Please Show, Don’t Tell

There is something elusive about writing, and I’ve formed the opinion that this is what makes writing art. Or not art. I don’t mean that in a snooty way, rather as a form of humble appreciation. It’s the difference between riveting writing and writing that is a bit naff, a bit off. The type of book you read until 3am in the morning and the book you get two pages into and then decide to never pick up again.

My mentor Simon describes it as “making the reader ping”. A very scientific explanation.

What is ‘ping’? At the third Te Papa Tupu writers workshop, we had some time to talk about the manuscript. Simon – who presented an awesome workshop on story arc – shared his general contentment with the arc and character development. But there was a hiccup. There were issues at a sentence level. With my writing.

There was no ‘ping’. Parts of it were not quite right. In others, something was missing. Although there are huge battles, blood spattering and the heads of bit-part characters rolling… it still wasn’t engaging as heads rolling really should be.

This was a bit daunting. Everything else was great – except for the writing itself. This is something to grapple with, a challenge right up there with defeating an evil sorcerer. So, Gandalf the Wizard/Simon the Mentor gave me advice that was something like, become the character before writing. Visualise yourself in the character’s body and engage with the five senses. What can Hine or Pakū touch? What can they taste, smell and hear?

Visualise yourself in the character’s body and engage with the five senses. 

I gave this a go. I tried – I really did. I visually imagined myself as the characters in my head. I rode that giant moa, I fought the evil sorcerer, I imagined being kidnapped by an unknown blue-hooded stranger. I made myself vomit with fear. It was better, Simon assured me. But still… not there yet. There was something else. I was telling too much and needed to Show, Don’t Tell. This was the first time I had ever heard of this.

What is Show, Don’t Tell? Well, as far as I know – it’s allowing the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts and senses rather than through description. In her workshop, Paula Morris alluded to Show, Don’t Tell through Point Of View – writing from the POV of the character.

Hine and Pakū face insurmountable evil, cursed and grotesque animals, skeleton people, a scar-faced sorcerer and taiaha wielding men who have “no-eyes”. Because of this, fear is a pretty common emotion in my manuscript. So, instead of saying “Hine was afraid”, if you Show, Don’t Tell, it’s “Hine’s chest tightened”, “Hine froze”, “her mouth was dry”, “her brow was covered in sweat”, “she rubbed her sweaty hands on her skirt”. From this, the reader assumes (if it works) that Hine is under some kind of stress and from the context – that it would be fear.

Show, Don’t Tell through Point Of View – writing from the POV of the character.

Now I’m sure there have to be better examples than that (if you do know of any please share in the comments below so I can steal them haha) but the point is that these are the kinds of things I’ve had to think about.

Confusingly, all writers actually DO tell. I know…right? Confusing. If you look at it this way, it would be pretty hard to write a novel that didn’t tell at all – not once. Especially in the Young Adult genre and with an action-packed storyline.

This is what is so confusing about this concept. You have to Show Don’t Tell, but actually, do tell, but not too much. Give enough information for the reader to understand what is going on, but don’t over prescribe. Otherwise, you are robbing them of the chance to fill in the blanks – to recreate the novel as they see it in their own minds.

Give enough information for the reader to understand what is going on, but don’t over prescribe.

So, I turned to the help that was suggested at the workshop, and on a surprisingly windy day I wandered into Wellington City Library and picked up “Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction” by John Casey. Now this book is not a page-turner by any means. The best way to describe it would be that it hurt my brain. I felt likeI was reading the ancient texts of some religion, or perhaps the oral teachings of Te Papa Tupu mentor “Yoda” (aka Author James George).

An excerpt:

“A common fault among younger writers, especially good ones, is to become enchanted with complex ornamentation…[…]. I once took a writer to the Washington National Cathedral (a good duplication of English gothic). We looked at the vaulting – finer and finer tendrils sprouted. But the bases were as big as a house. You can’t almost seethe way around. You can feel, you can almost hear them as if you were in the engine room of a ship larger than any ever built. You don’t need to explain that you couldn’t get the tendrils way upt here without these roots. Or that the delicate tendrils wouldn’t be as beautiful if they weren’t a culmination of force…”

It’s heavy. It’s wordy. I skim most of the words. My brows furrow. I feel the faintest twinge of a migraine, my brain whirring and I sigh, loudly.

