Writing Tips

Writing Tip 20: Show don't tell.

By: Belinda Aycrigg

They say show don’t tell…

A complete fledging in the world of novel writing, my first tentative attempt, as Siobhan Harvey my mentor at AUT pointed out, did not even merit the label 'first draft'. It was simply extended notes, strung like Christmas lights from one plot point to the next. The next draft was not much better, certainly not eligible to be entered for a Masters degree.

            After a brief freak out, it was back to the drawing board for an intense marathon to get the thing nailed within the already extended timeframe. Eventually it was time for the final verdict. With some trepidation, I entered Siobhan's study and sat watching her face for tell tale signs… But… Hallelujah! She smiled! This time my fledgling novel was deemed, if not brilliant, at least adequate. I leapt out of my chair and almost flung my arms around my poor mentor (who to be fair had given much of her summer holidays to reading my tome).

            So what made the difference?

            I remember Siobhan with a pained look on her face, previously pleading with me to expand my notes; there was far too much telling. What I needed to do was focus on individual episodes, anchoring the story to reality, to specifics, to particular events revealed by the actions and interactions of the characters. I needed to expand my telling into full blow- by- blow scenes. I needed to show not tell.

            My initial attempt at this, as a playwright, produced scenes chock full of dialogue. The page looked more like a play script, with the addition of innumerable 'said's. It was a start however and I discovered that opening up a scene by recording specifics, by anchoring it to action even if it was only verbal action at first, already made a huge difference. Now the dialogue needed to be interspersed frequently with physical action and concrete specifics of what was happening right there in the scene, in minute detail. This last created a quantum leap in the development of the story.

            On reflection, I realise that show don't tell is not just about describing the story more vividly for the reader. Showing the scene, actually getting down and immersing myself in the specific moment by moment happenings of a scene, has an almost mystical effect; a certain alchemy occurs almost like baking bread, whereby the result is something altogether transformed from the ingredients initially mixed in the pan. Then it's not about getting from one plot point to another. Then the story and the characters take themselves off down creative avenues that I hadn't anticipated…



Writing Tip 19: Modern words in Fantasy/Historic novels

Someone pointed out to me that George Lucas spent some time making CGI Geese looking like birds because there are no geese in space. 

Immediately, my thought was... "Why did they say "We're sitting like ducks," in previous movies?"

How do these people know what ducks look like, and what ducks do, when they don't know what a goose is? Are there ducks in space but no goose? 

Of course, if they said "We're sitting like <insert alien bird here>" the audience won't get the meaning at all. 

It may seem quite trivial, but it can be that one thing that pulls your readers our of your world. 

You don't want to see a modern word in a historical setting, or fantasy setting because it will shatter your suspension of belief. 

You also don't want to use slangs or "hip" phrases.  

E.g: You wouldn't have someone say "Yolo" in a historical setting, would you? Or "dude" or "I pity the fool" before Mr T's time? 

If you're unsure of the usage and where it originated from, online dictionaries usually can tell you when the word was used, and how popular it was. Be aware of idioms. While the words itself were invented before your book setting, the way it's used, may be modern. 

E.g: A friend of mine had trouble because she wrote 'falling in love' and that phrase was invented after her novel...

You can also use slang online dictionaries, which give you a rough time they were used as well.

If you really can't find it, then don't use it. Or if you're writing a fantasy novel, make your own! Make it so it also builds the world! 

Wrapping up:

If you're writing a historic fiction: it's best to look up words for their use in the period you're using. Words change meaning over time, and you don't want to be caught out using the modern version. (See: Awesome, Terrific etc)

If you're writing fantasy fiction: it's best to establish a rule. Do you have ducks in your world? 
you wouldn't really use "Jesus Christ" as a swear word unless the residents in your world know who Jesus Christ is, and how that swear word came about. Why not use a swear word that defiles a religious person in your world? (My favorite was always "Andraste's dimpled buttcheeks" in the Dragon Age world) 
Or use a word that sounds like our swearword like in Battle Star Galactica, where they use "Frak" in place of... you know which word I'm talking about. 

Happy writing!

Writing Tip 17: Formatting Dialogue


Basic formatting issues around dialogue bothered me alot when I was first writing because I did not always understand the rule. Understanding basic formatting rules around dialogue can really help the flow of writing.


1.      Always indent the line for new speaker even if the line is the beginning of a new section or chapter.

2.      Always put punctuation marks inside the quote marks

3.      Always put a comma before he said/she said.


“I'm here,” jack said.


1.      Actions can replace speech in dialogue and justify their own lines.

“Are you coming?” asked Jack.

Susan shook her head.

“Well you are missing out,” he said.


1.      Sometimes you don't have to say he said/she said if you pair it with an action. This also makes the dialogue more interesting.

“Are you coming?” Jack opened the door.

Susan shook her head.

“Well you are missing out,” he said.


1.      The american system for dialogue uses double quote marks “”. the British system uses single ‘’.

“Im American,” Jack said.

‘I’m British,’ Susan said.


1.      When writing a quotation within quotation use single if you are using the american system and double if using the british system.

“What did she tell you?” Jack asked.

“She said, ‘Jack’s a nice guy,’” said Susan.




‘What did she tell you?’ Jack asked.

‘She said, “Jack’s a nice guy,”’ said Susan.

Writing tip 16: A reflection on genre, part 2: Realism Rules



Eleanor Catton: What if The Luminarieswas set in the future?

Eleanor Catton: What if The Luminarieswas set in the future?

