Archive for March, 2010

Show Me a Smile…er…Simile!

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010
Use Simile to Show Not Tell

How To Show Simile?

I don’t recall what grade I was in when I first heard about simile or metaphor.  I’ll be honest, I’ve pretty much neglected—up until recently, that is—seeking a better understanding of metaphor, and perhaps, in part, because it’s always been easy to remember what a simile is.

I’ll get to metaphor some other day and, suffice it say [in my opinion], metaphor is very similar to simile, but instead of comparing by saying something is “like”, “as”, (or is similar too; you can also throw in “than”), we flat out say it IS [something it really isn't.]

But please be patient; I’ll get to some simple metaphors next time.

In school we were told, “Simile is a device in literature used to compare two things that aren’t alike, by using the words ‘like’ or ‘as.’”

Most of us can rattle off similes without much problem.

A few quick examples would be:

• She runs like a gazelle.
• He wiggles like a worm.
• He’s as sharp as a tack.
• Thoughts flowing like/as water.
• Bigger
than a bear.
• More powerful
than a locomotive [recognize that one?]

I say simile is the first real step to storyshowing [not a recognized word, by the way] we can readily teach to our children or students, because it’s easy to use the experience association inherent to simile.  What I mean is, we can’t compare something, using simile, if we haven’t made the observation ourselves, through experience, or at least had someone point out the similarities to us; kids will make their own associations and, when teaching “show don’t tell”, it’s best to build on those associations you know kids will have made rather than something an adult would.

Simile, in my estimation should be easy to teach to kids, because kids naturally use simile in their day-to-day speech, which they learn, of course, from mom and dad, friends, classmates, and teachers:

“You look like a princess!”
“Your house looks like a castle!”
“Eww! Your feet smell like rotten eggs!”
“You’re as smart as scientist!”
“She’s as pretty as a movie star.”

In truth, kids do pick up such expressions, mostly, from adults or other kids who picked them up from adults!  But sometimes, kids come up with their own, cute, quirky, and often humorous expressions of simile of their own:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”
“When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

Aren’t those more vivid than “The man had big feet”, and, “When she spins, her pigtails stick almost straight out!”?

And since it’s not necessarily hard to get kids to come up with examples of simile, it is important to get them thinking about WHY we make such comparisons and WHEN to use them in creative writing [or speaking].

And keep in mind: gaining these skills won’t only benefit your kids when they write or speak creatively while in school and such; having skills like these will greatly assist them throughout life, and achieving excellence in these will build confidence that will fuel all of your children’s life endeavors [hopefully, of course, only for good.]

So how do we teach kids how to effectively use simile in storyshowing?  Again, let’s not over think things, and just apply those same principles I covered in my previous posts on this subject.  But if you have yet to read those and don’t want to click away, here’s a brief synopsis:

• LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
• ASK why things are the way they are.
• DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
• FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense.

Now…onto teaching kids how to use simile to “show instead of tell.”

In my other posts, my examples were still—admittedly, for the most part—examples an adult would be more likely to use than a child, so I’ll use one of the quirky “child” examples I used above [I actually thought them up, trying to think what a kid might say]; you can write down those you hear the children in your life say, and build on those, using these exercises.

So here goes:

“That man’s shoes are as big as a circus clown’s!”

Now, maybe, in real life, a man with such humongous shoes is also very tall and there’s probably no real “secret story” to discover, but in creating stories, it’s okay to imagine one.

Maybe this man had an emergency foot transplant, and the only feet available were from a clown who had been killed by an elephant that sat on him!  There…we’ve just covered LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and we’ve begun to FIND words to explain how your child’s decisions are reasonable [again…for fiction; stories don’t have to always be truly reasonable].  So let’s take my peculiar scenario here and come up with a bit of vivid imagery.

The man’s feet looked like they had been taken from a clown whose feet had been run over by a steamroller.  The look on the man’s face, when he walked, made it obvious he was in pain, and as I noticed the bloody bandages around his ankles I wondered if he had had a foot transplant and ended up with giant clown feet instead of the right size for his body.

I admit my description, here, is pretty ridiculous, but that’s okay; you WANT to encourage zany, far-fetched thinking when teaching storyshowing!   Let’s embellish the next “kid” example:

When Nastassja twirls, her pigtails look like whizzing helicopter blades!

So what might be Nastassja’s secret story?  You might say Nastassja has had ballet lessons or figure skating experience.  Those are pretty good, but let’s really let our imaginations run wild.  Perhaps Nastassja is really the daughter of a once-famous, Russian, ballerina mother, and has been taught ballet since she could walk.

