Show, Don’t Tell? And Worldbuilding Research

The Otter has been very seriously working their way through a bunch of writing research recently, which is fantastic – but also, for me, somewhat confusing. So, this is my take on it.

The basic aim of “show, don’t tell” is… well, what it says on the tin. But it’s easy to say, and harder to do! To me, there’s two aspects to this: worldbuilding and dialogue.

Worldbuilding

Do your research. If you want to investigate the details, absolutely do it! Go crazy with how your geography works, the political system, the clothes, the social aspects, language, hairstyles, food, street layouts, hand gestures, how exactly spaceship propulsion works – whatever you want. Get into that!

But don’t put it in the book. Or at least, don’t put that research in. What you want to do is filter it through the characters and the world.

If your political system is X, how does that work? How does that affect everyone? Who is disenfranchised? Who might dislike it? Who does it benefit, and how? So who is going to be wanting things to stay the same, and who wants them to change? How does that affect locations/districts/money/bribery policies/policing…

Basically – how does your world actually work? And this is on a couple of levels: on the ground, for your characters and their day-to-day lives; in the wider aspect, in terms of allegiances and factions, and the wider structure that makes up your world.

So, for example – there’s tension between two factions that’s starting to get ugly. Don’t tell us about it: we don’t need a paragraph explaining the political overview. Show us the graffiti and the swaggers as two rivals pass in the streets. Have a brief snippet of dinner conversation about worries about who the participants are going to need to bribe, and what happens if it changes after the election. Get your spaceship crew to worry if they’re wearing the right colours/clothing/weapons for the area they’re going to. If there’s law enforcement on the streets, what effect does that have on any dealings that may be going on, or any of your characters who may have unsavoury backgrounds?

(That said, it’s not that you can’t do the explaining – maybe someone is a newbie who doesn’t know the background, and asks for it to be explained. But that, again, is filtered through the characters.)

The same with something like geography. If there’s a mountain range between two cities, then communication would be limited – so maybe messages or goods would take longer to get there, and be more expensive, which shows up as someone grumbling about the prices and the travel time and that something is off when they buy it, and the merchant snapping back that they can’t help the distance. If someone lived by a lake as a child, then they would likely be good at fishing – and might be the person who just pulls out a line and rod anytime they stop, and talks longingly of the huge fish back home. It’s someone talking with a hand gesture. It’s the clothing that people wear. It’s taking the long way round to go home, because they’re avoiding a street.

It’s explaining if you need to – if it fits into the story, if it challenges someone or something, if it adds flavour. It’s not telling your reader how your world works: it’s showing them how it works.

Dialogue

It’s a similar thing with dialogue. We don’t need detail; readers can fill most of it in for themselves! We often just need the suggestion, and the effect, rather than being told the details.

So, take the geography example from above:

“How come you always fish?”

“Grew up in RiverTown.”

And that’s all you need. You don’t need to say that RiverTown is on a lake, and the character has fished since they were a child, and… those two lines do it for us.

Show, Don’t Tell also comes up a lot in emotions. Again, you need to think about how the emotion would be affecting someone.

If they’re angry, how would they be talking? Snappy? Irritable? And how would they be acting – might they be turning away, clenching fists, spitting words?

Compare:

“I don’t believe you!” he said angrily. He was furious that they could think such a thing.

“I don’t believe you!” he spat, turning away. “How can you think that?”

If you tell the reader what to think, you’re taking away their opportunity to imagine something. Let them visualise; let them see. A gesture and a word is far more evocative and expressive than simply telling someone the emotion, and allows you far more variation in what you can show. It also leaves more ambiguity that can be explored by the other characters; in the example above, we – and the other character – don’t know why he’s angry, and that’s something that can be explored – and can lend more emotional depth to your characters.

 

So, the takeaway: “show, don’t tell” doesn’t mean that you can’t tell – more that you need to think about how your vision would come through your characters and your story, and how that would let the reader imagine what you need them to.

Writing Writing & Writing

WURDS!! There are things! With WURDS! All of the things!

The first Thing is a short story, just from a random idea that I had while standing in the kitchen (also when you ask a writer “so where do you get your ideas?”… I get mine while stirring pasta, apparently.) It’s currently at 3000 words and I’m just mulling over where I want it to go; my original ending idea was a mild twist but it seems to be taking a slightly darker turn, and I may do some world-rewriting to fit that in. It’s a silly and fun and off the top of my head, and I AM WRITING AGAIN!! (Also, it includes necromancers. What is it with me and necromancers? …And cake. Same question.)

