A Writer’s Best Resource For Showing Not Telling

The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi

Christmas came early for me this year in the form of Amazon’s marketing genius. While buying yet another book on writing, I spied an intriguing title under Amazon’s Frequently Bought Together headline:  The Emotion Thesaurus. What in the world is that?

It’s Christmas, your birthday, your anniversary, and Happy Writer’s Day all wrapped into one beautiful gift from authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These attractive, talented, wonderful, intelligent, funny (No, I don’t really know them, but I’m grateful, okay?) women have compiled a resource that every writer would probably shell out fifty bucks at least for, but Amazon is only asking $12.32.

So let me unwrap this divine present from the writer goddesses for you. Pick an emotion that a character would feel. I’m feeling pretty Adoring towards Ackerman and Puglisi right now, so let’s use it. Keep in mind as I take you through this in depth entry for Adoration, that there are 74 more emotions covered in this book.

First you get Adoration’s definition. Next comes a list under the heading Physical Signals. This list includes thirty-two outward indicators that a character might be experiencing adoration. These signals would be obvious enough that not only your reader should pick up on them, but the other characters in a scene should be able to observe that the character exhibiting them is Adoring someone or something. For example: lips parting, nodding while the subject speaks, releasing an appreciative sigh, etc.

I would have been thrilled with just this first list. Instead of writing telling sentences like, “The heroine adored her big brother and listened to everything he said.”  I now had a list that helped me come up with showing sentences like, “Big Brother spoke of his most recent battle, and Heroine listened with her lips parted, nodding encouragement every time he paused.”  However, the entry doesn’t stop there.

The next heading under Adoration is Internal Sensations. Ackerman and Puglisi give us seven more ways to show Adoration from the perspective of the character experiencing it.  This list included descriptors like quickening heartbeat, breathlessness, and feeling one’s pulse in the throat.

If our heroine adored a love interest instead of her big brother, she might want to be a bit more subtle and hide those outward cues. The Internal Sensations then become very useful. “Love Interest drew closer to Heroine. She bit back a sigh, but she could not help the pulse pounding in her throat.”

But wait! There’s more. Our next section is Mental Responses, a list of five. These are great for helping you craft inner monologue for your POV character or providing her motivation in a dialogue scene. For example, using the authors’ suggestion of “an inability to see the subject’s flaws or faults” gave me the idea for the following short dialogue exchange:

Heroine:  “Love Interest would be a great father.”

Best Friend: “You mean the guy who can’t keep a goldfish alive?”

Heroine:  “That’s different. A kid would ask for food.”

With Cues of Acute or Long-Term Adoration, things really get fun. Thirteen more suggestions are listed, and these could lead to some intense conflict:  stalking, fantasizing, and taking on traits or mannerisms of the subject. “Heroine could almost feel Love Interest’s caress as she flushed goldfish number twelve.”

The authors note that acute or long-term adoration can escalate to Love, Desire, Frustration, or Hurt and give you the page numbers for each of those emotions, so you can look up all the goodies they’ve given you for them, too.

The final section of the Adoration entry is Cues of Suppressed Adoration. Nine more ways of showing instead of telling are provided for you. The list includes clenching or hiding one’s hands to hide sweating or shaking, avoiding conversations about the subject, and creating chance run ins.

I’d give you another example, but what you really want is the link. Merry Christmas. The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi.

Questions to Ask While Revising

Book cover of James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure has some useful information, but I would rank this one as more of library loan instead of a must own. Plot and pacing come more naturally to me.  Description and setting are generally my problems, so I ended up doing a lot of skimming. However, I did find the chapter about revision to be very helpful.  Here are some of the questions JSB suggests mulling over while editing:

Questions About Your Lead Character

  • Is the LC memorable? Compelling? Enough to carry a reader all the way through the plot?
  • Does this character avoid clichés? Is he capable of surprising us? What’s unique about the character?
  • Is the character’s objective strong enough?
  • How does the character grow over the course of the story?
  • How does the character demonstrate inner strength?

Questions About Your Opposition

  • Is your opposing character interesting?
  • Is he fully realized, not just a cardboard cutout?
  • Is he justified (at least in his own mind) in his actions?
  • Is he believable?
  • Is he as strong as or stronger than the Lead?

Questions About Your Story’s Adhesive Nature

  • Is the conflict between the Lead and opposition crucial for both?
  • Why can’t they just walk away? What holds them together?

