QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Revising When You Don't Want To

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author's feelings toward her manuscript fluctuate in degrees that would give a roller coaster envy. And yet authors, for all their points in creativity, tend to have selective memory.

I'm neck deep in revision for my third novel right now, and revision is almost always my favorite part of writing. The words are down, and it's time to make them perfect. But recently I've wanted to do almost anything except work on it. I sat down last night with a journal, after distinctly spending all day doing Anything Else, to figure out what was wrong.

And, it turned out, I was in a stage of hating every word I've written, sure the story wasn't working, that it was stereotypical and flawed, and that I could never make it good enough. Then I reminded myself that I was revising, and revising a first draft, at that. The story didn't have to be good enough yet. Still, getting back to work was difficult, but I did it, working through two more scenes.

When you feel like the work you're doing isn't good enough, isn't there yet, isn't anywhere near as good as what so-and-so is writing, remember that writing is a process. No one claims to write good first drafts. An author I know (Cathy Lamb, who writes women's fiction) goes through fourteen revisions before her book makes it to press. And that isn't a typo. Fourteen times, and by the end, she's sure it is all drivel and won't sell and no one will like it. Which never ends up being true, of course.

What separates authors from people who think they'll write a novel one day isn't the first draft. It isn't the second draft and sometimes isn't even the third draft. What separates authors from those who don't make it is getting to the end of their rope and writing anyway. So if you're in a tough spot right now--written into a huge plot hole in the first draft, struggling through revisions like me, or having a tough time with querying (or submission, or wondering if people will like your ARCs), remember that feelings fluctuate, and what makes you an author is that you keep going anyway.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Hangovers: The Pain You Love to Hate ('cause It Feels So Damn Great)

Yep. That was a pretty confusing title. Mostly because it's paradoxical and logical and completely relatable in all its horrific ridiculosity.

Let's consider the term: book hangover.

Two nouns. One word is one of the most amazing words ever written. The other word represents a syndrome of withdrawal and physical ache and dejectedness that has nothing positive about it whatsoever.

Put them both together and you get blessed, wonderful, hair-pulling complexity. You hate it. But you want it. And you chase it down, again and again.

What's a book hangover? asks the person who's been living in a bubble in the middle of a no-signal book-free wasteland of Why Do I Even Continue to Exist Because Obviously I Haven't Learned to Truly Live Yet.

For those poor, unfortunate souls, I say this: a book hangover is the syndrome a reader experiences after having become completely immersed in a book's world only to be ripped mercilessly out of it by the words "The End".  Two crueler words have never been uttered. Look what happens when they show up.

Lovers break up long before one is finished loving. Knitters run out of yarn long before they are done knitting.  Toast butterers find themselves desperately scraping out the thinnest smears because half their bagel is still naked but it's no use. They will have to choke down that dry crust because the butter dish has cried "No more!"

And readers are forced to close a book and put it down because the author said The End. Now there are no more pages to read but those characters live in your head. The feels aren't done. You can't sleep because you still see those scenes played out, over and over. Work/school/everything is impossible because you can't stop thinking about that damned book.

Hydration and naps and Alka Seltzer can't fix a book hangover. But there is a cure.

Kind of.

Hair of the Dog That Bit You
Alcohol creates hangovers because as alcohol is broken down in the body, it gets converted into aldehydes. Unlike fun alcohol, aldehyde is a miserable old sod, which is why being drunk is a lot more fun that being hungover. It's just science.

But add a little water and those aldehydes undergo the miracle of transformation and get turned back into alcohol. Bye bye, misery! We got the fun stuff back!

Bloody Marys help, too, because you get hydration, electrolytes, and a liddle bit of something-something to ease off on the aldehyde attack. Plus, you get celery to crunch on, and celery is widely if mistakenly believed to be considered a health food.

So, what's the cure for a book hangover? Not water or terrible-sounding cocktails, obviously, but there's definitely a need for some hair of the dog.

Pick up another book.

