If you’re an aspiring writer and you’ve clicked on this blog, you’re probably debating about getting a MFA. And after the mountain of online articles blurring in your closing eyes, you’ve decided…nothing. “Great balls of fire!” Why can’t anyone give a straight answer!
I’ll tell you why – because they’re vouching for what they think – MFA or no MFA. But unless they’ve agreed to pay your tuition, or hunt you down until you’ve met your weekly word count, their opinions don’t matter. Your’s does, though…so what do you do?
Stop wasting your time reading articles debating about this issue! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if John Smith believes you’ll never publish without a MFA and Hilary Clankinbeard thinks burning money on a MFA is baloney. Who cares what they think – they’re not you! And only you understand your professional, social, and financial situation. Only you can decide if a MFA’s benefits will outweigh its costs.
Enter, the solution. The MFA Yes and No checklist, a list of four big reasons you should or shouldn’t get a MFA.
Now on to the list!
First and foremost, I want to express that I am NOT going to give you a list of boring reasons as to why I decided not to get a MFA. This article isn’t about me. It’s about YOU – another aspiring writer out there just itching to learn more about writing! And it’s not important that you hear why I or any other writer did or did not get a MFA. It only matters your situation and what you think will make you a stronger writer. The costs and benefits weigh equally for most debaters, but only you know your work and home situation. Only your gut can tip the scale.
TO GET A MFA OR NOT TO GET A MFA? That is the question…
|1.I want to write, but I’m not disciplined. I’m one of those people who uses my job, my family, my friends, or my exhaustion to keep me from gluing my butt in my seat and typing until I finish. Having assignments and deadlines leaves me no option but to research and write – so following a curriculum that forces me to complete assignments by a deadline will teach me good habits and force me to write, despite my excuses.
Note of Caution: School eventually does come to an end, and one day you will have to learn to discipline yourself and write outside the classroom. The real work must and always be done at home – driven by you and you alone. But, if getting a MFA will jump-start good writing habits, go for it!
|1. I can’t afford it. Probably the number one reason writers stray from getting a MFA. After reading about how amazing the program sounds, you land on the admission cost and – with a knife in your heart – realize there’s no way in hell-abaloo you can afford it (now). Most programs range around $35,000-$40,000 – not including room and board or other expenses. Yup, college admission continues to increase for Master’s programs too. And it stinks like a bag of flaming crap on your doorstep, but, “there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it”…or is there! If you need more instruction but can’t afford a MFA – YOU CAN STILL LEARN! Half (or more) of being a writer (that succeeds) is continuing to educate yourself. Ever considered online programs from credible (AND AMAZING!) resources like Writer’s Digest University? If not, start enrolling in writing workshops like these – they’re more affordable than the traditional classroom setting (an online!) – as long as you’re someone who has enough drive to get your work done on your own 🙂|
|2. I don’t know what to research. You’re on Twitter and Facebook and you follow blogs, and you’ve explored the tips and tricks on the web…but something still feels like it’s missing. You’d like hands-on guidance from a mentor who can push you (and know your story personally) in the right direction, pointing you to people and works that might give you answers to flaws in your novel. Heck, your instructors do want you to complete your thesis – which is a bit different from an agency reading 500 manuscripts out a slush pile – weekly!||2. I have a job. So you can’t go to school full-time – or you could, but you might drown in a black hole by the time you’re done. Yes, it’ true that having a MFA does not guarantee you get published. You might learn skills. You might meet agents. But you don’t get an agent, an editor, or a publisher because you have a degree. Representation and publishing are a whole different animal. Even if you have a MFA, it’s up to you to sell your book – with or without an agent. You need to build your author platform. You need to seek representation. You need to publish it. Just don’t throw your debut novel in the corner because you get rejected one, two, or one-thousand times. If you want your novel to have a life, it’s up to you to create and promote it. Writing the book itself is its own precious, time-consuming, heart-throbbing job. Writers write because it is their vocation – they can’t imagine doing anything else. So even if you can’t complete a MFA because you have a full-time job – guess what, you can still get your book published. If you’re willing to put in the work.|
|3. I don’t know any writers and I’d like to meet agents, publishers, and editors. One great advantage of getting a MFA is your opportunity to learn from and work with published authors. And if your instructor isn’t published (which is practically unheard of), it’s more than likely you will attend presentations by guest speakers who…well, they’ve been invited for a reason! If you’re not an outgoing person, a MFA program places you in a more personal, comfortable position to speak to professionals in the industry. It can be scary diving right into the heat of a competitive, fast-paced environment like publishing if you’re farouche – and you’d find comfort writing side by side with supportive yet constructive readers. Maybe the stars will align (thanks to your research!), and you even hit it off with a guest agent or editor. Happily Ever After (and then the real work begins!)
