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“Show, don’t tell.”
We hear this all of the time. Yet, many writers struggle with this very idea.
Writers like to research. We travel to faraway places, we talk with people who live there. We look through old files and photographs. We mine our memories for tidbits and call upon our imagination to fill in the rest.
We stay cerebral.
But this is where we fail ourselves. This is where we fail our readers.
We all want to write books that make people feel, but in order to do that—we must feel first. We must cry. We must get angry. We must laugh. We must fall in love. We must face fear.
But to achieve true emotion with our words, we need to get out of our heads and tune into our guts.
To do this, I like to call upon the actor’s craft.
Here are 3 tips to get out of your writer’s head and write from the gut.
- Keep an Emotion Diary.
An actor knows that whatever happens to them in life is fodder for their craft. Even at a moment of extreme heartbreak, an actor knows, “I can use this.” Observe yourself on a daily basis. How are you feeling? Don’t detail the situations that are happening to you, but write down what an emotion feels like physically. Tune into your hands, your chest, your legs, and your jaw. These are places we hold emotion.
- Be emotional.
An actor practices playing with emotion. They take the time to experiment in order to better know how to portray it when the time comes. Much like a yogi will hold a pose to build strength, actors practice holding emotion in their bodies to gain emotional fluency. Refer back to your Emotion Diary to remember how a certain emotion manifests in your body. Soak in it. Go about some daily tasks while in this emotional state. (Although keep these tasks solo. You are working on craft here, not ruining relationships and getting a reputation. Hint: scrubbing the tub while angry is amazing!) Observe how the emotion affects your movement and your actions. Of course, when play time is done, find ways to unwind…we don’t want you to end up a basket case.
- Embrace the First Person.
An actor walks in the shoes of others to learn to live in their moments. They speak directly from the mouth, the heart, the gut of the very person they are performing. Spend some time pretending to be your character. You can go through the same emotional practice you did in the previous step, but this time with your character’s situation in mind.
Take your character to the most heightened moment in this emotion. How do they react? Write a letter or a diary entry as your character while holding this emotion. Or create audio or video as your character. Abandon flowery metaphor and other authorly devices for the time being and speak raw, from your character’s gut. You might be surprised what you learn.
It is so easy to fall into summarizing a scene instead of delving in and living each moment. Maybe as writers we prefer to play God and observe the tough situations from afar. It’s more pleasant to be omnipresent than personally absorbed.
But when we learn to write from the gut, our hands may tremble with each keystroke, a lump might form in our throat, tears might well. It’s not always comfortable. Yet it is essential that we learn to breathe life into each moment, so that the very DNA of our story can breathe on the page and fill the lungs of every reader it touches. This is the essence of “show, don’t tell.” In fact, it takes the idea one step further.
“Be, don’t show.”
Before Marcie Colleen was a picture book writer, she was a former actress, director and theatre educator. In her 15 year career, Marcie worked within the classroom, as well as on Regional, Off-Broadway and Broadway stages. Formerly the Director of Education for TADA! Youth Theater, she also worked for Syracuse Stage, Camp Broadway, the Metropolitan School for the Arts, and Tony Randall’s National Actors Theater. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education and Theater from Oswego State University and a Masters degree in Educational Theater from NYU. She has taught theater workshops in the UK and throughout the US, including Alaska.
Marcie’s From the Gut: An Acting for Writers Workshop (being held on September 14th at NJ-SCBWI) helps writers get out of their heads. Her up-on-your-feet techniques feature acting and writing exercises to tap into raw emotion. Through guided practice, writers learn to breathe life into the voice of every character. Time is spent exploring, playing and simply “being” emotion while learning how to transfer the discoveries onto the page in a way that creates immediacy and authenticity for the reader. Participants are given tools to deepen their writing through voice and movement even when alone in their writing caves.
Visit Marcie at www.thisismarciecolleen.com.
All writers love language. And we especially love fun words, don’t we? Some have funky spellings, tongue-twisting turns, a satisfying “ooh”…and some sound too hilarious to be true! So I’ve put together a list of favorite fun words that I’ll add to periodically. Have fun, lexicon lovers!
