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 3 a.m. 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 like I 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 see the 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 up there 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.

A Place to Grow

I took this photo during my time in Tokyo. It is of a lotus about to bloom. I’ve always loved the Buddhist view of a lotus – as a lotus can grow out of mud and blossom above the muddy water, we too can rise above the mire and messiness of our lives. We can transform.

Last week we had our final Te Papa Tupu Workshop in Wellington. We kicked off with HUIA Executive Director Eboni Waitare inviting us to reflect on our  journey with the programme, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto and Whiti Hereaka. That session was followed by informative and stimulating workshops: point of view with Paula Morris, story arc with Simon Minto, marketing and personal branding with Waimatua Morris and publishing with Robyn Bargh. We finished up by sharing thoughts on where we see ourselves going with our work, before heading off to drinks and nibbles with Creative New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers’ staff, and finally dinner and cocktails at The Library – an aptly named and decorated watering hole for book nerds like us. It was a full day, and I believe we all left with full hearts … yes, I am a giant cornball. I admit it.

At the mentor meeting, James George asked me what was going on, as I’d said I was in a bit of a slump. I explained that I was having difficulty with creating more of a narrative spine in some of my stories. I was feeling blocked, and I wasn’t sure why. As always, he cut to the heart of things very quickly:

find some other place where there is some energy in your work and work on that / a piece of description, a piece of dialogue / something poetic and wistful / what are your strengths in this collection? / what are you good at? / don’t look at what’s not there / maybe it isn’t there / have confidence that you have fascinating subject matter that you can invoke truthfully / you may have to confront a truth about yourself that you are terrified of / let your characters speak their truths to you / make the undercurrents noisier / more disruptive / pile these themes / not to fix them / embrace who you are and what you do.

Once again, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be here, now.

During the workshop discussions, James George made a great point that HUIA invests in writers, unlike other publishing houses who harvest. This makes HUIA very unique. I feel incredibly supported and nurtured by HUIA, and by each and every person who is a part of the HUIA whānau. I am so grateful that I was able to thank Robyn Bargh personally for what she has built for us. What she has created is phenomenal, and a success story. This opportunity came at a time in my life when I deeply needed someone to believe in me. Take a chance on me (lol Nadine). I was so ready for it. It’s been life changing. It’s been emotional. It’s now my dream that we will take this beautiful taonga that HUIA has given us and share our stories on the world stage, to inspire and uplift our people and make them proud.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Birth Pangs

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’m working on a story set in the Hokianga in the 1950’s, based on true events that I am reshaping. Reimagining. I wasn’t there, obviously.

James George (mentor): ‘This is the strongest opening to any of the stories so far. Has real punch, and the economy, almost flatness of style really allows the implications to burn.’

My mentor’s comments are encouraging, yet I’m still having a hard time working on it. I sent the opening to Nadine (Hura) who said: ‘I got chills reading it. I got the feeling I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t stop reading.’ I replied that my writing often makes people uncomfortable, and she said ‘Do you feel resistance writing these subjects?’ Which is something I hadn’t even considered … that the countless ways I distract myself from sitting my ass down in the chair and writing aren’t always down to simple laziness and lack of motivation. That perhaps the themes in this particular story are difficult for me to face.

I’m surprised I didn’t consider this question of internal resistance myself, earlier. I’ve written before about subjects that are personally painful, like teen suicide. It never occurred to me that this could be challenging. It’s a curious blind spot.

I’m reminded of a printmaking class years ago, with the incredible artist and teacher Marty Vreede who talked about how there is a pain threshold when making art that you have to push through. And that one often isn’t aware of what the art is really about until the fullness of time reveals it later.

There was a quote that resonated with me during my art school days, written about the artist and my whanaunga, Ralph Hotere, and I’m paraphrasing here because Google isn’t helping. Something like ‘The meaning of suffering was the genesis.’ This holds resonance again for me now, especially as JG pointed out a biblical undercurrent in my current story.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I do know that I have to fight through my internal resistance and shut down any and all negative self-talk. Be kind to myself. This is brave work. Fuck Imposter Syndrome. I’ve cut the booze back, which helps. I’m present and clear-headed, mostly. Now I’m gonna sit my ass down in the chair and push the words out, one by one. And hope that it will all mean something, in the end.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

A Void

It feels like I’m sending these journals into a void. Like an actual journal, for my eyes only, which is kinda freeing.

I had writer’s block until recently. Prior to that, I wrote a short story about a Japanese piano teacher who goes on a surfing trip to deal with a broken heart. This melancholy tale poured out of me in two or three days. Working in the second person for the first time gave me a sense of urgency that propelled the story forward, and I found that almost breathless quality made the writing experience deeply enjoyable.  I’ve learned that Voice Is Key. I’ve realized that once I have the voice right, the story flows. The words come from somewhere else. Every creative person knows this feeling. You become a channel for the universe to express itself through. We’re all jonesing to get back in the zone. Where do ideas spring from within this state? The nothingness of a blank page. The collective unconsciousness. The void.

My mentor, the novelist James George, has a startling intellect. The kind of person who makes you feel like you’ve somehow gained a couple more IQ points after listening to them. Or more accurately, desire to be smarter so you can fully comprehend all the gems they keep dropping. I told him I was struggling with my short stories. Unlike writing a novel, which you can potentially plot out and continue moving forward towards an ending, whenever I finish a story I have to start again. Almost from scratch. New protagonist, new POV, new plot, new voice. This is a complication with writing short stories for a cycle. How many ways can you write about a thing? And I wasn’t totally sure what that thing was. There were many things!

James spoke to me about the notion of a controlling idea. He talked about Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises about a damaged soldier coming back from war, a familiar Hemingway trope, and how this controlling idea gave Hemingway licence to roam through a landscape; to write about bullfighting and real drinking expeditions, changing the names only. JG explained that once the controlling idea is set in the reader’s mind, you can do that. I really liked the sound of this … how a controlling idea could give me some freedom to roam around too, in this psychological hinterland I’m conjuring that floats between Tokyo and New Zealand.

JG said, and I’m paraphrasing here, what truths are coming out? Is there a presence you can use as a controlling idea? The thematic presence is like a vessel where everything is being held like a bowl of soup; a series of reflections and responses to this central theme. It can be very subtle; a thematic resonance rather than a direct through-line. Every single thing doesn’t have to point to the master plot. Also, what are you leading up to here? Someone, after reading your short stories, will ask, well what do I make of all that? How close do I feel to the conflicts and ideas I’ve read about?

Plenty to ponder. I looked at the fifteen or so stories I’ve written and methodically listed their themes, which include loss, intimacy, the male gaze, mothers and daughters, the expat experience, dislocation and where is home anyway? A theme of running away emerged, which, although should have been obvious, took me by surprise. However, that was not my controlling idea. I realized that what’s really behind it all, although yet to be dealt with directly in any of my stories, is transgenerational trauma. Kinda heavy and something I’ve been trying to, well … avoid.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018