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.

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.

I Have Always Been a Bookworm

When I was a child, my mother worried that I didn’t get out and spend enough time with friends, but who needs friends when you have books?

I’m joking! I’m joking. I have many wonderful friends.

But I also have many wonderful books.

I spent a lot of my childhood embedded in pages. Mum didn’t need to worry; the books were taking very good care of me, leading me on all kinds of adventures through this world and countless others.

We come from a long line of avid readers, so the whole bookworm thing wasn’t really a surprise. However, my choice in books was a puzzle my mother could never solve. Our extensive, extended family library was mostly composed of science fiction and fantasy, and while those are genres I adore, it’s horror that really captured me.

It still does.

I love that breathless sensation you get when you think something bad is going to happen. The way the skin at the back of your neck tingles and your shoulders shrug into your ears as if you can save yourself – save the characters in the book – with that movement. The way your feet lift off the floor, subconsciously tucking underneath you because who knows what’s hiding in that space beneath your seat. As if these little movements will protect you from killer or monster, from the unknown, the unknowable.

The way that even after you’ve finished the book you might hear something, and it triggers that gasp, that inhalation, that rush of adrenaline you need to get the hell out of there and somewhere safe.

Oh yeah, I love horror.

So, it’s no surprise that I love to write things that creep people out. The vast majority of my short fiction has elements of horror woven in. Which brings me to Butcherbird because it was the first time I set out to do this in a longer format.

You see, I’d been writing a lot of romance and the need to creep someone out was overwhelming, an itch that needed to be scratched; I needed horror. Not the B grade slasher film type (not that there is anything wrong with that. I love a good B grade slasher). I’m more into the subtle chills, the rising levels of discomfort and fear than I am blood and gore. I want the creepiness that lingers, the one that’s kind of familiar and could be waiting for you around the next corner, in the next person you meet. The one that follows you home (the creepiness, not the person, though that’s creepy too).

‘I want the creepiness that lingers, the one that’s kind of familiar and could be waiting for you around the next corner, in the next person you meet.’

I had this idea, and it hit me in the way the best ideas do, which is to say while I wasn’t looking for it at all. (I was actually playing Minecraft with the kids. Seriously, ideas can come from anywhere.) I was walking through a wheat field, water up to my knees, and it took me back to all the games we’d played in the rushes of the swamp on my grandparents’ farm. Birds swooping overhead, the sun blocked out suddenly by clouds, the drop in temperature that follows.

Once I’d scrawled down that initial flash of imagery, I set to work expanding this idea for a book and decided to fill it with all the things I love, and to set it on a fictional version of my grandparents’ farm, the very same place I spent so many years playing out stories with my cousins as a child.

And I couldn’t bring them to life – this book is not those stories, it’s a thing of its own – but all my memories of the farm, all my love of tales about family and secrets, of rural New Zealand and that slow-build fear that tickles the back of the throat are in this book.

These things aren’t perfectly honed yet, but they’re getting there with the help of my mentor, Whiti Hereaka. She’s making me think harder about all the elements I put in from the smallest reference to a book or object up to much broader things such as character motivations. I’ve spent these past weeks researching and reading, and all this background work means I’m coming back to my book and finding new ways to breathe life into the story, to add touches to dialogue and setting, to ramp up the world building and make the whole thing shine more.

‘I’m coming back to my book and finding new ways to breathe life into the story.’

It’s been really enriching to be forced to sink into research, to be directed towards specific texts to grow from and to pick my own as well, and a real challenge being told not to work on the book itself for weeks. My fingers were itchy for the craft by the time I was allowed back to writing.

I’d been slacking a bit on my reading goals, and this has all been excellent incentive to drown myself in books again.

