Manuscript appraisal spots all taken!

Many thanks to the applicants, whose work has been wonderful. The third and final free manuscript appraisal spot has been taken. However keep watching for future special offers from BookAnvil.
And meanwhile, hammer those words — or lovingly coax them into place, whichever suits your process.

When is telling really showing?

An old adage of fiction writing, oft-quoted, is ‘show, don’t tell’. But what, then, to make of this novel opening:

I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.

I’m totally pissed at my old man who’s somewhere in the Virgin Islands, I don’t know where. The check wasn’t in the mailbox today which means I can’t go to school Monday morning. I’m on the monthly program because Dad says wanting to be an actress is some flaky whim and I never stick to anything […]

It’s Story of my Life by Jay McInerney, and it’s pure telling. But notice how full it is of devices: figures of speech (‘this shit’, ‘totally pissed’); tone (aggrieved); rhythm (punchy, fast, with sentences lengthening and punctuation reducing to suggest increasing hostility)? Can’t you just see the character in her late 80s pre-slacker nightshirt and leggings, fiddling with the phone because her Dad’s secretary has put her on hold?

It channels Holden Caulfield, of course (‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’) and sounds like a conversation overheard on a bus, but isn’t that the point? The work is telling, but inside the telling is so much characterisation, it doesn’t just narrate the story, it embodies it.

Of course, the novel itself is full of incident and irony — it’s hardly a work that could be accused of using voice to paper over shortfalls in story. The narrator’s moods change, events affect her, she alters inflection and swaps anecdotes midstream; but underneath it all is a tale of urban self-destruction propped up by the nostalgic wish for myths of true love and happily-ever-after to prove real. This same thematic content could have been delivered in myriad other ways, such as through the arm’s-length third-person story of a young woman living at the edge of wealth with no real means to keep herself afloat and surrounded by a peer group bent on drug abuse and sexual uninhibition, something like:

Alison thought: ‘I don’t believe this shit.’ She studied the phone before pressing redial again and waiting, tapping a foot against the skirting board. One of her flatmate’s Givenchy heels stuck out under the bed next to a condom wrapper.

…but it wouldn’t have had the same feel, immediacy or freshness as it did (at least in 1988), and probably wouldn’t have seemed as real back then, either.

McInerney’s work shows us the value of enhancing ‘voice’ in narration, particularly when delivering details of characterisation and situation that might have seemed over-told and static if delivered in any other way. It shows that you can reveal as much or more about character simply through the expressions they use. Meanwhile one of the drawbacks of first person narration (that it’s harder to plant irony) falls by the wayside: of course there are ironies when a character is so caught up in the vicissitudes of a subculture and in staying ahead of the moment that she doesn’t notice her own self-destruction.

Thus it’s true that, in this case, telling is showing. That is, we learn as much about the character’s life from the way she speaks as by the content of her narration. Can you employ any of these tactics without a first-person narrator? Are any of the above devices useful inside other forms of exposition? That’s something for another article.

But for now, when using first person narration, remember that voice can turn ordinary telling into unbeatable showing.

special offer: free manuscript appraisal & critique

UPDATE: 2 spots taken! One to go.

You: serious writer, partial or complete draft (at any stage e.g. first, second, third, polish), ready to have a professional set of eyes on it to point out stylistic, structural, plot or characterisation flaws. In other words you need to be capable of handling criticism.

Me: 15 years’ experience as fiction writer, editor, mentor and teacher.

BookAnvil is offering a free manuscript appraisal/critique to each of 3 authors who are serious about the task of writing. If selected, you only need to supply a digital copy of your manuscript so far, as well as a quarter-page summary of its plot or intent. (You also need to be competent at written expression, as frequent misspellings and grammatical or punctuation errors will suggest you’re not ready for this level of critique.)

To apply for this one-time offer, please use the ‘contact‘ page to send a message to me at BookAnvil, with ‘appraisal’ as the subject line. I’ll get back to you with an email address or Dropbox address (depending on what suits best).

Do I need to add that no part of your manuscript will be read aloud, shown, excerpted, pinched, quoted or otherwise used without your express permission in writing?

What are you waiting for?

Note: this is a limited, one-time offer, and is only available to the first 3 applicants whose submission shows they are at a suitable stage to receive critical help.

setting the scene in an opening

Kage Baker’s excellent fantasy-of-manners, The Anvil of the World, begins: ‘Troon, the golden city, sat within high walls on a plain a thousand miles wide. The plain was golden with barley.’ This is nice, clear writing with strong imagery we can ‘see’ in the mind. However as the description continues we learn that Troon inhabitants all suffer from emphysema from harvest dust, and that ‘the social event of the year’ is the Festival of Respiratory Masks.