Notice how I’ve created a secret story for Nastassja that almost immediately takes care of LOOK, ASK, & DECIDE?  It appears that way because I have practiced LOOK, ASK, and DECIDE for many years, and I only recently identified these “steps” for the sake of these exercises; it’s not like I’m some sort of genius, here!  So let’s jazz up Nastassja’s story a bit more.

Nastassja looked like a ballerina or ice skater when she twirled.  Her swirling pigtails reminded us of a golden halo or helicopter blades that swished the air, and her face was almost as blurry as hummingbird wings.

Do you see how the use of simile here calls up more vivid imagery in your mind than the first sentence?  Of course, my description, here, deals only with Nastassja’s twirling and her pigtails.  If you were writing more about the girl, you could encourage your child or student to think more about Nastassja’s secret story: what does Nastassja’s voice sound like?  Does she have an accent?  Be careful encouraging kids to get TOO descriptive, though; experienced book publishers will tell you a few, choice phrases often do more to ignite readers’ imaginations, rather than giving SO much detail the reader’s mind has no fun in completing the mental picture!

Remember, when teaching kids the use of simile in storyshowing, to use comparisons that make sense, too.  For example, you wouldn’t say, “The man’s feet were as big as throw cushions.” People wouldn’t normally make such a comparison, would they?  Even kids tend to make comparisons that make sense [to their minds] because the comparisons that come to mind makes sense to them and remind them of something else.   Also keep in mind, when teaching children the use of simile in creative writing, to “borrow” from experiences of their own—it will make for much livelier storyshowing.

Next up: “What is Meta Phor?”

Show Don’t Tell: Finding the ‘Secret Story’

Friday, March 26th, 2010
What's The 'Secret Story'?

How Do We "Show" With Words?

The other day, I mentioned I would talk about what I like to call “The Secret Story.” I would prefer to call it the “Unknown Story”, as this is more accurate, but, for kids, “The Secret Story” is more exciting; more exciting means more memorable, and that means it’s more likely to stick in kids’ minds.

So…what IS “The Secret Story”?

“The Secret Story” is simply an idea I want kids to latch onto to get them thinking in a way that makes it possible for them to become skilled at storyshowing, and to eventually UN-learn story telling when they write.

Please follow my thoughts on this.

In creative writing, to discover what “The Secret Story” is, we should think of reasons WHY things might be the way they are, or the way they APPEAR [smell, feel, etc.]  You can ask your self, “What’s their [the character’s] secret story?” If you’re the one creating the story, then you [might] already know what those reasons are.  But your reader won’t.  So if you’re creating a story, and you haven’t decided or figured it out yet, then you should ask yourself, “Why would things, with my characters, or with my story, be the way they are?”

After you come up with some pretty good reasons to explain why things are the way they APPEAR, [tell kids they can] come to some conclusions, or make decisions that make sense.

Think of it this way: if a man is angry, it might be that someone has stolen his wallet, or perhaps someone has hurt someone in his family, or maybe put them in danger.  Maybe the man thinks someone has done something bad or wrong to him, and he didn’t like it.  There are all sorts of possibilities for reasons to explain, so there could be all sorts of “secret stories”, too!

In one of my previous examples, there was a skinny girl, in an old, torn dress, who was skipping.   Think to your self, if you saw someone like this, “Why is she so skinny? Does her old, torn dress mean she’s poor? Why is she skipping like she’s so happy? I wonder what the reasons are for her being so skinny, while being so apparently poor, yet so happy. I wonder what her ‘secret story’ is.”

Since I’ve started this series on “Show Don’t Tell,” I have thought a great deal about WHY it’s always been so difficult [and not just for kids, but even for adult writers as well] to effectively “show” in creative writing, and I finally came to a realization it’s because this thought of “The Secret—or Unknown—Story”, and because we learn about the world we live in based upon how we physically experience it.

Think about it.

We SEE how something looks.
We SMELL how something smells.
We HEAR how something sounds.
We TOUCH or FEEL how something feels.
We TASTE/SAVOR how something tastes.

These are all sensory experiences, and writing is a way of attempting to express something that is subjective/sensory in origin, to others.  If someone told you about an exotic dessert they ate, which you had never tasted, you would have to rely on their description—and comparisons to things they know you’d eaten before—to gain an understanding of how that dessert might taste…until you tasted it for yourself, right?  The truth is it’s not very easy to convey sensory experiences onto paper.  We use adjectives and adverbs to name and identify those physical experiences, relying on our readers to have experiences of their own to relate to.