- boffo (boffola)
- doohickey (this is what I call a library due date card)
- mojo (also a character in THE MONSTORE)
- scalawag (also scallywag)
- scrumdiddlyumptious (Dahlism)
- vermicious (well, if I included one Dahlism, why not another?)
- zenzizenzizenzic (yes, this is a word! look it up!)
Allow me to be Andy Rooney for a moment.
Imagine me as a white-haired, bulbous, salty old man with a whiny accent.
I know, it’s hard. But just IMAGINE. (By the way, isn’t “bulbous” a marvelous word? I think we, as writers, should seek its descriptive assistance more often. But sorry, I digress. Back to being Andy…)
“Ya ever wonder why so many children’s books feature THREES? Goldilocks and the THREE Bears? The THREE Little Pigs? Snow White and the SEVEN Dwarfs? No wait…I miscounted…I mean The THREE Billy Goat’s Gruff?”
Yes, there’s something downright appealing about the number THREE. (P.S., I’ve returned to being Tara. Thank goodness ’cause those eyebrows are itchy.)
It’s like two is too little. And four is too many. As Goldi would say, three is “just right”. Three is as satisfying as a warm, comfy little bed. (Until the three bears arrive home, that is.)
According to Wikipedia (yes, I’m quoting Wiki), “things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans (“Go, fight, win!”) to films, many things are structured in threes.”
The rule of threes is all around us. In photography, the “rule of thirds” dictates that the most visually striking elements of a photograph should align with the intersection of theoretical lines which break the image into thirds lengthwise and widthwise. (Geesh, what a clunker of a sentence.) Hence:
In interior decorating, objets d’art are often grouped in threes.
Architecture adheres to this rule as well. Three are more aesthetically pleasing than two or four. Threes help to balance the focal point in a room. Just ask Genevieve.
There’s the “three schema approach” in software engineering. But don’t ask me to explain. That’s the hubby’s forte.
Even religion espouses threes—the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
“Omne trium perfectum” is a Latin phrase which translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. The world seems to think so. You’ll see the “rule of threes” demonstrated everywhere. Hey, I even sneeze three times in a row.
So in picture books, where do we use this rule?
Descriptive groups of three.
Three images upon a page.
Even three text boxes!
And the classic three characters.
But the most important rule of threes in picture books is three attempts to solve a problem. (Prior to the fourth successful attempt.)
These three attempts invest the reader in your hero’s struggles. Solving the problem in one fell swoop? That doesn’t feel genuine, and the reader won’t care about their journey because it’s over before it’s even begun. There’s no time to empathize with your MC. And with two attempts, the main character has not yet collected enough information to help complete his task. But third time’s the charm! (See that?) It’s when he tries again, fails, hits his lowest point, but then realizes just what he needs to rise again. Three attempts build tension and encourage the reader to turn the page–eagerly! Oooh, what happens NEXT?
Crack open your favorite picture book and you’ll notice threes abound. What did you find?
But now, I’m going to tell you about some different numbers…
THE MONSTORE author and PiBoIdMo creator Tara Lazar’s “7 ATE 9”, a pun-packed preschool noir mystery, starring a hard-boiled Private “I” and a mysteriously missing number, to Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency (World).
Hip, hip, hooray!
(That’s three cheers!)
Now I know PiBoIdMo participants are awaiting a final post from me, your fearless leader.
Well, that is still to come, once I am feeling better. Perhaps tomorrow? Monday? It shall come soon, never fear, says Fearless Leader.
In the meantime, I have something to make YOU feel better.
Gifts for writers! And by gifts for writers, I mean gifts that you shall immediately place on your wish list. Why? They’re just THAT awesome.
I’ve put together this list of my 10 personal favorites, but I have a more than 100 other literary lovies to tickle your holiday fancy on my Pinterest board Things Writers Like. So hop on your sleigh and slip over there once you’ve perused this pile. (Geesh, enough with the corny alliteration, Tara.)
