In which everything is upside down, so we start with a cat video ~ Five links of note ~ Some 2017 appearances ~ Q&A of the Month, on showing and telling ~ A nouveau novella ~ Two questions and a challenge for writers in the new political (dis)order ~ And a goofy bit of occasional doggerel.
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We're starting with the Marley picture this month, and ending with my letter.
I'm even trying something new:  a Marley video! There is no story to this video; nothing happens but the tiniest twitches; and if you do not share my fondness for the subject, you might easily get bored. But I find it remarkably calming in its stillness, and fascinating in its smallness... It reminds me how much is going on at every moment around us, which I so rarely stop to watch and appreciate. 

Marley in Meditation
"Anything we do reveals us."

- Michel de Montaigne

Five Links of Note
  • Zadie Smith on writing and dancing is an unalloyed delight.
  • Last week, Daniel José Older and Jackie Woodson discussed representation in young adult literature and our new political reality, among many other topics -- a sensitive, honest, and frequently laugh-out-loud conversation.
  • This essay by Jason Low does something rare in all of our discussions about diversity:  It offers an inside-the-publishing-house view of how and why publishers select manuscripts, particularly diverse ones, and why those projects sometimes turn out badly. (If you read the comments, skip the ones involving Michael Grant.) 
  • It is November, therefore you need a good veggie chili recipe. Done and done.
  • In 1968, Muriel Rukeyser published a "Poem" we all can use now:
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories, 

The news would pour out of various devices 

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen. 

I would call my friends on other devices; 

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons. 

Slowly I would get to pen and paper . . . 

Spring 2017 Appearances

February 8-11 - Associated Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.

February 16-18 - Desert Nights, Rising Stars Conference at Arizona State University

March 11 - JambaLAya SCBWI Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana

April 28-30 - Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Q & A of the Month

Q. Any advice you can give on show vs. tell would be immensely helpful!

A. I write about this in The Magic Words on pages 85, 89-90, 220, and 311, among other places; but here are a few more thoughts:

* “Show, don’t tell” has become one of those writing cliches that’s so commonplace it loses its meaning. Think of it instead as “Dramatize or describe, don’t state.” If you want your reader to know that your character is sneaky, don’t state “Dennis was the sneakiest little boy in Springfield.” Instead, dramatize a scene where he quietly steals from the Halloween stashes of all his brothers and sisters. If you want your reader to understand the grandeur of the castle your heroine is approaching, don’t state, “It was the largest structure Arzina had ever seen.” Instead, describe how many towers it has, how far the walls stretch in each direction, how tall the gates stand, the thickness and purity of the stone. I’m reading Leigh Bardugo’s marvelous Six of Crows right now, and here’s the moment where one character, Nina, first sees her imprisoned ex-lover, Matthias, in a fighting arena:

Now he looked like what he truly was:  a killer. His bare torso seemed hewn from steel, and though she knew it wasn’t possible, he seemed bigger, as if the very structure of his body had changed. His skin had been gilded honey; now it was fish-belly white beneath the grime. And his hair—he’d had such beautiful hair, thick and golden worn long in the way of Fjerdan soldiers. Now, like the other prisoners, his head had been shaved, probably to prevent lice. Whichever guard had done it had made a mess of the job. Even from this distance, she could see the cuts and nicks on his scalp, and little strips of blond stubble in the places the razor and missed. And yet, he was beautiful still. 

Can’t you see Matthias in front of you now, and feel all his pent-up strength, humiliation, and (quite possibly) consequent rage? That is damn good showing. 

* When either dramatizing or describing, remember:  You are a movie camera. That means you have a responsibility to give us everything we need to know about what’s right in front of us — Matthias’s size in the example above, the tone of his skin, the status of his hair -- because you are our only possible source for that information. But you also are the movie director, with the ability to set up a camera angle and choose the lens, and your decisions there give the facts we see feeling and meaning. Six of Crows is written in multiple limited third-person omniscient, and Nina’s memories of how Matthias used to look invest his present appearance with a tenderness, even a pathos, that another character’s point of view wouldn’t have. 

* Use all five senses. Here’s another passage later in that same scene in the arena:

At the last second, Matthias dropped into a crouch, knocking the first wolf into the dirt, then rolling right to pick up the bloodied knife the previous combatant had left in the sand. He sprang to his feet, blade held out before him, but Nina could sense his reluctance. His head was cocked to one side, and the look in his blue eyes was pleading, as if he was trying to engaged the two wolves circling him in some silent negotiation. Whatever the plea might have been, it went unheard. The wolf on the right lunged. Matthias crouched low and spun, lodging in his knife in the wolf’s belly. It gave a miserable yelp, and Matthias seemed to shudder at the sound. It cost him precious seconds. The third wolf was on him, knocking him to the sand. Its teeth sank into his shoulder. He rolled, taking the wolf with him. The wolf’s jaws snapped, and Matthias caught them. He wrenched them apart, the muscles of his arms flexing, his face grim. Nina squeezed her eyes shut. There was a sickening crack. The crowd roared. 