Note: Some programs like Emerson College build a publishing component into the curriculum. If you’re interested in publishing – there are degrees for that, too!
|3. I’d rather spend my time writing (my genre!) than analyzing. Yes, you will write until your fingers bleed before they hand you your MFA, but it requires a lot of structured, literary-focused work. If you’re writing for genre fiction like sci-fi or fantasy (among many others), then the MFA might not be for you. Not that some programs like Spalding University don’t offer all genre fiction choices…but they’re not the norm, and they’re not the main focus even if they’re offered. Focusing on fiction can be tricky in a MFA program – and if courses with a literary core is not what you want, well, I’d encourage you to check out alternative online courses, like Writer’s Digest University (again, they are amazing!!!!). Or, maybe you don’t have the money for a course (or you’re more advanced than what the course offers) but still want to learn from a published author/editor/agent…try purchasing an OnDemand Webinar instead. You might learn exactly what you hope to hear – faster!|
|4. You practice you’re writing…but not consistently. If you’re one of those people that writes – not a writer (because writers, write!), you might benefit from a structured environment – needing someone to tell you to complete “x” number of pages with “x” number of words by Friday. Again, you can’t let poor excuses and distractions – writer’s block, no time, the list goes on and on – get in your way…MFA or no MFA. But, if paying pockets-full-of money for that MFA motivates your fingers on the keyboard or grows your interest to research, do it.||4. I have a family. And I can’t just pick up and move them because I want to attend a program in a different state. Why can’t there be more programs that are online! They’re out there, but they might involve some airfare on occasion. And again, you have to consider if a MFA would work for YOUR family. Each one is different and may or may not need more attention. But a word of caution for those out there who use “busy schedules” as their excuse. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again – writer’s write. When they’re busy. When they’re hungry. And when they’re tired. Learn a routine that works, and stick to it. But you will never get anything published if you can’t discipline yourself to write every.single.day. Besides, you’ll feel empty if you cheat on your books. Don’t deprive your characters from your affection! You wouldn’t deprive your kids!|
Okay. But I still don’t know what to do. What now??
Ask yourself – Do I need a MFA (I almost forgot! If your intent is teaching college, then YES, you probably do need a MFA – universities and colleges tend to hire instructors with a MFA or published experience)? And if I do, is this the right time for me and my family? And, if not, what can I do to make sure I continue to LEARN how to write better, and how to sell my book?
If it’s not good enough to be a “good” writer – and it’s perfectly possible for a tirelessly persistent and resilient writer to succeed – focus your energy on what will make you more persistent and resilient. What will teach you more about writing, and what will boost your desire to learn on your own – MFA or no MFA? Only you can answer that.
During the sessions, I received the opportunity to converse in a discussion panel, learning key rules about writing query letters (more on that to come) and the first 10 pages. For a debut writer like me, best money I could’ve spent. Sure, did I dream of the far-fetched possibility of my one-on-one mentor asking for more pages? Duh. Did I think it likely? Heck no…but that’s not why I did the boot camp (just a chance)!
If you’re anything like me, sometimes you just need a professional to tell you Abby, you do this great, but THIS is what you need to do to make it publishable.
For me, my mentor – Mary – pointed out one CRUCIAL question. Did I want to write MG (middle grade) or YA (young adult)?
Observing how my voice and content were inconsistent, I decided to reach out to bloggers & experts including two agents (Mary Kole @ & Michael Stearns), two writers (Ruthanne Reid & Clair Legrand), and the friendliest Barnes & Noble employee I’ve ever met (I definitely recommend talking to booksellers if you feel lost—they read everything and REALLY know their stuff!).
