Tag Archives: Writing Tips


Friend and fellow crime-writer, Sue Coletta, gives this insightful cameo on the show vs. tell struggle in storytelling.

Sue15We’ve all heard it many times. Show vs. Tell, the advice that haunts many new writers. It can be very confusing. All telling can be just as bad as all showing. More experienced writers know that it is that perfect mix of both that creates a dynamic, well-rounded story.

Sue7The best advice I can give is to read, read, then read some more. Study how the best-sellers spin a good yarn. Basically it comes down to this: We need to show our stories as they unfold, but we need to do it in a way that evokes a visceral response in our reader. In a way that allows the reader to fill in the blanks with their imagination. But we also need to tell parts of that story so our characters don’t sound melodramatic and our books don’t end up being six hundred pages long.

If you think back to your favorite books undoubtedly they’ll be the ones that you pictured in your mind as you were reading them. Those are the novels that stay with you. Why? Because those authors used a perfect mix of telling, showing, and really showing.

Sue10It’s no secret that I’m a huge Karin Slaughter fan. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. So, awhile back I found her on Facebook and I was reading some of the comments she was getting from her fans. For those not familiar with her work in addition to stand-alones she has two series: Grant Pass series and Will Trent series. One of her fans wrote in and asked what Will Trent looked like.

Her response: “He looks exactly how you pictured him.”

Because the fan was a reader and not a writer she didn’t fully understand why she meant by that or why she wouldn’t expound. But the truth is she couldn’t. If she did she’d ruin the image her other readers had created in their mind of Will Trent.

We writers can help that image along by showing a specific characteristic without giving a laundry list of features. For instance:

Sue16Telling: “He had bright blue eyes and was six feet tall.” Showing: “His piercing blue eyes looked straight into my soul, and I knew he’d soon uncover all my lies.”

In the latter we’ve given a specific characteristic by showing our character’s emotional response to that feature. This becomes more important with main and secondary characters than with walk-ons– a minor character in one or two scenes. And here’s where telling comes into play. If it’s necessary for the reader to know that a nurse, say, is a blonde, then just tell them. No need to waste extra words on non-essential characters.

Telling: “That guy’s an ass.”

Sue18To show your reader that the guy’s an ass you’d have him crunch someone’s glasses under his foot, or beat up an old man. Really showing is when that same man is in a bar fight with your MC and he smells the guy’s sweat, watches his facial ticks, hears someone from the crowd shout “Kill him!”, tastes blood in the back of his throat.

During short interludes– when not a lot happens over a period of time– we tell the reader what happened. This could be a couple of sentences or a paragraph in length. It could even be three words. “Two days later.”

Sue9Basically, we use telling when we need to transition from point A to point B, or when we are divulging the character’s backstory– in tiny bits peppered throughout the novel.

Let’s say for instance nothing happens on the ride over to a crime scene. The reader does not need the play-by-play. They don’t need to be inside the MC’s head the whole time. Tell them what happened. Tell them that “the detectives arrived thirty minutes later.” When it’s a plot point we want to show the reader what happened. Showing can be a sentence or a paragraph in length. Really showing can go on for several paragraphs or even pages.

The following example of “showing” is from Karin Slaughter’s Beyond Reach.

Sue12The lighter dropped onto her lap, the flame igniting the liquid, the liquid burning her clothes. There was a horrible keening– it was coming from her own throat as she sat helplessly watching the flames lick up her body. Her arms jerked up. Her toes and feet curled in like a baby’s. She thought again of that long-ago trip to Florida, the exhausting heat, the sharp, unbearable rip of pain as her flesh cooked to the seat.

The following example of “really showing” is from Karin Slaughter’s Fractured.

Sue14Automatically, her hands wrapped around his thick neck. She could feel the cartilage in his throat move, the rings that lined the esophagus bending like soft plastic. His grip went tighter around her wrists, but her elbows were locked now, her shoulders in line with her hands as she pressed all of her weight into the man’s neck. Lightening bolts of pain shot through her shaking arms and shoulders. Her hands cramped as if thousands of tiny needles stabbed into her nerves. She could feel vibrations through her palms as he tried to speak. Her vision tunneled again. She saw starbursts of red dotting his eyes, his wet lips opening, tongue protruding. She was sitting on him, straddling him, and she became aware of the fact that she could feel the man’s hip bones pressing into the meat of her thighs as he arched up trying to buck her off.

And it goes on for a few more paragraphs. As you can see, the difference between showing and really showing is length and detail. With really showing the writer gets into the finer details of the scene. “Lightening bolts of pain shot through her shaking arms…”

By really showing a scene the writer makes use of most or all of the senses– sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell– instead of just using one or two.