Let me know which gift is your favorite, and feel free to add to the list in the comments!
1. Modern Wooden Alphabet Necklace available via SevenSparrowGoods on etsy.com.
Men, don’t leave. I know this first gift is for the ladies. Don’t worry, I have plenty for you. See #2.
2. Famous Author Action Figures available via ebay.
Ka-pow! Bam! Zonk! NEVERMORE!
3. USB Typewriter available via uncommongoods.com.
If you miss the satisfying click-clack of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, here’s the perfect solution for you. It remains modern with a USB link to your preferred device–a PC, Mac or iPad.
4. Notebook Paper bed linens available via modcloth.com.
Can’t find a piece of paper in the middle of the night? Write on your pillow. Yep, this duvet set comes with washable markers. You won’t even get mad at the kids for drawing on them.
5. Storymatic Game (Kids Version) available via mentalfloss.com.
6. Book Rest Lamp available via mentalfloss.com.
Ah, there’s no place like home. Home for your latest read, that is. The soft glow of the lamp is enough to read by, plus you’ll never lose your page.
7. AquaNotes available via myaquanotes.com.
No more great ideas down the drain! (And while you’re getting clean, may as well use “Wash Away Writer’s Block” soap.)
8. The 3Doodler available via the3doodler.com.
OK, so maybe you wouldn’t want to write a novel with this, but wouldn’t it be cool to give your fans your characters or signature in 3D?
9. Vintage-style custom bookplates available via oiseaux on etsy.com.
Every writer is a reader, and your books are cherished keepsakes. So treat them that way with gorgeous vintage-style bookplates. This shop offers over 100 other vintage styles.
10. Charlotte’s Web tee available via outofprintclothing.com.
A classic gift. Out of Print Clothing offers tees inspired by your literary favorites, from Goodnight Moon to Call of the Wild, from Charlotte’s Web to The Great Gatsby. You can never have too many books or too many book tees.
Happy shopping for that special writer in your life!
And remember to stop by my Pinterest board “Things Writers Like” for even more!
Three is a magic number. Not only because it’s the age when tiny toy parts no longer pose a choking hazard to your toddler, but because the universe is full of threebies.
Three square meals a day.
Three strikes and you’re out.
Three ring circus. And three ring government. (Excellent analogy, Schoolhouse Rock.)
Then there’s the “rule of thirds” design principle for composing visual images with tension and interest.
Ever heard of the FOUR LITTLE PIGS? Of course not. There’s just three, like THREE BLIND MICE and THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF. Heck, there’s even THREE STOOGES.
In picture books, you’ll often find the protagonist struggling to solve their problem three times before finally succeeding. This technique encourages the reader to become invested in the hero’s journey. If the character were to try once and triumph, what fun is that? There’s no time to root for her!
Likewise, you’ll often see groups of three drawings on one picture book page. Three offers a nice balance because two is too few and four is too many. Like Goldilocks and the THREE Bears know, three is “just right”.
So today I’m going to extend “The Rule of Three” to you, the aspiring author. How so? I encourage you to have THREE polished manuscripts ready before submitting to an agent or editor.
Three manuscripts means that you’ve been writing for a while. Not a month or two, but most likely a year or two…or yes, even three. You’ve taken the time to hone your craft. Three manuscripts also means you’ve got a body of work an agent can review. If they don’t like your first story, but they see potential, they will ask for some more. Wouldn’t it be a missed opportunity if you didn’t have more?
In fact, even if they LOVE your first story, they will ask to see more. Picture books are a difficult sell, so if the first manuscript doesn’t find a home, they’ll want something else to submit. Three stories lets the agent know that your body of work, your style, resonates with them. On the flip side, they may LOVE your first book but not see a market for your other stories, or personally dislike them. Their lack of enthusiasm means they are not the right agent for you. You want to know this BEFORE you sign with someone, not AFTER….’cause breaking up? It’s hard to do.
And listen, if you have three manuscripts ready, I’m going to go a bit further and suggest you get FIVE ready. Because five is shiny, like “five golden rings” or “The Jackson Five”.