A variety of views assimilated into 5 major points (I love bullets!), helping me to infuse YA styles over my original more MG-ish version. If all reads as intended, you can (hopefully) use my thoughts in your great MG or YA debate, clarifying the fuzzy areas and deciphering the important differences! (Phew!)
THE BIG FIVE: MG OR YA?
- POV (Middle School or High School…age, awareness?)
- FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)
- LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)
- JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning?)
- VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)
POV (how age of the protagonist shapes it)
Perhaps the easiest way to decide your point of view is by your protagonist’s age: middle school (9-12) or high school (14-18…sometimes out of high school but not yet in college). Remembering that the character’s developmental level should mirror the reader’s developmental level, we can eradicate the gray area.
By popular consensus…the toughest age to make your character is age 13, so maybe stay away from it. It’s a tricky age, playing with the year where the character is a little too mature for MS but not yet in the mindset of HS. Of course, there are exceptions.
Harry Potter, for example, starts off young and ends the series in the end of his teens. Then again, HP is the book agents say NOT to compare your book to…for this very reason. It’s difficult for an agent/publisher to decipher where to place your book in the bookstore if you don’t know the developmental level of your characters.
For a debut book, probably better to focus on a stand-alone novel, with series potential. Hook your audience before confusing them – if it takes off, then you can think about crossing over as your characters grow.
Age isn’t the only way to determine the POV in your book. Clarifying the character’s awareness of the world around them—how they see obstacles and make decisions—also plays a big role. As a high school teacher, I can vouch…maturity difference between 9th (just coming out of MS) to 12th graders is HUGE. Heck, 9th to 10th grade is unrecognizable, especially in their ability to problem solve (9th grader – tell me the answer! versus a 12th grader – how do I find the answer on my own?).
Do your characters come across a lot of things they don’t understand (MS) or do they draw from past experiences to figure out how to get over something (HS)? Such a character approach can make or break the target audience who reads your book. Ask yourself this: does my character need their mentor to get where they need? Or does my mentor guide my character, advising them without giving them the answer? In other words, Dumbledore in book 1 or Dumbledore (now gone) in book 7:
HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7
HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry pairs up with Ron and Hermione. They learn how to deal with social and individual struggles like flying and potions class with the help of their friends and professors, finding their place in the school.
HARRY, BOOK 7: Harry continues to team up with Ron and Hermione, but they are no longer at Hogwarts – they have a greater task to accomplish, left to them by their deceased mentor. With Dumbledore gone, Harry must rely on past experiences to explore new ones, facing a rivalry greater than him and Voldemort alone.
To put a cherry on top, there’s also the actual POV of the narrator – first, third person, or does it matter? Writer Claire Legrand is the first I’ve seen address this idea in her blog, and I was glad she did! Conclusion? Many YAs are written in 1st, many MGs are written in 3rd. Don’t panic – my heart jumped into my throat when I first read this (I wrote a YA in third person – against the majority). Does it matter? No. Then what does? Following your gut and giving your characters the voice you think gives your book authenticity. Generalities are guidelines, not laws.
FOCUS (Small-World Problems or Real-World Problems?)
When I taught Secondary English, I came across a bundle of students who complained about reading books too wordy to entertain them. Well, I’d tell them, when you read, do you see words or images? Often it was the first. Of course reading bored them; when you read, you want to visualize the character on their adventure by experiencing the lessons with them. The character’s FOCUS of the lessons can decipher the difference between MG and YA. Let’s see if you agree…
Expanding Character Perspective (internal or external?) It all depends on how the main character identifies their place in the world and how they experience it.
For MG, think the question, what lunch table should I sit at? MG characters focus primarily on friends and family, searching for their identity with a limited, safer perspective that guides their choices so they can avoid bullies and the receiving-end of a swirly (or so they hope!). They still think and act, but their choices keep in mind their impact on their personal social/home life.
