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.

Writing to Catch the Imperfection

Ataria reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This journal entry for Te Papa Tupu is a week late. Late, late, late, late. As one of the selected writers for Te Papa Tupu, we have only a few jobs. To work on our manuscript and write one blog post per month. ONE. You might think this is not a lot. That would be a true statement. If I’m perfectly honest with myself, I haven’t been able to write this because I don’t have anything to write about. I haven’t been feeling inspired; lately, no juicy revelation has spurred me on to journal blog writing paradise. Maybe I’ve lost all my enthusiasm. Perhaps I’m just overwhelmed by it all.

I suppose I should write about how amazing it is to be part of Te Papa Tupu. How amazing it would be to be a published writer, or even better, a professional paid writer. Making a career out of something I love. Except sometimes I wonder, would life be any better if I was paid to write every single day? What if I didn’t feel inspired … like I don’t right now? Would being paid to put pen to page provide any more impetus than being a part of the Te Papa Tupu does now? Would sitting in an office or shed every day with my computer provide me with the writing life that I think I want?

Nothing is perfect; that much I’ve learnt on this journey. My flight from Wellington to Auckland for the second Te Papa Tupu workshop was cancelled. Cancelled. Eagerly, I was dropped at Wellington airport at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. flight. Sadly, I didn’t arrive into Auckland until 5 p.m., missing the entire workshop. A workshop that just happened to be with indigenous Australian author Dr Anita Heiss and Māori author Dr Paula Morris. This totally sucked. But it happened. No, I didn’t get to meet Anita Heiss. I didn’t get to catch up with my mentor. There was no second Te Papa Tupu workshop (at least for me).

See things aren’t perfect. Life isn’t perfect. The challenge is, how do we keep writing amongst the imperfection? Or is that the point. Are we meant to capture the flaws of life in our writing? Are our lives imperfect and even the perfect writing life incomplete because without imperfection we wouldn’t have anything to write about, nothing to inspire, nothing to piss off or annoy, get the blood boiling, the heart-pumping?

Why do I write? To escape. To create the worlds that I want to live in. Create the worlds that other authors haven’t yet created for me. Do I care if people read my worlds? Not so much as I care that I got to experience it. Maybe that’s what writing is about. Escaping. Escaping the imperfection, the mistakes, the missed workshops, the cancelled flights, the letdowns, the lack of inspiration. Escaping it all into a good book, or even better, into my own writing.


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.

What Is Creative Non-fiction?

What’s creative non-fiction? What’s an essay? What’s the point of all this writing? These are the questions swimming around in my head right now. I began last month with a burst of energy and inspiration. I got out a bunch of books from the library and immersed myself in the genre of creative non-fiction. At first, I enjoyed all this reading and reflection. I could almost see the possibilities opening up in front of me. Unlike the academic essay, which intentionally fabricates emotional distance between the writer and their subject, a creative non-fiction essay is all about the spaces in between. The subjective experience is the motivation. You’re rewarded for admitting what you don’t know and examining your own ignorance on the page.

Cheryl Strayed (whose book Wild was turned into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) says that a good essay should end with the unwritten line ‘and nothing was ever the same again’. She’s talking about the way an essay should stay with you, change you. A good essay should pick you up in one place and drop you off somewhere else entirely. Of all the things I read and reread, her quote is the one I printed out and stuck on my noticeboard:

‘Behind every good essay there’s an author with a savage desire to know more about what is already known. A good essay isn’t a report of what happened. It’s a reach for the stuff beyond and beneath. Essayists begin with an objective truth and attempt to find a greater, grander truth by testing facts against subjective interpretations of experiences and ideas, memories and theories. They try to make meaning of actual life, even if an awful lot has yet to be figured out. They grapple and reflect with seriousness and humour. They philosophise and confess with intellect and emotion. They recollect and reimagine private and public history with a combination of clarity and conjecture. They venture into what happened and why with a complicated collision of documented proof and impossible-to-pin-down remembrances. And they follow the answers to the questions that arise in the course of writing about what happens wherever they go. The essay’s engine is curiosity; its territory is the open road. This is what makes them so damn fun to read. The vibrancy and intimacy, the mystery and nerve, the relentlessly searching quality is simultaneously like a punch in the nose and a kiss on the lips. A pow and wow. And ouch and a yes. A stop in a go.’

