“Show, don’t tell” is one of my all time unfavorite of the commonly passed around “rules of writing.”

It’s also one of the most poorly understood. A lot of the “rules” that get handed from writer to writer are just silly. At best they’re applicable to one sort of story, at worst they’re head-scratchingly ridiculous. But Show, Don’t Tell has that extra layer of “WTF that’s not even what that means.” I guess it’s the Passive Voice of writing rules.*

First off. Every “rule” of writing is situational. That is, when a writer sits down to write, they have a particular set of aims for the work they’re doing. Some of the techniques available to our writer will be more or less appropriate to the project in hand. Some will be useless, or incredibly inappropriate. There is no one set of tools and techniques that will do the job right every time, not unless you’re knocking out more or less identical works every time. Which is fine, if that’s your thing, right? But it’s not the only way to do fiction. Thank Mithras.

Second–styles and techniques go in and out of fashion all the time. Those “rules” are not Eternal Laws of Fiction, but a catalog of what’s “in.” And a superficial catalog, at that–hold that list up next to recently published, popular and/or critically well-regarded fiction and notice how often some “rules” are honored more in the breach than the observance.

So. Show-don’t-tell. It’s complicated, situational advice that has been packed into such a tiny phrase that it’s become almost entirely useless for conveying the actual concept–unless you already understand it, of course. But it’s not (generally) being passed around by people who understand it.

The thing is, it’s better to show, not tell, unless it’s better to tell. The trick, of course, is knowing when that is. By and large, it’s nearly always better to show, not tell when you’re trying to convey character and motivations, particularly when that character and their motivations affect the plot. So it’s not enough to tell us that Jane hates Jack because he stole her research and then won a Nobel Prize for it, and that she has in fact become horribly embittered by this. Not if you want the reader to really, truly believe that Jane would, as a consequence, devote the rest of her life to breeding an army of gigantic, ironic-dynamite-toting cyborg voles that, in the fullness of the plot, she will unleash on Jack and the Nobel committee.

No, you’ll want to show us what sort of a person Jane is, demonstrate her character instead of just telling us she’s bitter and out for revenge.**

But really, it’s all in what you’re going for, right? There are modes in which “look this king was the evilest ever and that’s why he’s imprisoned the hero” is a perfectly cromulent move. “Pride and envy grew in her heart like weeds,” the Grimms tell us, and move right along to the queen’s assassination attempts.

So, to sum up–in matters of character and motivation, it’s (nearly always) better to show, to demonstrate, rather than merely assert.

But show-don’t-tell often gets mixed up in questions of how to handle exposition. Non-characterization exposition, I mean. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where often the world in which the story occurs is not a familiar one, and the reader needs a certain amount of information fed to her so that she’ll understand the story.

Now, it’s true that “showing” a worldbuilding detail can be tremendously effective. You want that tool in your box. But it’s also true that you’ll need to summarize or narrate things–it’ll be easier on the reader that way, it’ll be quicker, whatever. What you want is a good balance–you want to show the things that need to be shown, and tell the things that need to be told. What the right choices are will depend on what you’re aiming at, and who your audience is. Telling yourself you need to “show” all the time will not help you.

For the past several decades (I think?) there’s been some fetishizing of a kind of exposition that’s all “show” and no “tell.” A disdain for infodumps goes along with this. And well, sure, the incluing technique is really effective, and badly done, indigestible chunks of explanation or history that stop the pacing dead are no fun. But incluing has its limits, and a beautifully done paragraph of exposition can sometimes do the job better. In fact, I’d argue that well-written exposition of that sort is one of the distinctive pleasures of SF&F.

The simplistic “Infodumps are bad, show don’t tell!” advice won’t help you do exposition better. It will, if you take it without any kind of thought or modification, give you unnecessary heartburn when you run into a situation that is really, truly best handled by just telling the reader what they need to know.

And don’t tell me about how that kind of exposition is difficult to do well so newbies should avoid it. No. Do not avoid practicing the thing you want to learn to do, particularly if that thing is difficult and needs to be done really really well.*** That thing you want to do? Try to do that thing, not some second best, safe option.

So, yeah, no, I’ve got no time for “show, don’t tell.”

___
*IME a lot of folks who solemnly intone that passive voice is bad are, shall we say, under a misapprehension as to what it actually is, and often as not I find they misidentify passive constructions. And that’s leaving aside the question of actual passive voice having actual, legitimate uses.

**You also probably want to show us those giant cyborg voles, because honestly that kind of story is all about the mutant creatures and the blowing stuff up, although that’s not really what “show don’t tell” is talking about.

***Your best source of helpful writing tips is always going to be the fiction that you love, or that does really really well the thing you’re trying to figure out how to do. Way, way better than some list of “rules” you don’t even know where it originally came from.

As the post title says, the Hugo Packet is available for download.

You’ll need your Hugo voter PIN, which if you’ve forgotten it you can request here.