In saying all that, I would still recommend reading it. I don’t know if I understood, but I am always hopeful that subconsciously I absorbed its teachings – through osmosis. Will it help? Will the newly edited manuscript dazzle with ping?

One can only hope.


Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) loves writing. Sometimes what she writes is good and sometimes it isn’t. But she persists nevertheless, in the form of essays, poetry and articles. Ataria’s writing has been published on E-Tangata and you can follow her poetry on Instagram @atariarangipikitia.

The Three Ed’s and a Bit of CD

Editing, editing, editing. The three Ed’s and a bit of character development. You see a month, or so ago, I had finally finished the manuscript to my YA fiction novel. The elation that I felt at that time, it was real. There I was, staring at that beautiful final sentence couched in clouds of are splendent white page.  It was fantastical. It was fabulous. For a week or so.

Then it wore off.

Like most writers who are just starting out, I mistakenly believed that finishing a novel is the hardest thing in life. Bashing out those thousands of words day-after-day. Surely there’s nothing harder than that. All I knew was that I had finally joined the league of “extraordinary writers” who’ve finished a BOOK. My ego swelling to hot-air balloon proportions. The Māori J.K Rowling of Aotearoa here I come. After a week or so floating around in “I’m a famous writer already land,” I decided to start editing my “amazing” novel.

Editing is hard work! It literally takes longer than writing the words in the first place.

So, I began by re-reading each sentence line by line and fixing grammatical errors. I also did some more character development and finessed the storyline. It was at this point that I realised how much more work this novel needed. It had seemed so good when I was bashing out words on a keyboard, but now I knew I was staring at just the beginning – the trainer wheels stage – of a truly imaginative and enjoyable book for young adults. During this time, I also learnt something else. Editing is hard work! It literally takes longer than writing the words in the first place. To top things off, editing can sometimes make the writing even worse than it was in the first place.

In my opinion, there’s a fine line between editing and DESTROYING the work.

In the space of a couple of weeks, I edited the first two chapters and emailed them to my Te Papa Tupu mentor. Simon is a freelance editor and an excellent one at that. He knows how to take an average manuscript (unlike mine obvs) and somehow magically turn it into an enjoyable book with interesting characters, and storyline readers will love. Even so, it was a hard pill to swallow receiving his feedback with the central theme being – shock horror – that the characters in the story are too perfect.Too perfect? Too perfect! But they are perfect! “But why?” I ask. “Why can’t the characters be perfect?” Of course, Simon had a readymade answer.

“Perfect characters are boring. Imagine a perfect character.”

I screw my face up in disgust. You know the ones, the beautiful princess in the castle or the stunning model with the to-die-for wardrobe and wealthy parents. A photo of Kate Middleton taken just after she had given birth where she looked like she had played a gentle round of golf, some yoga and then meditated instead of had a baby. Too perfect. Okay, point taken Simon the Wise. I don’t want my characters to be like that. But then, what do I want them to be like?

In search of devious ideas, I turn to those people around me (my whānau) who due to whakapapa have to pretend (sometimes unconvincingly) to care about my book and my questions. I start with my sister and the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbour Totoro. “What do you think about perfect characters? Do you think Totoro (a furry, cute, giant forest spirit) has flaws?” She suggests that Totoro doesn’t feature enough in the movie to really have flaws. I tell her about my predicament, the perfectness of the Patupaiarehe people in my novel. She reiterates Simon’s conviction about the annoyingness of perfect characters and begins to conjure up her own ideas of how the Patupaiarehe could become more three dimensional. “What if they are shy? What if they hide in the forest and don’t want to come out? They could be scared, terrified of the main evil guy.” I love her ideas, and I gleefully realise something. Corrupting characters is actually quite fun.

The whānau that corrupts imaginary thought forms together stays together.

Next, I ask my mum (Mumma J). Mumma J loves Star Trek so I suggest that the Patupaiarehe might be a more “spiritually advanced” race than humanity and therefore imperfection may not be as necessary. Now one thing about my mum, she doesn’t need any excuses to talk Trek. She launches into a detailed commentary of various characters on the Starship Enterprise and how they too possess their own imperfections. We return back to the task at hand. Corrupting the Patupaiarehe.

“What if they are arrogant because they think they are better than humans” suggests Mumma J. I take this idea and run with it. “The Patupaiarehe could believe they are superior over humans and therefore always choose to put the forest and the animals first… which could lead to them risking the life of Pakū (a human boy) to protect themselves.”

