E*MO*TION: How I Show, Not Tell, My Characters’ Feelings

One common piece of feedback I’ve gotten in the time I’ve been letting other people see my writing, not just from agents and editors, but from fellow writers, is that I’m doing too much telling instead of showing. I’ve been around in the writing world long enough to know that “show, don’t tell” is one of the most common and, it seems, most frustrating pieces of advice writers receive. It’s taken me a long time to understand what this adage means, even though it reads as if it’s obvious.

I think I’ll continue to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to show, not tell, for the rest of my writing career. But when I was on sub with my forthcoming debut, BETWEEN PERFECT AND REAL, I had an epiphany of sorts about one particular facet of this guideline.

“I feel like I’m being told how Dean feels, rather than shown,” a few people said upon reading my manuscript.

At first, I was confused by this. I’d worked hard on my metaphors. Instead of writing, for example, “I feel nervous/afraid/angry,” I’d described how those emotions felt, often using metaphors. For instance, instead of just “feeling nervous,” etcetera, Dean’s nervousness was a snake winding around his stomach. Sadness felt like a fist squeezing his heart.

And then I realized I was still telling the audience how Dean felt, because I was using the name of the emotion itself in the sentence, and indicating Dean’s observation of that feeling.

Let’s look at an example. This excerpt is from a deleted scene in BETWEEN PERFECT AND REAL.

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” I felt a tiny knot of nervousness form in the pit of my stomach.

In writing this scene, I was trying to describe how Dean felt; namely, that he was nervous about something. Looking at this line again, I can see that I’ve shown that by describing his reaction immediately after he says “Oh my god.” His physical reaction works in tandem with his verbal reaction: he shuts the locker and leans his head against the door. But then I go one step further than I need to, and take it into telling territory by naming the feeling he’s having, which is nervousness. The nervousness is described, but I’m still using the actual name for the emotion in the sentence.

How can I take this back to showing territory? One easy fix is simply removing the word “nervousness” from its sentence. That leaves us with the following:

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” I felt a tiny knot form in the pit of my stomach.

This is okay, but I’m still in telling territory, because Dean is observing his feelings rather than simply reacting. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teen, I didn’t notice what I was feeling as I felt it. (That still happens to me as an adult, just less often.) So when Dean says “I felt a tiny knot form…” he’s TELLING us first that he is feeling something, and secondly, what that feeling is.

So what’s our next step? Let’s remove his observation of the feeling.

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.” A tiny knot formed in the pit of my stomach.

Better. In my opinion, though, this is still too much. One thing I’ve noticed in my writing is the tendency to repeat myself. Repetition is a legitimate tool of the craft, but there are ways to use it, and ways not to. If I’m describing the same thing in multiple ways in the same few sentences, I think that is generally unnecessary.

Here’s how I would leave the line in its final form:

“Oh my god.” I shut the locker and leaned my forehead against the cold silver metal. “I forgot.

Rarely does introspection happen in the moment. When I was in the thick of my feelings as a teenager, I usually didn’t observe them as such. Feelings lived in my reactions and immediate physical sensations. So now, when I revise, I am alert for instances of telling like the one in the initial example. Wherever possible, I take out the name of the emotion and anything that indicates the character is observing the feeling, rather than experiencing it in the moment. I think this makes for a more immediate and visceral experience for the reader, and a better story.

What do you think, readers? How do you show instead of tell? Do you find it difficult or confusing, and in what ways?

And yes, the title of this post is a reference to my queen, Carly Rae Jepsen 🙂

My 2019 #PitchWars Wishlist!

2019-YoungAdult-Mentor-BANNER

Hi! Welcome to my Pitch Wars wishlist. I’m glad you’re here, and if you choose to submit to me, I’m really looking forward to reading your work. This is my first year participating in Pitch Wars, and I’m excited to do so as a mentor. I know what a big difference mentorship and pitch contests can make, especially for marginalized folks—I found mentors, my agent, and many writer pals through #DVpit—and I’m here to support my eventual mentee however I can.

You probably already know this, but Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each to spend three months revising their manuscript. It ends in February with an Agent Showcase, where agents can read a pitch/first page and can request to read more.

WHO IS THAT MENTOR I SEE, STARING STRAIGHT BACK AT ME…?

So who the heck am I, and why should you submit to me??