‘A savage desire to know more about what is already known’ is the sentence that sticks out. And also ‘impossible-to-pin-down remembrances’. I feel like this is entirely the territory of my manuscript. I’m going through the stuff of my past, holding it up to the light and turning it this way and that, unsure what is true at the same time as I know how things turn out.

What I’m doing feels like a form of therapy. This gives me occasional attacks of self-consciousness. Who wants to read about all these unspectacular people and unspectacular events in my unspectacular life? It’s a question I try and avoid because doubt is debilitating, and I really want to submit this manuscript so that I can go to Aussie next year to the Sydney Writers’ Festival with the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers.

In a moment of reaching, I sent my mentor, Paula Morris, an email, and asked her if it was normal to feel ‘icky’ about my writing.

She replied like an editor, not a therapist. ‘Avoid vague words like ‘eventually’. You need to give details. Specifically, when did these things happen? Where did you go? Not ‘across town’ but from which suburb to which suburb?

She’s right, of course. I could see what she meant as soon as she pointed it out. She also wants more characterisation, which is something I don’t think I’m very good at. Characterisation has to do with the little details that help the reader to picture the people that only you, as a writer, can see. It’s the kind of stuff Ashleigh Young nails. In her award-winning book of essays Can You Tolerate This?, she describes the vet as ‘a cheerful man with a loud guffaw who’s as tall as it is possible to be’. She likens her mother’s delicate mouth to the edge of an upturned saucer.

I’m not very good at this. I find it hard to describe people. My father, unoriginally, has brown skin and deep frown lines like gashes on his forehead. I don’t know how to liken him to anything else. He is the thing I compare other things to. I would describe the couch, for example, as something that holds the shape of my father.

Ashleigh makes all this seem deceptively easy. It’s not as though her words are fancy or complicated. It’s that she sees the world in a very peculiar and interesting way. I’m not quite sure if I do. I think it’s one of the reasons I struggle so much to ‘think’ in Māori. In Māori, you wouldn’t say that someone is forgetful; you’d say he tangata māhunga wai – that guy’s got a mind like water. You wouldn’t say someone is old; you’d say they have hairy ears – taringa huruhuru.

Perhaps that’s another reason I should prioritise my reo studies. Seeing the world with a Māori lens might give my characterisation in te reo Pākehā the boost it’s missing.


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

A Story to Tell

Tēnā tātou katoa. He uri tēnei nō Ngāti Hine, me Ngāpuhi. Ko Tokerau te maunga, Ko Taumarere te awa, Ko Waiomio te whenua. I tipu ake ahau kei Tāmaki Makarau ki te tonga i te taha o tōku Māmā – no Ingarani ia. Ko Wallasey te whenua, Ko Cheshire te rohe, Ko Mersey te awa. Nō reira, he Māori, he Pākehā ahau. Tokotoru aku tamariki, kei Porirua mātou e noho ana.

He mihi maioha ki te kaipānui.

All my life I’ve wanted to write fiction. Not sci-fi or fantasy but the kind of fiction that’s believable. Characters so real that when you’re finished with them the reader is convinced they exist. A few years ago, living in Abu Dhabi as an expat and stay-at-home mum, I had the opportunity to give this dream a shot. Every day, after dropping the kids off at school, I sat down to write. I wasn’t entirely sure of the plot or the characters, so I started with exposition (fancy word for blabbing-on). It sounded brilliant, but by the next day, I could see it for what it was: a yawn-fest.