The most we can hope for, if we want our readers to sympathize or empathize, is when we “show” using words that bring about feelings or opinions, we count on our readers having had similar experiences, or that they can relate in some way to make their reading of our words meaningful.

So when we “show” using words, we might write something like:

Matt looked like he just crawled out of a mud puddle.
She smelled like an ashtray mixed with a bag of burned popcorn.
Jason’s cries sounded like what a 300-pound baby must sound like.
The Texas summer wind felt like a blow dryer blowing in my face.

When we’re storyshowing, we’re trying to “put our readers” into the action.  When we do so using the same kinds of words or labels [i.e., adjectives and adverbs], we’re obliged to use descriptive wording that’s not really descriptive—at least not in the English Composition sense—but descriptive in the sense we draw comparisons and make inferences others can readily relate to.

So, before I over complicate matters, let’s just leave it at this when teaching kids how to show instead of tell:

LOOK for “ The Secret Story.”
ASK why things are the way they are.
DECIDE on reasons for why things PROBABLY are the way they are.
FIND words to explain how your decisions make sense [e.g., the little girl probably wore the old, torn dress, and was so skinny, because she was, most likely, very poor, and perhaps she was/is skipping so happily because she found a quarter or because she feels loved at home]

I don’t claim this post utterly solves the vexing task of learning how to “show”—and especially teaching kids how to effectively do so in their creative writing—but it should help with making sense of transforming “telling” ideas into prose that ignites readers’ imaginations.

Obama F.O.O.L.S. Day Approaches

Thursday, March 25th, 2010
Obama health care bill unconstitutional

Obama Health Care Bill Unconstitutional

F.O.O.L.S. [Following Of Obama Leads to Socialism]

Today, I make a departure from writing lessons for kids.  I may very well post the next lesson about “Show Don’t Tell” a little later on, today.

With April coming up, April Fool’s Day is just one week away.  But the big joke, which is no prank, being “played” on the American public is President Obama’s ‘Obamacare’ health care plan.  WHY anyone would endorse this foolhardy recipe for disaster is BEYOND me!   President Obama has been trying to cram this idea down the collective throat of the American people since he took office, essentially, and the truth of the matter is MOST of America is opposed to it.

Most THINKING analysts will tell you it’s a HUGE recipe for not only economic disaster, but will only serve to further blow America toward horizons that look suspiciously like the Netherlands or France [with-OUT the lovely, quaint, imagery associated with those two, terribly socialist countries].

Polls show American majority is against this health care package that will certainly lead to MUCH greater debt for our country/economy, but also will continue to shape the basic structure of our society, which has already gotten, in my opinion, FAR too socialistic in appearance with too many hand-outs for non-taxpayers, leaving those who do pay taxes and have legally come here—not to mention those who could make valuable/worthwhile contributions to society are blocked from coming here [e.g. My Filipino brother-in-law, who not only is fluent in English, but holds a degree and is willing to come here legally, but is still held up by the U.S. consulate!!  I’m sorry, but I’ll take 10 Filipino’s for every “undocumented immigrant”, as Filipino’s are historically far more industrious AND functional…but I digress].

I’m sorry, but the Utopian notion of “everyone deserves health care” does tend to warm the heart, but FORCING those who work and pay taxes to foot the bill for the hoards of free-loaders who willfully and intentionally DO and WILL work the system (even more) living off welfare, harboring an long-standing entitlement mentality, is wrong [regardless of ethnicity, for those who might accuse me of being racist; something that’s impossible, since I’m married to a non-white, and, at various times in my past, have dated females of virtually every ethnicity].

The Obama health care plan has 3 basic flaws:

1. Tremendous Cost. It will surely cost the country FAR greater debt than B.O. has already brought upon our country.
2. Embracing of Socialism. Experts say approximately 60% of uninsured Americans will be receiving assistance from the government so, like I’ve said above, the entitlement society will continue to grow.
3. Unforeseen/unplanned consequences. Could the government start making decisions about our health care?  Will doctors stick with their professions once they start being forced to provide EVEN MORE, FORCED care for those who won’t be able to pay, and thus have to take whatever the government will doll out?  Will there be enough doctors?  The likelihood health care will be rationed to those “most deserving.”

Now, for those who say I’m just against President Obama, let me make this clear: I think we should ALL PRAY FOR OUR PRESIDENT TO MAKE RIGHTEOUS DECISIONS, AND WILL BE INSPIRED FOR GOOD!!  I think he’s surrounded by evil influences.  I think he’s a good man who is misguided by ideals that are NOT inspired of GOD, for GOD never encourages compulsion.  The Obamacare plan is unconstitutional by nature, and [almost] everyone—except, perhaps, for gung-ho Democrats and Republican supporters [if there are any] of the Obama Administration’s health care bill—knows it.