The second is that I have had my editorial letter for No Man’s Land (which has hopefully fairly permanently been renamed Every Ghostly Scar) back from the amazing Rebecca Brewer and I am just SO HAPPY. It’s always hard to read an editorial letter, but I knew the book needed work, and it’s so good to see someone else rip it to bits – but also so gratifying to see that it actually only needs a bit of work on the characters, a couple of scenes added/deleted, a couple of threads tidying up… the book and story overall seem to be in good shape, which is such a relief. I do love the book so much, and it’s so good to hear from someone impartial that they liked it too! So I’m going to take a day or two for mulling that over, maybe have a further chat with Rebecca about how to do some of the things (and also what needs to be done, because some of the ambiguity that she picked up on is deliberate, and I want to know how annoying that is) and then get working!

I’ve also been thinking about another project for a while, based on a rewriting of a children’s book – I’m not going to say more than that currently! But I’ve finally bought myself a paper copy of said children’s book so that I can scribble all over it and see if the idea has any legs.

And finally on the writing front, I’ve been playing with redesigning covers for the GreenSky series – I’m doing some more text-based ones, just to see if they work. They all need more work (I’m adding backgrounds at the moment) and I think it’s going to be a long-term project, but it’s something to keep me playing anyhow!

I’m aware that I’m still feeling broken, and that my writer’s block is still definitely there – so I’m taking everything cautiously, and don’t dare yet plunge into the morass of my unfinished stories. But TEH WURDS! They are back!

Moving On! & New Job

So the news is getting out there – I’m leaving Rebellion! As of writing, I’m not quite gone – my last day is the 1st April 2021. And, because I know it’s what you’re here for: my new job is going to be a cat cushion! (And freelance work for Book Polishers and Grimbold Books when time allows, but I know my priorities.)

It’s a personal decision to quit; my mental health over the last two years has been deteriorating and the last six months have been… bad. So I am stepping back, building up my freelance work again, and taking some time to rest & recover. I’m also trying to get my writing restarted, in the hope that it will give me something to focus on – so there may be more stories!

I’ve got an awful lot of emotions around the whole thing; I’m very happy to be leaving a job that was relentlessly draining, sad to be leaving amazing colleagues & so many awesome books & authors, angry that it’s reached this stage, angry at myself for not coping… I don’t know. It’s all a mess and I may write more about it at some future point, but for now I’m so burned out I want to get my final two weeks done and just bury myself in duvet and cat fluff for a month.

So I’m still here, still in Oxford for the meantime, and if you’ve got any book formatting or editing that you’d like done – hit me up!

 

P.s. I wrote 2000 words yesterday!! For the first time in I don’t know how long… THERE ARE WORDS!!

There’s Only One Reason SFF Should Fail The Bechdel Test…

…and that’s because the author has planned for it to fail.

So why are we still having this discussion?!

Ok. Deep breath, and let’s start at the beginning.

You’ve opted to go into science fiction and fantasy (SFF) because it provides a breakout from the boring structure of reality or history, where only men have speaking parts, and women are love interests. You want unicorns! Spaceships! Time travel! Magic! All the exciting stuff that doesn’t exist in our current universe, or is an extension of it, or is somehow a flight of fancy from our boring reality. That’s what makes it fiction!

And somehow you still fail to populate your world with anything other than men.

WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU.

Ok. Another deep breath. Caaaaalm.

The Bechdel Test. It’s got four parts: two women must have a conversation about something other than a man. So that requires a) two female characters, b) talking  c) to each other, and c) about anything other than a man. It’s pretty damn simple.

The Bechdel Test is, frankly, a baseline that should be easy to jump for anyone. And this takes us back to the start: that there is only one reason why your book should fail the Bechdel Test.

That is because you, as the author, have deliberately chosen for it to fail. For example, your narrator is isolated – in which case, they’re not likely to be having conversations with anyone, so that’s fair. Your narrator is a single POV (although do they never overhear any conversations? Or see anyone else have any?) Your narrator is, for some reason, surrounded by men for plot or narrative reasons and this makes sense in the book.

That’s it.

What is not cool is for you to apparently completely forget that women exist outside of a love interest – or, even worse, a “very helpful NPC who points the way to the (male) hero”. You should not find it difficult to include women in the plot. You should not be making excuses as to why there are no or very few female characters. You should not be completely forgetting that maybe you need to make some of your important characters female. (If you only make a couple of NPCs female I will judge that even more harshly. Women are not bit players only.)

It is The Year Of Our Space Mom 2020 and two women having a conversation somewhere in the course of an 80,000 word book SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT.

And don’t even get me started on LGBT, trans* and non-binary – or, horror of horrors, what if you wanted to write aliens? I mean, it’s SFF. You couldn’t possibly think completely outside the human gender box, could you?!

I will now go and write an extremely polite rejection letter, pointing out the SHEER IDIOCY, and then fume in a corner. Thank goodness there is good writing out there to soothe my soul!

A Kate Update: July 2020

In this update: cosmic foxes, roses, horrible cthulu-type monsters, kites (the bird type), a farty cat, cakes, donuts and witches. These may or may not be related to each other.