Yes, it leads to a viscous cycle that leads to memes and Instagram barrages and new merch at Hot Topic. But let's be honest. There are no subsequent underage fines, no nights in the tank, no drunk dials leading to awkward avoidances of eye contact later on. That should automatically make it a good thing.

Prevention isn't Key—It's Condemnation
Of course, you could avoid the whole book hangover thing by never reading anything ever again.

But, a word of caution. Nobody ever says Boy, oh boy, abstinence! Do you know why? Because book abstinence is an unthinkable exile, an unjust condemnation. Why would you even think about doing that to yourself?

You did nothing wrong. You innocently picked up a book so you could engage your mind in a pleasing way to pass time. It's not your fault the characters came to life and rose up from the pages. It's not your fault their stories were so complex and emotionally riveting that you not only identified, you lived through them. You cried. You laughed. You highlighted your favorite passages and made quote art on Pic Monkey and I am here to tell you that none of it's your fault.

It's the author's.

That author did this to you. She may not have put the book in front of you and turned each page while you helplessly consumed her passion and craft but she may as well have. She concocted that wonderful elixir of plot and personality and perfection. She dreamed up those characters who haunt your every thought like the sweet echo of a beloved ghost. She's responsible for the way you see that book now everywhere you look, every time you go online or walk into a bookstore.

She's the one who cast this sheen of her book over every aspect of your life, so that you tear up when you run into Walmart because you see strawberries in the cooler as soon as you go in. Strawberries. That character had strawberry-blonde hair and she died of diverticulitis because of a strawberry smoothie she shared with the boy she loved but could never have because he had to move to the opposite side of the world, like the exact opposite, as in drill straight down and there he'd be so you know he couldn't get any further from her so better diverticulitis than a broken heart. Next stop is an ugly cry in front of the packaged salad cooler. Oh my God, the feels

So, blame the author for your book hangover.

And then blame the next one because he is going to do the same damn thing to you because you will never, ever learn. You say "never again" but it's just a matter of time until you're standing in the bookstore, cracking open another heartache. Book hangovers are part of a vicious cycle of love-hate-miserable joy...and I hope there will never, ever be a cure for them.

Just as I hope there will be no end to the supply of authors who cause them.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, is a Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”.

Currently, Ash is getting ready to launch CHARM CITY, a book about exorcists and angels and addiction to magic. Here's hoping a new book hangover is headed your way.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Getting revenge on an agent who rejected you

Recently a rude writer blew up Twitter by posting a nasty takedown of a wicked, wicked agent who somehow failed to perceive his brilliance. Her crime: he paid to pitch to her at a conference and yet she wasn't interested in his manuscript.

He retaliated via a blog post in which he called her frumpy and "pear-shaped" and all sorts of insults of equal sagacity.

Don't do this. Ever. EVER.

Why? Because there are far, far better ways of getting revenge on an agent who failed to perceive your brilliance. I mean, seriously, guys, you're writers. How can a writer be this bad at exacting revenge? Use your imagination. Come up with a revenge that sparkles with brilliance. I've compiled a few suggestions.

Are you ready? Take notes.

1) Send a "revenge query." A revenge query is a query you send within an hour of getting any rejection that leaves you feeling bitter. You send the query to an entirely different agent at an entirely different agency. You in no way mention the rejection that caused your sending of the query. (In fact, you should never mention that you've been rejected by anyone at all; let every agent think you're querying him or her first. Why begin your potential business relationship with the taint of previous failures?)

In effect, you're querying on the rebound. This achieves a few important goals. First, by spending a bit of quality time on the main QueryTracker site, you will find there are plenty of fish in the sea, and you may even find an agent who's better than the agent who rejected you. (Wait, did I say may? No, you will. As my husband muttered the first time he heard Adele's Someone Like You, "No, I want to find someone better than you." But I digress.)

Secondly, you'll cool down a bit while you're spending time researching this much-better agent, and you'll cool down even more when you're assembling your query to match this better agent's submission guidelines. Use your angry energy to attach the one-page synopsis rather than the five-page synopsis.

Third, you'll be spreading your hopes out a bit among the agenting pool rather than focusing your intensity on just one. Once you know your query is working, you should always have about ten "live' queries floating about out there, or maybe as high as fifteen. (That's in addition to any submissions you have "live" with agents.)