Not YA characters. YA characters see the bigger picture, and set out for it. Think the question, where should I go to lunch today? YAs tackle universal social pressures and home issues impacting more than just the character’s personal life. I love when James Barry (playwright of Peter Pan) discusses how he lost his innocence in Finding Neverland. He tells a story of how he tried, desperately, to help his mother get over her depression (suffering from the loss of her eldest son), dressing in his brother’s clothes and walking into her room – it was “the end of the boy James,” he says.
YA characters look for answers to questions outside their safety zone, introducing themselves to experiences and obstacles they have never crossed before – and will be wiser, stronger, better for crossing them. They will have grown up, and ready to take on the world. For example…
HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7
HARRY, BOOK 1: Internal Focus: Harry’s rivalry with Malfoy grows, a major antagonist in this book. Harry does learn more about Voldemort and his growing threat, but we don’t learn much about Harry’s past other than how his mother sacrificed herself for him. Obstacles like the Mirror of Erised allude to Harry’s greater purpose, but the majority of the book focuses on in-school events…Harry doesn’t need to make the ultimate choice yet.
HARRY, BOOK 7: External Focus: Harry has left boyhood. He accepts his fate and gathers courage in the face of death, leading up to his sacrifice for the greater good.
LOVE (Holding Hands, Kissing, or More?)
Romance is arguably needed in every novel because, let’s face it, love represents a driving force in our readers’ lives. But how do we draw MG romance away from YA romance? With one subtle difference: sexual stirring or sexual awakening?
In MG, tweens are learning feelings of what it’s like to have a crush– they hold hands, they kiss, they touch…but ultimately, they’re PG. Tweens feel romantic stirrings in their hormonal instincts, but aren’t quite sure how powerful these natural instincts will later affect them in life.
But YA characters …they know what sex is, and recognize when they have a sexual attraction, or awakening. Now, I’m not suggesting you need Fifty Shades of Gray SEX scenes in your book, but your reader should be aware of your character’s ability to feel an awakening in their bodies after interacting with someone who attracts them– reaching somewhere inside them deeper than physical. It’s Love, and everyone wants it. Think Ron and Hermione at 11 versus at 17.
HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7
HARRY, BOOK 1: Harry does not have a love interest, but Ron and Hermione grow a love/hate relationship, bickering in a way that somewhat annoys them, but ultimately intrigues them. They do not recognize these interactions as love…yet.
HARRY, BOOK 7: Ron and Hermione, at long last, put aside their need to make each other jealous and embrace the heat between them, finally giving the audience what they’ve been waiting for – LOVE!
JOURNEY (Just Beginning or Really Beginning)
Confession time. I fell madly in love with Joseph Campbell and his theory of the hero’s journey in my junior year of college, and I’ve never really let go. It is a great breakdown of every stage a character needs to experience in order to become a hero, but its complexity could consume a doctoral essay, so I’ll try to save you some time (best I can) and simplify one of its major accomplishments –the character’s CHANGE from beginning to end.
Accomplished screenwriter Blake Snyder points out how a producer can determine the success of a screenplay by reading the first and last ten pages of a script. CHARACTERS MUST GROW in a journey, but they do this in different ways in MG or YA novels.
In MG, the character experiences obstacles in their own world and learns a lesson about their personal life, changing the way they see their world. They grow as an individual, but have not grown up…they are only beginning their journey.
But YA, these heroes experience a journey that teaches them their purpose. They decide who they want to be and discover the opportunities in life beyond education. Life is a journey, but doesn’t really begin until you’ve figured out how you’re going to contribute your skills in the world, using them to make it better. Notice, for instance, how Harry isn’t even at Hogwarts by book 7; there are bigger things than learning magic going on…
HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7
HARRY, BOOK 1: Dumbledore confirms Harry’s notion that Voldemort is not gone and will return again. But for now, the worst thing on his mind is returning to the Dursleys.
HARRY, BOOK 7: Voldemort is inescapable. Overtaking the world outside the wizarding world, major sacrifices are made on mental, physical, and spiritual levels. This is it, the last battle, and if Harry doesn’t make the right choice, evil could consume both worlds forever.
VOICE (Language & Style– simple or complex?)
You’ve made it! The home-stretch!
After reading and re-reading Mary’s feedback to me, I gathered a better idea for the voice, language, writing style, whatever you want to call it, needed to clarify my YA book from MG. For instance, Mary noted one of the biggest hitches in my writing was in over explanation of action/movement. She advised that often I did not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g., “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post.”