Questions About Your Scenes

  • Are the big scenes big enough? Surprising enough? Can you make them more original, unanticipated, and draw them out for all they are worth?
  • Is there enough conflict in the scenes?
  • What is the least memorable scene? Cut it! Now we have a new “least memorable scene.” Consider cutting it, too.
  • What else can be cut in order to move the story relentlessly forward?
  • Does the climactic scene come to fast (through writer fatigue to finish)? Can you make it more, write it for all it’s worth? Set a ticking clock?
  • Do we need a new minor subplot to building up a sagging midsection? Do you need to cut a subplot to clarify a tangle of melodrama?

Questions About Your Minor Characters

  • What is their purpose in the plot?
  • Are they unique and colorful?

The Four Basic Science Fiction and Fantasy Story Models

A lot has been written on plot and whether you even need one.  Stephen King argued in On Writing that you don’t need a plot as much as good characters and an interesting premise.  He’s a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy.  That surprised me.  I wrote my first book that way, and I can’t say I was a fan of that model.  Not only is it stressful, but I think my lack of direction showed.  For my second and third novels, I’ve had at least an outline and sketched out the major themes I wanted to cover.  The first drafts of those two have gone much smoother.

I’ve been reading a few books lately by authors who do like a plot with more structure.  I’ll be doing a Ten Tips on James Scott Bell’s book on plot, but once again, the most helpful resource so far has been Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I swear, this the last post on it, and I’ll shut up, but only if you promise to read the whole thing.

OSC maintains that most stories follow one of the following four models (MICE):

The Wizard of Oz is an example of the milieu story model.

Milieu:  The story begins when you enter a strange land. It ends when you leave. The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels

Sherlock Holmes is an example of the idea story model.

Idea:  The story begins by raising a question. It ends when the question is answered. Sherlock Holmes and nearly every other mystery

Perks is an example of the character story model.

Character:  This story is about transformation. It begins when the main character becomes so unhappy in his present role that he begins the process of change. It ends when the character either settles into a new role or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and most coming of age stories

Lord of the Rings is an example of the event story model.

Event:  The world is out of order. This story begins not when the disorder starts, but when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. It ends when a new order is established, the old order is restored, or the world descends into chaos and order is destroyed. Lord of the Rings and a kagillion other epic fantasies

The most important point to remember in plotting is to finish the story you started.  If you begin your story one way and end it another, you’ll frustrate your readers. Imagine if instead of solving the murder (idea), Holmes decided half way through to check into rehab, and the end of the book was about him conquering addiction (character). Bully for Holmes, but I want to know if the butler did it.  Likewise, how frustrating would Return of the King have been if Frodo decided instead of finishing his quest to destroy the ring (event), that after meeting Gollum he’d had enough adventure and headed back to his hobbit hole (milieu)?

Up Next:  Ten Tips from James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure

Ten Tips from How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

osc sf & f

This is an older book, printed in 1990, and is hard to find in bookstores and libraries. It’s still in print, though, and it can be ordered from Amazon. I got lucky and found a used copy at Powell’s when we visited Portland last week. If you don’t write in this genre, I don’t know how helpful this book would be to you, but if this is your genre, it’s a must own. I had been reluctant to order it sight unseen, especially since the publishing information in it is pretty dated. However, the world building chapter alone makes the book worth buying. In fact, there was so much good stuff, after these Ten Tips, I’m going to do two more posts specifically dealing with creating languages and the four basic SF and fantasy story models.

1. Mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. OSC notes that because they weren’t intended, they are rarely clichéd. So if you can figure out why the mistake isn’t a mistake at all, you could have something fresh and wonderful.

2. When world building, remember that a great event in history or a new innovation never has only one result. For example, the invention of the car didn’t produce only a new form of transportation. Other results included drive-in movies, drive-thru windows, freeways, pollution, the political ramifications of OPEC, and some would even argue two Gulf wars.

3. Establish the rules of your world early, and then don’t break them. Yes, you need rules. Your story will be stronger and your readers will crave some sort of order so they can make sense of your world. You can’t have gravity one minute and gone the next, at least without a good reason, or you’ll just confuse people. Also, don’t make the solution to your hero’s problem at the end of the book that he found a work around to a major rule or that he is exempt from the rule. This is cheating. Your readers will rightfully throw your book across the room.  Just because Doctor Who does it routinely doesn’t make it right.