2) Work on your next piece, something so brilliant that no one can possibly reject it. They think you're not marketable? Well, you can show them. You can go read other books in your genre and analyze them for their marketing appeal. You can work on improving your characterization or your story structure. You can work on building your platform too. You can network with other writers and maybe find an awesome set of critique partners.

As they say, "Living well is the best revenge." I strongly suggest writing well is just as good a revenge. Think about the day that agent sees your work again on the NYT bestseller list and recognizes you as the querier he or she spurned. Imagine yourself saying, "Yeah, actually, because you rejected me, I worked on those issues I had with dialogue, and now I'm a better writer. I guess I should thank you."

What this type of revenge accomplishes is that it forms you up as a better person. You know you have literary potential, and it burns to think the agent missed it. Well, develop that potential. After all, it's much easier to snag an agent with achievement than with potential.

3) Never contact that agent again. You want revenge? This is an awesome revenge. Go ahead and write a work of scathing brilliance, something that scintillates with imagination and the lushness of the human experience. And then, when you have that glittering masterpiece in your hands, don't share it with that agent. Query other agents instead.

The whole point of a snub is silence, so don't tell the rejecting agent that you've in turn rejected him or her. Let that agent figure it out for himself when other agents are having drinks and sharing knowing looks because they all have their hands on a splendid novel while he doesn't.


These are the tactics a professional uses to get revenge after rejection. Rather than directing that anger outward at the agent, it's far better to direct you energy inward toward your career. Because remember, the instant you decided to query, that's the instant you became a professional with the need to behave in a professional manner.

Professionals do not write venomous blog posts about agents who declined the opportunity to represent them. Professionals do not attack an agent's appearance as though that pertains in any way to her intelligence or work ethic. Professionals do not burn their bridges by thinking everyone with a computer wants to see them having a tantrum. A high-vocabulary tantrum is still a tantrum, and readers will associate your name with someone who acts like a two-year-old.

And agents. And editors. And you yourself, eventually, when you realize how you acted and feel ashamed of yourself.

Your goal is to become a better writer and bring your stories to as many as you can. That takes discipline. That takes focus.

And yeah, sometimes it takes getting rejected and dusting yourself off, figuring out what went wrong, and making corrections.

Your professional growth never, never, never, never, never, under any circumstances, involves telling off the other professional who rejected you.

Write well. Sell well. That's the best revenge.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Where to Find Ideas for Your Novel

I'm thrilled to launch my Better Fiction Blog Tour from right here at Query Tracker.

The following is part one of a series of guest posts by Janice Hardy, the founder of Fiction University, a website with "over 1,000 articles to help you take your writing to the next level!"

Where to Find Ideas for Your Novel 

Janice HardyBy Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Although ideas may come to us at any time, creating a novel idea on demand is often difficult. No one can truly tell you where to begin—they can only offer only suggestions on where to look for inspiration. I know what works for me, but if you're the type of writer who always starts with characters, giving you a plot point to brainstorm with will probably get you nowhere. If you build up from a premise, giving you ways to create cool characters might muddle your brain.

One thing is consistent though. No matter how you develop an idea, something triggers that first spark of inspiration.

Here are some common activities that can spark inspiration:

Do Some Research

Try reading newspapers, blogs, magazines, or web sites. Look at material that supports the type of novel simmering in your mind. If you think you might try writing science fiction, look at science magazines or science websites. Even gaming or comic sites could work.

Explore newspapers or news sites if you’re considering a mystery or police procedural. Unsolved crimes could also spark ideas, or even famous crimes with well-known criminals. What might have happened if a few key details had changed?

Totally stuck on what to write? Try the weird news sites, or humor sites that collect funny or odd posts from all over. When something piques your interest, keep exploring it until an idea forms in your mind, or you decide that’s not the way you want to go.

