Show, Don’t Tell (unless you’re in Kindergarten).

Continuing my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense,’ please comment with your ideas of when it is better for writers to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell.’


Children were never expected to interpret the trauma in a budgie’s past.

Do you remember your favorite part of kindergarten? While I am tempted to name ‘Nap Time,’ memory forces me to acknowledge that naps only became precious to me later in life. No, my favorite part of kindergarten—and probably yours—had to be ‘Show and Tell.’ These were the moments that I could bring in my tricycle, greeting cards or guinea pigs, and allow my classmates to gawk enviously at them while I supplied detailed narrative about their mechanical, emotional or bodily functions. In kindergarten, detail and clarity were rewarded, and Mrs. Arbuthnott would confirm with her warmest smile as she fought to keep from nodding off during the fourteenth minute of my diatribe.

As I began to show an interest in writing, though, it wasn’t long before my life became more complicated: teachers smiled less, and changed their mantra to ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ I wondered then, and still wonder today, what this could possibly mean: given that a novel is around 80,000 words on pages, ‘Show Don’t Tell’ cannot possibly mean that authors should never tell anything.

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Write What You Know (if you know anything)

This is the first in my series, ‘How to Follow Writing Advice that Makes No Sense.’ Keep checking back here for more. In the meantime, visit Cow Pasture Chronicles for my guest-post introducing my idea of good Metafiction.


Frank Baum didn’t actually know a tinman.

A writer trying to follow advice as is like a kid living with parents who hate each other. Every time you think you’ve listened to the wisest possible words, and crafted your masterpiece accordingly, something contradictory comes along to spank it back to Penny Dreadful status. This profession (like many, I’m sure) seems to depend more on balancing strategies than relying on any single set of them. That advice you are getting may not contradict common sense as much as you think.

Let’s take the classic: ‘Write what you know.’ Anyone who’s ever lifted a pen, even if only as a student, has had their well-meaning Great-Aunt Mabel over his or her shoulder, espousing the timeworn guarantee that ‘writing what you know’ will launch you to the same lofty heights of popularity that she enjoyed in her Bridge club. The problem with that advice is simply this: Some of us don’t know very much. I know how to write, I think—though sometimes better than others—and if you give me six or eight weeks, I can get a recalcitrant English student to do his homework. Usually.

Other than that, ‘what I know’ might not be very literature-worthy: Continue reading

The Rejection Reflex

Quit talking to the hand

How can an author help agents break the cycle of rejection?

Please comment with any advice about the querying process, especially if you have successfully enlisted an agent.

I have an idea for a new business that could be a real money-spinner. I call it ‘Literary Rejection Services, Inc.’ and I can see making a bundle from agents whose index fingers are starting to cramp.

This is not exactly a newsflash, but I had a rejection from a fairly reputable agent arrive to my inbox yesterday. The difference between this rejection and so many of the others is surprising, though; to this agent, I had never actually submitted a proposal. Is it possible that literary agents are so query-weary that they have started sending preemptive form rejections? Have their slush piles started to leak over the tops of their employer-issued gumboots?

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You Can’t Wrap Fish in a Newsfeed


Why do we want our writing to smell?

When considering which publishers I would prefer to harass, the first thing I do is check their sales figures for the genre I am writing. I know this is good practice, because my supporters at WOW tipped me off to do so, and there is nobody in the industry whom I trust more implicitly. Oddly, though, I always pass right by the Kindle statistics, which sometimes show much higher sales. The only thing that interests me, even today, is how many paperback copies of a title manage to sell.

This qualifies as Metacognitive Mystery #627, since most of the reading I do these days is using a reader. Yes, yes, I know the old arguments about physical books being more reliable, passive light being healthier for us, and the musty smell of water-damaged relics from our basements making us feel all blah, blah, blah… but I don’t think that’s where a writer’s connection to paper publishing really begins and ends. I think that the reason writers like me want to see our books in print, one day, is a matter of legacy.

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