I am a queer and trans writer living in Seattle. I’ve lived here my whole life and I love it here, and I will probably never leave. I share a house with seven of my best friends, one of whom is my partner, which sounds like a lot of people, but the house is big and we all get along really well, I promise!! The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a writer, and lo and behold, here I am (after quite a few detours along the way). I’m represented by the inimitable Lauren Abramo at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, and I use they/them and he/him pronouns. (Both are correct, pick one or use both!)

My debut YA novel (!!), BETWEEN PERFECT AND REAL, is forthcoming from Amulet Books in Spring 2021. It’s about Dean, a closeted trans boy and high school senior who is only out as a lesbian, until he’s cast as Romeo in the school play, which catalyzes his coming out and transition. A second standalone novel will follow my debut at the same publisher.

I also have a short story in TAKE THE MIC: FICTIONAL STORIES OF EVERYDAY RESISTANCE, a rad YA anthology out this fall (!!) from Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books. My short story is about Parker, a nonbinary teen whose mentorship of a trans child changes them more than they expected.

I love writing novels. Like. A lot. But just as much as, and sometimes MAYBE even more than writing, I love revising. Finding the right shape of a story takes work, and when I have that breakthrough moment, when I sit down and start to put my idea in motion and see the novel change and grow into what I dreamed it could be—that’s magic. And it’s even more magical when someone else helps it happen. Some of the biggest and best changes I made to my first novel came out of other peoples’ ideas and feedback: a prompt from a book, a suggestion from my CP, a wondering from my agent. I hope I can help you the same way.

It can be hard and scary to let someone else see your work, let alone change your work based on someone else’s feedback. My mentoring style is ultimately about serving your vision, so I’ll never try to force you to change anything. My critiques take the form of wonderings, of suggestions, of ideas, and I’ll always give you positive feedback too, so you know what’s working. If we disagree on a change, I’ll try to find out more about where the disagreement lies, and see if we can compromise. And if not, that’s okay too: it’s your novel, and you have the final say.

We’ll likely communicate primarily via email, but I’m also open to other methods: video chat, phone call, texting. Let me know what you need. My editorial style is hands-on: I’ll be giving you big-picture notes as well as line edits, and because I’m cursed with a brain that can’t not see typos, I’ll probably proofread as well. I particularly excel at finding the right story structure, character voice, and point of view for a novel, as well as language flow.

SO, RAY…TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT, WHAT YOU REALLY REALLY WANT!

First, the genres:

1. YA Contemporary

That’s it. That’s the whole list. YA contemporary is what I write, and it’s what I feel most qualified to mentor. Within that genre, I’ll take romance, light and funny, or serious and issue-driven stories. (That doesn’t mean I’m open to everything, though…but we’ll talk about that in a minute!)

So, within YA contemporary, what am I most excited about????

In broad strokes, I love stories about relationships of all kinds: friends, family, romance; I love coming of age stories and literary YA; I love ensemble casts, I love stories that tackle difficult subjects or events with heart and humor.

In specifics…

1. Ownvoices, ownvoices, ownvoices!! That means that you share a marginalized identity with your main character. I’m especially interested in working with queer and trans folks, particularly trans writers, particularly trans writers of color, particularly trans women and trans femmes of color. I want your stories, whatever form they take. I’m here for the serious coming-out stories, the lighthearted coming-out stories, the stories where the main character is already out and the story has nothing to do with their transness, or maybe it does but it’s not the focus; I’m here for tragedy and joy and both and everything else.

2. Mental health stories. Or maybe your main character has a mental health condition that influences how they see the world, but isn’t the main subject of the story. I have anxiety and OCD, and I’d be particularly interested in representations of OCD other than contamination fears and obvious external rituals.

3. Stories that explore challenging and nuanced family dynamics.

4. Stories about masculinity, particularly teenage boys trying to figure out what kind of men they want to be while standing up to toxic masculinity.

5. Stories about friendship, especially queer friendship and chosen family.

6. Stories about misfits and subcultures. Give me your goths, punks, drama students, nerds and weird kids!

7. Romances that explore themes other than just the romance. Slow burns. The slowest of burns, where you’re internally screaming about how gosh darn cute they are and when the heck are they going to get together already???!!! Stories about non-monogamous relationships.