Imagine that The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton was not set in NZ’s past but in a post-apocalyptic future. Same character set, same writing skills, same story but adapted. Not only would it not have won a Booker, it would probably not have been published in the first place.

Why is this? Why should one genre be privileged over another? Because serious writers deal with the real world, not imaginary worlds. The past is an aspect of the real. It happened. It has been documented. Stories can be woven from it. The future, on the other hand, is unreal. It hasn’t happened yet. It is speculative. The same applies to parallel worlds and any fantasy worlds: they don’t exist. In contrast to the past they are unreal, and therefore hardly worthy of our attention. Why bother with silly fantasies when you can write about real things?

And so literary snobbery is born, and judgements are made on the basis of what is real and what is not. Or rather, shouldn’t that be, what is perceived to be real?

Did this same realism not usher in the great age of subjective literature in which reality itself is swallowed within a character’s point of view?

Germaine Greer: Tolkien’s preeminence was her nightmare.

Germaine Greer: Tolkien’s preeminence was her nightmare.

Mainstream literature does not necessarily see itself as just another genre. It may see itself as above and beyond genre. Genre is identified with escapism, shallowness, pulp: the writing of such works is at heart a childish pastime. The real world is for real, grown-up writers; the rest is just wish fulfilment. The modernist reaction to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings exemplifies that attitude. “Juvenile balderdash” thundered the American critic Edmund Wilson from his high castle of modernism  (see: “Oo, those awful Orcs“), and in 1961 Philip Toynbee wrote, somewhat prematurely, that it had ‘passed into a merciful oblivion.’ Although she had never read The Lord of the Rings, Germaine Greer wrote: “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century. The bad dream has materialized.” (citation lacking for this quote)

The real world is for real, grown up writers; the rest is just wish fulfilment.

This conflict between the realists and the fabulists is not new. Despite literature’s deep roots in myth, legend, fairy-tale, scripture and dream, the realist drive quickly attempted to establish itself as the norm: declare itself to be ‘the mainstream’. In 1846, Belinsky (the Edmund Wilson of his day) commented on Dostoevsky’s second novel: ‘[The Double] suffers from another important defect: its fantastic setting. In our day the fantastic can have a place only in madhouses, but not in literature, being the business of doctors, not poets.’ Quoted in Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky – A writer in his time. So, even this early on we have the argument in a nutshell: you are either a realist or you are insane.

So, even this early on we have the argument in a nutshell: you are either a realist or you are insane.
Dostoevsky: Belonged in a madhouse?

Dostoevsky: Belonged in a madhouse?

While ideological differences may lurk beneath the surface of the realist versus the fabulist approach to writing, I suspect that it has a lot to do with the varying personalities of the writers. In the same way, some writers will write only from their own experience and others will not. If it weren’t for the often mutual intolerance, we might be able to simply celebrate the great diversity of styles and approaches that constitute fiction.

If it weren’t for the often mutual intolerance, we might be able to simply celebrate the great diversity of styles and approaches that constitute fiction.


But is literary realism itself a contrivance? Certainly, attempts to define it raise more questions than they answer. Here’s a typical attempt by Wikipedia: “Literary realism, in contrast to idealism, attempts to represent familiar things as they are. Realist authors chose to depict everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of using a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.”

This definition is besieged with problems. What does it mean to ‘represent familiar things as they are? Doesn’t that mean, as they appear (to the protagonist) to be?

The case of the novelist Mark Twain illustrates a few of the problems of identifying realism. Here is a quote from an online literature site.  “In America, Samuel Clemens was the early pioneer of realism. Writing under the pen name Mark Twain, he was noteworthy for his faithful reproduction of vernacular speech patterns and vocabulary.”

This sounds all well and good, but it is not true. While I no longer have the references for this, linguists who studied the language in Huckleberry Finn concluded that it could not be attributed to any particular geographical place and time, but is rather a composite, an abstraction of the kind of language spoken along the Mississippi in that era. In other words, no one ever actually spoke that way, it was just very clever artifice. This celebrated realism was a carefully crafted illusion. The same applies to the characters. The character Huck Finn is a generalisation, an abstraction, a typical or representative character, no more real than Luke Skywalker of the Stars Wars movies. The more carefully crafted the illusion, the more realistic the effect. I suspect that much of what we call realism is of this kind: an illusion so convincing we take it to be real.

In other words, no one ever actually spoke that way, it was just very clever artifice. This celebrated realism was a carefully crafted illusion.


The winds in Chicago, are tearing me to shreds
reality as always, has too many heads.
— Bob Dylan, Cold Irons Bound, 1997.

In David Cronenberg’s 2012 film Cosmopolis after a novel by Don DeLillo, the main character’s chief theorist (played by Samantha Morton) says, ‘The problem with the contemporary is that it is just far too…. contemporary.’

That just about sums it up. Reality itself seems to have made certain genre choices in the past twenty or thirty years, and these changes are rapidly outflanking literary realism.

That just about sums it up. Reality itself seems to have made certain genre choices in the past twenty or thirty years, and these changes are rapidly outflanking literary realism.

Reality itself seems to have made certain genre choices in the past twenty or thirty years, and these changes are rapidly outflanking literary realism.

The world is becoming a Science Fiction story with distinctly dystopian overtones, and underpinned by a Dostoevskian irrationalism. The real has become lurid. The real has become fantastic. The real has become irreal.

To begin with, we have woken up to discover that we have been terraforming our planet by altering the balance of gasses in the atmosphere. Unlike the SF stories of the 1950s and 60s however, we are not terraforming a barren planet to make it habitable, but taking a habitable planet and making it barren.