This made me chuckle, and feel slightly relieved, since I originally placed this sentence in my first ten pages because a beta reader suggested he needed to visualize the action. It wasn’t this action alone, however, that caused the distractions Mary pointed out.
For MG and YA, you don’t want to tell your reader what’s going on, but show them. Both MG and YA use commas and other punctuation to create tension, avoid fancy dialogue tags, and limit their use of unnecessary adverbs. So how can we decipher the difference between MG voice and YA? Easy – the complexity of the sentences.
Let’s see if I can help with some examples from my own writing…
MG: She shivered. The dark clouds worried her, hovering over the mountain like a shadow, waiting for the right moment to attack.
YA: Cold ran down her spine, causing her to shiver. She remembered what her father told her about the dark plumes over the mountain – how they would devour the city like a voracious monster, consuming everything and anyone in its path. Even silent shadows can reek of death.
See a difference?
It’s subtle, but evident. The complexity of the sentence makes a monstrous change. One is more innocent and simple, the other physical and internally focused – despite not being written in first person. I’ve spent a good amount of time revising my voice to read more like a YA, and subtle changes like this one have brought (and continue to do so) my writing to a new level.
Best advice I can give you, READ! Soak your brain with everything you can in your genre and pay attention to how these authors create tension between their sentences. With practice, you can turn something great into something immortal. Look at J.K. Rowling.
HARRY POTTER BOOK 1 v. HARRY POTTER BOOK 7
HARRY, BOOK 1: “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes. He turned his head in every direction as they walked up the street, trying to look at everything at once: the shops, the things outside them, the people doing their shopping.” (Chapter 5, pg. 56)
HARRY, BOOK 7: “‘Severus Snape?’ Mad-Eye Moody’s voice whispered out of the darkness, making all three of them jump back in fright. ‘We’re not Snape!’ croaked Harry, before something whooshed over him like cold air and his tongue curled backward on itself, making it impossible to speak.” (Ch. 9 p. 170)
And now it’s your turn to decide…MG or YA? Hope these thoughts help! Good luck! 🙂
Life After Lung Cancer: In Memory of Charlotte Forbes
I was a freshman in college when my best friend’s mother was diagnosed with Mesothelioma. She told me over the phone, washing out her words with tears. Her mother’s name was Charlotte Forbes, and she was like my second mother.
Charlotte was a courageous woman, and strong, and selfless. I think this is why she did not want my family visiting her in the hospital the sicker she got. My mother-in-law once told me about the time she visited her nephew before he died of cancer – how he looked defeated, withered into nothing but skin and bones and agony. She told me that he didn’t want anyone else in her family to see him like that, other than his mother and her – his mother’s sister – his aunt. Charlotte also didn’t want my family to see her like that.
The last memory I have of Charlotte is her walking through her front entrance. She couldn’t breathe, but she was too tough of a fighter to ask for a child’s help. So, she used what she had left of her breath to call out her husband’s name.
I remember him gliding across the living room, and tucking his fingers in her hand. I remember him guiding her up their curved staircase to her bedroom, in silence – him, carrying the weight she would allow him to hold. Each step they took, rippling love.
For a long time, that memory stuck in mind: how she held her arm out for her husband as she wheezed, how powerful her soft voice pierced the stagnant air. At first, I thought this memory stuck with me out of sadness and fear. I thought maybe I couldn’t let it go because all I could think about in that moment was how I should have run to help, I should have taken her arm, I should have told her how much I loved her, I should have told her she was brave.
I should have, but I didn’t.
Eight years later, I think I’ve started to realize something about that memory – something I didn’t realize before.
Charlotte didn’t want my family to visit her on those last days because there’s no point worrying about should-haves. When I think about it, that memory is actually quite precious. I can picture every detail of her face in it, and how her short hair curled inward towards her chin, and how she always sounded like a morning dove, and how much she loved her husband, and how much she loved her family – so much that she wouldn’t ask her daughter – or her daughter’s friend – for help up the stairs – to protect us, and how she protected all of us, and how she prayed for us when she was dying.