Yeah, it’s easy as A B C, 1 2 THREE.
When I first began writing for children, my critique group invited an author to speak to us about the publishing process. But we hadn’t realized this author paid to be published with a vanity press. Was she an author? Technically, yes. But after listening to her story, we realized that she might have her name on a book, but she was definitely not an author.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting everyone who publishes with a vanity press is not an author. Some are excellent authors who are commercially and critically successful. They have taken charge of their career and I applaud them.
But this is the story of the kind of person vanity presses take advantage of—or perhaps the kind of person who takes advantage of vanity presses. At the end, I’ll ask you—do you think she fits the definition of an author?
She began by touting how quickly she wrote her book. She admitted she didn’t think a traditional publisher would acquire it. “Random House? Simon & Schuster? I knew they wouldn’t want it.” So after a few Googles, she found a vanity press that claimed to screen submissions.
The week she submitted, they sent an enthusiastic message offering to publish her book. For a fee, of course. While she wouldn’t tell us exactly how much she paid, she admitted it was between $5,000 and $10,000, although she only had to pay that fee once. Each subsequent book she published would not cost her as much (although it would elicit other fees). More on the sequel later.
She handed out her book, a holiday title, and let us read it. The first few lines were a monologue—single words emphasized with exclamations—but no explanation. She intended those words to be said in disgust, but they were words that conjure excitement in children, so without any other clues, we interpreted them as positive statements. On the third page when the character finally elaborated on his hatred of the holiday, our group was thoroughly confused.
Could the story have benefitted from a critique or two? A revision or two? Certainly. But she didn’t belong to a writing group. She didn’t have the time. Her adult daughter corrected the story for grammar but those were the only changes.
She was very pleased with how “flexible” this publisher was and how much they listened to her illustrative input. (Well, if you’re paying thousands of dollars, you shouldn’t expect anything less.) She made the artist redraw her animal characters several times so they would exactly resemble her real-life pets, the stars of the story.
However, insistence on getting the drawings “just right” delayed the book and severely limited her sales window. The book released just 2-3 weeks prior to the holiday for which it was written. Her vanity press arranged a signing for her at a bookstore and she was thrilled when she heard herself referred to as “the author”.
But is she really an author, with all those missteps and instant gratification? In my opinion, no. One of my dear friends, whom I can hear in my head, is saying, “So if a book is what she wanted, why is that so bad? Be happy for her.”
OK, I can see that the book made this woman very happy. But honestly, her flippant attitude toward our craft irritated me. It’s so very different from what I’ve been taught about working hard for something, being professional, and the satisfaction of a job well done.
In a day when self-esteem is so highly regarded and protected, when we’re giving every kid on the team a trophy just for showing up, when party games like “pin the tail on the donkey” don’t have winners or losers, and “good job” is a common parent refrain even when the job is not good, vanity presses have slipped into the culture quite easily.
But the final part of her story is the most baffling. The vanity press expressed interest in releasing a series of books based upon her characters, and as mentioned previously, she would not have to pay the hefty initial publishing fee. Her response floored us.
“Well, I’m really busy right now, but maybe in a year or two.”
Huh? You mean you have a chance to actually sell more books and make back some of your money but you are “too busy”?
Five years later, a search for her name turns up just one book. No series ever materialized.
So my next question is—was she even a writer? I don’t know writers who are “too busy”—because we must write. It is what we do. We can’t NOT write.
We write for many reasons. Some are writing with the goal of publication. Some are writing for the sheer pleasure of creation. Why do you think this woman wrote? And is she an author?
Among those represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Luke Reynolds is known as the *real* Ryan Gosling (you had to be there). Although, I happen to think Luke is cuter, don’t you? Just look at that dimple! And I happen to know he’s a heckuva lot funnier.
He’s also smarter than my Ryan Gosling when it comes to publishing, writing and living.
Luke is the author of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE. And he’s here today to give you that: HOPE. (Plus a copy of his book, plus a query critique, plus a personal “pep talk” phone call!)