Unlike the SF stories of the 1950s and ’60s however, we are not terraforming a barren planet to make it habitable, but taking a habitable planet and making it barren.

This apocalypse is upon us right now, and will only intensify over the coming decades as we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the air. This is no fantasy, but attested by a full 98% of earth scientists as surveyed: we are heating the planet, and the results are already, and increasingly will be, catastrophic, despite the calming lies we are told. This is the territory explored by SF writer Kim Stanley Robinson in his SF worlds, worlds caught in rapid climate change.

Kim Stanley Robinson: explores climate change in his novels

Kim Stanley Robinson: explores climate change in his novels

At the same time, in this same world, the surveillance society has reached levels beyond that imagined by Huxley in his futuristic 1984, because he couldn’t have conceived of the technology now available, and the enormous sophistication of brainwashing techniques now being employed.

In this SF scenario world we face the death of our oceans from plastic pollution, the sixth and most drastic extinction event across all species in the history of the planet, as well as increasing volatility and instability of weather patterns. In the face of these realities we have to say that all literature is now post-apocalyptic.

In the face of these realities we have to say that all literature is now post-apocalyptic.

Since the apocalypse is already happening, or has already happened depending on where you live and which species you belong to, and the Long Emergency has begun, all writing takes place in the context of this meta-reality.

If it cannot accommodate the bizarre nature of modern reality, the Mainstream could well become a kind of nostalgic cult literature in which characters live their lives as if none of this were happening, and suburbia might live on in its dream of time forever.

The Mainstream could well become a kind of nostalgic cult literature in which characters live their lives as if none of this were happening.

Watch for Part 3: Realism and nation building.

Writing tip 15: A reflection on genre, part 1: It’s a fuzzy old universe.


Susan Sontag: ‘We need fiction to stretch our world.’

Susan Sontag: ‘We need fiction to stretch our world.’

This post is less of a writing tip than the first of two reflections on the nature of genre and the issues at stake for writers. If there is any simple message here, it is that you have to follow the story where it leads and not be constricted by external notions of genre. This is the great age of cross-genre fertilisation, if not genre meltdown. Let your story be your guide, and don’t get cold feet if you start to push boundaries. Remember what boundary pushing Susan Sontag said: ‘We need fiction to stretch our world.’ Stretch our categories, not harden them.


As soon as you put pen to paper you are evoking, whether you know it or not, the specter of genre. When it comes to fiction especially, you can’t escape genre, but even before we get that far, we may still run into trouble with the ‘g’ word.

Is the distinction between fiction and non-fiction itself sustainable? What about those ‘fictionalised autobiographies?’ and what about Lyn Hejinian’s My Life? Is that prose or poetry or what? And, as interestingly, what about Jamaica Kincaid’s short piece of writing entitledGirl, which is both the opening chapter of the novel At the Bottom of the River, (1983) and appears in the volume The Next American Essay(2003) as an essay? In this case, it seems, the same piece of writing can be seen as either fiction or non-fiction depending on the context. The editor of The Next American Essay, in his introduction to Girlcomments: ‘Or: maybe the essay is just a conditional form of literature – less a genre in its own right than an attitude.’ (p 41)

Jamaica Kincaid: essay or fiction? Or maybe a prose poem.

Jamaica Kincaid: essay or fiction? Or maybe a prose poem.

Even our most fundamental distinctions don’t bear too close an examination. After all, we could claim, especially in the light of modern research, that memory may be seen as another form of the imagination. In other words, memory can be viewed as another form of fiction, so what is the difference between your ‘true’ story and my ‘made-up’ one? Even cookbooks, those fine exemplars of non-fiction, can be as extravagant as a work of magic realism, or as speculative as futuristic fiction.

However, if we negotiate these questions successfully and decide we have a work of fiction on our hands rather than a cookbook, we are far from being out of the woods.


Some writers have no problem because they consciously and deliberately write in a particular fictional genre for that market, and can do very well out of it. Writers of romance novels and thrillers, if they are good, have a sure grasp of the conventions that govern that genre, conventions recognised and expected by the reader.

For other writers, the issue may not be so simple, as they might be bending genres, or, increasingly, mixing genres. Or simply writing a story without any thought about genre. These mixed genre or genre-bending novels are a headache for a publisher, who has genre categories based on sales, and bookshops are, or at least have been, organised along genre lines – as are libraries. Whatever you write is going to be categorised and placed on a shelf somewhere, you hope. I heard of a New Zealand writer whose novel was accepted for publication; it was then marketed as a thriller when the writer did not intend it to be, nor did the writer intend to be ‘marked’ as a thriller writer. Being ‘marked’ as a genre writer is a serious business, as you may not be able to escape that initial genre marking into the imagined ‘wider market.’

PKD: Rejection by the mainstream left a legacy of bitterness.

PKD: Rejection by the mainstream left a legacy of bitterness.

The case of the SF writer Philip K Dick is illuminating in a scary sort of way. In the 1950’s he wrote eight non-SF novels, studies of small town America reminiscent of the work of Wyndham Lewis. These little gems were rejected by publishers at the time because PKD had already been ‘marked’ as a SF writer, and the publishing establishment was not going to let him out of the SF ghetto, as it was perceived. The big irony is that since the author’s death, and in the light of his growing fame, these rejected novels have been published in fancy literary editions.