There aren’t scent, touch, and taste notes here, because Nina is too far away to experience those, but “bloodied knife,” “blue eyes,” “muscles of his arms flexing”:  These small visual details play up the intensity and physicality of the scene. The “miserable yelp” and “sickening crack” (note the italics) allow us to hear what the characters are hearing, to be in the scene with them. And that is really the point of all of this dramatizing and description:  To have us readers live the action in real time with the characters, so we feel like we are there.

[Note also the strong action verbs; the short, tight sentences of this fight, compared to the longer, more leisurely phrasing of the description of Matthias above; the way Ms. Bardugo only uses multiple clauses when she wants to slow a moment down (“the muscles of his arms flexing, his face grim”). Those effects match the sound of the scene to its content, which contributes to the immersiveness of the experience, and is another sign of excellent, truly next-level writing.]

* Finally, minimize and pace out your explanations — your telling — to serve your larger story ends. Throughout this passage, we see how reluctant Matthias is to fight the wolves, and Nina’s deep sympathy for him in the situation. But the cause of his reluctance is only revealed in the paragraph after the fight above, while it’s still going on:  “Wolves were sacred to his kind . . . They were friends and companions, fighting side by side with their druskelle masters.” That moment of telling deepens the showing by creating a deeper emotional subtext for the fight. And it’s not until the end of the scene that we get the kicker:  “Tears streaked the dirt on Matthias’ face. The rage was gone, and it was like some flame had gone out with it. His north sea eyes were colder than she’d ever seen them, empty of feeling, stripped of anything human at all. This was what Hellgate had done to him. And it was her fault.” 

A few chapters further into the book, I STILL don’t know how or why Nina got Matthias committed to the Hellgate. But my desire to find out, and Ms. Bardugo’s masterful showing (dramatization, description, writing) are two of the many, many reasons I’m reading on. I wish you well with your own showing and telling. 

Have a question you want me to answer?
Notes on The Magic Words?
Your own cat picture you want to share?
Find me at
or @chavelaque.
This Month's Release from Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic

In this e-only novella set shortly after the events of Shadowshaper, Tee and Izzy wrestle with the sudden appearance of a mysterious ghost girl, and the ebbs and tides of their own tempestuous relationship. It's gorgeously written -- with terrific dialogue, as per usual for Daniel, and some great raps from Izzy -- and like all his work, it's rooted in both the vibrant community of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and questions of politics and power. You can read about the real-life background of the ghost girl here, and buy the e-book at Amazon, Google, Kobo, Apple, and soon B&N. Only $.99! Treat yourself and do it now. 
Two Questions and a Challenge, in the Election’s Wake

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the volunteer work I was doing for one of the presidential campaigns, and how hopeful and inspiring I found it, thanks to the individuality and diversity of the people I was talking to. Well, it will surprise exactly zero readers to learn I was working for Hillary Clinton; and the last three weeks have been really difficult for me, honestly, as so many of my hopes for the country’s future have been dashed, and my (perhaps naive) faith in the discernment and empathy of my fellow citizens has been broken. As we approach a new month, I’m trying to move out of my grief, anger, and fear, and two questions and one challenge have been helping me find a healthier long-term perspective. I’m going to share those questions and challenge here, and even if you hold entirely opposite political convictions, I hope the ideas might still be useful to you as both a writer and a person in the world. 

The first question: Who do you want to be in this situation? 

This comes from the excellent writer and human being Kate Messner, who shared this post on Facebook two days after the election:

I'm a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert's books & podcast on creativity, and something in her post today was also helpful to me. It was a question that I think is interesting, regardless of how you voted in this election: Who do I want to be in this situation?

I've been thinking a lot about that. Today, I was mostly someone who skulked around my social media feeds fretting. And that is really not who I want to be at all. So it was helpful for me to come up with alternatives.

I want to be someone who holds on to hope. Someone who makes art that makes a difference. Someone who lifts up kids. Someone who supports and defends people from marginalized groups. I want to be someone who gets more involved in local elections than I have in the past. Someone who speaks out when people say racist, misogynistic, or homophobic things. Even when those people are people I love. Especially then, in fact. I want to be someone who stays optimistic even when it's hard, and someone who puts action behind that optimism. As a writer, I know that my words matter, and I want to always be mindful of that and use that power for good.

I admire Kate’s resolution, and it helped me craft who I want to be:  I want to be someone who publishes books that affirm the worth of all children and teenagers — especially marginalized ones — and offer them joy, insight, and empathy in what could be a dark time to come. I want to be someone who can listen to and engage in conversation with people whose views differ from mine, who remembers all people contain multitudes, and who is open to new information and experiences. At the same time, I want to be someone who stands firm for my deepest values when they’re challenged, either in everyday encounters or electorally, and for the people those values embrace. I want to write fiercely and well, and be an advocate for truthful, thoughtful, accurate language against political doublespeak, emptiness, and lies. And I want to live by my personal Four Resolutions: I will be kind. I will be clear. I will say no to things I don’t want to do. And I will ask for, and work for, what I want. 