Half of Luke’s book includes some reflections for writers on perseverance, hope, humor, gratitude, and work ethic, while the other half includes interviews with writers like Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Katherine Erskine, Jane Smiley, and 11 other authors.
Without further Ryan Gosling references, take it away, Ryan! Erm…I mean Luke!
Making a Life
by Luke Reynolds
There are two places where fast, easy manoeuvres and accomplishments are both warranted and worthwhile: 1) In a snowball fight, when your opponents are slinging well-packed cold stuff at you faster than re-runs of Friends episodes appear on TBS; and 2) In getting the kids to bed when they’re already overtired after a long day of snowball fighting.
Most other pursuits in life don’t lend themselves to easy success. And at the top of a very, very long list of Stuff That Takes Forever comes the pursuit of writing. But that’s a good thing—a terribly hard, but fantastically good thing. Because deep down, none of us who love writing want it to be easy anyway. That’s not why we fall in love with something in the first place.
When we were children, people asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Very few of us, I’m guessing, responded, “I’d really love to find something easy—something that requires little skill, almost no perseverance, and happens fast.” Instead, most of us said we wanted to fly into outer space wearing massive white suits; or we said we wanted to sing on stage in front of a roaring audience; or we wanted to be pilots or race car drivers or scientists who found cures for every kind of disease or explorers who found distant lands.
Or we wanted to be writers.
Novelist John Dufresne writes in his Foreword to KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON the following: “Writers want to write, not to have written.” Even though the manuscript of Keep Calm had been finished and proofed and was ready for publication, that line from John’s Foreword hit me hard and fast—much like a well-packed snowball or like a child screaming wildly that he isn’t ready for bed. The line speaks so loudly because it captures the essence of this pursuit we’ve chosen: a creative calling that is about making a life, not a living.
We write because we love the small giddy feeling that rises up like regurgitated food after we’ve eaten too much and then laughed too hard. We write because we like the problems (deep down) that our characters encounter, and we like the fact that there is no easy way out—either for our characters themselves or for us as we make plotting decisions. We write because we know that hearing no enough times and going back to our desks, reworking material, forging new work, and venturing back out into the wild, beautiful possibility of publishing makes our hearts beat fast.
So, deep down, we know it’s not easy. Nor do we want it to be. That’s not why we love it in the first place.
Why do we love films and stories about underdogs? Why—for instance—does Atticus Finch inspire me to no end? It’s not because he took an easy case that guaranteed a sure-fire victory with no obstacles. I love Atticus because he took an impossible case that guaranteed a loss but his conscience demanded it and his soul echoed the call.
You love the books and characters and films you do, I believe, because you know that triumph is only beautiful when the journey is difficult, that getting the story right is profoundly moving only because you’ve known the story has been so stubbornly wrong—however slightly—in its previous lives.
The MG novel that my agent, the lovely Joan Paquette, signed me on was originally entitled ATTICUS AND ME. It was a story that came down my arteries and out through my fingertips. The first draft, though, would have guaranteed a speedy rejection from Joan. So she didn’t see Atticus until his fourth revision. And then Joan continued to revise Atticus into a character who was more authentic, more real—a character whose story meant more. Joan raised the stakes in the novel. And after quite a few rounds, Atticus is still growing, still changing.
And various picture book manuscripts are in their own worlds of revision, each entering a fifth, ninth, and eleventh or more incantation of their possible lives.
We write because we want to write, not because we want to have written. As writers, we start to accept the fact that—much like us—the characters that people our stories are going to need second-chances, harder obstacles, higher walls, deeper pain—and that all of this, eventually, leads to greater love. In the writing, for the writing, and through the writing.
So, then, the question remains: if we don’t want writing and publishing to be easy, what do we really want? I’d venture a humble guess: we want support. We want somebody—anybody, the mailman, Grandma, our children, our students, and maybe one day an agent and editor—to tell us that we have what it takes. We want support. We want to know that our work is worth it. That ninth draft of an MG novel or our twentieth time through a PB manuscript that has changed completely and become almost an entirely new book are both pursuits for which support is not only helpful, but essential.