If PKD couldn’t make it out of the ghetto of SF into the golden acres of mainstream, note that the prohibition does not go the other way. Established mainstream writers like Cormack McCarthy and Margaret Atwood can write SF and never see their books leave the mainstream shelves. You won’t find McCarthy’s The Road or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the SF shelves of your local bookshop or library, even though they are in every respect SF novels, written because SF, with its capacity to extrapolate contemporary trends, is an ideal vehicle for social criticism; an understanding that dates back at least as far as HG Wells. Readers who might turn their literary noses up at ‘science fiction’ will praise The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, for those very extrapolative elements that make the work distinctively science fiction.

A science fiction novel in the mainstream shelves

A science fiction novel in the mainstream shelves


On the other hand, you won’t find PKD’s Mary and Giant, or Gather Yourselves Together on the mainstream shelves, but still ghettoised over there in the SF section if at all. (Sorry Phil, ultimately there is no escape.)

A mainstream novel in the science fiction shelves

A mainstream novel in the science fiction shelves


The perception that not all genres are equal in the eyes of publishers is certainly sharpened when we consider the New Zealand scene. All major NZ publishers of fiction (all two remaining now!) state in their submission guidelines that they do not publish ‘Science Fiction.’ In this context the term ‘Science Fiction’ covers a multitude of literary sins, including fantasy, speculative fiction, futuristic fiction, magical realism (if it’s too magical), and in particular post-apocalyptic fiction.

The exception that proves the rule

The exception that proves the rule

There are doubtless good commercial reasons behind this prohibition, but without a doubt it is selective, aimed at a particular set of genres and subgenres. Historical fiction, for example, may be considered ‘mainstream’ so long as it is not historical romance. This admission of historical fiction into the hallowed halls of the canon is reflective of the wider, global literary value system. Our very own prize-winning Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is a historical novel. No futuristic, SF or fantasy novel has ever won the Man Booker prize. Or any thriller to my knowledge. The only example I can think of is Philip Pullman who won the Whitbread literary prize for a young adult fantasy, The Amber Spyglass, a decision that drew much comment at the time and is very much the exception that proves the rule.

Why one genre should be elevated over another is a mystery worthy of unraveling, and has much to do with our notions of ‘realism.’ Realism rules, or has done. That will be the subject of my next writing tip.

Janet Frame: Did she or didn’t she write SF?

Janet Frame: Did she or didn’t she write SF?

In the meantime, however, it occurs to me that, in my country at least, the ‘publishing wall’ against ‘SF’ has put a dampener on what I would call extrapolative fiction. Paradoxically, our most revered Janet Frame was one of the most profoundly extrapolative writers in the world, her work laced with SF elements, and yet ‘the wall’ has worked against the subsequent emergence of a Margaret Atwood or a David Mitchell, in this country. Or indeed another Janet Frame.

Writing tip 14. More on Immersion: Looking anew

The following should be read as an afterthought to the previous Writing Tip 12, Writing as Immersion.

Consider this statement from the 17th Century Japanese poet Basho:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.

With Basho, the technique of immersion, proposed by Ted Hughes, is carried to its extreme in a Buddhist no-mind, no-self, meditative exercise. Just replace the word ‘poetry’ with the word ‘writing’, the replace ‘object’ with ‘subject matter’ and the wider implications of Basho’s comment becomes clear.

In the 1920s the quantum physicists realized that to study something was to change it, the very act of study bringing an alternation to that being studied. Basho’s advice prefigures that insight. If we want to know something we need to get ourselves out of it as far as we can, otherwise we end up in an echo chamber of our own thoughts and folly.

For the fiction writer, a step in this direction is to imagine or visualize a scene or thing from your character’s p.o.v, or more than one character’s p.o.v.

You don’t have to be a Buddist monk to appreciate Basho’s point, and apply his advice. A wonderful writing exercise can come out this.

Here’s a couple of Basho’s famous haikus translated by Robert Hass…

Don’t imitate me
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.
A caterpillar
this deep in fall
still not a butterfly.

…and a final quote:

When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.
— Matsuo Basho
Basho’s narrow road to the deep north…? Photo by National Geographic

Basho’s narrow road to the deep north…? Photo by National Geographic

Writing Tip 13: Language and Vision: Turning Sand into Glass


Consider this wonderful piece of writing by Annie Dillard on the creative disjunction between what we conceive and what we write, between the vision and the actuality. A disjunction that often crushes us as writers because we don’t understand that it is not a personal failing (‘I’m a crap writer!’), but goes with the territory – and may be what drives us on to do better.

Anne Dillard 1 –

Anne Dillard

Anne Dillard

This is not about the hopelessness of our vision, we must have the vision, it is about the hopefulness of the words, this changeling that ‘steals our hearts.Language cannot be taken for granted, is what she is saying. Words will not naturally fall into place in accord with our vision. The marvel that is the vision is quite beyond words. How inconvenient! How frustrating!

Language is not inherently transparent; it has to be worked on, massaged, cultivated, courted. A good sentence is the outcome of a successful negotiation with chaos.

We want the reader to look past the language to the story, the action, the character, whatever, but as writers we can’t do that. We can’t look past the language; we have to make the language like that for the reader. Here the difference between the reader and writer is like between a driver and a mechanic. The driver of a car assumes he can take the workings of the motor for granted. The mechanic has no such reassurance.

If we try to look past the language, or around the language, to the marvelous vision shining in our minds, we will come a cropper.

Like a kink in a rug, our language will trip us up. Every time. The wrong word, comma in the wrong place destroying the rhythm, phrases in the wrong place in the sentence mangling the meaning, a weak verb, an ambiguous construction, a sentence that won’t end… it goes on and on.

To start writing is to confront opacity.