Doctor Who the Cheater

4. Magic should cost something. This isn’t a hard and fast rule as much as a suggestion. I’ve read good books where magic was essentially free. However, I will say the best fantasy books I’ve read deal with the idea that to gain the power of magic, you must sacrifice something. If you want to see a beautifully written example of this, read Laini Taylor’s Daugher of Smoke and Bone trilogy.

5. When writing aliens, creatures, or a new race, you should determine why, in evolutionary terms, their unusual features would have developed. You don’t have to give the mechanics of how, but you do need to think about why the features have survival value. “It’s cool,” is not a legitimate reason. This will give your characters and world more depth and believability.

6. Remember that the hero, main character, and the viewpoint character don’t all have to be the same person.  OSC reminds us that the most important character and the one that makes everything happen is sometimes a slimeball. He also cautions against making kings, queens, and other royalty the point of view character because while they have a lot of power, they don’t generally have much freedom of movement.

7. Know both the history and biography of your towns and characters. I did not follow this rule with my first novel, and it really came back to haunt me. Even if you don’t intend to give this background information (in fact, a lot of times that would be unnecessary and just slow down your action), you need to know the how and the why. Otherwise, your readers can end up confused by your characters’ motivations and actions. By the third book I knew why my characters where doing what they were doing, but it meant a lot of rewrites for that first book.

8. Avoid exposition dump in dialogue. Those of us writing SF and fantasy have a lot more to explain up front because of our new worlds, rules of magic, etc. The good news is readers of the genre tend to be more patient and will give you some time to explain. What they can’t stomach is terrible exposition. Don’t unload a ton of details into dialogue so that your characters are having unrealistic conversations about stuff they already now. For an example of this, watch any episode of Castle. Sometimes I think Ryan and Esposito’s characters are only there to rattle off facts of the case that the writers were too lazy to show us.

Ryan and Esposito on exposition in dialogue

9. You must send your work out.  I love how OSC puts this.  “You grow a whole lot more as a writer by getting old stories out of the house and letting new ones come in and live with you.  Don’t let the old ones stay there and grow fat and cranky and eat all the food out of the refrigerator.”

10. Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

a. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.

b. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

You need A when deciding to mail the story out, B when revising, A when choosing which market to submit to, B when the story is rejected (of course, I expected to get this back), and A when sending it back out again.

If this post was helpful to you, I highly recommend checking out Michelle Proulx’s recent post about world building and population.  Heck, just follow her.  Michelle is not only helpful, but highly entertaining.

Up Next:  Creating Language for Science Fiction and Fantasy, or, Thou Shalt Not Write What the Human Mouth Cannot Pronounce

Ten Tips from Stephen King’s On Writing

I mentioned in one of my first posts that I’ve been reading a lot of books on writing and publishing that I hoped to put together into a separate writer’s resource page. That will still happen.  However, as I’ve been reading and taking copious notes, I decided I wanted to do more than just give a list of helpful books. I decided to do a series of blog posts that summarize some of the best advice and try to let you know if it’s worth reading the whole book.


The first up is Stephen King’s On Writing. I have to confess the only Stephen King I’d read up until this point was his column in Entertainment Weekly, which I miss greatly. I don’t know what his horror is like, but the man’s nonfiction is funny!

This book had been referenced in multiple other writers’ resources and on countless blogs, so I thought it was probably worth a look. On Writing has been out for thirteen years and my county library has five copies. I can’t renew it because there are two people on the waiting list.  Yes, it’s that good.  The book is half memoir and half practical writing advice, but all of it is fabulous. At the very least, put it on your must read list, but it might be one worth owning.  Until you can get around to it, here are what I thought were the ten best tips.

1. “If you write, someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” This is not a practical tip of the craft, but an important life lesson King illustrated with a childhood story about a teacher that disapproved of his subject matter. Perhaps you aspire to write great literary fiction that wins Pulitzers, but I just want to write fantasy that entertains people. King writes what I have felt after receiving similar criticism for simply wanting to write in a genre that wasn’t considered high brow enough, “. . . in my heart I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk.”

2. Perseverance. This is not something King specifically mentions, but you can’t read about his early years and not realize this was part of why he succeeded. He used to hang his rejection slips for his short stories on a nail. Eventually he had to switch to a spike to hold them all up. The first novel he ever sold, Carrie, was actually the fourth novel he had written, and he wrote it while holding down two jobs and helping his wife raise two small children.

3. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs. King seems to hate this part of speech in general, but he’s particularly against it in dialogue. For example:

“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.

I winced as I read because I do this all the time. I thought I had a solution to the problem, and then I read, “Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids.” For instance:

“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.

Well crap. Now I’m in trouble. King’s point is you should have written the scene well enough via showing not telling that the adverbs and super verbs are unnecessary. A simple “she said” should do the trick. I had a beta reader tell me this already, but I was trying to ignore what I knew was excellent advice because it would mean a lot of revising. Dang it, now I’m going to have to do it.

4. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:  read a lot and write a lot.” This piece of advice has been quoted in numerous other books, and it was a relief to me. I felt like the time I spent reading was time I stole directly from writing. King counts it as part of his daily working routine. That’s right, it’s work time. It doesn’t all have to be War and Peace, either. Read what you like, and often you can learn just as much from the terrible books as the good ones. If what you read just made you go “blech!” make sure you don’t do that yourself. Don’t neglect the second piece of advice, either. King says as a new writer you should have a goal of at least a thousand words a day and write six days a week. He reads about eighty books a year and writes two thousand words a day, seven days a week (even on Christmas and his birthday).

5.  You need a door. Your writing space doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to be absolutely silent if you work better with music, but it must have a door. You must close it. I write in a comfy chair in our living room. This space is rife with interruptions, and I keep telling myself I need to move to an empty bedroom upstairs. I haven’t done it, and if I’m honest about why, it’s because I kind of like the interruptions.

6. “What are you going to write about? Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” King talks about this at length and what it means, but the part about being true to what you want to write was particularly spot on:

“If you happen to be a science fiction fan, it’s natural that you should want to write science fiction . . . If you’re a mystery fan, you’ll want to write mysteries, and if you enjoy romances, it’s natural for you to want to write romances of your own. There’s nothing wrong with writing any of these things. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like . . . in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning towards some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing—the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.”

7. “In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character.” King reminds us that no one thinks of themselves as “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or the “whore with the heart of gold.” If we stop thinking of our characters in this way, we’re less likely to get “the one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”

8. “The first draft . . . should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.” This forces you to focus on telling the story, not fixing things based on criticism or slacking off if you get too much praise. It also helps keep the momentum going while you’re excited about what you’re writing. I’m not sure how I feel about this one. I’ve always had at least one beta reader giving me feedback as I write each new chapter. I’m willing to give it a try, though, and see how it’s different.

9. Let the first draft rest for at least six weeks. That’s right, six weeks. No rereading yourself, and if you give it to beta readers, they have to keep their comments to themselves for those six weeks. Start on your next project and don’t think about the old one at all. Once you’ve got six weeks between you and the initial frenzy of writing, you can go back and start revising for your second draft. You can be a lot more objective this way.

10. Second draft = First draft – 10%. King got this piece of advice written on one of his early rejection slips. He still adheres to it religiously. “What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard.” I’d have to agree. In my own editing, I’ve found most of what makes my writing sound better is Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless words!

Up Next:  Ten Tips from How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

Traditional vs. Self-Publishing: How Do You Choose?

When I started writing, I was sure I wanted to go with a traditional publishing house. I don’t own an e-reader, so I wasn’t really aware of the self-publishing market. I knew about vanity publishing (where an author pays a press to print their book), so every time I heard someone talk about self-publishing, that’s what I thought they were referring to. Eventually I happened upon an article or two that informed me that self-publishing now usually refers to e-books and print on demand services like Kindle and Create Space. I filed away the information in my brain with a level of importance about equal to my weekly grocery specials. Mmm, maybe slightly less. Those buy 2 get 3 free Coke specials demand my attention.

One day while I was happily typing away on my laptop, my husband asked from the dining room if I’d heard of Hugh Howey. I had, but not because of his self-publishing prowess. I’d read a book review of Wool and had added it to my never ending spreadsheet of books to read. I didn’t see why my husband cared, however. He doesn’t read fiction as a rule. He does, however, devour his Wall Street Journal, which is what had prompted the question. The Journal, like nearly every other media outlet, had done a piece on Howey and the rise of self-publishing.