Building droll humour into her description over several sentences allows Baker to make full use of setting to introduce the novel’s tone and themes (a certain blinkeredness of thinking depicted as the tendency here to celebrate one’s own disease). Meanwhile the sharpness of Baker’s imagery and the deftness of her language (short and sweet; nothing overwritten) makes her opening highly enjoyable to read, despite having no actual characters until far down the page.

The trick to building a novel’s opening out of description is to turn the place into a character in its own right. Just as you’d try to sum up a character as neatly, quickly and efficiently as possible the first time he or she is introduced — remember, you can even introduce a character via one single dominant feature, so there’s a lot of room to economise — the place should be expressed via its most crucial or toneworthy characteristics.

For instance, in a serious novel about murder, perhaps you’d start with a setting that can be characterised as lonely, unforgiving, toxic or otherwise suggestive of harm. It helps if you can pare your imagery back to one significant motif as your starting point.

‘The sun is always just about to rise.’ So begins 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since the reader has never lived in a place where the sun is always about to rise, the opening tells us we’re on a different world, with different rules regarding the observation of sunrises (in fact, we’re standing on something that perpetually moves, driven by Martian solar heat dynamics; but that’s beside the point).

The point is, Stanley Robinson’s opening works because it presents a single clear image that also opens a question in the mind (how can a sunrise always be about to begin?).

I don’t say it’s easy to draw a fast, complete picture in the mind that simultaneously tantalises and uses words economically. Certainly I’ll be talking more about both aspects (how to write with economy and powerful imagery) in other posts. The important thing for now, though, is that good imagery always works hand-in-hand with tone.

See for instance this opening to ‘A Stripe for Trooper Casey’ by Roderic Quinn, published in The Anthology of Colonial Australian Crime Fiction (Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver edited):

‘The magpies had said good-night to the setting sun, and already darkness was moving through the dead timber. The first notes of night-birds came from the ridges, and a curlew mourned in the reeds of a creek.’

Slightly convoluted, though fairly effective, yes? It certainly puts us in the place, expecting something to happen, in part helped by the animated sense of darkness prowling the hillside. In this sense the imagery largely suits the story.

However the writing creaks at the seams when looked at from a modern perspective. For instance, there’s an over-reliance on personification (magpies saying ‘good-night’ to the sun; a curlew ‘mourning’). Giving personlike attributes to animals or things was a far more popular literary device in the 1800s than now, and in the paragraph above it feels slightly intrusive (saying ‘good-night’ is hardly ominous conceptually).

Sharp and economical imagery with judicious use of personification or other metaphors is just one way you can build a strong opening when describing a setting.



opening a book

How do you write a great novel opening? This post will explore both subversion and suspense as two linked methods that toy with reader expectation.

‘You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue.’

So begins Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. And you can tell a whole lot about the book from that opening fraction.

Firstly, there’s an order being subverted in the text. Rather than storytellers creating important life-lessons out of events, events must be confined and shaped to suit important life-lessons, which prove useless anyway — so says the narrator.

Secondly, the imagery is funny and disturbing: just try to read the above without ‘seeing’ a chef looking under kitchen cupboards and sinks for his tongue.

Thirdly, by starting with the idea of stories about loss, Toltz gives the impression his narrator will lose something important — but what?

Openings give a lot away about a book; or they should. Toltz’s opening, despite being basically metaphysical (concerned with stories), uses shifted logic and comic imagery to subvert expectation, meanwhile building suspense around the notion of loss, so the result lives in the mind and tantalises the reader to read onward.

Well — it tantalised me. You  may prefer a different style of narrative:

‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

Do I need to say where that’s from? Of course it’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

There’s no twist in that opening — not an overt one, at any rate. But the book’s title tells us Harry Potter will be a core character, so in reading the first words we’re already left hanging: ‘Where’s Harry?’ Secondly, as readers we know that two self-described ‘normal’ characters living on a street named after a common hedging plant are highly unlikely to remain in the realm of ‘normal’. Since they don’t know this, we can enjoy a sense of irony.

As readers we know there’s a big change coming. And it might just shake them to the core. But Rowling doesn’t let us in on the secret for quite a while. Indeed it’s not until the third paragraph that she lets us know these two ‘normal’ characters have a secret of their own, the nature of which won’t be revealed for a few more paragraphs.

As unremarkable as the story’s first line is, it also sets up the brilliance of a writer who knows how to delay ‘the reveal’. This is the moment when the hat is removed, and we see the white rabbit underneath. Or, as it happens, the owl.

These two very different openings to two very different books show some ways in which expectation can be subverted.

With Toltz it’s the nature of universal ‘truths’ pertaining to story, and also the expectation that outcomes will supply grand meaning a reader can take away and apply elsewhere.