I moved on to writing scenes. I used my kids as inspiration. These stories were better, with the added bonus that the kids loved them. Each day, they’d jump in the car and ask if I’d written another chapter. They’d argue with each other about the story arc of ‘their’ character and push me towards outrageous and implausible plot twists. But it was hard to get these fictional characters to do what I wanted them to do. The caution I had to exercise to protect my kids’ feelings was like writing in a cage. I was more captive than captivating.

Eventually, I gave up writing and started reading. Not leisure reading, but the kind of reading that takes hours and hurts. I deconstructed passages of my favourite novels the way an architect might eye up a building to see how it’s put together. The more impressive the novel, often, the more invisible the author.

One weekend, enrolled in a writing workshop, a teacher asked us all a question: ‘Who feels as though they have a story to tell?’

I didn’t dare put up my hand. In fact, I suddenly felt ridiculous. I had no story to tell, and this frivolous dream of writing a book became apparent for what it was: self-indulgent and egotistical. I finished the workshop and went home and not long after that we came back to New Zealand.

I returned to what I knew: policy and research. The thing is, I didn’t stop writing. Instead, I stumbled into a genre I didn’t even know had a name: creative non-fiction. To me, I was just writing introspective, rambling stories about the things I cared about: my reo journey, my kids, education issues and a few long-winded pieces on identity politics.

E-Tangata gave me my first break in 2015, publishing the first essay I sent them. From there, I had a few other things published, and I won a couple of awards (thanks NZSA and Michael King Writers Residency). Then along came Te Papa Tupu. I thought for a long time before throwing my hat in the ring. Resurrecting the dream of writing a book was something that filled me with unease, not just because I was scared of failing (again), but because I wasn’t really sure if I was ready.

Most of the essays I’ve published up until now have been pretty formulaic – 1500-word think pieces pivoting around a single idea or theme. They’ve tended to explain rather than explore. They’re persuasive essays intended for an online audience, but they stop short of deep introspection. The manuscript I sent in to Te Papa Tupu was something quite different. They’re still essays, but they’re longer and more personal. They don’t deal with just one idea or theme but multiple. The stories are about people and relationships as much as they are about issues.

This is the real reason I was afraid: in telling my story, I invariably end up telling the stories of everyone else close to me. My whole family gets implicated. Fiction seems so much safer because you can hide the truth behind a veil. But these aren’t made-up characters, they’re real people, and they all have a stake in what I have to say.

I wasn’t sure what scared me more: that my manuscript would be rejected or that it would be accepted.

In the end, I’m so glad it was accepted. I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be to work through these doubts and fears. The first workshop emphasised manaakitanga as a foundation of this programme. As well as creating the conditions necessary to become a better writer, we’re supported through strong relationships. My mentor is Paula Morris, someone who I’ve admired and looked up to for a long time. I get the sense that she’s going to be tough, but I know that the quality of my work depends on it. I’ve also been fortunate enough to spend some time with John Huria, whose feedback has helped me see so much more potential in this genre than I’d ever seen before. In addition to our mentors, we have each other – five other writers going through a similar journey.

It’s early days, but my unease has already begun to dissipate. I’m beginning to feel more excited than nervous. Outside the restrictions of the formulaic 1500-word essay, I can sense a freedom to explore language and ideas and to weave history and research into the narrative. I’m keen to challenge myself in new ways and in new directions. Best of all, I can see all the skills of fiction that I spent all those years trying to master finally coming into play.

I’m looking forward to writing about this journey here on the blog. I’d like to use this forum to discuss the mentoring process and to share some of the highs, lows and general insights. If you’re interested in reading some of my essays, please feel free to stop by my website: nadineannehura.co.nz. You can also read a more in-depth piece about Te Papa Tupu that I wrote for The Spinoff here.

And if you’re reading this feeling as though you might have a story to tell and wondering if Te Papa Tupu could be for you, chances are it is! Don’t let the doubts get the better of you. Keep writing, keep reading – and one day it’ll be your turn to write this blog.

Noho ora mai.
Nadine


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.