Tag Archives: Writer’s Digest

Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? Continue reading

Beta Readers Rock

Over this past summer, friends gave me these comments on the draft of a new YA novel:

Jane Westrick, Untitled (detail), 2007

“I’m confused here. Are the characters sitting? Standing? Walking?”
“What is his motivation for doing this?”
“I don’t understand whether he sees his father as a hard-ass or a nurturing figure.”
“I can’t quite picture this character.”

These and other comments were unbelievably helpful! In some cases, I had quick fixes. A sentence here, a paragraph there. In others, I had to step back and rethink a scene or remind myself of the character’s motivation for doing what he did. But before friends called my attention to these spots, I didn’t perceive the problems.

Beta-reader-feedback is huge because authors totally fail at identifying all the places that aren’t working. Places where we “tell” instead of “show.” Places where we’re too abrupt. Or too wordy. Or use a metaphor that doesn’t work. Or whatever. These are the places that pull readers out of a story, and that need additional time, focus, and polish.

Last year I made the mistake of showing my agent a draft before it was ready, and this year I’m learning to be patient. The very act of circulating a draft requires tons of patience! I have to let go of my manuscript for months at a time, and the letting-go drives me crazy. Of course, I can work on a new story while a draft is out, and I can turn to projects people have paid me to focus on. But I have to admit that when one of my drafts is circulating, it feels as if my heart is circulating, too.

Agent Ted Weinstein

Agent Ted Weinstein

You’ve heard this adage before, and it’s worth hearing again, so here it is in the words of literary agent Ted Weinstein (not my agent, by the way; I just enjoyed reading this article in Writer’s Digest): There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing and revising and revising again.

Getting and responding to early-reader feedback is essential, and today I want to say, thank you.

Thank you to all of my early readers. Thank you to all the writers who participate in critique groups and take the time to read and encourage friends to polish their manuscripts before submitting to an agent or editor. It takes forever, I know! But the process is essential. And if you’re like me, you’re engaged in this writing gig for the sake of the process, anyway, right? (Okay, so there are other reasons, too, but process is big.) Polishing can make the difference between publication and not. Getting (and giving) beta-reader feedback is worth the time.

Guys Painting

Jane Westrick, Untitled, 37 in x 32 in, oil on canvas, 2007

P.S. – A huge thank you to visual artist (and daughter) Jane Westrick for permission to include her art in this post.

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means

What does “show, don’t tell” really mean, anyway?

Last week Chuck Sambuchino posted my article “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” on his Writer’s Digest blog, Guide to Literary Agents, and one of my seven things was this:

Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.

Here’s an example of a moment in Brotherhood, in which I don’t tell the reader what to feel. Instead, I describe what the character hears. What you need to know is that it’s dark and Shad is standing alone on a street corner, having trouble seeing through the little eyeholes in his Klan garb:

The closer the men got to Shad, the slower their footsteps. He heard caution in their feet, heard the pitch of their voices drop from easy to hushed. They’d seen him, and they were working out what to do, whether to approach, how wide of a berth to give him.

What would you feel if that were you in the dark on that street corner? Here are two more scenes. Read these snippets and enter into these moments and see what emotions come up inside you:

Nicholas Bullen’s hand silences me again. Long fingers for a man his size, I notice; they’d look even longer if he wore a smaller ring. I imagine that hand closing around my throat, squeezing the words back into my belly. I realize I am stretching my neck as if inviting him to do this. As if I deserve punishment. (From A Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal.)

…[I] drop to my knees. I know a sharp piece of stone has just ripped through my tembon, my knee is likely bleeding, but I can barely feel it… I lean one arm in front of me and hold my head down. I can feel the sun striking the back of my neck as sweat drips into my clothing. I dry heave… (From the advance reader copy of The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi; this novel will be released on Sept. 2, 2014.)


When characters feel something, they act. They do stuff. They move. Their physical bodies reflect the emotions that they feel, and it’s the writer’s job not to name the emotion but to describe the physicality. Showing it rather than telling it invites the reader to feel it.

People often ask where I get my story ideas, and I say ideas are over-rated. I can get totally caught up in ideas—so deep inside my own head, so full of thoughts—that when I try to turn them into a story, my writing quickly becomes idea-heavy, sensory-light and I tell rather than show. I’ve had to learn to let go of ideas and write sensory details, instead.

I’ve learned a bunch of other stuff, too, and on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog you can read the rest of my “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far.” There’s also a giveaway of Brotherhood going on until Feb. 5. (Leave a comment on Chuck’s blog, The Guide to Literary Agents for a chance to win a signed copy.)

Meanwhile, notice the spots in your own writing where you identify emotions by name and think of those as placeholders, waiting for you to return and revise with action and sensory details.