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Active Vs Passive Writing—‘Show,’ Don’t ‘Tell’

At every conference for children’s writers you will hear the same advice—‘show, don’t tell.’ No one likes to be told what to do. They’d rather have someone suggest what they might do. Then if they do it, it becomes their own idea or decision.

The same is true of children’s books. If the author tells the reader what’s going on, the story becomes dull. If the writer shows what’s happening, it draws the reader into the action.

So how do we ‘show’ what’s going on without ‘telling’ the reader? By using active verbs. Passive verbs lack a ‘doer.’ In an active voice, the subject is doing the action. In a passive voice, something is being done to the subject.

Passive verbs:
was, is, are, am, be, been, was, would

More ‘telling’ words:
like, as if, seemed, told, felt

Look for passive verbs in your writing. But keep in mind that there’s more to it than using or not using certain words. For example, using the word ‘was’ does not always indicate passive voice. It may just be using the past tense.

He was five years old in October. (past tense)

Read the following example of ‘was’ used in active or passive voice:

The pumpkin pie was eaten by Grandpa. (passive)
Grandpa ate the pumpkin pie. (active)

If you find that you’re using words to ‘qualify’ or ‘emphasize’ what you’re saying, you might try to find a more active way to show it instead.

really, all, some, quickly, very, so, big/little, a lot, slowly, many, cold/hot, loudly/softly

Look at the following lines:

The turkey ran out of the house really fast. (passive—he didn’t only run, he ran ‘really fast’)
The turkey zipped out of the house. (active)

We often hear that using words that end in ‘—ing’ is a form of passive writing. If you use a word that ends in ‘—ing’ with one of the ‘to be’ words (see the list of passive verbs above), there is no action. For example:

He was studying the picture. (passive)
He studied the picture. (active)

Using adverbs when writing picture books is also discouraged—‘Don’t use them!’ we are told. An adverb can be replaced with active writing.

He looked hungrily at the burgers on the plate.
He looked at the burgers on the plate. His stomach growled. (more active)

Writing for children in an active voice is always encouraged, but sometimes passive voice has a place.

Is something happening while the action is taking place? The clock was chiming might be more clear than The clock chimed if Cinderella was trying to get back to the carriage before the clock finished chiming.

For emphasis, or for poetic or dramatic effect—
‘…was coming closer down the hall’ or ‘huffing and puffing’

Stories that ‘show’ your characters and ‘show’ what’s going on, draw the reader into the story and keep them hooked. Use active verbs along with action or dialogue to accomplish this.

For a look at how well you handle ‘show don’t tell,’ take out that manuscript that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and highlight the words in your story that you find on the list of passive verbs. Then use a different color and highlight the active verbs. You could even go a step further and highlight dialogue and action with different colors.

There are so many sources on the web that explain active and passive writing better that I do here. You can find more on passive writing at these sites:

RX for Writers
Writing for Children
Writing with Style
Write Now!
Valerie Comer
Bella on line. Scroll to the bottom of her post and do a search on her site for How to Use Passive Voice Effectively.
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Author School visits—It’s About the Kids

Student illustrations—Noodles and Snickers

I love interacting with kids about writing and my books. Recently I visited Carlin Park Elementary School in Angola, IN. For two days, I talked to them about writing poetry and fiction, and about being an author.

Near the end of my talk sessions the students had writing time. “Don’t worry about making it perfect,” I told them. “You can revise later.” At the end, some of them shared what they had written. I was truly impressed!

Students shared poems that made you ‘feel’ something, or that had a twist at the end. Others shared stories using great dialogue, imagination, and ‘showed’ what was happening with action. One boy even wrote some riddles for us to guess.

I’ve also had some recent book signings at Scholastic Book Fairs, where they feature my picture book, NAME THAT DOG. I love the questions kids ask me—at schools or book signings. Younger kids, especially, have interesting questions.

I get the ‘age’ question pretty often. And I’m prepared! On the ‘Kids’ page here on my website, there are clues for them to figure out my birthday and how old I am. So if they really want to know how old I am, they have to do the math.

I always get questions about my dog, Snickers. But I also like hearing about the dogs or pets that the kids have, and their names.

“Do I ever get writers’ block?” someone asked.
"Not usually," was my answer. There are so many things, and people, that inspire me with ideas to write about. And if I don’t expect to have a perfect piece of writing the first time I write it down, it frees me to just write. Sometimes after I write something, it doesn’t seem like a good idea any more, and I toss it out. But sometimes I go on to re-write it, change it and add to it. And it turns into something pretty good.

One boy asked, "How do you get a good idea to write about?"
"Write about something that you really like, something that gets you excited," I told him. If you like video games, then write about something to do with a video game.