Do An Image Search

Look for photos of characters or places for inspiration. An unusual emotion on a portrait might make you wonder more about that person, or a beautiful or unique setting might feel like the perfect place to set a novel. Images can be powerful triggers since they can draw us in the same as a novel draws in a reader.
Even cartoons or memes can spark ideas. Create a file of images that appeal to you or bookmark them online. Mix and match characters and settings, emotions and moods, until an idea forms.

Play With Names

Naming a thing has power, and the perfect name can make a character blossom in your imagination. Search through baby name sites for names that inspire characters. Street signs can also be fun places to find names. Exit signs on highways often put two names together that could become a person or an interesting place.

People Watch

Find a seat and watch the world go by. Malls, stores, and parks are common areas where people of all types gather, and some of them might catch your eye. What about them is intriguing? Make up stories about them, or imagine how you might turn them into a character. While you don’t want to eavesdrop on private conversations, listening for dialogue or snippets of conversation can also spark ideas.

Play With Poetry

Poems can inspire ideas as well as emotions. Look for themes or imagery that you might want to explore, or even consider the type of character who might read or feel a connection to that poem. Think about what cultures or societies might be created if you used the poem or something within it as a foundation.

Listen to Music

Music can be powerful for a lot of writers, creating moods, inspiring imagery, or even creating a character. Pick a random song and imagine the type of character who would use it as her theme song, or pretend it was the first song a couple ever danced to.

Riff Off Favorite Books

You don’t want to copy someone else’s work (that’s plagiarism), but a favorite book—or even a book you disliked—can be used as a jumping off point to your own original idea. There might be something about that book you find compelling and want to explore in a different way, or maybe you would write that same idea from a new angle. You might even take your three favorite books or movies and pick one element from each to create your own plot.

For more inspiration, here's an exercise from Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure:

  1. Pick three news articles or blog posts that intrigue you. What about them do you find compelling?
  2. What location have you always wanted to visit? What secrets might it be hiding?
  3. Pick your top ten images. What about them do you find captivating? Why?
  4. What are your favorite names? Why? What happens when you turn those names into ones that would fit another genre, nationality, or ethic group? 
  5. What are your least favorite novels, TV shows, or movies. How would you write them differently? 
  6. What random conversations or person caught your eye recently? What about them was memorable? Why?

Next, list five combinations from these six questions you might want to explore further. Mix and match and put together the story types you enjoy with the topics that interest you. Use as many or as few as you’d like.

For example:

  • If you want to write a thriller, try picking a news article that sounds intriguing, then set it in the location that most appeals to you—such as a medical thriller about stem cell research set in Taiwan.
  • If you love heist capers, pick your favorite art piece and figure out how your character would steal it—such as an art thief tries to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. 
  • If you love stories about redemption, try choosing a news story about a truly despicable person and come up with a way for her to redeem herself—such as a woman who killed her children tries to make amends by saving a family in trouble. 

For those really stuck pick:

  • One genre or novel type that most interests you (For example, a fantasy)
  • One type of plot you most enjoy (For example, a heist)
  • One type of character you’re most drawn to (For example, a dark hero)
  • One theme that appears most often in the stories you enjoy (For example, a personal sacrifice)
  • One setting you’d most like to write in (For example, the Arctic)

Then put it all together:

A fantasy heist plot set in an arctic environment, with a dark hero who will have to make a personal sacrifice.

And brainstorm away! Keep mixing and matching until the right idea gets you so excited you can't help but dive right into planning it.

The struggle for ideas hits everyone at some point, at all stages of their career. If you're banging your head against the keyboard and feeling like a hopeless newbie, know that somewhere, some bestselling author is doing the same thing.

Where do you get your ideas?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy
Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.
To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I'm going on a three-month blog tour--and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.
It's easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, and the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook.  She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Keep at it.

She told me the editor made her cry.

This is not a joke, and not an amalgamation-type person, but I'm obfuscating and declarificating her identity because I don't want to identify her. She has a career in publishing now. But she nearly didn't.

She sought out a well known publishing individual at a conference and asked for that person's opinion, and the person told her flat-out that her work was awful and would never get her anywhere, and she should stop. This person told me that she started to cry, and she never wrote again.