8. Asexual, aromantic, demisexual, and demiromantic characters, and the relationships that matter to them.

9. Lower YA! Protagonists who are 13-15.

10. Stories you have a feeling might be a good fit for me, even if they don’t hit one of the specifics I mentioned above.

YA contemporary novels I’ve loved recently include:

A grid of book covers in four rows of four. From left to right, top to bottom, the covers are: We Are Okay, Darius the Great is Not Okay, Tradition, Two Boys Kissing, Squad, The Summer of Jordi Perez, Everything Leads to You, The Upside of Unrequited, The Hate U Give, Little and Lion, Anger is a Gift, Pride, I am not your perfect mexican daughter, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, If I was your girl, and I wish you all the best

NOT MY (SPACE) JAM

Am I dating myself with all these references? Definitely. Do I care? Not at all.

Anyway. Here is a short list of things that just aren’t for me:

1. Stories that are unrelentingly dark, involving subjects such as child abuse of any kind, on-page sexual assault and/or rape, addiction, and graphically described physical violence. Stories about physically/emotionally abusive relationships are okay, provided again that they are not unrelentingly dark, and that you give me a content warning.

2. Thrillers, mysteries, epistolary novels, and novels in verse. Not because I don’t like them, but because I don’t know how to write them and wouldn’t be best positioned to give you feedback.

3. Stories about a cis main character’s reaction to a trans person’s transition, and/or stories where a trans character exists to educate and/or help the cis person become a better ally.

4. Submissions done in hopes I will provide a sensitivity read as part of my mentorship. That is a separate service, and one for which I charge. Thanks for your understanding!

Phew! You read through my whole wishlist! You probably have more wishlists to read before you put yourself out there, and I want to take a minute to acknowledge your hard work and bravery. You’re doing it!

If you think we’d be a good fit, I hope to see you in my inbox soon! If not, I hope you find your perfect match! As a former theatre kid, normally I’d say “break a leg!” at this point, but I can’t think of a similar superstitious saying for writers. Break a pencil? Break a keyboard? Rip a page?

Yeah, okay, I’ll work on that one. Carry on.

If you’d like to return to the blog hop webpage, click here. Or scroll down to find the next name on your list!

Pitch Wars 2019 Young Adult Mentors’ Wish Lists

  1. Aiden Thomas (Accepts NA)
  2. Kelsey Rodkey and Rachel Lynn Solomon
  3. Nancy Werlin
  4. Olivia Hinebaugh
  5. Abigail Johnson
  6. Rebecca Schaeffer
  7. Rebecca Coffindaffer (Accepts NA)
  8. Laurie Dennison
  9. Sam Taylor
  10. ST Sterlings (Accepts NA)
  11. Brenda Drake and Kyle T. Cowan (Accepts NA)
  12. Carrie Allen and Sabrina Lotfi
  13. J. Elle
  14. Andrea Contos (Accepts NA)
  15. Raquel Vasquez Gilliland and Sandra Proudman (Accepts NA)
  16. Ayana Gray (Accepts NA)
  17. Susan Lee and Auriane Desombre
  18. Julia Ember (Accepts NA)
  19. SA Patel
  20. Kat Dunn (Accepts NA)
  21. Sonia Hartl and Annette Christie
  22. Jesse Q. Sutanto
  23. Ray Stoeve
  24. Aty S. Behsam and Kylie Schachte
  25. Cole Nagamatsu
  26. Rachel Griffin
  27. Adalyn Grace
  28. Adrienne Tooley and Kelly Quindlen (Accepts NA)
  29. Ciannon Smart and Deborah Falaye
  30. Kristin Lambert, Sasha Peyton Smith
  31. Kimberly Gabriel and Dawn Ius
  32. Lyndsay Ely
  33. Jamie Howard
  34. Jenna Lincoln (Accepts NA)
  35. Jen Marie Hawkins and Anna Birch (Accepts NA)
  36. Judy I. Lin
  37. Leila Siddiqui
  38. Zach Hines (Accepts NA)
  39. Hoda Agharazi
  40. Michaela Greer (Accepts NA)
  41. Liz Lawson and Jeff Bishop (Accepts NA)
  42. Lindsey Frydman (Accepts NA)
  43. Chelsea Hensley (Accepts NA)
  44. Isabel Ibañez