Sue1In short, we use telling for transition or traveling or telling what we’ve already shown so we aren’t being repetitive, and showing for plot points, actions, reactions, responses, to crank up the tension, etc. It takes more words to show a scene than to tell it.

By mixing them, we keep our reader engaged and keep them flipping pages. And that is what makes our stories come alive on the page.

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Sue3Sue Coletta is a crime fiction writer who’s authored four novels– soon to hit the shelves, so keep watch! She’s a member of Sisters In Crime and Crime Space and blogs with twenty-four traditionally published authors at: www.auniqueandportablemagic.blogspot.com.

Visit her Murder Blog, where she discusses writing tips, musings, and crime fiction at: www.crimewriterblog.com or follow Sue on Twitter @SueColetta1




I’m honoured to have Stephen Templin guestpost on DyingWords. He’s the author of the NYT BestSelling Seal Team Six and Trident’s First Gleaming. He also survived BUD/S.

SEALSNavy SEALs often talk about “mental toughness” but what is it and how can one use it for writing thrillers?

In Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, after surviving Hell Week, I wanted to know more about this mental toughness in myself and others—use this behavior as a key to unlock the secrets to success in life.

Years later, I discovered Self-Efficacy Theory by Albert Bandura, and wrote my PhD dissertation on it, the closest thing to mental toughness that I could find and the most powerful predictor of human motivation. This theory states that if you strongly believe you can accomplish a task or group of tasks, you are more likely to succeed than if you don’t believe.

Tactic #1

Believe you can accomplish the mission.

SEALS2Some people dismiss this as being too simplistic or basic, but if they take time to seriously think about the strength of their belief in writing a novel, the dismissive folks will probably realize how weak their belief has been. Weak beliefs lead to less effort, focus, and persistence. Failure is already decided. In contrast, strong beliefs lead to increases in these areas. Success is not guaranteed, but the impossibility now becomes a possibility.

Tactic #2

Set specific, challenging goals.

SEALS3SEAL Team Six’s mission in Abbottabad was clear, capture or kill bin Laden. When I signed my first contract for a thriller novel, my publisher, Simon and Schuster, wanted a novel that was at least 75,000 words. So that word-count was my goal.

Tactic #3

Break the goal down into specific, challenging objectives.

111208-N-OX319-045Staring at a blank page and imagining that becoming a 75,000-word novel is like standing at the bottom of Mount Everest and thinking, “How am I ever going to make it to the top?” Being vague about your purpose will lead to disaster. Even with specific objectives, if you climb too quickly, you risk injury. If you climb too slowly, you may run out of supplies or freeze to death before you summit.

You have to pick a pace that is not too easy but not too difficult for you. I chose 2,000 words a day, but even though I wrote full-time—working 9 am to 5 pm was not nearly enough time to reach my daily objective, and I was risking burnout. When faced with a tight deadline, there may not be much choice. When I dictate my own schedule, my objectives are 1,000 words a day, five days a week—I should be able to finish the novel in about 75 working days.

Tactic #4

Create strategies to achieve your goal.

SEALS11When SEAL Team Six raided Osama bin Laden’s headquarters, they used a stealth helicopter—one useful strategy that led to surprising the enemy, aiding the assault.

The business side of writing, like guest posting today, takes time and cuts into novel writing time, but one must be conscious of this and plan accordingly. If I’m launching a new book, my writing takes a back seat, but once that book is out doing its thing, business takes a back seat and writing returns to the forefront. Just say, “no.”

Taking a hint from author Joanna Penn, I highlight each day of my calendar that I succeed at writing 1,000 words. At a glance, the yellow marks give quick performance feedback. I also like to congratulate myself when I reach milestones: 1/3 finished (25,000 words), ½ finished (37,500 words), and 2/3 finished (50,000 words). There are loads of strategies waiting for you to find and invent.

Use what works for you.

Tactic #5

Remember previous successes and know that you can succeed again.

SEALS6The SEALs who raided bin Laden’s compound had succeeded at numerous missions before, and they knew they could succeed again.

As a beginning writer, I wrote English papers in high school and short fiction stories and knew I could do it again, and more. Then I wrote college papers and longer short stories. And I just kept building and building.

These successes, however small, are encouraging. Forgetting them too soon can invite discouragement.

Tactic #6

Get to know others with similar abilities to yourself.

SEALS7Their successes will be almost as valuable as your own because you’ll believe you can succeed in doing what they did.