I'm writing this post because she's not alone.

Person #2 showed her work to a writer she greatly admired. That writer brushed her off, said her work was amateurish and clumsy, and she shouldn't keep writing.

Person #3 went into a conference and chose her conference track specifically to interact with one individual. That individual couldn't make it at the last minute, so the conference assigned her to someone else, and that individual trashed her work, called it juvenile, said no one reads that kind of stuff, and told her to stop writing.

Are you mad yet? Because I'm mad.

Person #2 kept going and is doing great. Person #3 stopped writing for two years and then one day woke up with a character who demanded to be written. She's now published a series starring that character. Person #1 works in publishing but is not herself a writer. They'll all be okay.

Some people won't be.

If someone has derailed your work, I want you to step back and take a deep breath, and I want you to consider picking it up again. Maybe not that story. Maybe it will be the next story. But you have a voice, and I want to make sure no one silences it. Keep speaking. Keep writing. Advocate for yourself. Learn everything you can.

And keep this in mind: someone who attacks you for not being good enough is saying more about herself than she is about you.

Get up. Keep going. Gird yourself and prepare to work harder.

If you are the person others come to for advice, here's my advice for you: find the good. You don't know how much effort it took this fledgling writer to approach you and ask for help; hold that manuscript like an egg, and breathe gently. Give a few suggestions that are encouragement rather than detraction.

Is the writing stilted? "Keep at it. Sometime, when you're home alone, read it out loud to yourself and listen to your own rhythm. I think that's really going to help your prose sing."

Is the dialogue trite? "Keep at it. When these guys talk to each other, try to step back and make each of them say things in a slightly different way. Try to make it so if you pulled this one line out of the whole book, the reader would still know who was speaking."

Is the idea overdone? "Keep at it. I like this story, but I suspect you could do a lot more with this idea. Try turning it inside-out and maybe questioning some of the things you assume. Throw out your first and second ideas and try the third one instead. Because there's a lot of fertile ground you could cover here, and I'd love to see what you can do with it."

See the thread? Ask for more. When someone is fragile, rather than criticizing, show them how to go for the gold.

Ask them for more. I want to see more depth here. I want to see more time transitioning between scenes. I want to see more description of the surroundings. I want to feel more of what this character is feeling.

Ask for more. You'll get it. We're writers, and we hunger to create. Sometimes we just need better direction and a little guidance for the journey.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seven Questions Authors Need to Ask About Copyright

Writers beginning their journey to publication will eventually have to think about the issue of copyright protection.

When my first novel came out, the small press who published it took care of copyright registration. There wasn’t a heck of a lot for me to do. I saw the little copyright symbol in the front of my book and thought, Well, that’s one less thing for me to worry about.

However, when I self-produced my novel THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, I was on my own—so I needed to know what the details were.

New writers should be aware what copyright is and what it does so that they can make informed decisions regarding their work. Much of the information presented in this article comes from the Wikipedia page (noted as [1]) as well as Copyright.gov (noted as [2]).

Which leads me to the big looming disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to be a lawyer. This is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, consult a professional. This article is for informational purposes only. Visit copyright.gov for the laws and regulations and processes regarding this topic.

Ok, let's get to the important stuff. Here are the questions you should be asking (as well as some answers. I have nothing against cheat sheets.)

1) What is copyright?

“Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution.” [1] It protects both published and unpublished works. [2]

Basically, it states that, if you create it, you should have the rights to it. For authors, this means that your book is your book and you control the rights to it. It also means that if you plagiarize another person’s work or distribute it without their permission, you are in violation of their copyright. You cannot copyright material that belongs to someone else.

However, there are shades and degrees all sorts of nuances. For instance, through coincidence, two people may hold copyright on substantially similar ideas and still not be in violation of copyright as long as it can be determined that one did not copy from the other.

2) What does copyright protect?

“Copyright is a form of intellectual property, applicable to certain forms of creative work. Under US copyright law, legal protection attaches only to fixed representations in a tangible medium.” [1]

Creative work includes far more than literary creations but, for us authors, we are most concerned with works such as novels, stories, poems, plays, and articles. (For an in-depth answer to this question, look at this document.)