I told the kids that many children’s authors also have other jobs besides writing, like teaching, nursing or being a parent. Knowing that I have six children, one girl with great insight asked, “So how can you write, with your kids arguing and stuff in the background? Isn’t that hard?”

“Yes, writing is not an easy job!” I told her. I have friends who get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to write and others who stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning. I would write after the kids went to bed at night, and during naps. But writing is fun, too. Like when you get something finished! Or when someone likes your story or poem. And when you have a book published and get to see how great it looks with the illustrations.

“Do I make my own illustrations?” they ask. Nooooo… And I show them why, with my drawing of a dog. Not a terrible drawing really, but not great either. And all of my dogs in the book would probably look the same. Boring!

At Carlin Park, the students illustrated the poems in my book, too. Each class was given a few of the poems from NAME THAT DOG, without the pictures, and were asked to illustrate them. They were awesome! I can see some budding artists here.

One of the perks of writing for children is being able to interact with them as an author. I love their wonder, and the questions they ask. I love to see the spark in their eyes when they suddenly think of something that they hadn’t thought of before.

No, writing is not an easy job. But what fun it can be! And it’s worth every minute of the work you put into it.  Read More 
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Day 1, December 24th: Christmas Traditions

Day 1: December 24th—Christmas Traditions
There are many Christmas traditions that people enjoy every year at this time. Today our family celebrated by getting together for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a fun time. Later we'll go to Midnight Mass. Here are some other traditions that people keep.

Decorating the tree and putting up lights
Stringing popcorn garland
Baking Christmas cookies
Sharing treats with the neighbors
Lighting the Advent wreath
Making your own Advent calendar with things to do each day for Baby Jesus’ birthday
A Las Posadas celebration
Doing things for a secret friend during Advent
Making your own Christmas cards
Making Christmas crafts
Going to a Christmas concert
Going to a Christmas play
Driving around town to see the Christmas lights and decorations
Getting together with friends
Reading Christmas stories
Writing a children’s Christmas story or poem

I’d love to hear more from readers. Traditions make this time of year even more special. They bring us closer to family and friends. They make us think outside of ourselves. And they make us feel good inside.

You might take a tradition that you love and write about it. Or write a story centered around a tradition. It could be a Christmas tradition, or one for any time of the year.

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas!
For those of you who celebrate in a different way, I wish you blessings for the season!
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Day 2, December 23rd: Christmas Lights

Day 2: December 23rd—Christmas Lights
Christmas lights are so beautiful! In the evening the tree inside the house gives you a warm, cozy feeling. But I also love to see all the outdoor decorations that people display. They’re like greeting cards to the neighbors and those passing by.

Our books might be like those twinkling lights at Christmas. It feels warm and cozy to have finished writing a book and be able to share it with others. But there are so many other books to look at! So many there for us to enjoy.

One new book that I discovered this Christmas is A CHRISTMAS GOODNIGHT by Nola Buck, illustrated by Sarah Jane Wright, Katherine Tegen Books 2011. A child says goodnight to the people and the animals at the first Christmas, then to the things in nature. Later illustrations show the child in his own home with his own nativity, again saying goodnight to the baby Jesus. The illustrations are colorful and simple, with smiling faces and sometimes sleepy eyes. This is a beautiful addition to my collection of children’s Christmas books.

Do you have a favorite children’s book of the season? Perhaps you’d like to share it here.
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Day 3, December 22nd: Gift Wrapping

Day 3: December 22nd –Gift Wrapping
My husband and I wrapped Christmas presents this morning. We decided to go all out and put on ribbons and bows this year. They look so beautiful sitting under the tree! What’s inside each package isn’t elaborate or expensive. But they’re all chosen with the person receiving them in mind.

Kind of like our stories. We wrap them up with care, typed with no mistakes and with great cover letters, and send them off. But editors look beyond the wrapping to what’s inside. Is the story original, or more like the tie or cuff links that dads got too many of back in the 50’s? Is it well written, with words chosen especially to fit the age of the child who will be read to? Is the word count appropriate, or could we have told the same story with less?

Good writing is in the re-writing. Get out a manuscript that you’ve written recently, or an older one, and give it another look. Does the “wrapping” look better than what’s inside?
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Day 4, December 21st: Creative Gift Giving

My critique group in Indiana exchaqnges gifts in December. But not just any kind of gift! Our gifts relate in some way to writing, or to the writer. They come with a note or poem. And they cost $1 or less!

It's fun to see all of the ways we can be creative from year to year. I've received bookmarks with quotations, ornaments related to writing for children, a prayer stone, a small piggy bank for rewarding writing efforts and many other things. I've kept every one. This year I made corn bags that you heat and wrap around your neck. I enclosed this poem, which goes to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It":

When your neck is feeling achy
Read a book.
With a corn bag wrapped around it
Read a book.
When you feel a little dozy
And your corn bag's warm and cozy
Wrap it up and snuggle up and
Read a book!

