Show not tell

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When I sent off the manuscript for my children’s book to a copy editor (as recommended by Matador, the self-publishing company I use), I rather thought that the editor would be impressed by how few corrections were needed. I was firmly under the impression that my grammar, punctuation and general layout were pretty good, and having gone through it countless times myself, I couldn’t really see any areas for improvement. I imagined the editor looking at my book on their screen, and raising their eyebrows as they nodded with approval. Surely, I suggested to the dog, the editor would probably decide not to charge me, on the basis that my manuscript needed no further work? The dog agreed. After all, as far as he was concerned, the fact I could even hold a pen was an astounding achievement.

I was in for a shock when the manuscript came back – incredibly, considering how many times I had gone through it myself, there were quite a few basic mistakes that had been identified – words in the wrong place, missing words, extra words, too many spaces between words, not to mention spelling mistakes and too many commas. Thank goodness I’d decided to have the copy edit done – it was obvious to me now that going through the book, over and over again, didn’t necessarily identify all the errors; clearly a fresh eye was needed, to pick out the remaining mistakes.

The copy editor also recommended that I give some thought to something called ‘show not tell’ – the idea of letting your reader see the thoughts, actions and emotions of your character, rather than describing them, in order to prevent your own, ‘authorial’ voice from getting between the character and the reader. For example, instead of saying that ‘Hannah felt nervous’, I might say, ‘Hannah’s heart began to race’.

I struggled with this concept a bit, but as I looked at the dog, sleeping peacefully on his chair, it occurred to me that he was the perfect example of ‘showing not telling’. Although he was very bright and understood a huge amount of spoken English, there was no denying that being unable to speak, could have left him in a predicament when it came to communicating his needs and thoughts. What should he do, when he wanted to tell me that his water bowl was empty and he was thirsty? But being an expert at ‘showing not telling’, for him it was simple – all he needed to do was pick up his empty water bowl and throw it at my feet. What about when he was bored, and wanted to play? Easy – just grab a chewy bone and whack me smartly on the ankle with it. How should he respond when I made a derogatory comment about the state of his fur? A loud snort always got his message across.

Clearly, I needed to see the world more from his perspective, if I was to get the hang of ‘showing not telling’ properly. I hadn’t realised when I started the writing process that I would have so much to learn, and I certainly hadn’t realised that the dog would be up there amongst my teachers… I’d have to start treating him with more respect!

(Many thanks to Sarah from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy!)