‘The page always wins’, Dillard says, because language always wins. The words are all we are left with: a few things flung clear.

Getting the right words involves tuning your ear to the rhythms of language, and to your own unique time signatures.

A sentence is like a film shot, a camera angle. The audience hardly notices, or shouldn’t notice, (unless there’s some fancy camera work) but the shots are the moment-to-moment substance of the film. In good movies each shot is carefully thought through. So it is with sentences.

As Dillard says, you cannot render the vision, which is not of this world, into the world, but something even more marvelous may happen…


Happy Writing.

Writing Tip 12: Writing as Immersion. On Keats’ Negative Capability and Related Matters


Why do I write fiction? I don’t know. It may be because identity itself is a fiction, and so fiction becomes and endless exploration of identity, or even creation of that identity.

Consider this quote:

Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves. Like magic.
— Ted Hughes
John Keats

John Keats

Ted Hughes is suggesting that we have to leave behind who we are, or think we are, to become that which we create. Keats called this the ‘negative capability’, that ability of a writer to efface themselves in the creation of their characters and their worlds. Keats cited Shakespeare as a prime example. Famously, Shakespeare cannot be located in any particular character; Shakespeare is everywhere and nowhere in the text. It all breaks down to multiple and contending points of view.

Our identities are far less fixed, and much more malleable than we ever suspected. Particularly fluid is the relationship between memory and the imagination. ‘Memory is Mother of the Imagination,’ says Coleridge, but it may go deeper than that. They may be so inextricably intertwined that there’s no telling one from the other.

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes

When I write, I can release the fiction of myself and be many people at once, from one passage to the next, and, in the case of poetry, one line from the next. Is the person finishing a poem the same one that started it? It doesn’t matter; the joy is in the movement, not the fixing.

So, to return to the Ted Hughes quote, the practical advice that arises from this is to write by intensely visualising whatever happening on the page. See it and hear it and smell it and taste it. Then the ‘words look after themselves.’ Sound wonderful doesn’t it?

Like Magic...

For related posts see:

Having fun with parataxis

Tangled up in Blue

And here is a great interview (with the Arab Poet Adonis) which touches in on the above, and much more.

Writing Tip 11: The Importance of Play


My point today is simple. Without play, there is no creativity. No matter how dogged and sincere you are, without play nothing will happen. Dull words will be recirculated, like the stale air in modern office buildings.

Consider this paragraph from a book called, ‘How the Leapard Changed its Spots,’ By Brian Goodwin, a book that argues for the creative aspect of evolution:

The good news is that fun is good for you. You have to be prepared to write badly in order to write well. To do that you need surrender notions of what is good and bad in your writing to the superior pleasures of play. Play is neither good nor bad; it is merely fun. Nothing rides on it; it carries no cans. It invites no judgements. It doesn’t seek praise or blame

Only out of play can those unexpected connections occur, those moments of magic so dear to both writer and reader.

Intuition is a tricky little beast to define, and deal with. And the Trickster is always there to lead you up the garden path. But being led up the garden path is what play is all about, following will-o-wisps of thought and feeling through remembered landscapes and territories of the blood known only by their smell. Following such improbabilities and impossibilities with no burden put on the result, stepping lightly even when the mood or import of the work may not be light at all. Write fast, and don’t impale yourself with heavy judgements at the end of every sentence. Write first, ask questions afterwards.

Enjoy, have fun, spread some shit on the walls. Thread yourself in and out of that permeable barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind, fearlessly and with zest, like a child playing. Ah yes, there be dragons, so beware, but there are also pinks dawns (like the one I’m looking at now) and paper moons, and the face of your god may be scrawled in the sky with a child’s crayon.

— A paragraph from Goodwin

Writing Tip 10: Filters and Spoilers

By Mike Johnson

Consider the paradox of the following sentence: It happened very fast.

What happened? Nothing. Nothing happens in the sentence. ‘It’ has no meaning for the reader since ‘it’ hasn’t happened yet. We have to wait for the next sentence. Look here it comes… He never saw it coming.

So now we have: It happened very fast. He never saw it coming.

How exciting! Except it isn’t. Still nothing is happening. We still have that infuriating ‘it.’ So let’s soldier on to the next sentence: He had no defense, only instinct to rely on. Is that a fact? Gee.

So now we have: It happened very fast. He never saw it coming. He had no defense, only instinct to rely on.

Is this a build up or a shaggy dog story? If ‘it’ doesn’t happen in the next sentence, I’ll throw the book away!

Wait… here it comes… Suddenly his heart was beating wildly.

It happened very fast. He never saw it coming. He had no defense, only instinct to rely on. Suddenly, his heart was beating wildly.


Do these sentences build tension or do they destroy it? Slow the action down or grease the way for it? You’ll have to decide. It’s time for me to get out before he… blinks the sweat out of his eyes. And while you are at it, think about the word ‘suddenly’. Is the action more sudden with it or without it?

‘They were following the mountain trail when suddenly Jack slipped and fell to the tumultuous waters below.’

‘They were following the mountain trail when Jack slipped and fell to the tumultuous waters below.’

Does ‘suddenly’ make it more sudden, or less?

When in doubt, chop it out!

Writing Tip 9: Ambiguous phraseology.

By Mike Johnson

Have a look at this sentence:

Mavis pulls a skinny knife from out of her clothing never designed for chopping vegetables.

Hmmm… Clothing designed to chop vegetables is something for the Versaces of this world to work on; I’m having enough problems with a simple sentence.