With Rowling it’s the moment of ‘reveal’, being twofold: the nature of this world’s ‘abnormality’ (witchcraft); and the anticipated change in the Dursleys’ demeanour when they finally understand what’s happening.

But in both openings, it’s the subversion of expectation that keeps us wanting to read.

explore & write real spaces

This is a simple exercise in paying attention to details when you’re going about your daily life. If you commute by train it’s easy; it you don’t, it’s worth finding somewhere similar to explore.


Head down concrete stairs into a railway underpass (or under-bridge; or other heavy, dimly-lit structure). Feel the grit underfoot and the jolt of each impact on the steps. Try to imagine you had to do this blindfolded. How would the feel of the space change as you entered the underpass and left the outdoor air?

Pause to inhale deeply. What do you smell?

See if you can think of a visual image that represents that smell. If it’s bus exhaust, you might see a tailpipe. If it’s rotting garbage, you might see a withered apple core.

Stop just long enough to jot these mental images down.

Touch the interior wall or concrete — how does it feel? If it’s rough and cool, try to pinpoint in your mind exactly how it feels. Is there powder residue? Is it damp? Do you feel ‘weighed down’ by the concrete mass overhead, or are your impressions different?

See if you can recall an emotional experience that connects in your mind to the physical sensations of touching the underpass wall and the hard ground underfoot.

Stop just long enough to jot down one significant early memory that you can associate with these sensations — for instance, schoolyard asphalt or the area between two hulking school buildings.

Next, pause in the middle of the underpass to listen to the sounds. Is there a noise of traffic? Or is it quiet? Can you hear water trickling? Are there pedestrian noises? Trains roaring invisibly somewhere? If you move on through the underpass, do these sounds change?

Stop just long enough to jot down these sound-impressions. Try to capture each noise as exactly as possible — that is, try to spell out each sound you hear. If you hear traffic it could be a ‘hum’ or ‘brrr’ or ‘whoosh’, or it could just as easily be nothing resembling a word. Disregard ‘proper’ language. Just try to be as exact as possible when writing the sound.

Lastly, stand at any point in the tunnel (or other structure) and use your eyes in ‘snapshot’ mode to take instantaneous impressions. That is, simply put, blink. Are there any larger impressions or shapes that take your fancy (between eye-shuttings) or remind you of something else? If you do feel reminded of a powerful image (dinosaur? island? cavern? warhorse?), jot down your idea, no matter how little sense it might make to someone else.

The point out of all this isn’t to look or feel silly to other communters. It isn’t even to find useful ways of describing an underground rail passage. It’s to develop the ability to write with feeling, from immersion inside an environment.

And of course it’s to stop and study a place you might not usually pay attention to, in order to gather useful information you could use when writing something similar (such as a cavern, smuggler’s lair, dungeon or bunker).

EXTENDED EXERCISE: In two or three paragraphs, imagine and describe being lost (and perhaps pursued) in an underground structure using the sensory information you gathered.

Point of view for this exercise can either be yourself, or a character you invent for the purpose.

character in setting

In an exercise on sensory writing I spoke of entering a roundhouse and imagining the textures, smells and visual imagery. However the exercise could easily be extended to show some of the ways in which character can be used as a ‘filter’ through which to visualise — with greater depth and mood — a given environment.

In fact, if you’re using character at all, you need to think about the way they see and feel their surroundings. This exercise is aimed to help extend your ability to portray this.


Take one of your own existing characters and plant him or her inside an ancient village roundhouse. Concentrate not on why the character is there, but on the pure perceptions of place. Is this character tall? In that case your character would see from a particular vantage, and might be able to discern swallow nests and so forth in the rafters, or failing that, perhaps they’d find themselves having to stoop to avoid inhaling the dense cloud of upper-level smoke.

If your character is short or a child, think differently. What do they see? What do they nearly step on? Who appears dominant to them? Is your character likely to feel nervous? Might they be disdainful of ruder ways of living? Are they used to luxury? Do they have a rat phobia? All these things will affect how they see, feel and experience the roundhouse, and therefore how you’ll describe it.

Write a single paragraph that expresses most fleetingly and exactly the significant ‘feel’ of the space according to that character. Stick to broadbrush things: smell; light; impression. When you write sensorily you often use impressions because they stick in the mind better. The easiest and most succinct description is often a metaphor, so don’t necessarily try to be exact or literal.

For instance, here is a basic description from a neutral point of view:

A wide hearth lay in the centre of the room, surrounded by a circle of stones. On its fiery core bubbled clay pots, while above hung strands of drying meat.

But now imagine how you could use description :

A red maw opened in the floor, stone teeth gripping an array of clay pots and strung meat.

What would the latter kind of description say about the character doing the observing?