Numerous researchers have shown these six tactics can lead to increased success in education, business, sports, careers, families, and so on.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to believe you can write a thriller novel.

As always, should you or your team be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. 

Good luck.

SEALS13Stephen Templin is a New York Times BestSelling author. He survived US Navy B/UDS which is the US Navy Seal equivalent of doing the Fan-Dance in the British Army’s 22nd Regiment – the Special Air Service.

SEALS9Stephen is the New York Times BestSelling Author of Seal Team Six. It’s a must-read – not just for thriller fans who want to run with the Special Forces – but for writers who want to know how the secret of why SEALs succeed can apply to their careers. (Spoiler Alert – it’s having the mental toughness to prepare and never, ever quit) I highly endorse Seal Team SixIt’s a superb read! 

Here’s the trailer for Stephen Templin’s new release Trident’s First Gleaming.

SEALS10Former SEAL Chris Paladin leaves SEAL Team Six to become a pastor, but CIA spook Hannah Andrade pulls him back into Special Operations Group, the ultra-secret unit that SEAL Team Six operators and others served under to eliminate bin Laden. Chris and Hannah are joined by Delta Force’s Sonny Cohen to stop a new terrorist threat from launching a deadly cyber-terror against the United States.


This guest post is by Dr. Kim Foster who is a practising physician, a published author, and a mom. She’s also an active health blogger. 

Kim1Just in time for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I thought I’d do a post about how to write a first draft.

Because let’s face it, first drafts are hard.

It’s no secret, it’s not my favorite part of the process. I love the outlining / dreaming / planning stages, and I love the revising / shaping / polishing stages. The first draft stage? Not so much.

But it’s okay. It has to get done. Here are my seven tips for conquering that first draft.

1. Carve out the time.

Kim3Seems obvious, right? If you want to write a novel, you’re going to have to find the time in your schedule…somewhere. It just won’t get done otherwise. The world is filled with people who dream of writing a novel, someday, when they find the time. Don’t be one of those people.

We all have time challenges, and the solution will be different for everyone.

That said, I have lots of thoughts on how to find the time to write. It’s something I have wrestled with, and found many solutions for (and continue to find solutions for, in this ever-changing life).

During my blog tour a few months ago I wrote a guest post on how to find the time to write. If you’re struggling with this issue, start there.

2. Forget about quality, just get it done.

To get your first draft finished, you simply have to write. You have to get it down. Why? Because, as Nora Roberts wisely said, “You can’t edit a blank page.”

Kim4My first drafts are absolutely horrible. They’re barely literate, filled with little notes and reminders to myself—stuff I know I’ll tackle in subsequent drafts (like: “describe sights and smells of the market here…”). I do that because speed is important to me in a first draft. I think there’s a certain momentum you need to achieve when writing a first draft, because it’s so easy to get sidetracked and distracted. Writing a first draft is a whole lot harder than, say, binge watching Game of Thrones.

So first drafts should be pretty bad. I’m not alone in thinking this.

“The first draft of anything is shit.” -Ernest Hemingway

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” -Anne Lamott

Cut yourself some slack and just get those words down. You will have plenty of time to rewrite and hack it apart and flesh out the sensory descriptions of markets…but that will come later. First, just get the story down.

3. Don’t worry about balancing the elements of fiction.

Kim5Here I’m referring to all the weaving and layering that needs to occur in a finished novel. Your polished novel needs to contain a balance of character stuff, dialogue, narrative, flashbacks, backstory…and much more. 

But trying to keep all that in mind while you’re throwing down the first draft is making it harder than it needs to be.

Just keep telling the story, and worry about those things later. 

If you get to a spot where you know you want a certain element—a little bit of character development, say—but you don’t want to slow down, just jot a note to yourself to flesh out that bit on a subsequent draft. 

Especially if you’re a pantser, once you’ve got the first draft down, and you know how it all shakes out, you’ll be able to go back and add those elements much more effectively. 

Kim6Now, it should be said that some people have the ability to do the balance thing in their first draft. And if you’re one of those people, well—go, you! My critique partner, Karma Brown (whose debut comes out in May 2015, by the way) has an amazing ability to get all those components down in her first draft. I actually don’t know how she does it. 

When I went to New York this summer for Thrillerfest I listened in shock as Lee Child said “I’m a one-draft writer.” 

But most writers—me included—need to weave in those layers and threads during the revision process, and that’s completely okay. Revising in layers is the approach I take, and it’s what many of us do. 