Like last year, Orbit has included the first hundred or so pages of Ancillary Sword in the Hugo Packet, rather than the full novel. And it looks like there are complete copies of The Goblin Emperor and The Three Body Problem, both of which I think you’ll enjoy (if you haven’t read either or both already).

You can still get a supporting membership, and with it the right to vote in the Hugos (and download the packet) and Worldcon site selection, by the way. If that’s something that interests you, well, click on over and sign up.

I sent in my site selection ballot this morning, as it happens. Helsinki 2017!!!!!!!!

So! It occurs to me that I should let folks know what conventions I’ll be at this year.

Of course, we’re well into 2015, and I’ve already attended ICFA (which was a great time! Met lots of awesome new folks and got to hang with awesome folks I already know) and the Arkansas Lit Fest, which was a blast.

Next up, Phoenix Comicon. That’s in Phoenix, right? From May 28-31. I’ve seen a draft schedule, and it looks like I’ll be having a lot of fun and meeting cool new people.

After that, I’ll be at the Nebula Awards in Chicago.

I’m spending the summer mostly at home! On July 11 I’ll be talking to the St Louis Writers Guild. I think it’s at 10am at the Kirkwood Library. Watch this space for more specific information as the date approaches.

I also plan to be at Worldcon, in Spokane. I’ll only be there Saturday and Sunday.

And then in October, the 16th to the 18th to be exact, I’ll be at ICON.

For 2016 I’m already planning to be at ConFusion, Vericon, and Penguicon.

I will try to keep a pocketful of Awn Elming memorial pins on me, so if you want one and see me at any of these events, I’ll be happy to give you one.

As the subject line says. Hugo voting is open, and there are instructions at that link for how to recover your voting PIN if you’ve misplaced it.

This is also a reminder that if you are at all interested in the outcome of the Hugo Awards (not everyone is, that’s cool, scroll on by), a supporting membership of this year’s Worldcon comes with voting rights, and nominating rights for next year. It also, by the way, comes with voting rights for site selection for 2017 (though an extra payment does apply if you want to vote for site selection), and just personally I think a Helsinki Worldcon would be hella fabulous. Just saying, you vote how (or if) you like.

Supporting memberships to this year’s Worldcon are available at this link.

When I first voted for the Hugos, several years ago, I didn’t fully understand the voting system, or how No Award fit into things. But I’m going to be entirely honest, I have felt the need to use No Award in at least one category every single year that I’ve been eligible to vote. No, I’m not going to say what I’ve No Awarded over the years. Nor am I going to tell you whether or how to deploy No Award yourself, if you’re a Hugo voter. That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself, for your own reasons.

What I am going to do is provide you with a link to Kevin Standlee’s explanation of how No Award works in Hugo Voting. The more information you have, the better your choices can align with your aims.

Y’all are familiar with Con or Bust? If not perhaps you should be. The aim of Con or Bust is to help fans of color get to conventions, and they fund their endeavors with an annual auction.

If you just go to their front page and start scrolling, or browse the tags, you’ll find all kinds of cool things to bid on. Quite a lot of signed books so far, but there are other things as well. Go check it out!

And as it happens, there are some auctions posted that have been donated by my publisher, Orbit.

  • There’s this Science Fiction Grab Bag, which includes a copy of Ancillary Justice, a copy of Leviathan’s Wake, a copy of Fortune’s Pawn and an ARC of Kim Stanley Robinson’s newest book, that’s out in July.
  • There’s tea and memorial pins! This one is kind of donated by me and Orbit both. The winner will get some Justice, Propriety, and Benefit, along with two memorial pins that read “Awn Elming.”
  • And last of all, you could bid on a signed, first chapter of Ancillary Mercy. I want to be very clear, this is just the first chapter. It is not the entire book.
  • And if none of those things intrigues you, I don’t doubt there’ll be other things posted as time goes by that might.

    About those pins–I had them made up and they arrived here about a week ago. I have quite a few. I figured I’d post a few at a time to my Etsy shop, at cost plus shipping (if it were only a few I’d eat the shipping, but this is way too many for that) and I threw a batch of twenty up and tweeted and tumbled and figured I’d blog when I had a chance, but they all sold out in about five minutes. The next batch took about an hour. Same for batch number three. I don’t have time to mail out all the ones I have all at once, so I’m posting them in batches of twenty, mailing those off, and then posting another batch. The next one will probably go up next Monday. And if you miss it, and want a pin, just keep an eye on my shop, there will be more.

    And if you see me in person at a convention, I might well have some on me and would be happy to give one to you.

    I did not think I would be blogging today.

    It’s a lovely Sunday, the weather is gorgeous, and so Mr. Leckie and I went out to the Shaw Nature Reserve for a nice long hike. Some of it is in cell phone range, but most of it is not, at least not for my carrier. We saw turtles, and heard chorus after chorus of spring peepers, which fell silent as soon as we got near them, and daffodils, and a few early-blooming wildflowers, and I got all mud-spattered and it was lovely.