It’s those vivid details that I remember about Charlotte that dominate the tough memories at the end.
Looking back at it, I imagine in the hospital Charlotte felt the same way my mother-in-law’s nephew did before he left: she did not want us to see her in the hospital because she did not look like the woman I had known since I was seven.
Perhaps if I had seen her in that last month, my heart’s memory would have broken more than it inevitably did.
But, thanks to her resolute faith and never ending love and invincible courage, that is not what I remember about Charlotte Forbes.
This is what I remember:
- When I was seven, I worried too much about being cool and went along with another friend bullying my best friend – Charlotte’s daughter. When Charlotte called my mom to talk about, I blubbered into the phone, consumed by regret and guilt. Charlotte did not scold me on the phone, though. She told me we all make mistakes. She told me she forgave me. She told me so did God.
- She loved to work in her garden.
- Charlotte’s first child was not born handicapped, but suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that led to a disability. When the doctors told her that her son was nearly blind and might not even talk, she refused to believe it. She hung pots and pans on her wall and banged them until her son recognized noise. One of his favorite hobbies in life is now singing.
- She smiled with her lips closed – gentle, like her personality.
- She loved her family more than anything in the world. So much that she recorded what each family member was doing ever Friday night at eight p.m. She did this for twenty-seven years, up until the night before her death. Her family calls this The Friday Night List, which they carry today.
- One summer, all Charlotte wanted for her birthday was a kayak so she could kayak at a local lake and read her book on sunny days. Her family got it for her.
- She ran three miles a day.
- The angriest Charlotte ever got at my friend was after we drew smiley faces on our bellies during a sleepover. We got ink on the carpet and she shook her finger at my friend after I went home. She never yelled.
- Charlotte loved Four Seas Ice Cream in Cape Cod – she told me after I got a shirt from there – her face lit up when she said it.
- One time she let one of her son’s paint his bedroom – half way through he painted in big letters HI MUM – that’s what her children called her. I always thought that was cool, special, like all of them.
- Charlotte and my mom would switch off weeks to drive my friend and me to horseback riding classes – she always had a book to read for the two hours.
- Charlotte always looked like she floated on a cloud when she walked, joyful and at peace.
- There was a woman whose family didn’t treat her well on my street, so Charlotte drove her on her errands, cleaned her yard, among some of the many things she did to help this woman.
- When she hugged you, she hugged you.
- She loved with all her mind, all her heart, and all her soul. No matter who you were, she found goodness.
- She raised one of the best people I know, and my life is better because of it.
- She was so much bigger than cancer. It will never kill the beauty – the kindness – she brought to this world.
Charlotte Forbes – and the Forbes family – are a main reason why I am running the Boston Marathon this year. If you know or have known anyone with lung cancer – or any cancer – please help me support families who fought or are fighting this battle.
You can donate to my fundraising page on the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge, raising money for cancer research as I train for The Boston Marathon on April 17, 2017!
Programs like this are one of the reasons oncology patients and their families have hope. Let’s conquer cancer & thank you for your support!
Happy sharing & Thanks for Spreading the Love
– A. K. Perry
If you have a story about a cancer patient you’d like to feature on my blog, please contact me at akperrybooks@. I’ll post your blog on my site, and together we can share amazing stories to help Color to a Cure!
All rejected writers have heard it before: I need you to show me, not tell me. I’ve heard it too, though not explicitly, from the few readers I’ve asked to edit my manuscript. Seems like a simple concept to fix, don’t you think?
On the outer surface, sure, I’d agree with that. But then I went to look at my work and realized I needed to do some serious research before revising my “telling” sentences.
After all, what’s the point in re-wording my work if I didn’t understand the root cause holding me back?
HOW TO SHOW, NOT TELL
First, let’s look at two major problems my manuscript readers noticed, as pointed out by agent Mary C. Moore.
- One of the biggest hitches in your writing is the over explanation of action/movement. Often you do not need to fill in every action a character takes, e.g. “he dismounted the horse and walked him over to a fence post,” or “He spun around so he faced forward.” These are all filler actions that slow the pace and are unnecessary to the central plot.