Or try this one:

Mary slaps Janet aside like a rabid dog.

Who is the rabid dog? Is Mary behaving like a rabid dog by slapping Janet aside, or is Janet slapped aside because she is behaving like a rabid dog?

In my writing tip number 4 (link) I wrote:

This was brought home to me recently when we gave our library room at home a makeover, pulling the books off the shelves and painting them.

Oh dear! So I had to add in brackets:  (the shelves! Sentences can be tricky, eh?).

Yes they can. Here’s another one, a little harder to spot:

Instead of setting off back down to the marae, she continues upward along the trail the Jeff would have taken, heading towards the ridge along which the back road runs, and which approaches the mansions from the south.

What approaches the mansions from the south? The back road or the ridge. Both, of course, but that doesn’t solve the problem of ambiguity. Does it really matter? Maybe not, maybe no one would really mistake my meaning, but every time I read it I’m going to notice it, until finally I’ll have to do something about it. The ambiguity makes it vague! And a vague sentence will never pull its weight. But it proves oddly resistant to revision.

Jeez Cyril, have I really spent the best part of a lifetime getting the right words in the right order?

Writing Tip 8: Become Conscious Writers (Not Self Conscious!)


Always little habits building up. Little mannerisms creeping in unnoticed.

For example, in my own work I find the nagging persistence of she saw, he felt, she knew, he understood, they noticed that, it struck her that, she had often observed that…

Compare the following:

He can see the tears in her eyes.

There are tears in her eyes.

Tears in her eyes shine in the half light.


He saw her pull out a cigarette and light it.

She pulled out a cigarette and lit it.


She felt a cold hand clutching her heart

A cold hand clutched her heart.


He noticed a man at the table speak into his phone.

A man at the table spoke into this phone.


The only legitimate reason for putting in these phrases is when the perceiving is more important than what is perceived.


Eg: He noticed that she was wearing a red dress.

(The implication, he doesn’t normally notice what she wears but on this occasion…)

If the narrative POV has been established, it should be clear who is seeing, noticing, understanding, perceiving etc


Clear out the dead wood.

Writing Tip 7: Loosening up the linear. Having fun with parataxis.


Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe had the insight in the 1840s, but it would be seventy years before Einstein formalized the maths, and identified space-time as a unity for the first time. For a long time writers have played with the variables of distance and duration, duration relating to time and narrative, while distance relates to space and geography. Descriptions of place will slow the pace of narrative; a faster narrative will tend to displace other, non-narrative elements. Space and time come together in consciousness, in point of view.

(Readers interested in the wider issues raised here might like to note my comments on Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled up in Blue’ in my Bobcat blog, and the section entitled ‘The Collapse of Opposites’ in my book Angel Of Compassion.)

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

‘Distance and duration are one.’ Edgar Allen Poe.

Narrative is constructed out of the raw materials of memory and experience, rather than being ‘natural’ or inherent. We create an identity (see ‘Who is Mike Johnson?’) out of these same raw materials, a sense of identity that will shift and change over time. Even a short period of time.

Reader’s expectations are that the connection between sentences must be linear and logical, as if the linear and logical is somehow more ‘natural’ than the intuitive or the mosaic.

In her essay, The Rejection of ClosureLyn Hejinian argues for the limitations of a language that is ‘directed towards a single reading.’

Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian

‘The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it.’ Lyn Hejinian.

Only by entering into this conflict can the writer find his or her own balance in terms of how open or closed their language might be in relation to any particular project.

‘We can say that a “closed text” is one in which all the elements of the work are directed toward a single reading of it. Each element confirms that reading and delivers the text from any lurking ambiguity. In the “open text,” meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.’ (Rejection of Closure)

In her now classic My Life Hejinian uses mostly ordinary sentences, but radically rewires them in terms of how they connect. Don’t mistake this for ‘stream of consciousness’ (a much abused term) or ‘beat’ writing of some kind. She’s putting these sentences together with the precision of jeweller, bringing code-switching to a high art. Freed from the constraints of linear and logical connection, the sentences can float in a sea of multiple relationships to each other, the composite forming the complete experience.

See example from My Life by Lyn Hejinian

For the writer who is testing his or her ground, understanding the parataxical effect of Hejinian’s prose poetry can be liberating. Not that we all want to write like Hejinian, but as writers we often find our prose too logical, too linear, and therefore predictable. Kerry Hume has talked in terms of casting a wide net when finding language for a book. Hejinian casts a very wide net indeed.

For those interested, check out Lisa Samuels’s case for the canonisation of Hejinian here.

More on Lyn Hejinian


Writing Tip 6: Finding Stories. The Bowles Effect


Writers find their stories in all sorts of places, from the daily newspapers to under their rugs. People comb their own past, our national history, and all kinds of bars and unholy places looking for their story. Sometimes, frustratingly, we become aware that there are stories all around us, every moment, we just can’t always catch them. ‘Find your emotion and you’ll find your story,’ says Hemmingway. That’s one way. Even newspaper personals: For recycle: baby’s booties (pink), unused.  Wanted: Woman for farm work, must have own tractor.

There’s a story in everything.

But what we often forget is what I would call the Paul Bowles effect: it is the act of writing itself which is the major generator of ideas.

Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles

When asked where he got his ideas from, Bowles replied that writing was the sole source of his ideas. ‘Now that I’m not writing, I have no ideas,’ he said. He described his method. He would begin with an image. Lets say, a man standing at the edge of an empty swimming pool, looking down. Okay, so who is the man? Where is he? Why is the light so bright? Why is the pool empty? And, oh, who is that standing the shadows of the open doorway behind him?  A woman. His wife perhaps… And so it builds, bootstraps itself into existence from a single image.

