Sunday, October 26, 2014

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

SDT: That Awful Writing Disease! (Show Don't Tell)



“Show, don’t tell” is a problem with which many writers struggle. We see “SDT” scribbled in the margin of a critiqued manuscript. But what exactly is “show don’t tell?” Simply put, it occurs when a writer tells the reader what’s happening in the story, rather than showing what’s happening. And this creates a problem—it makes for a passive reading experience.  

Showing puts the reader in the moment. Showing trusts the reader to interpret what’s happening and understand. On the other hand, when a writer tells the reader what is happening on the page, he’s conveying that he doesn’t trust the reader to figure things out for himself. He’s selling the reader short. Writing that “shows” is richer and more engaging for the reader.

How can you “show” when you write? Here’s one trick that might help: Imagine yourself (the story teller) as a camera, recording the scene. A camera cannot get into the head of the characters and identify their emotions; it can only show what is happening with the action. A camera can’t say someone is sad, it can only show them being sad by their facial expressions and body language. Imagine yourself as that camera, as you write. Here are some other tips for how to “show”…

Specificity
Be specific! Specificity and accurate word choices make for interesting writing. Listen to how Dav Pilkey describes Oscar in the opening of The Hallo-Wiener:

There once was a dog named Oscar who was half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long.

Pilkey could have said that Oscar was a wiener dog, or a Dachshund, but instead he found a fun and creative way to describe him. The unique description pulls in the reader and lets him figure out Oscar’s breed.

Writers should also avoid telling the reader how a character feels (which is probably the most common mistake with SDT. I believe that 99% of the time, the words “feels” or “felt” should be deleted from a ms). Declared emotions are vague (like the mayonnaise of writing) so think about what your character is physically experiencing at that moment. Here’s an example from my first book, Two Tales of Hawaii:

The smile left Pele’s face as a flood of waves came up from the sea. The fires were in danger of being put out. “No!” she cried.

What if I would have said “Pele was shocked” instead? No doubt, I would have identified her emotional state of mind, but I would have taken away the chance for the reader to look at the illustration and examine Pele’s facial expression and concluded that she was shocked. In other words, I would have cheated my reader.

Sensory details
Utilizing the senses pulls the reader into the story. And try going beyond the sense of sight (because the picture often shows what the reader would see). Listen to how I showed Pele as she set out on her journey to find a new home in Two Tales of Hawaii:

Her canoe was trapped between the fiery sun and the cool deep ocean. She had to find the perfect place to keep her sacred fires.

Here, I wanted to convey the temperature difference that one experiences when out on the ocean—the heat of the sun striking against the cool water—to put my reader in the moment.

Dialogue
Dialogue reveals character and can move the story along. Listen to how Phillip C. Stead uses dialogue to reveal the character of Amos McGee on page two of A Sick Day for Amos McGee:

He would wind his watch and set a pot of water to boil—saying to the sugar bowl, “A spoonful or my oatmeal, please, and two for my teacup.”

Amos’s speech reveals his character—he’s polite, a bit quirky in speaking to the sugar bowl, eats healthy but enjoys a bit of sugar too (he’s not perfect!). This is also a great example of using specific details to show his character (the watch that he has to wind indicates he’s a bit old-fashioned and his use of a teacup—not a coffee mug—also tells us a bit about him).

Avoid “to be” verbs
“To be or not to be?” To me, there is no question. “To be” verbs (is, was, are, were) weaken writing because 1) they’re passive, and 2) they tell the reader the state of things, and in picture books, illustrations already show the state of things. Think about this—what if Judy Schachner opened SkippyJon Jones like this?
Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat.

Well, Schachner certainly could have chosen to start her story this way. She could have told us how Skippyjon Jones was, but the problem is that the illustration shows him in a bird’s nest in a tree, so “Skippyjon Jones was a strange cat” wouldn’t be a very interesting opening. Instead, she opened the story like this:

Every morning, Skippyjon Jones woke up with the birds.

Schachner shows us he’s a strange cat by letting us know that he sleeps with the birds—every night!

A final caveat--in all fairness, I should say that sometimes, “telling” is good, even necessary. Can you imagine if a writer showed every single event in a story (especially novels)? It would become mind-numbingly tedious to get through it! Sometimes, writers need to summarize an event so we can move from one relevant scene to the next. However, for writing to absolutely shine and fully engage the reader, the writer must “show” what’s happening as much as possible, particularly in picture books and easy readers. 

Happy writing! 

 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Has your picture book manuscript been turned down so many times you're considering using it to wallpaper your office?

Have you agonized over every single word in your picture book manuscript and are unable to make one more change--but still don't feel it's ready to submit?

Do you love picture books but long to learn more in a deeper, more meaningful way?

Or would you like to work with like-minded writers in exploring a new picture book story?

Well, I have good news for you!

I've been told there are still a handful of spots left for my upcoming online course, INTERMEDIATE PICTURE BOOK WRITING. Click here for information. I hope to see your name on my roster!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014



Enrollment is now open for my online fall course, INTERMEDIATE PICTURE BOOK WRITING, through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. This is one of my favorite courses to teach! We'll dive into the world of picture books, going beyond the basic craft issues as we investigate this fascinating genre of children's books. Students will have the multiple opportunities for feedback on their work. The end goal is a completed draft of a picture book.

For more information, click HERE.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Time is Running Out!

My upcoming UCLA Extension course, Introduction to Writing Easy Readers begins in one week (on April 9) and there are still spots available! Nowhere else will you receive in-depth education about this vital genre of children's literature. Weekly lectures, personal support, and four critique opportunities will help bring your easy reader idea to a complete draft.

Click here to register.

Happy writing!
 
Get a kick out of reading!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Former Student Finds Success!

This morning, I was thrilled to learn that former student Julie Dillemuth has sold her first manuscript! Julie worked on her manuscript with a cognitive-spatial focus in my course, Introduction to Writing Easy Readers. After some declines, Julie revised the story into a picture book format and the story sold! Now, that's what I call having brains and talent!

Congratulations, Julie! I can't wait for 2015, when I can hold a copy in my own hands.

And while we're on the subject, there are still spots available in the upcoming course, Introduction to Writing Easy Readers. Click here for info.

Happy writing!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Easy Reader Course--Save Your Spot!


Greetings Writers!
There are still some spots left in my upcoming online UCLA Extension course, "Introduction to Writing Easy Readers." The course runs from April 9-June 11.
This is a great place to learn about easy readers (leveled readers) and develop your story idea into a complete manuscript. I try to create a safe, supportive, educational environment for all my students.
For more information, please click HERE or email me!