I am mulling over these suggestions in my head when I receive an email from Simon. It reads, “Ngaro is a bit too healthy. Maybe he was tortured or is held by cruel bonds that are magically tied to be as painful as possible. This means Pakū will have to rescue him as well.” To which I respond, “He should be broken both physically and mentally so Pakū has to help piece him back together… ooooooohhhhhh. This is good!” This is so juicy. Together Simon and I have just mentally and physically harmed the imaginary thought-form named Ngaro in this book, allowing Pakū to further develop as a character.

My eyes glimmers lightly as I imagine having this much power in the real world. Mwahahaha.

But what this really blog highlights is the unexpected tedium of editing, challenges of character development and power of collective brainstorming to solve all problems. Which leads me into the single-handedly best thing about being part of Te Papa Tupu. Your mentor.Someone who gives a fuck about your book other than the ones that literally birthed you or are forced to care due to whānau/societal expectations.

Because to be honest, no one really gives a fuck about my book, or your book, or anyone else’s book as much as I do/the writer does.

Unless perhaps, you are Māori J.K Rowling of Aotearoa. So, to have someone – an editor no less – who are giving their time to me and the book I wrote? Straight privilege.

Thanks, Te Papa Tupu.


Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) loves writing. Sometimes what she writes is good and sometimes it isn’t. But she persists nevertheless, in the form of essays, poetry and articles. Ataria’s writing has been published on E-Tangata and you can follow her poetry on Instagram @atariarangipikitia.

Some Guidance Required

You know how I was saying that one day I might be able to introduce myself like this, “Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author”? The last month has shown me that while I might be able to say that, I can’t follow it up with “And I’m kinda good at it.” Because if I have learned anything this past month it’s that I have a great deal left to learn. A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN. Like the proper use of capitalisation for instance.

“I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story.”

My whole life I’ve read story, watched story, listened to story, told story. But I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story. I’ve picked up a few things. Like it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that things should happen to people, and that we should care about these people. So, I wrote this story, it’s pretty long, ninety-five thousand nine hundred and four words, at the end of my last edit. That is twenty thousand more words than when I first thought I’d finished. And it’s not nearly done! Half of the notes my mentor leaves point out things I haven’t explained properly. Or mentions a character I haven’t fleshed out properly. Or weaknesses in the structure that need to be reinforced or plugged. Or worse, points out where the chapter should end.

Chapters! It’s a perfect example. When I wrote my story, especially at the beginning I wrote to an audience. A small group of supporters who I emailed my story to every night. I would put my kids to bed, watch a bit of TV with my wife, and then sit down and write for a couple of hours. I’m not a fast writer, I don’t type quickly, so it’s a drawn out and laborious process. In two hours I can write maybe a thousand words. So, I would write away into the evening, or the early hours of the morning. And my chapters would end when I got too tired to go on. I’d see a break point coming up, I’d try to finish on a hook, to make it exciting for my email audience, then I’d save my document, and go to sleep.

“You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story, so you know where the tension rises, and where it falls.”

Turns out that chapters should have a purpose beyond letting you go to bed. Who knew! They should have a beginning a middle and an end. They should take a character on a journey, and the choices they make need to be inevitable. Each chapter should be like a little story of its own. They may or may not be made up of separate, thematically linked, scenes each one of which should kinda have a beginning a middle and an end. These are general rules; some books don’t have chapters at all. But that because the authors made a choice, not because they went a really long time without going to sleep. I’m learning how to think about chapters as I write. At the same time, I’m learning how to give my characters distinctive voices. I’m trying to remember not to use too many tropes, or cliché. Trying to remember to show stuff happening, not just have it reported (action is more exciting). I’m struggling with expressing my characters emotions. And making sure things are happening while they are talking, so they are not just disembodied heads chattering away (ironically, I have disembodied heads chattering away in my story, but you never hear what they have to say).

But before you can do that you need to actually write down who your characters are, and what they are like, what they think, and why they are trying to achieve. You need to plan and document your world; how does it work? What’s it’s history like? It’s government, it’s economy. Now does it view non-binary genders? What about gender politics? Matriarchy? Patriarchy? You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story, so you know where the tension rises, and where it falls. I’m not sure my writing style suits this kind of preparation, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it, it means I have to do it after I’ve written the story. I call it postparation. And this is important because I need to know this stuff, so I can use that information while I am editing. To improve my consistency, and make sure the characters are acting in a way that makes sense and in a believable way (even if they are not supposed to be sensible and the things they do are unbelievable)

“I struggled this last week to re-write two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell, with the characters I needed to tell it with.”