3) What does copyright NOT protect?

The Wikipedia page lists several exceptions to what copyright will protect. Copyright will not protect:
• Names of products
• Names of businesses, organizations, or groups
• Pseudonyms of individuals
• Titles of works
• Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions
• Listings of ingredients in recipes, labels, and formulas (although the directions may be protected by copyright)

It also doesn’t protect facts or ideas. [2]

Copyright is not the same thing as a patent or a trademark. Those distinctions are described here

4) How is copyright enforced?

Copyright exists the moment an author puts work in a tangible form. In other words, he prints it out. You write a book, print it out, boom. You got copyright!

Enforcing it, on the other hand, is where all the work comes in. An author must register the work with the copyright office. Doing this is easy enough: go to http://copyright.gov and fill out an application.

You send in the form either by mail or electronically (faster) and follow up with snail-mailing a print copy of your book. They mail you a certificate once the work is registered. If you then find that someone has violated your copyright, you can take legal action.

5) What does it cost?

Registering a work with the copyright office isn’t very expensive. For a single author/single work, it costs under 50$. The fee list is here.  (The costs associated with taking legal action will vary.)

6) What is a poor man’s copyright?

It is thought that if one were to print out their manuscript, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to themselves, it would protect their work in the matter of what some call “a poor man’s copyright". If left unopened, the date on the postmark should be enough proof that the work was put into tangible form by that date. Right?

Wrong. This process won’t protect the work in the event of a copyright lawsuit. All this process does is make a nice souvenir. But you already knew that copyright exists the moment you print your work out. (If not, go back and read #4.)

7) Do you need to register your copyright?

And that’s the million dollar question. The answer is: only if you want copyright laws to back up your claim should you head to court.

Will you actually need to go to court? I hope not.

It’s kind of like auto insurance. Are you definitely going to get into an accident? I hope not. But that’s why we carry insurance. It’s protection in case an if becomes a when. What stops a person from driving a car without insurance? Nothing, really, except the threat of legal ramifications since it’s the law to maintain car insurance. But no law says you need insurance to publish a book.

So…maybe it’s not like auto insurance. Maybe it’s even more confusing.

Think about you, your book, your goals as a writer…then do your own research. You already own the right to your work. Do you want the laws to protect it for you? I guess that’s the question you need to ask.

And if you want to see copyright in action, here are some articles about important copyright infringement discussions:

J.K. Rowling wins copyright infringement case

When Does a Movie Infringe a Novel's Copyright?

The Shadowhunters vs. the Dark-Hunters

Authors published by traditional or small presses most likely will have their registration handled for them, as mine had been with my first novel. Indie authors who are self-producing their work will have to register their work with the copyright office on their own.

I chose to register THE HEARTBEAT THIEF because I wanted to ensure I crossed every t and dotted every i (something that, ironically, I often fail to do when handwriting. What a weird cliché for me to use.) It was only 35$. I figured it was worth the cost of insurance. Once I had the print book formatted, I printed a proof copy and mailed it in (so, another 10$ or so).

For me, it wasn’t difficult or and it wasn’t expensive...and it’s one less thing I need to worry about.

Good thing. I don’t need to spend my time worrying about things like that. I’d rather spend my time writing my next book.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When the "Show, Don't Tell" police come knocking

Every writer, at some point, has heard the phrase, "There is too much telling." Perhaps the critique came from a well-meaning critique partner, or even that rare agent who offered a personalized rejection. Unfortunately, that advice has become so common that it can be about as useless as the also-ubiquitous, "Passive voice is bad!" mantra.

So what exactly does it mean to show, not tell? And when is telling better than showing? Here are some tools I try to keep in mind when editing. To digress a moment, I don't recommend going through this process while you are churning out your first draft. It's called a crappy first draft for a reason.

When you see a long expanse of text with no dialogue, and no "short action" paragraphs to break up the action (like, "the cell door slammed shut"), ask yourself if the passage is lacking some description of a person's body language as well as other sensory elements, such as touch or smell that could convey the same information, or whether the same scene could be conveyed better with dialogue rather than description. If the passage if merely a character's backstory, does it read like an information dump or can you weave in some of the back story in later chapters if it doesn't have to be established up front?