Even if you begin a story derived from elsewhere, the Bowles Effect can still kick in, sometimes to the point of steering your story in a direction you didn’t intend, exactly.

Another writer to use the Bowles Effect is Nobel Prize winning dramatist Harold Pinter, master of pauses and implications. In his Nobel acceptance speech he spoke briefly of this method, which is an extreme application of the principle. He will begin with no more than a single word, or phrase, and builds from there. A word is spoken. Somebody is speaking it. Somebody is listening. Somebody replies. And by the way, who is the woman standing by the window…

You may have a firm idea of the story you want to tell, and that’s all well and good, but allow yourself time to just generate a word or two, an image, a piece of dialogue out of nowhere – and elaborate. Let it go where it will, define its own direction. Modern commentators speak about the intentions of the text. Well, what are they? They are yours, as a writer, to discover. This kind of story discovers itself from the inside out, not the other way around.

This is a very handy exercise, and can be fun, even for the most diehard planners and forward plotters. You just have to hand over the reins to the story itself. Easy-peasy.

Ah… and the woman in the doorway by the window is wearing a red scarf!

Writing Tip 5: The Problem of ‘Gapism.’ Avoid Block Paragraphing.


The message today is, don’t let your computer format your fiction for you. If you do so it will leave a space or gap each time you hit the enter key. This creates block paragraphing, which evolved out the formatting of business letters, reports etc, to which it is suited.

It is not suited to fiction writing. For fiction we use indent paragraphing, traditionally the only form of paragraphing for either fiction or non fiction. With the indent form, there are no gaps between paragraphs, the ruler at the top of the page is used to set a first line indent, which means that when ever the enter key is pushed, you move to the next line with the indent you have set.

Look at these two examples of the same passage from my latest book Hold My Teeth While I Teach You to Dance. I’ve used PDFs, as WordPress and Facebook do not permit indent form, at least not easily. I am using block paragraphing now as it has become the standard for blog and website software.

Example 1: Block Paragraphing.

Block Paragraph Example

Note how it fragments the text with gaps, particularly dialogue. Even over this short section, we have gained space and lost content, all gobbled up by needless gaps! Block paragraphing wreaks dialogue, the look of it and the continuity of it. Destroys the flow of readers attention, and possibly yours as you write. Remember, in much modern poetry gaps are there for a purpose – gaps can be phonetically charged, or indicate lacunae of some kind.

In fiction a gap can represent a mini-chapter or narrative break, a shift of time and place. To do that with block paragraphing you need a double gap, and the page looks even worse.

Example 2: Standard Indent Paragraphing.

Indent Example

My point is that this might affect the way you write. I notice that writers who use block form can’t happily vary paragraph length, or use in very short paragraphs.  The form itself tends to make for longer paragraphs and less flexibility.

Write fiction in indent form, it may change the way language flows for you.

I can’t instruct you on how to change your software settings, as different versions of Word do it in different ways. It can usually be found under formatting, paragraph. Seek help if you need it.

Writing Tip 4: As You Read, So You Shall Write


Note: this was written to be a companion piece to my partner Leila’s reflection on our library makeover. Her blog piece is much superior to mine. You can read it here.

Since we all want to be so amazingly original, we often underestimate and undervalue the role that our reading plays in our writing. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, thank goodness, but one thing they all have in common is that they are readers. What we soak up from other writers is often largely unconscious.

Whenever you write a sentence you evoke some kind of model for how sentences are written, which is how you have been taught to write. The more you read, the more models you have in your unconscious. Yes, you can do this (or that) with language because you have seen another writer do it. Remember, language is not natural, it is constructed. Writing that looks natural and easy is often the most highly wrought of all. Try it and find out for yourself.
Not only that, but your view of the world is shaped by the themes and visions of the writers you love and admire. Your experience shapes who you are, and your reading is an intrinsic part of your experience – that is why it’s so wonderful.

This was brought home to me recently when we gave our library room at home a makeover, pulling the books off the shelves and painting them (the shelves! Sentences can be tricky, eh?). Look at all those SF novels I used to read as an insomniac teenage boy. Not just the Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clark, but those lesser writers we have forgotten. Robert Silverberg, Bob Shaw, and the women who tried to bring a feminist perspective to this essentially boy-lit: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Junior.
As I dusted off these old books, it struck me how important they were for my development as a writer, and as a person. The sort of person who can recognise the 21st Century as a version of one of those stories that I read as a boy. It’s a bit of a joke among us SF aficionados that we are all trapped in a Philip K Dick story with no signs of escape.

Good fiction extends our sympathies, and by doing so makes us more aware people, which in turn helps shape our world view – and as writers, presents us with challenges. Can we create a symphony of antithetical voices the way Dostoevsky does? Can we create characters with the amazing empathy with nature that Barbara Kingsolver’s character have? Can we plot a story like Agatha Christie or dig into the substance of thought and feeling the way Virginia Wolf does? Can we scare a reader as Edgar Allen Poe does, or have us fall in love with some quirky Mr Pickwick like the impossibly sentimental Dickens?

Yes, we can do all those things and more, if our work requires it. The models are there. Be not afraid to soak up influences wherever you can find them; be not afraid to imitate, for, when it comes to language, it’s by imitation that we learn.
You want to have a distinctive and original voice? And think there is some short cut to get there? That a distinctive and original voice will just miraculously manifest when you put pen to paper or your fingers hover over that keyboard? If that were the case, the less you read the more unique your voice would be! Humbug! All language is intertextual by nature. Embrace that intertextuality and celebrate it in your work.