    Then we walked back into cell phone range. And my phone started buzzing. And kept buzzing. And I said to Mr. Leckie, “I wonder what happened” and looked, and it turns out that Ancillary Sword has won the BSFA for Best Novel.

    I knew it was a nominee, of course. But I figured Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon would probably win, which thought pleased me, so I went off on my hike without even considering what I might put in a blog post if it came to it.

    The lovely and talented D. Franklin was there representing me, and I have no doubt did so fabulously. Super big thanks again, D! You rock!

    And super big thanks to the members of the BSFA. I’m well aware that it’s not a common thing to win such an award two years in a row, let alone for a book and its sequel. I’m tremendously honored. Thank you so much.

    I’ll close by suggesting that since most readers of my blog have probably already read Ancillary Sword, you might want to check out Lagoon. Or, really, anything by Nnedi Okorafor.

    Yes, the news is out. Ancillary Sword has been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel.

    I have two things to say–first, thank you to all my readers and all the fans of the Ancillary books. You folks are awesome. You write by yourself never knowing if anyone will read what you’re writing, let alone whether or not they’ll like it, or think it worthy of any sort of honors. You do the work anyway, because it’s your work to do. So when it turns out someone likes it–maybe lots of someones!–that is the most amazing moment. Enough someones who not only like it, but think it worth of a Hugo? Beyond amazing, and all the more precious because it was unlooked for. I cannot thank you sufficiently.

    The second thing. If the Hugos are something you care about (if they aren’t, just scroll past this, no worries), I am here to tell you that becoming a Hugo voter is not terribly difficult. You go to the website of the current Worldcon–that would be Sasquan this year– and read the instructions–that page has a link for currencies besides US dollars, but for US dollars, scroll down to where you can pick “Supporting Member” in the dropdown box. Fill out the rest of the form, pay your forty bucks, and there you go. Or you can mail in your membership form with a paper check, instructions at the link above. Then once your membership is processed you’ll get a PIN and a link to vote for the Hugos.

    Once you’re a member of Sasquan, you’ll also be able to nominate for next year’s worldcon, by the way. So if you read something fabulous this year, jot it down somewhere so you can put it on your ballot for next year!

    And this ought to go without saying, but I have no expectations that you’ll vote the way I would. In fact, I rarely ever even tell my close friends in private how I vote, so it’s not like any of you could do that if you wanted, except by accident. So. If the Hugos are something important to you, and you’ve got forty bucks kicking around, consider a supporting worldcon membership.

    Back to the important thing–you’re all awesome, thank you so much.

    So, I do in fact have a tumblr. If you are a fan artist who wants me to notice Imperial Radch art, tumbl it and tag it and it’ll end up on my Pinterest board.

    But, long story short, there are some things I say and do over there that don’t generally get posted here. Mostly silly, as it happens, but there was a recent concentration of silly that I figured I’d share outside of Tumblr.

    So. This happened: The One Esk Annoying Song Playlist. Which is more or less what it says on the tin, but includes this:

    And if Seivarden tries to start an earworm war, she has NO IDEA the forces she is unleashing.

    Except that she probably does have some idea, because I have the feeling someone found out the hard way how long an ancillary decade can keep singing 99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall.

    “Wait!” says I. “Wait, I really want to share with you a thing from Ancillary Mercy at this point!” But I can’t, really, can I? Book’s not out till October and this is waaaaay to early for previews or teasers or what-have-you.

    Well, maybe it is. But. So, I tumbled:

    Actually, it was probably that song about the thousand eggs, hatching into chicks one by one by one by…

    Oh, wait, nobody knows that song yet.

    Which led to someone observing that it must be the Radchaai equivalent of “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and then I thought to myself, well, in for a penny and besides it’s not actually much of a spoiler and I’m having too much fun, so. For your delectation, The Egg Song:

    1000 eggs all nice and warm
    Crack crack crack! A little chick is born
    Peep peep peep peep! Peep peep peep peep!

    I suggested that I might release one verse a day until AM comes out.

    Then this happened. Content warning: pictures of adorable fuzzy chicks, plus non-Twinkle Mozart earworm link.

    And then I got to thinking more, which is a hazard, and this happened. Content warning: delicious marshmallow chicks, plus silliness.

    Peep peep peep peep!

    But then, I thought, all those identical Peeps. Oh. Of course.

    And then, also of course, this.

    I probably got all there was to get out of that. I am not going to promise not to make any more Ancillary Peeps jokes, though, because really, why would I do that. I will say that Peeps are only available during Easter, which is almost upon us, and so once the sun sets on Half Price Easter Candy Day and all my Anaander Peepanaais and Peepsarwats meet the inevitable fate of delicious marshmallow chicks, I won’t actually be physically able to for another year.