So I pass on the question to you:  Who do you want to be in the next four years? What are your values and resolutions? How might those ideas shape what you choose to write about, and how you choose to write?   

The second question: What is the Most Important Thing? 

This is a question I ask myself a lot in writing and editing, and in doing the writing that comes with editing: What is the thing I most want to say at this moment? What is the thing my reader most needs to know? What is the point of this sentence, or paragraph, or essay, and how can I revise my work to convey that point more effectively? If you’ve read either of my books, you know I talk a lot about “points,” and the Emotional, Thematic, and Experiential Points are really this Most Important Thing idea divided up and applied to a whole novel. 

But it’s also a useful question whenever you’re having a highly charged emotional moment in real life, especially paired with “Who do I want to be in this situation?” To offer an extremely minor example, I’ve gotten angry pushback a couple of times on social media the past few weeks for my anti-Trump posts, and I have not always responded admirably. But when I have behaved better — when I’ve been that someone I want to be — it’s because I stopped and asked myself, “What is the Most Important Thing right now? Is it my feelings, or is it the point I want to make, or the people I want to stand allied with? Is there a way I can invite this person giving the pushback into real conversation, rather than responding in anger?” And these moments have generally gone on to be decent dialogues, which feel healthier all around. (On the flip side, sometimes the Most Important Thing is simply not wasting time engaging with someone whom I will never agree with, and naming my M.I.T. has helped me recognize that too.) If you ever get stuck — in a feeling or in writing — take a deep breath, put your shoulders back, then try to identify or remember your Most Important Thing. It always helps. 

Finally, the challenge was inspired by a Facebook post by Leah Bobet, a Canadian writer I greatly admire (and whom I’ve published; her debut novel ABOVE is extraordinary). On the day after the election, she named two things she hated about the result, including: 

The best and brightest people I know -- and don't know -- are going to have to bend all their effort and will toward staving off a constantly-moving apocalypse, for however many years, and we will NEVER see the work they could have done instead. I hate that robbed potential.

Already Leah’s prediction is coming true:  After years of being 95% politically inactive, I’m part of the cadre of progressives who have been flooding phone lines in Congress these past three weeks, and attending organizing meetings, and thinking obsessively ahead to how bad the sociopolitical environment might get, and how we’re going to stand up for Medicare and public education and LGBT rights and free speech and voting rights and Muslim citizens and the environment (and and and) against an administration that apparently will take no interest in protecting them, if indeed it does not actively work against them. And all of that is time I’m NOT editing or writing books myself; energy going toward something other than the creative work I’m capable of, that brings me and others joy and aid.
So I’m mourning that creative time a little right now, and the books I might not write because of its loss. And yet . . . I also keep thinking of a wonderful William Cowper quotation: “The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.” Art is a noble purpose, certainly, and many of us have been privileged to devote much of our time to it in years past. But now another purpose is in front of us (if you are of my persuasion), to maintain our social improvements and protect our hard-won freedoms; and this purpose might render more immediate and concrete service to our fellow citizens than our art does, I must say. I hate the stupidity of this fight, and the consequences if we lose. But I also feel energized by the clarity of it, and the engagement with a wider world than I’ve been living in for the past few years, and its potential usefulness . . . the prospect of Cowper’s happiness, squandered for a greater cause than myself.
So maybe your purpose is not letting your creative potential be robbed, in Leah’s words — you’ll defy the approaching darkness by creating escape and light for all of us. Maybe you need to protect yourself and your family against that darkness, which could be quite enough of a battle. I certainly hope many of my authors will continue writing books for the diverse children and young adults they were, and the ones they see today, as there’s never been a more necessary time for stories that create empathy and celebrate diversity — that make other people (especially those often forced to be Other People) real. Publishing such books is one way I plan to work for the America I want. But I also plan to try to live up to that wider purpose:  to attend protests, and register people to vote, and keep making calls, and volunteer with my church’s Social Action Committee. And I won't resent the time spent in such activities, because they shape the real world our art reflects, and I hope in the end that engagement with messy, complicated, sometimes painful reality will make for richer art as well. 
So the challenge, my dear friends on both sides: Choose your purpose for the years to come, and do good work. 

With best wishes,


If you've finished NaNoWriMo,
if revision makes you cry mo',
or if books you want to buy, yo:
Try my lovely Magic Words.
The book offers tips and lessons,
Will forestall your second-guessin',
& tips a hat to Sarah Dessen,
With a cover full of birds.
If you've read it, thank you dearly!
I do love you sincerely,
& our love could grow more nearly 
If you'd leave a nice review.
In the meantime, happy writing!
I hope this sheds a little lighting
And you don't take it as chiding...
Do what you gotta do.

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Copyright © 2016, Cheryl B. Klein / Asterisk Books, All rights reserved.

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