I think we should fight it tooth and nail.


Story SHOWING…With Words

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010
Words CAN Show Images

How Can You Show With Words?

Knowing how to teach the concept of “showing” in creative writing versus “telling” isn’t as easy as it might seem; nor should it be so difficult—IF you’ve got a bright imagination, and a admirable command of English.  Your examples must be, of a necessity, VERY simple and easy to understand—especially when teaching children.

I think the struggle most of us have had with the whole “show don’t tell” concept is we have “story telling” stuck in our heads, along with our early training of using adjectives to describe nouns and pronouns and adverbs to describe—or “modify”—actions and “be” verbs, too.   In some future posts, I’ll get into how it’s better to avoid too many adjectives—at least the really obvious ones—and adverbs [I call them “crutch” words].

The best way, I’ve found, to learn how to “show” a scene, for example, is to go ahead and tell it, then go back and take out the adjectives [the obvious ones, at least], and see if I can’t find a way to bring an image to my own mind using words like, seemed, looked like, felt, appeared, smelled like, etc.  Doing so will naturally lead into using simile and eventually metaphor, both of which we’ll get into at a future date.

Until then…don’t over-think it! Start with some simple examples to begin to get the hang of this.

Here are some examples:

1. The big cat snoozed lazily on the rocking chair.
2. The skinny girl in the old, torn, dress skipped happily along the sidewalk.
3. An angry man quickly ran toward us.
4. The tall man’s head almost touched the ceiling.

These examples are fine, but don’t do much to bring vivid images to our minds, now do they?

So…using some words that appeal to imagination and feeling(s) [we’re teaching these things to kids, after all], let’s see if we can change each sentence into something more vibrant to the mind’s eye.

1. The big cat snoozed lazily on the rocking chair.

Let’s change that into:

What looked like a scoop of ashes in the chair turned out to have ears, a tail, and purred; a cushion-sized, sleeping cat!

Notice how I compared the cat to a scoop of ashes, describing its form and color, being most likely gray?  If you took some time, you could probably think up a more likely comparison that would appeal to a kid.   Also, I compared the cat’s size to a cushion, giving the reader an idea that we’re not talking about a kitten, but a BIG cat!

Next one…

2. The skinny girl in the old, torn, dress skipped happily along the sidewalk.

We’ll change this one to read as such:

The girl looked like she must be very poor and didn’t get to eat very often, but the way she skipped made me wonder if she’d just found a hundred dollars!

Notice how the storyteller, here, observes the skinny girl in a way that allows the reader to draw on images he or she might have in his or her own mind, but infers opinions about the girl that could very well be **reasonable?

**In a future post about showing, I’ll talk about what I like to call “The Secret Story,” and bring up a valuable element of “showing” I’ve never had any instructor, professor, etc, mention, but is SO helpful—even invaluable, in my opinion—to storyshowing.

Onto example #3.

3. An angry man quickly ran toward us.

Let’s jazz it up a bit, using some creative description, to convey the impressions and emotions the reader should feel if he or she were there, with this man running at him or her!

A man with a sunburned-looking, scrunched up face and wild, bulging eyes ran toward us.

Can’t you just see that guy coming at you?   Everyone knows what a sunburned face looks like.  Every kid could show you what “scrunched up” looks like, or “wild, bulging eyes” could look like.  Every one of these bits of imagery are much more brilliant in our minds, are they not?

Finally, last one…#4.

4. The tall man’s head almost touched the ceiling.

Surely, this is a giant of a man!  But to a child, the word “giant” might be too dramatic of a word; so would “Goliath”, as you don’t want to direct their young minds too narrowly.  So let’s use a comparison a kid of today would most likely be able to relate to [again, we’re hoping to teach kids HOW to do this for them selves!]

A man as tall as an NBA basketball player walked through the room, and the hair on his head scraped the bumpy texture off the ceiling!

Not as “sophisticated” as an adult might strive for, but the idea is to get you thinking about how to get children thinking IN THESE WAYS.

Those are just four examples of changing “telling” into showing. Try practicing some of these kinds of exercises with the kids you teach, or for your own fun, if you’ve ever been perturbed by the old “show me, don’t tell me” adage.  You’ll get the hang of it in no time.

In my next post, I’ll talk about “The Secret Story”, and we’ll explore exactly WHY we naturally “tell” and why the WAY we’ve learned to do this, to make these associations, doesn’t work when it comes to transferring those ideas to paper.

“Show Me a Story, Mommy!”