Perfect examples of when I would “tell” what was going on in my story v. “showing” my reader, a.k.a. spoon-feeding, my reader the story. A definite no-no!
Readers don’t want to be spoon-fed. If they can’t visualize the story, why waste time reading it?
That’s right, I said waste. I don’t want to write the book a reader puts down and thinks, eh, not worth it. I want them to imagine the world I’ve created and experience the adventure my characters take on, encouraging them to re-read – not throw away.
The question, then, is how do we do avoiding telling? Let’s look at problem two first.
- The dialogue tags are too fancy (She squealed, He reassured, They bellowed). These are distracting and take away from the dialogue. The dialogue itself should give the emotion, not the tag.
This was an ah-ha moment for me in my writing. Oh crap, I thought. I only do that…everywhere.
Well, one more reason why revising is so important!
Distracting speech tags like the ones mentioned are cliché and unnecessary. The word said (what they tell you NOT to write in elementary school) is really the magic tag. Why?
Because any other word is distracting, and unnecessary adverbs used to spice up “said” only tell me something about a character’s voice or feelings instead of show me something about them.
For example, instead of saying:
“Get out!” he bellowed.
I could say: “Get out!” he said, throwing his hands over his head, grinding his teeth and spitting in the boy’s face.
See the difference? The second one gives me a lot more about how “he” reacts to the situation, which the dialogue supports, instead of the other way around.
WRITING WITH THE FIVE SENSES
Okay, now that I’d figured out the difference between my stronger “showing” writing v. my original “telling” style, I set out to fix those issues in my manuscript (time to tackle problem one).
A daunting task, maybe, if I hadn’t done some research on the five senses and the six universal emotions that all people feel, according to psychological studies reviewed by Cornell University, writer @ChuckSambuchino, and articles from the websites Humintell & novel-writing help.
What are the five senses and how do I write them?
Writers Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino mentions how there isn’t anything “more boring in real life than being told all about someone you’ve never met.” A good point, and an honest one that helps differentiate showing v. telling in writing.
Yes, we do need to provide some exposition and backstory in novels, but too much will bore the reader. Developing tension, delivering natural dialogue, and showing expressions & actions, however, can improve the quality of your sentences.
The easiest way to do this?
Understanding exactly what the five senses are, as well as the six universal emotions that all people feel, and will relate to, if described in a novel.
THE FIVE SENSES:
THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS: i.e. – the emotions everyone feels & understands
Next, put these concepts into writing:
The easiest and, therefore, most commonly used by writers. In other words, the culprit of telling v. showing writing if you only write visuals, painting pictures of appearances of people, places, etc., without triggering the other four senses in the reader. For instance,
His hair looked black v. His matted hair ruffled in the wind, black and furious like a valiant soldier charging forward in the heat of battle.
Yes, it is nice to know the character’s hair is black, but remember…we don’t want to spoon-feed information to our readers. The second example mentions the hair is black, too, but indicates sound (ruffling of wind), touch (wind against your face), and other senses (when you think about it). If I was a reader, I’m buying the book with sentence two. Wouldn’t you?
Smell, without a doubt, is the best trigger of nostalgic memories, giving the reader a greater connection to a character’s internal thoughts…without telling them about them. Using smell can help the reader relive the backstory of a character through flashbacks without black & white descriptions of what happened (boring!).
For me, it’s the smell of grapes. Can you smell them better with sentence two v. sentence one?
She walked through the vineyard. v. The sweet, musty scent of the grapes falling off the deciduous vines reminded her of her grandpa, teaching her how to suck the juice out of the fruit without eating the skin – a tricky advantage. She smiled a half-smile, missing him.
Sound, like in movies, can make or break the tension lingering in a moment. We all know the awkward silence on a date (absence of sound can be just as entertaining as sound effects), the boom of an explosion, the crackle of the fire…see what I’m getting at? It’s not the adjective you’re looking for when writing sound into your painted sentences, it’s verbs…and smart ones – the choices everyone can identify because they’ve heard them before. Take a typical action like walking a dog…
The dog walked down the street. v. I trotted behind Rocky, pounding my feet against the pavement in a rhythm that patterned the jingle of his collar and the pant of his tongue. No friend accompanied me on a summer morning like my dog.
