book marketing websites.

I’m not yet published. Well, not in a book sense. I’ve got thousands of words published online in the form of hundreds of book reviews and blog posts–my book review blog will hit 1,000 posts in a couple of months, and at least 80% of those posts are reviews.

Even though I’m not yet published, I’ve been studying the art and science of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing for several years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s this:

Marketing starts a long time before you publish.

Which means everyone who wants to publish should have at least a passing awareness of current marketing trends. And there is a lot of marketing advice out there—some excellent, some good, and some downright misleading.

(I think the worst was the one which advised readers to add everyone they knew to their “opt-in email list”. Had she heard of the CAN-SPAM Act? Did she understand the meaning of the words, “opt in”? I can only assume not.)

Anyway, today I’m sharing the nine websites I find most useful when it comes to identifying book marketing trends.

1. BookBub

BookBub is the gorilla in the room of book marketing. They charge authors hundreds of dollars to advertise in one of their genre-specific daily emails, and turn down more potential advertisers than they accept. I’ve only heard of one author who didn’t make her money back on a BookBub ad (the book was middle grade fiction, so it doesn’t altogether surprise me. My kids are on their devices 24/7, but still prefer paper books).

But the power of BookBub’s featured advertisements isn’t why they are on my list. BookBub analyses their sales and other data to provide detailed articles on what sells, and what doesn’t. And that’s worth reading.

Chris Syme

Chris Syme is the owner of Smart Marketing for Authors, and the author of Sell More Books With Less Social Media, and the soon-to-be-published Sell More Books With Less Marketing. She also co-hosts a book marketing podcast with her daughter, bestselling romance author Becca Syme.

Reading Sell More Books with Less Social Media was a lightbulb moment for me, one of those times when someone says something that seems obvious, yet I’d never seen it before:

Not all authors are at the same level when it comes to writing and publishing, and our marketing needs to take that into account.

Dan Blank

Dan Blank is the owner of WeGrow Media, who help authors connect with readers. He has recently published Be The Gateway, where he shows authors how to research and understand their target audience, then work out how best to connect with those people. It’s about playing the long game in an industry where many people are looking for quick wins.
Be the Gateway
I like Dan’s philosophy of marketing—it’s similar to Tim Grahl, and is one I can embrace as someone who hates asking for the sale (something I’m working on). I enjoy reading his blog posts and newsletters—like his recent post reinforcing the importance of word-of-mouth marketing.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran is the author of Let’s Get Digital (why authors should consider digital self-publishing), and Let’s Get Visible. He was the first author to show me the importance of understanding and using Amazon algorithms to drive sales. The books are a few years old (and I read them both as new releases), so the information may have dated a little.

The other reason I like and follow David is because of his personal war against the vanity publishing, and the valuable information he provides on their various schemes. You might not think so, but this is marketing as well: it’s part of Product, one of the four Ps of marketing strategy.

Joel Friedlander

Joel Friedlander is The Book Designer. He hosts the monthly Cover Design Awards, where he critiques author-submitted covers. He also hosts a monthly Carnival of the Indies, a round-up of what’s new in indie publishing (and writing, and marketing). He also attracts guest posts from some of the top names in digital publishing.

Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson of BadRedHeadMedia is the mind behind #MondayBlogs and the weekly #BookMarketingChat on Twitter.

She’s also the author of The 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge, which was the inspiration behind my own KickStart Your Author Platform challenge. Rachel doesn’t pull her punches, and brings twenty-plus years of pharmaceutical sales experience to her marketing advice.

Seth Godin

Seth Godin invented the idea of permission-based marketing, that we should work to grow a tribe of people who support us and our work. He posts a short blog post each day, and all are worth reading.

The Buffer Blog

I love Buffer. I loved their free version, and I love the Awesome plan even more. Buffer enables me to manage my social media sharing without going mad. Hootsuite has similar functionality, but I find the Buffer interface much more user friendly.

But that’s not the reason Buffer is on this list. They’re on my list because of their blog. They share millions of social media posts, and collect information on the performance of those posts. That enables them to write meaty blog posts that answer a lot of social media questions: when is the best time to post? How many times a day should you post? Do you need to use hashtags? Images? Which social media networks perform best?

Buffer knows, and Buffer tells us.

Tim Grahl

Tim is the owner of Outthink Group. He is the author of Your First 1,000 Copies (which preaches the importance of building an email list and using those connections to market your book), and The Book Launch Blueprint (which reinforces the importance of building an email list, and using those connections to launch your book).

He’s not about sell-sell-sell. He’s about building meaningful connections, about getting permission to contact people (through the email list), delivering relevant content, and outreaching from there.

It’s been several years since I read Your First 1,000 Copies. I’ve recently realised that while I’m doing Permission and Content reasonably well, I need to work on Outreach.

That’s my list of the best book marketing websites. What are yours?

 

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop: Shaping the Diamond (Showing, not Telling)

Today I’m participating in a new venture: the first Author Toolbox Blog Hop. You can find more post by clicking the link, or find us on Twitter at #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

Author Toolbox: Shaping the Diamond

Using Show, Don’t Tell to Engage Readers

Last week, we talked about interior monologue—a technique some writers overuse. This affects the pace of the story because it takes the reader away from showing the action into telling the character’s internal reaction. Remember: show don’t tell.

#AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Telling a story is the classic way of structuring a novel, but it is now considered outdated by publishers, and by readers:

There has been a drastic change in storytelling in the twentieth century… Writers need reminding that we’ve all had exposure to movies [and] television … a visual medium. Today’s readers have learned to see stories happening before their eyes. They tend to skim or skip long passages of description or narrative summary,
– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor

Therefore you need to show your reader the scene, rather than telling them about the scene.

Our readers want scenes and action, not to be told what happened through description and narrative summary (and narrative summary includes long passages of interior monologue, especially if it’s in the middle of a scene). Readers need to be able to see each scene, see what is happening:

A good scene will enrich character, provide necessary information to the audience and move the plot forward.
– Les Standiford, in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing

Jack Bickham says:

Show, don’t tell. Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. There are four essential steps:
  • Selection of, and adherence to, a single character’s viewpoint
  • Imagining the crucial sense or though impressions that character is experiencing at any given moment
  • Presenting those impressions as vividly and briefly as possible
  • Giving those impressions to readers in a logical order

In other words, use deep point of view. Sol Stein gives a useful list of questions to review for each scene:

  • Is the scene described in terms of the action that takes place? If there is no action, there is no scene. The frequent fault of new fiction writers is that they unravel the thread of the story instead of keeping it taut like the gut strings of a tennis racket… Leave the reader in suspense.
  • Is each scene visible throughout so that the reader can see what is happening before his eyes? If the action is not visible, you are probably sliding into narrative summary of past events or offstage events.
  • The reader is not moved by the writer or a narrator telling him what one or another character feels. The reader is moved by seeing what is happening to the characters.
  • Which character in the scene do you have the most affection for? How can you make the reader feel affection or compassion for that character in this scene?
  • Is there a character in this scene who threatens the protagonist subtly or openly, psychologically or physically?

Browne and King apply the ‘show, don’t tell’ principle to the interior monologue and feelings of characters, where authors often use unnecessary adverbs or description to explain what a character is feeling:

This tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation isn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so it is.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Yes, it’s harder to show than to tell. But make the effort. Your readers will thank you.

Balancing Show vs. Tell

Scenes that show the reader what is happening are harder to write, so writers have a tendency to revert to narrative summary, which is telling. That is not to say that authors should eliminate all narrative summary:

Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing … Just make sure you don’t use it when you should be showing rather than telling.
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

That’s not to say we should show everything. Yes, we should show everything that’s important. But not everything is important, and there are some things we don’t want to see up close. This is when we can increase narrative distance.

Using Narrative Distance

Narrative distance is the distance between the reader and the point of view character. There is little distance in deep perspective point of view (which tends to be showing). There is a lot of distance with cinematic or omniscient point of view (which tend to be telling).

Good writers know how and when to manipulate narrative distance to maximise reader engagement and prevent the story getting boring.

Imagine film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in. Boring, right? The same is true for fiction.
– David Jauss, On Writing Fiction

For example, a murder mystery necessarily includes a murder. But readers don’t necessarily need to see the murder take place. It might be enough to see the body, to give the reader some emotional distance from the violence, and allow us to focus on what’s most important in a murder mystery: solving the crime.

Handling point of view is much more than picking a person and sticking with it. It involves carefully manipulating the distance between narrator and character … to achieve the desired response from the reader.
– David Jauss, on Writing Fiction

Chekhov’s Gun

We also don’t need to see every insignificant action your character takes, every irrelevant thought he has. This means focusing on what’s important.

The more words you devote to an action (or a speech, or a thought), the more importance that action will have in the reader’s mind. This is the principle of Chekhov’s gun: if there is a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it should be fired by the third.

If your character is undertaking some mundane, routine action such as squeezing toothpaste onto his toothbrush, then the reader is expecting this to be relevant in some way. Maybe the maid cleaned the toilet with the toothbrush. Maybe there is poison in the toothpaste. Maybe his wife is being murdered in the next room, and he can’t hear over the sound of the running water.

If you’re mentioning mundane details, make sure they’re relevant to the plot. Give the reader the payoff they subconsciously expect. Otherwise, it’s best to tell:

The key is to show the intense scenes and tell the less important transitions (the narrative summary) between important scenes. As a guide, if what you are writing has the possibility of present-moment dialogue, it is a scene and should be written as such. If not, you’re in summary .
– Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Revision and self-editing is about examining our rough diamond and working out how best to shape and cut the rough stone to produce a final product that will shine. How will we manipulate the reader experience through careful use of point of view? How will we get the proportions right in terms of showing vs. telling?

The way we shape our rough diamond at this stage determines the look and value of the final cut and polished product. If we want to maximise the impact of our rough stone, we need to shape to produce a brilliant cut. I’ll be back next week to talk about cutting. I’ll also have a special offer, so don’t miss it!

What’s your biggest challenge when it comes to showing, not telling?

Don’t forget to visit the main Author ToolBox Blog Hop page for more great writing advice.