Firstly, the important news! A pile of cat paws and furBobble is sleeping, farting and ordering everyone around with happy abandon. He spent six hours on Friday asleep either on my lap or next to me, so he is one spoiled cat, and is obviously demanding cuddles at every opportunity. He is also a pile of paws and will reluctantly let us touch his toe-beans, is ridiculously fast (I may have a few small scars from trying to play with him) and has the most adorable little snore.

Then on to the second important thing: you need book recommendations, you say? I know I’m biased, but maybe try Beneath The Rising, Weave the Lightning or The Human Son? Also, we’ve got audiobooks coming out! I’d also thoroughly suggest pre-ordering Shadow in the Empire of Light, The Chimera Code and The House of Styx. Wouldn’t want to run out of books, eh? (We have so many good books at work and I just want to yell about all of them… so be thankful you’ve only had a selection!)

Also in work news, I’m reading exciting things that I can’t talk about yet…. WHEEEEEE!

I got sent a late birthday present by a wonderful friend of a voucher for roses. I have spent several hours leafing through (no pun intended) the catalogue going “SO PRETTY” and “climbers? Or a bush? What sort of soil do we have again? We’re mostly shade, so…” It’s been a lot of fun and I still haven’t decided. We think an in-person trip to the centre might be needed!

The kites have been keeeeee-kee-kee-kee from the tree behind the house; there’s two of them floating over most mornings now. They had a bit of a tough time with all the wind last week (well, I say that, but it wasn’t like they were having to flap… it was just the “getting to where they wanted to go” bit that seemed to be giving them issues) but the current sunshine is doing wonders for the thermals, and they’ve just been drifting over on the hunt for kite-sized snacks.

Cupcake with a mini skull on it!

If anyone’s in Oxford, Jericho Coffee on Osney Estate have started doing coffee & donuts on Saturday mornings… and Patron Oxford are also delivering said donuts (and brownies!) to the city! (I think this is incredibly dangerous and haven’t ordered any, because they are FANTASTIC. Once a week is dangerous enough!) And if you’re not in Oxford, they do postal coffee beans. The smell coming out of the roastery is always fantastic, so I would recommend based on that alone!

Also on a cake note, I ordered some amazing cupcakes from Happy Cakes last month (ok, no wait, May…) for one of my authors who was having a crap week – obviously skulls and gravestones helped. (They are relevant, honestly, and they did help cheer her up!)

Leaping fox with blue-stars cosmic colouring

On a pretty-things note, Lynsey Luu does amazing quirky stuff and I am still trying to decide what I want to buy! I’m somewhere between a cosmic fox, the cutest otter ever, or EVERYTHING ELSE. Currently I’m defaulting to the latter. The flower pendants are beautiful, too! Sigh.

I am currently on an Agatha-Christie kick, because it seems to be what my brain needs. Having Miss Marple sweetly pronounce that the world is horrible and evil and it just reminds her of so-and-so the butcher’s son who came to a bad end… it seems to fit the current world, somehow. Incidentally, if you like Agatha Christie, try Sexton Blake – we’re publishing collections of the best stories, and they’re the same sort of mystery and derring-do: Sherlock Holmes mixed with Poirot and Indiana Jones. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!

Witch on a bridge by PetiteCreme
By PetiteCreme @gemsheldrake

I am sort-of writing again! I was leafing through PetiteCreme‘s sketchbook (with her permission!) and spotted a witch on a bridge… and it reminded me of Necromancer’s Charm. So I hauled it out, and – SO. MANY. NOTES. I mean, I wrote three versions of the start because I couldn’t get the voice, and two documents of other notes because Thief & Seer is sort-of related and…. ARGH. But I really enjoyed reading the start again, which felt good! I’m sending it over to Otter for them to read, as they’re my current “is this any good?!” reader, and then… well, we’ll see if anything comes back?

In general Kate news: I’m on my third week into changing medication, and it’s… not really fun. I had one week of complete exhaustion as one withdrew, and then a week of complete ups and downs as the new one kicked in, and I’m currently in the fine-for-three-days-crash-for-a-day cycle that’s still underlaid by grey. I’m just trying to do as much as I can while manic, and then take the crashes as they come, and trying to ignore the weasels. Animal Crossing and re-reading books are getting me through, plus Bobble cuddles and chocolate. I know I’m in the best position possible to be going through all of this, and I’m just trying to keep stepping forward. If anyone spots the shops getting restocked with new brains, though, let me know. I might be in the market for one.

Also!  In happier news, if anyone’s near Fairford in the Cotswolds, or can get there, the 7a Coffee Shop do SERIOUSLY GOOD BROWNIES. Sam dropped some off for me and oh my goodness. SO GOOD. Collection only, but so worth it.

…I feel like I am fixated on food and books at the moment, which… is fair, I think.

And on a final food – and cat – note, I have been watching Jun’s Kitchen: the most adorable cats, and really nice-looking food!