There are so many balls to juggle that I didn’t even know I was holding. So many. And some chainsaws, and knives, and probably a bowling ball. But there are also butterflies, and doughnuts, and puppies. Not every note is an error to be corrected, some are notes of congratulations, inspirational suggestion, or slight adjustments that I just know will make my words sing. And there is nothing like looking back on my writing and seeing how I have improved. How my story is better. And sometimes I think that maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to write a paragraph without using an adverb.

It’s hard, hard work. I struggled this last week to re-write two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell, with the characters I needed to tell it with. I had three birds, and only one stone. I just couldn’t get traction, and my deadline approached. In the end I just decided to do it badly, make a ham-fisted job of it. Not because that’s what I want to do, but because once it’s on the page I can go over it and refine it until the turd is nicely polished. And if I can’t polish the turd, if I can’t see the shine under the muck, my mentor can tell me where to start.

That’s the magic of this whole thing. Someone who is good at this, someone who can see the diamond in the rough, takes the time to give me advice. Tells me how chapters work. That adverbs are the devils work, and how doing is better than telling. Leaves notes I can weave into the sheet to make music from laboured beats.

It’s invaluable, these pieces of advice, so hard to juggle today, will become second nature. When they are, then I’ll be ok at this. I’ll still need an editor, it’s really very hard to see your own errors. I’ll never stop learning. But maybe I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.

“I’ll never stop learning. But maybe I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.”


I’ve attached a picture of the two chapters I edited this week, zoomed right out in Word, all the colours in the image are changes I’ve made. All the red dots are suggestion my mentor made on the first draft.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.

Characters: hanging on to what matters

When I last met my mentor, Alia Bloom, we shared coffee in the sun on the terrace of her home, and I hesitantly agreed with her suggestion to dispatch Buddy Winter.

I created Buddy so it was only right that I be the one to destroy him. He was an awful man, but like a nasty old uncle who nobody likes, he was part of the family, and allowed everyone else to feel better about themselves.

Driving back to Hawke’s Bay I lamented that the loss of the man whose, ‘complexion was the colour of wet slate with hands so swollen his knuckles were mere creases beneath angry skin.’  By the time I reached Woodville I was having second thoughts. Without Buddy there would be no ranting about the Vietnam War, ‘Westmoreland was totally incompetent. He couldn’t understand guerilla warfare. None of the brass did. Carpet bombing. What a mess. I flew over Cambodia and Laos in seventy one. Where they’d bombed looked like a landscape from the moon.’

On the long stretch of the Takapau Plains Buddy fought for his life. ‘Who else will help Sam Yuan with an entry visa?,’ he taunted me. And, ‘If you dump me you’ll have to get rid of Danny too, and Mr Lau. What about Lau? You gonna kill him too?’  Buddy was ex CIA so knew all the tricks to seed doubt in my mind.

Fortunately I had Leonard Cohen on my side, ‘Everybody knows that it’s now or never, everybody knows that it’s me or you.’ So I cranked up the volume and Buddy shut up for awhile. But he was back again by the final verse, ‘And everybody knows that you’re in trouble, Everybody knows what you’ve been through.’

I stopped in Flaxmere to visit a friend. He’s got a ‘green’ reputation, if you know what I mean, and Buddy, being a raging opium abuser saw that as a way to play the moral high ground. He’s as cunning as a front bench politician, and by the time I reached Waimarama I’d conceded to his persuasion, that rather than kill him off, he played a diminished role.

About an hour into reshaping Buddy’s influence in my book, I heard my Mother cry out. The tone of her voice had me on my feet and up the stairs real fast. My Dad was slumped in his chair. ‘I think he’s dead,’ she said. I cupped his head in my hands. He was cold and blue. Did I think, ‘It’s Buddy that has to die, not you?’ I don’t know. But I pulled my Dad out of his chair and when he hit the floor I thumped his chest. He caught a breath. I rolled him into recovery position and we waited for St John.

After that it was easy to let Buddy die.