Sunday, March 21st, 2010
Basic Writing: Show Don't Tell

We're Trained, Since Birth, to Tell, Not Show

When we were little kids, many of us would ask mom or dad, “Can you tell me a story?

Those times would, more than likely, occur just before bedtime, no doubt!  Such requests became less frequent as each of us got older.  Much of how we learned to talk was derived from the communications we got from our parents and, of course, our teachers at school.  When we reached 4th or 5th grade and began to learn effective writing skills, we probably heard our teachers say, Show me, don’t tell me,” in regards to descriptive writing or story telling.

But don’t you remember wondering, “How can I show something with words?”

I clearly remember thinking that.

From what I can tell, most of the teachers who tell kids, ‘Show me, don’t tell me’, don’t effectively show how to “show.”  Instead, they TELL kids not to tell without efficiently demonstrating (showing) how it’s done.   But is it any wonder?   Those sincere labors of well-meaning educators set about to—in effect—undo the very training most of us have undergone since birth: namely, how only to tell, without “showing”…only to be TOLD not to do it any longer!

Well, I’m going to endeavor to illustrate [show], through examples, on how to train kids to show instead of tell, when it comes to creative writing or description.   I’ll try to break these “lessons” up into to shorter posts, so they don’t take up so much of our time in the writing AND the reading!

Let me start by planting this thought in your heads:

“Showing” begins not with the use of overt adjectives—or adverbs—like, the black bear fought ferociously, the girl screamed loudly, the little dog jumped playfully, the colorful bird sang joyfully, etc. Of course, when our parents began teaching us, they did so using just these kinds of descriptions: words that say…describe…or…tell how something looks, is, or is done…causing our thoughts to merely wander, instead of speaking in a way that would have made them run wild!

I assert we should start out by teaching our children/students those [supposedly] sophisticated literary concepts saved for high school: the use of simile and metaphor to bring to our readers’, or listeners’, imaginations images that seem to live in their minds either like memories or fantasies.

It’s up to those of us who teach children to learn these techniques ourselves, and then use examples that make sense to kids’ minds.  Don’t worry; children are intelligent and have imaginations that are often Disney-like in their richness!

Next Lesson: How To Show Instead of Tell.

Piecing Together Stories

Friday, March 12th, 2010
Piecing Together a Story

YOU decide where to begin your story!

[[This piece I wrote, originally, on March 11, 2010, as a lesson for my daughter's 4th grade class, after I taught a writing camp at her school. I may very well turn this into a series, for kids, on how to become a more engaging writer.  Again...keep in mind this was originally written for 4th and 5th graders.]]

In school we’re told a story has a beginning, middle, and an end.  We’re also told when we tell a story that a story should start with the beginning, move to the middle, and then to the end.  We’ll get to how to “show” a story later!

A lot of times, when we tell stories, we DON’T tell them from beginning to end!  As a matter of fact, when we write or tell [or show] stories, it doesn’t matter what “order” they’re told.  You watch a lot of movies and TV shows that “show” the story “out of order.”  A lot of shows start out showing the end, or middle, first, and then they go back and show you how it all started, don’t they?

Think about it.

Pretend you have a dog, named Jake.  Imagine Jake ran away, you looked for him, found him and then brought him back home.  Now, imagine you tell your friends about it.   This is probably how it would go:

“Hey! Guess what? My dog, Jake, ran away. But we got him back!”

You just told the END of your story, FIRST, didn’t you?  You might go on to fill in the details of how it all started, how you searched for Jake, and how worried you were, but you’d probably wrap up your story quite nicely in a matter of minutes.

Stories are kind of like recipes for cookies or cheesecake: it doesn’t matter [much] what order you mix the ingredients, just so long as it tastes good, right?  Stories really aren’t much different!

Here’s a quick example of a story beginning at the end:

Max was dead. It was my fault, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

Pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It makes you want to know what happened, doesn’t it?  You want to know who Max was, and you want to know more about the person who feels responsible for Max’s death, too.

In this example, a story has begun at the end.  Or has it?  The great thing about starting a story this way, is you can “trick” the reader into believing what you want him or her to believe, and add details only you know, when you want to—just be careful not to make something up that won’t be believable to your reader; you don’t want your reader to get mad and feel like he or she has wasted his or her valuable time!

The point of this exercise is to remember a story is kind of like three, separate strips of paper: one labeled “middle”, another labeled “end” and another labeled “beginning.”  So long as you “tape them together” and the ends come together to form a circle, or even an “Infinity” loop [adding a “twist” to your story], keeping the details together to make sense, you’re likely to have quite a nice story to show others!