This bookworm has taken her reading game to a new level.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Creating Is a Wonderful Thing

It’s midnight on Saturday. I am ecstatic, my cheeks red with exhaustion and exhilaration at the same time. No, I am not clubbing or at a party with friends. Here I am, sitting alone at the wooden dining room table, my heart pumping in my chest. I’ve decided that being a writer is isolating. It’s just you and the keyboard of your computer. Except perhaps for the friends I’ve discovered in the magical worlds I create through the use of words. Mōrena Pēpi Kiore (cute baby mouse). Kia ora Keatangata (cute baby Kea). As you can see, I like cute native animals in my storylines.

‘I’ve been reading books written by writers on their creative process.’

I’ve spent five months and too many days to count, writing this novel. Waking up early every morning, my laptop open and the unnatural light of the screen searing my sleepy eyes. I’m lucky I have the flexibility of being a university student as this week I’ve spent two entire days writing. My weight has increased as the amount of exercise I do has decreased to zilch, zero, nothing. If I could show it to you on a line graph (I can’t; I’m a writer), you would see the line representing my level of physical exercise plummet dramatically. My natural tan has become steadily more vampire-like. Sometimes when I arrive at university for ‘mahi’, I go straight to the postgraduate student cafe and order a herbal tea. There I sit with my laptop and write for a couple of hours before I get into my master’s thesis (also an imminently approaching deadline). Shoot me now.

I’ve been reading books written by writers on their creative process, including Terry Brooks’s Sometimes the Magic Works and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. From Talisman Terry, I’ve learnt that taking the time to draft an outline for your novel is a good idea. I realise I might have been over-estimating my writing abilities by creating my plot on the run. As Terry says, ‘now on top of that you want to mess around with trying to figure out your plot? Who do you think you are – Houdini?’ Ouch, that one hurt, Terry. So, I write a quick outline for this novel and then find my writing output increases tenfold because when I sit down to write, I now know where I am going and how far I have to go.

‘… if inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you’

From Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth, I’ve learnt that sometimes ideas magically ascend to those of us living a creative life and therefore must be grasped fully with two consistent hands. Otherwise, it may flutter over to someone else who cares for it more deeply, ‘because this is the other side of the contract with creativity: if inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you’. I am thankful I cared deeply enough about this story so it didn’t leave me for someone else. Two-timing manuscript.

I binge-watch two documentaries on the creative process of Hayao Miyazaki, the celebrated Japanese film director and co-owner of the fantastical Studio Ghibli. I learn about work ethic from koro Hayao of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke fame, who even at the age of seventy-two was still working on his movie The Wind Rises from
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday. As a writer, those long and consistent hours would seriously churn out some big books and fast.

I am astonished to find out that koro Hayao draws the entire storyboard of his movie by hand. Every single painstaking second of his movie drawn by hand. Sheesh, writing is an easy gig compared to old-school animating. He makes up the storyline as he goes. Often the entire studio doesn’t know the outcome until the completion of the entire storyboard. What I find most impressive about this is the faith that the million dollar financiers of his movies must have in his abilities. I imagine a conversation between koro Hayao and his investors.

‘Will you spend millions financing my movie?’

‘Sure what is the storyline? Who are the characters?’

‘I don’t know; I make it up as I go.’

‘Please, take my money.’

I read online articles on the creators of manga that inspire me, like Rumiko Takahashi and her Japanese mythological tale Inuyasha. All this so that my mind and body can be enthused with the kind of magical creative energy that will help me to complete this novel, or so I fervently hope.

So here we are. The first book I have ever attempted to write and the first book I have ever completed, all in one fell swoop. All 74,250 words, 343 pages and 35 chapters of it. I can see my characters Hine and Pakū in my head, or maybe they are in my heart. I wonder about the second book of the series that I hope to be able to write and how it might tie into the first. My eyes tear up as I reread the last chapter. I know this book is good. The ending worked out well; the characters grow and develop as they should in a coming-of-age YA novel.

‘I realise that I’ve become someone who contributes creatively to literature rather than just another reader who takes without giving back.’