When it's cold out and it's snowing
Read a book.
When the winter winds are blowing
Read a book.
When it's gloomy and you're tired
Read a book and get inspired.
Get a pen and paper out and
Write a book!

Ok--here's the challenge: Think of an original gift for a writer, costing no more than $1, and write a note or poem to go with it. Good luck!
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Day 5, December 20th: Christmas Cookies

Day 5: December 20th
Happy Hanukkah to all of my Jewish friends!

Today I made Christmas cookies with two of my grandkids. Sugar cookies never looked (or tasted) so great! And I probably wouldn’t have made them if it hadn’t been for my grandchildren being here.

Doing things with other people can give you a lift sometimes. It can be more fun. And the results are usually better. With the cookies, you can take a look at what someone else did and get ideas. The tiny brown chocolate chips in the gingerbread boy’s icing eyes were really cute. We put some on the buttons, too. I had cutters for bells and stars and trees, but the kids brought some for stockings and candy canes.

Writing can be better as a team effort, too. Some writers collaborate on a project. I’ve never done that, but I do have a wonderful critique group. Getting another person’s eyes and ears on something that you’re working on is a great help. A picture book is a kind of team work. It’s the combination of text and pictures that make a picture book. And even though the author and illustrator don’t work together, the end result comes from two different creative minds.

The text for a picture book comes before the illustrations. But a picture can inspire a story, too. Has a picture on a Christmas card ever really moved you? What if you took that picture and wrote a story or a poem to go with it? Maybe you could even write words to go with that picture for an original Christmas card.
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Countdown to Christmas, Day 7: People Watching

Day 7: December 18th
Are you a people-watcher? If you’re a writer, you probably are. At this time of the year it can be especially interesting.

There was the little girl in the store who kept asking to use the hand sanitizer that the store supplied for customers. “I want to use the hand sanitizer! Why can’t I use the hand sanitizer? But I want to use the hand sanitizer! Why won’t you let me?” You could hear her insisting all the way down the aisle. Her parents were very patient. I couldn’t help smiling.

Then there were the three angels at the end of the line in the chorus who were swaying to the Christmas carols as they were singing. They were certainly enjoying themselves. Another angel at the other end had halo problems. It kept falling off. She just picked it up and put it back on and kept on singing.

Parents take their kids to the mall for the yearly Santa photo. Will they sit on Santa’s lap? Will they talk to him? Will they look at him? If they talk to him, what will they say?

Working with kids, having your own kids, or just watching kids in action is good preparation for writing for kids and developing characters. “Know your audience,” editors say. What age are you writing for? Spend some time with kids in that age group.

The next time you’re out shopping, slow down just a little and be a people-watcher. Pick out someone who especially catches your eye. When you get home, sit down and write a short story around that character. You never know where it might take you!
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Countdown to Christmas, Day 8: Familiar or Original?

Day 8: December 17th
Editors are always looking for original stories. We sometimes see familiar stories written with a new spin on them that gives them ‘originality.’ For example, “The Night Before Christmas,” and “The Night Before Thanksgiving,” or “Snowmen at Night” and “Snowmen at Christmas.” How about “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” and “Leroy the Red Neck Reindeer?”

So how do you make a familiar story sound new and original? Try changing the situation, or changing the main character.

In “The Night Before Thanksgiving,” the holiday changes, giving the reader a different situation. There are similarities, but enough differences to give it a new spin. In “Snowmen at Christmas,” an ordinary night becomes something special.

Character drives the story. When you change your character, the story will change because of the way your character handles the situation, or reacts to it. When Rudolph is sick on Christmas Eve, he calls on his cousin Leroy to cover for him. Leroy shows up driving a pick-up truck and wearing a John Deere tractor hat. At the start, the other reindeer aren’t too sure about a reindeer who goes ‘two-stepping across the sky,’ and makes ‘jingle bells with a rebel yell.’ But he soon has them all ‘scootin’ a hoof on every single roof, by the light of a neon moon.’

When I talk to students about my picture book TURKEY SURPRISE, I sometimes ask them how they think the story might change if the little pilgrim brother refused to hunt for a turkey at the beginning. Or what might happen if the turkey was caught? How might he get away?

Just for fun, try re-writing a picture book with a different type of character, or by changing the situation.
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Countdown Continued, Day 9: 'Show' Us a Character

Day 9: December 16th
Thinking back to songs of the season, and yesterday’s blog, you might just recognize the following words, taken randomly, from another well known song.

…you’re as cuddly as a cactus
…your brain is full of spiders
…you’re a nasty, wasty skunk
…your heart is full of unwashed socks
and so on, from “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Wow, what a guy! What great similes and metaphors. Ok, so here’s the challenge—create a vibrant character for a children’s book, and SHOW us that character without telling us anything about him or her!
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