I read the article, my brain exploded, and after I got done mopping up the mess, I decided I should look into this self-publishing thing a bit more. I read article after article about how glorious it was and how I would be an idiot, a brain-dead idiot, if I did not go the self-publishing route. Clearly I didn’t want to be an idiot, so I decided I should self-publish. I hired an editor, looked into book cover artists, and downloaded all the formatting guidelines for Kindle and Nook.

Then I had coffee. A friend of mine put me in touch with an author she knew, Jay Posey. Jay’s first book, Three, comes out July 30, so he is further along in this new author process than me. Over frappuccinos, he very kindly let me pepper him with questions for an hour and a half. Mostly I wanted to know why he had decided not to self-publish. Jay had a number of reasons, but the two biggest that stuck out to me were the desire for greater distribution and some statistics on self-publishing I hadn’t heard before.

I went home and did some more research, and this time I dug a little deeper.  Here’s a few of the things I discovered from a particularly eye opening article:

4 out of every 5 books sold is still a print book.

50% of self-published authors make less than $500 on their book.

10% of self-published authors earn 75% of the money in that field, thus skewing the average.

I also discovered via Chuck Wendig, who writes on the topic of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing frequently, that self-publishing is not necessarily the best path for authors writing young adult books. At the time I read it, I still thought I was writing young adult fiction. A warning for sensitive readers: while the link below is very useful, Wendig will offend your sensibilities. His blog is called terribleminds, after all. If that doesn’t bother you, Wendig covers a number of situations when self-publishing might not be your best option.

If I wasn’t already alarmed, then I certainly was after this week, when Tobias Buckell posted this. I’m surprised every single writer’s forum didn’t crash. I’ve seen this article reposted several times, and some people are absolutely foaming at the mouth about it. I didn’t want to engage in rabid fighting about which method of publishing was best. I just wanted to figure out which one would work for me.

I was glad I had a more realistic view of self-publishing now, but it didn’t help solve my problem of which route to try. I needed to see the pros and cons and weigh the decision. This is where Jane Friedman’s infographic on the various paths to publishing came in handy:

5 Key Book Publishing Paths

publishing infographic

In the end, like Jay, it came down to the issue of distribution for me. If I want my book to be in bookstores and libraries, then traditional publishing still makes the most sense. I’m going to try that route first. I might still end up in self-publishing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I discovered I had written a new adult book instead of a young adult book without realizing it. The NA market is almost entirely e-books at the moment.

For the other writers out there, how did you decide?

Up Next:  Sprinting Towards Insanity, or, Driving Your Friends, Family, and Yourself Crazy While Writing

Writing and Publishing: Where Do I Start?

I wanted to write a novel, so to begin, I wrote a novel.  I thought this made a terrific amount of sense.  Turns out, this might not have been the best first step.  In retrospect, I think it maybe should have been number four.  So what should have come first?

Learn How to Not Write Bad

I wish I had read more on how to write well.  I had two college degrees, could construct complete sentences, and read a lot.  In my mind, that was all I needed to be off and running.  Perhaps if I hadn’t had an idea for plot or characters, I might have slowed down enough to consult some writing guides or gone to a conference or two. 

It wasn’t until I began the process of editing that I bothered to do any research on the craft of writing.  This isn’t to say that my first draft was worthless.  Still, I could have saved myself a lot of revision time if I had just known beforehand simple rules like using “all right” not “alright.”  That correction might just take a minute or two with a find and replace command, but there were other errors that weren’t as quick fixes.  For example, I had incorrectly used the subjunctive case repeatedly.  What’s the subjunctive case you ask?  Yeah, I didn’t know either, and that was part of the problem. 


This is my current stack of reading.  Not only have I learned how to avoid common grammatical pitfalls, but I have gleaned a lot of wonderful advice on how to make my writing more precise, detailed, and clear.   As I make my way through all of them, I’ll be adding the helpful ones to a resources page on the blog.  For right now, if you only read one book, make it Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad.

Yagoda is a professor at the University of Delaware, and the book came out of the mistakes he observed students making over and over in his twenty years of teaching writing.  I am a notorious cheapskate when it comes to buying books.  Why do libraries exist if not for taxpayers to subsidize my book addiction?  After reading Yagoda’s book, however, I immediately bought a copy.  It’s a reference you’ll return to over and over.  He also has a helpful website.

Up Next:  Discover Your Market or How I Discovered I Wrote a Novel for a Nearly Nonexistent Market.  Oops.