It feels almost sad like the magical, hair-raising, exhilarating, awe-inspiring journey is over. But then I’m also proud that I wrote my own magical story rather than just reading someone else’s. I realise that I’ve become someone who contributes creatively to literature rather than just another reader who takes without giving back. Like Terry, Elizabeth, koro Hayao and Rumiko. But perhaps what I am most excited about is the story that I’ve written for me.

It is true; this story is the one I wish I could have read when I was a child. All aspects of it – the Māori goddesses, the wars, the animals, the battles, the beautiful and glorious nature – all of it is exactly what I like in a novel. It’s a compilation, an accumulation of the favoured preferences of the lifetime (so far) lived by one precocious adult. It’s magical; it’s special; it’s loving. I realise what this feeling is. It’s pride. Like the pride one feels when their child learns a new skill. This book is my baby. And my baby has grown into a teenager. She’s still got a way to go – a bit of editing, a lot of rewriting, moving things from here to there – but she’s on track.

I hope my bubble of happiness won’t be burst when I receive feedback on the completed transcript from my mentor. But for now, I feel proud. I thank my mentors Terry, Elizabeth, koro Hayao, Rumiko and, of course, my Te Papa Tupu mentor, Simon. I pat myself on the back (figuratively) and go to bed, my mind still racing from the adventure I created solely from the colourful recesses of my mind. Which in itself is amazing.

Creating is a wonderful thing.


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.

Tracing a Writer’s Whakapapa

What I think about when I think about writing?

I think too much.

This came after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Think about When I Think about Running. He took the title of his book from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

Which led me to thinking about what influences writers.

When reading a particular writer whose works I enjoy, I like to know who they read, who has influenced them, who they admire, who inspires them. These paths broaden my own reading and influences. Often these paths lead back to the same  names. For example, two of my favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both cite William Faulkner’s writing as an influence, and Faulkner has cited James Joyce.

I love Faulkner’s work, but I struggle with Joyce.

It is sort of like a writer’s whakapapa, tracing the roots of their writing.

My own writing seems so out of touch. There is no harmony; the words don’t match; the sentences are ambiguous; the plot is confusing; the characters are shallow. Why do I bother? I am feeling a bit of a fraud. It’s not easy. And I have to write a journal and expose my phoniness. It’s scary.

My son calls. ‘It’s just a story, Mum. Come for lunch.’

Back home, I sit at the computer and open my story. I am almost through another draft, changing from past to present tense. It seems to read better. It is time-consuming. I am also trying to find the answers to questions Reina has raised regarding the storyline and characters.

Question: What do my characters think about when they think about whānau?

Answer: …?

On Monday, I get an email from my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill: ‘Did you feel the earthquake, it was scary. Can you send my new fleece jacket before the summer weather.’

Novel excerpt: interaction between main character, Beth, and her father, Mikey, after period of estrangement.

‘I don’t suppose you’d be able to put in a word for him.’ They had the same eyes, father and son. Her eyes. ‘He’s had a bit of trouble, before he came down here. But you know him; he’s not a bad boy.’ Then added, ‘He’s whānau, Beth, talk to him.’

That was strange coming from him now.

‘He won’t be going home tonight. Court in the morning, and he may not get bail then either.’

‘Let him know I was here, that’s all.’

Despite the trouble MJ caused, Mikey loves him, wants to help, wants to be seen as a father. But she needs him too, she is the firstborn, she is the good guy, isn’t she?

‘You all right, Beth?’ He leans forward and his voice drops. ‘I mean, this Kevin. He been giving you a rough time?’

This time he is looking at her hard. What does he mean? Screwing around, giving her the bash? like MJ. And what was he going to do about it if she wasn’t all right. ‘I’m fine,’ she says.

‘Ria will want to see you. How long you down for?’ He leans back from the table.

‘I’ll call. Hard to plan anything at present with all the different shifts.’

Outside the café they stand with their hands in their pockets. She yields first, moves forward to kiss his cheek, misses and her lips met the collar of his fleece lined jacket. He settles a hand on her shoulder.

‘Whānau, Beth, remember. He’d like to see you.’

***