And read like crazy. If you see a writer doing something wonderful and astonishing, you can do it to. Writer see writer do.
That’s why I keep all these old books around in the library, books I’m unlikely to read again. Books I love to dust off and look fondly at the covers, recalling the reading experience. Each one of them is a small piece of me.


Writing Tip 3: Practice Your Craft Daily


Quit fiddling around on Facebook, or worrying about the bills, and get to work. You’ve heard of Sunday painters, the dabblers, but you don’t hear too much about Sunday writers, because they don’t last.

The one thing that writing requires is continuity. Some writers binge write, and that can work. Philip K Dick could write a novel in two or three weeks – with enough amphetamine. Dashiell Hammett wrote The Thin Man, his last novel, in 30 hours of continuous writing. Jack Keroac would sit at his mother’s kitchen table with a bottle of whisky and keep writing until the book was finished. Other writers, the non-binge types, can keep up a steady nine to five routine day after day, regular as a bank clerk. Reputedly, Peter Carey is one such. Writing is a job and you just get up and do it like any other job. Enid Blyton could turn out up to ten thousand words a day by treating writing as a job.

Most of us fall between these two extremes. The trap, if you like, is to proceed in fits and starts. Coming in hot and strong for a couple of days then doing nothing for a couple of weeks. Pretty much useless, as the trail can go, and grow, cold without regular attention. Works neglected are most likely to be abandoned, or fail to lift off. The longer you leave it the harder it is to get back into it.
If you are going to write, you have to give it a fair go. Writing is time consuming. A lot of writing time is spent in dreamtime. If I don’t have time to write on any particular day, I will make sure I read over what I last wrote, change a comma or two, remind myself of where I am and why I’m there. It might only be for ten minutes, but I’ve kept the channel open.
Practice your craft daily and watch your writing grow.


Writing Tip 2: Dealing With Those Pesky Threshold Guardians. The Demon Of Self Doubt


You might have seen them as lions or griffin-like creatures that guard the entranceway to temples and churches.

The idea is that they are there to guard the inner sanctum from those impure of spirit and of evil intentions. Or they might be there to guard some precious secret from discovery. Whatever, they are there to test your mettle. For writers at least, they take the form of insidious doubt, and a constant wearing away at your self-esteem. If you have any doubts that you are shit, and that your writing is shit, then just look at your last sentence!
I don’t know too many writers pure of spirit, but one way or another, these threshold guardians have to be dealt with, overcome or avoided by stealth.
These threshold guardians are, of course, a personification or dramatisation of internal forces. Or should I say, internalised forces. Those negative voices, we don’t have the cruelty to invent them, our ears heard them, at some stage:
You can’t write to save yourself! Nobody’s going to care about this shit you write anyway. You can’t even write a sentence with out fucking it up. Who do you think you are? You will never write anything worth writing, so why don’t you just give up and go and get drunk!

I hate to say this, but in the end you can make friends with your inner critic, and you don’t even have to get drunk to do it. That inner critic can sometimes be right about a particular sentence or passage, you can learn from fair critique, and many writers say that they are their own most severe critic. But first that carping voice has to be put in its place. How you do this is up to you, but the rest of the journey is at stake. If you can’t put that insidious voice to rest it will continue to dog you, and its relentless prophesies regarding your general crapness will be self fulfilling.

Writing Tip 1: Show Don’t Tell


Tell me a story
tell me a story
tell me a story before I go to bed.

So runs the popular children’s song of old, but apparently no longer, and what started out as a perfectly sound piece of advice to writers, show don’t tell, has somehow morphed into a dogma, and, like all dogmas, become fixed and absolute: Thou shalt not tell but only show. And that’s silly.
Let’s begin by admitting that all stories, all fiction, is a judicious mix of both show and tell. Some styles run leaner on the telling side than others, depending on the governing aesthetic of the story. You wouldn’t want Ernest Hemmingway to write up our fairy-tales or folk tales, there might well be nothing left of them.
Show don’t tell may become an imperative for dramatists, whether the drama takes the form of a novel, film script or play, working with a full length, three act story. It doesn’t work so well for a whole range of short stories films etc that naturally lean closer to the ‘slice of life’, less structured approach, or novels that do not follow what we may call Classical Story Design – a topic I’m sure we will return to.
In his famous study of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the literary critic George Steiner suggests there are two kinds of fiction writers, those who write dramas, like Dostoevsky, and those who write epics or chronicles, like Tolstoy. Not that Tolstoy couldn’t write a dramatic scene when he wanted to, but the overall structure of say War and Peace, is more like the episodic wandering contours of real life than the focused dramatic intensity of The Gambler or Demons is. Notice that Tolstoy could not seem to finish his novel, adding postscripts and epilogues, because the story is more like real life, messy and unfinished. Any story that attempts to follow the contours of real life stands in contrast to the clean lines of the three act structure, necessarily an abstraction from life.
So your first question is, what kind of story am I writing? Then you might get a feel for how much telling and how much showing is needed.
Furthermore, we can find showing within a context of telling (Tolstoy/Tolkien) and telling within a context of showing (Dostoevsky/Atwood).
Finally, in our enthusiasm to do the right thing, let’s not forget the simple, spine tingling elegance of telling, in the right context:
There was once a poor man who had two sons, and a rich man who had two daughters…
How silly it would be to try to ‘show’ this, when a simple statement sets it all up.
Proceed with caution.