By way of example, here is some "telling."

"Mary was very angry. Her husband was late for dinner again and despite several text messages and voice mails, he hadn't bothered to tell her if he was on his way home or not. To make matters worse, her teenage son had wolfed down a dinner she had carefully prepared from scratch. He had eaten quickly while standing up and then immediately dashed out, not even bothering to tell her where he was going. Mary wondered if she should just give up. She began googling divorce attorneys."

Here is how the same situation could be more "showy."

No new messages.
"Inconsiderate jerk," Mary muttered. She punched Joe's cell number with her thumb as she ladled the congealed remains of her signature lasagna into a plastic containers with the other hand. The remnants of fresh basil, oregano and garlic wafted through the air.

Straight to voice mail. Mary clicked End Call. She tossed her phone on the counter. The dog she hadn't wanted looked up at her hopefully with a leash in his mouth.

"Go walk yourself. I'm done being everyone's maid," she told him. "Jake, where are you going?

Her son barely looked up from his phone. He opened the side door. "Out."

"But you barely touched your din-"

The door slammed shut in his wake. Mary scraped the remaining food into the sink and put it down the disposal. She opened up her laptop, poured herself a glass of wine she'd been saving for a special occasion, and typed. A few minutes later, she clicked on Schedule a Free Consultation with one our Board Certified Divorce Attorneys.

In the first example, the writer is simply telling the reader what the reader needs to know about Mary. She feels unappreciated, put upon, and has simply had enough. The second example shows the reader things Mary does and says, and how she reacts to what other people do through action and dialogue. We don't need to be told how she feels because we can see it.

This is not to suggest that "telling" is always bad. Sometimes, telling is better than showing. Consider this "all tell" passage from Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald:

"T. Harlan Bowie had to be prybarred and torch-cut out of his squashed Buick, and there was so much blood the rescue people were in a big hurry. As it turned out, they would have done a lot better taking it slow and easy rather than turning him and twisting him and working him in muscular style out of the metal carapace. Nobody could prove anything afterward. The lacerations were superficial. But there was a fracture of the spine, and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae the unprotected cord had been pinched, ground, bruised, torn and all but severed. Nobody could ever say whether the accident had done it, or the rescue efforts."

You can't convince me that there is a better way to convey this information about poor Mr. Bowie than to just say it. There is no need to draw it out with "showing" techniques because the reader only needs to know Mr. Bowie's predicament in order to set the stage for actual plot, which doesn't really involve how he became physically disabled. Stephen King similarly introduces us to retired Detective Hodges in Mr. Mercedes by just telling us in straightforward, unembellished  fashion, about how he spends his days post retirement watching television and gaining weight.

So when to show and when to tell? That is often in the eye of the beholder. But say that Mary in our first example is a fleeting character in a slasher novel who gets killed off rather quickly at the beginning. Maybe a little "tell" works better because we don't really need to know the details of her lasagna and her kid. But if Mary is the main character in a chick lit novel, then yes, we need to be able to identify with the every day experiences of feeling overwhelmed and under taken for granted. In that case, the second example works better.

In your own writing, if you notice a lot of first-version Mary writing that goes on for pages and pages, this should be a red flag to ask yourself a few questions. Can I write this scene referencing facial expressions, glances, smells, or by use of dialogue?  Instead of  saying "Lady Macbeth was convinced blood was everywhere and on her hands and she couldn't get clean," show a character scrubbing an already immaculate surface until her knuckles bleed while someone pleads with her to stop.

The next step in editing is to identify  the filler words we all use  when we try to "show, don't tell."  My writing's  worst offenders are eye rolling and shrugging. But that topic has to wait until next month.

Happy show and tell until then.

Kim English - is the author of the Coriander Jones series and the award winning picture book 'A Home for Kayla.' Her latest picture book, 'Rolly and Mac' will be released in 2016. Her website is Kim-