In short, we need someone in our corner, shouting in a voice of accountability, conviction, and faith to keep going. You have what it takes. Get through this draft. Try it from a different POV. Try it from a different character’s perspective. Try the story in present tense. Throw in a cow who believes he is Ryan Gosling. Throw in a turtle who eats books. Throw in a kid who thinks it’s over, until—
Until that voice. Listen it to it clanging inside the damn-near defeated walls of your heart. That voice confirms what you and I already know: we don’t want it to be easy. It’s hard. We know that. What we want is the pluck and the nerve and the faith to keep going—to make a life with our pursuit of writing and the way we embody it, rather than simply a living.
We want more than a contract and some cash. We want to craft the words that get us excited—that get readers excited. Or, as John Dufresne put it, we want to write, not to have written.
So: a toast. (I wish I had wine, but coffee feeds the writer in me more). To the very act of writing—in all its difficulty, stubbornness, painstakingly slow but remarkably beautiful worth. May we all, as writers and as people, keep calm and query on.
Thanks, Luke! Very inspiring. I need a tissue now. *sniff*
And you folks need to comment! Luke is giving away THREE PRIZES!
1. A signed copy of KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON.
2. A query critique.
3. A personal phone call and pep talk to discuss your writing career.
Your comment counts as one entry. You get an extra entry for each mention on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Just mention it in your comment. Comments close the end of April 1 and winners will be randomly selected on April 2.
Now keep calm and comment on!
Luke Reynolds is editor of the forthcoming book for teens and tweens BREAK THESE RULES (Chicago Review Press, 2013). He has also co-edited BURNED IN: FUELING THE FIRE TO TEACH (Teachers College Press 2011) and DEDICATED TO THE PEOPLE OF DARFUR (Rutgers University Press, 2009). His newest books are KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE (Divertir Publishing, 2012) and A CALL TO CREATIVITY: WRITING, READING, AND INSPIRING STUDENTS IN AN AGE OF STANDARDIZATION (Teachers College Press, 2012). He loves garlic bread with passion, and loves children just about as much. He has taught grades 7-12 and he’s now a nightschool teacher and home-dad by day. His writing for children is represented by the formidably wise and oft-inspiring Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Keep calm and visit on at www.lukewreynolds.com.
Contests for kidlit writers are big draws because they’re an opportunity to break into the business, but I must say to publishers—please stop with the public vote-to-win process.
Publishers may think that open voting ensures that the public’s favorite—and thus, the best book for their audience—will win, but how is that going to happen when the writers are campaigning for votes via social media?
Sure, votes demonstrate the author’s reach and may indicate how well they’ll market a published book, plus it gets more eyeballs on a publisher’s site. But the thing that will really sell a book? A GOOD story.
Writing contests should be chosen by an experienced editorial team, not by Aunt Sue in Schenectady. Because it’s one thing to ask for a writer’s friends and family to click a button and yet another to ask them for cash once the title is released. Just because someone spends two seconds to vote does not mean they’ll spend hard-earned money on the completed book.
Contests that require people to vote once a day for a prolonged period are even more exhausting to the writer and the people who are repeatedly asked to vote. And vote again. Just one more click. Another? Pretty please? It may even cause that writer’s social network to shrink.
And think of the disappointment when the diligent voters learn their time was for naught. Think of the writer’s disappointment having to tell their audience that it was for naught. Will people spend the time voting for that person again? Maybe. But maybe not.
Yep, social media isn’t always so social. And it shouldn’t be exploited.
As a kidlit enthusiast, I want to see good stories published for children to love. The public voting process does not ensure that. Like a Student Council election, it ensures that the most popular person wins. But the most popular isn’t always the most qualified or the most deserving.
In the end, these contests are more about marketing for the publisher than about discovering real talent. And if you have real talent, you should avoid them. Spend your time polishing your manuscript for submission, not campaigning for votes.
I’m sure this post will cause a stir. So please, debate away in the comments. I’m eager to hear your thoughts.