4. Don’t think about pacing.

Here I’m talking about both the pacing within a scene, and the overall pacing of the story. Neither issue needs to be dealt with during the first draft. That’s because it’s something best analyzed once you’ve got the whole story down. During the first draft, don’t sweat it. 

Kim7As you’re writing the first draft, you may reach a scene you can clearly envision, so your descriptions will be deeper and your dialogue more fleshed out. You may not have other scenes figured out quite so fully, so your treatment of them—on first pass—will be more cursory at this point. 

You may also have a string of slow, reflective scenes back to back, and then a run of action scenes…which may not be the pace you’re going for.

That’s okay; it will all get sorted out in subsequent drafts. 

During revision, you’ll be able to consider the entire structure of the book and how each scene fits in. Pacing will be different for every book, of course, depending on genre and the particulars of your story.

5. Don’t worry about voice.

Kim8I consider the first draft to be about finding the voice for the story. And I don’t mean POV. That’s different. It’s probably a good idea to decide who is telling the story before you start—but depending on how much of a pantser you are, you may not even have that figured out yet. 

No, when I say “voice” I mean that difficult-to-describe quality of…the sound of the story.

Is it spare and lean, or flowery? Sarcastic? Hard-boiled? Snappy? Poetic? 

I read an article somewhere that listed the things you needed to have figured out before starting to write your first draft, and voice was one of the first. My palms grew sweaty at the idea. How can you possibly have the voice determined before writing the draft? I wondered. 

There are many things I know (or think I know) before writing: the main characters, the climax, the ending, key scenes. But the voice? Nope. That evolves for me as I’m writing the first draft. It comes out of character as I’m telling the story. 

Kim9Plus, I think if you worry too much about having a cohesive voice before you even start, it’s going to slow you down while you’re writing that first draft. You’re going to keep stopping and wondering if your voice is consistent, you know? 

Ideally, by the time you’re finished your first draft, the voice has emerged. And then, cleaning up, honing, and polishing that voice becomes a revising layer.

6. Give yourself a deadline.

I think this is a big part of the success of NaNoWriMo. Because NaNo creates a clearly defined—but do-able—timeframe. And although it’s all completely voluntary, there’s something about the accountability to the community that applies needed pressure. 

Without a deadline—whether self-imposed or detailed in a book contract—writing a first draft tends to stretch on and on. 

Oh, I’ll finish my book…eventually. 

Kim10A deadline lights a fire. If you’re organized, a deadline means you need to meet a word quota, whether it’s a daily or weekly quota. It keeps you from straying. 

So, impose a deadline. Make yourself accountable. Create a pact with a writing partner or your critique group. Join NaNo or another writing challenge. Whatever it takes. 

The pressure of a deadline can mean the difference between finishing that book and being one of those eventually people.

7. Keep moving forward.

Kim12Think of your first draft as a train going in one direction only. Don’t go backwards and re-do stuff while you’re in the middle of your first draft. That’s another good way to never finish a book. If you get caught up on tweaking and polishing and thinking about things too much, and you’ll never get the book written. 

Keep moving forward and get the whole story out.

Have faith that you will go back and change many things. Resist the temptation to re-read what you’ve written. You will probably be horrified by what you see (refer to point number 2, above), and nobody needs that. 

Keep your confidence intact, keep your head down…and just keep pushing forward. 

 *   *   *

Tamea Burd PhotographyDr. Kim Foster is a practising physician, a writer, and a mom. She’s also an active health blogger. 

After thirteen years of stitching people’s lacerations, treating their sore throats, and checking their blood pressure, Kim recently became a very successful, published author. She has a wonderful agent, Sandy Lu of L. Perkins Agency, and a 3-book deal with Kensington Books. Kim’s first novel A Beautiful Heist was published in June, 2013, and the sequel. A Magnificent Crime was released in June, 2014. She’s hard at work on her third book. 

Kim15Dr. Kim obtained her BSc in Biology in 1994 from The University of Western Ontario. She then attended medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and graduated in 1997, followed by a two-year residency in family medicine. She holds an active license with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, and is a member of the Canadian Medical Association and the College of Family Physicians of Canada.

Kim14Born and raised in Oakville, Ontario, Kim has lived in Calgary, Vancouver, and London, England. She now happily calls Victoria, British Columbia, home and lives there with her husband and their two young boys. Kim maintains two websites – www.kimfoster.com which is her author presence and www.drkimfoster.com which is her professional medical site titled Savvy Health.

Thanks so much to Kim Foster for her guest post on DyingWords.net. She’s a terrific writer and I highly recommend her books and blogs.