Nothing brings people together like food. It comforts us, it satisfies us, it sometimes even fills the voids in our emotions, lifting our spirits on a bad day or making the night a tad more romantic. Sometimes you don’t even need to mention what a character tastes to help the reader understand what their character’s tongue senses. Just mention the word tongue – people can imagine what the character tastes because, fun fact, we all eat! For example…
She dove into the ocean. v. She opened her lips, washing her tongue with a mouthful of salt water.
Notice how I didn’t mention the character was in the ocean in the second sentence? Do you think you would imagine her in the sea if you hadn’t read the first sentence…well…first?
Touch. No sense can replace it. Especially not sight. Recently, I learned of a friend-of-a-friend who discovered her 5-week baby boy is completely deaf and potentially blind. Can you imagine, a mother who coos to her newborn son hour after loving hour, learning her sweet baby has never heard her voice? Maybe never even seen her? It’s horrific, the idea. But all people can touch. And if this baby is blind and deaf, he can feel the warmth of his mother when she holds him and the thump of her heart beating against his head when he lies on her chest. Drumming him into his dreamworld of nightingales and fairies. Isn’t that a brighter description than The deaf baby lay on his mother’s chest?
Last but not least, don’t forget THE SIXTH SENSE (a very powerful sense that peeks into the character’s psyche, if your novel focuses on a world with supernatural beings).
THE SEVEN UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS
If you’ve made it this far, there’s a chance (though I hope not!) that your stomach is grumbling or the goop in your drooping eyes is growing thicker, making you sleepier. So I’ll make this snappy – my last suggestion that helped me revise my writing, making it more descriptive!
According to All Things Workplace: “There are 10,000 different facial expressions. About 3,000 of these facial expressions are relevant to emotion and most people only use 50-60 in normal conversation.” Good to know, but telling a reader how these 10,000 facial expressions look on your character’s face is not enough to entertain the reader trying to imagine (and experience!) your novel’s adventure.
Want to know how to change that? Less is more, my friend. Out of those 10,000 facial expressions, seven are universally felt, indicating clear changes in emotions by slight facial muscle movements. Below, I’ve provided Cornell University’s study of the subtle changes in muscle movement (indicating these emotions through facial expressions) with the help of my oh-so-lovely (bear with me, no extravagant makeup on today!) photo collage, demonstrating the subtle differences with visual examples. What are they?
|EMOTIONS||MOTION CUES (muscle movement)|
|Happiness||Raising and lowering of mouth corners|
|Sadness||Lowering of mouth corners, raising inner portion of brows, eyelids loose|
|Anger||Brows lowered, lips pressed firmly (margins of lips may be pulled in) or teeth bared, eyes bulging|
|Disgust||Upper lip pulled up, nose bridge is wrinkled, cheeks raised, eyebrows pulled down|
|Fear||Eyebrows pulled up and together, upper eyelids pulled up, mouth stretched (opened slightly)|
|Surprise||Entire eyebrows pulled up, eyelids pulled up (expose more white of the eye), mouth hangs open|
|Contempt||Eyes neutral, lip corner pulled up and back on one side only (contempt is the only unilateral expression)|
Can You Tell Which is Which?
Were You Right?
Why do you think understanding the seven universal emotions matters? Because we all feel them! And if your character feels them, your reader can imagine how they feel, too! Understanding how a character would look when they feel one of these emotions is crucial to writing sight, but (Do I have to say it again? If you insist.) don’t tell what their facial expression looks like alone. Our faces might be the focus of our appearances, but it’s all of our senses & shared emotions that help us connect with a novel’s characters on a different level.
Don’t write: She felt angry. (Way too vague!)
Write: Rage boiled inside her stomach, heating the inside of her throat as she restrained the screams scrapping her diaphragm, begging to escape. She pressed her lips firmly into each other, narrowing her eyebrows and shaking, like the cover on a pot containing boiling water, rattling against the metal until steam popped it off. My mom was not someone you messed with when she was angry.
Well there you go, some sense and emotion pointers to help you write descriptions that SHOW (NOT TELL)! Hope it helps! I would love to hear your comments and any other thoughts you have on writing…with all five senses!