Archive for the ‘The Writing Craft’ Category

How to End Up on a Facebook List

September 16th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wIf you use Facebook with any regularity, you’ve seen a number of trends take over your news feed in the past few years. We’ve had “change your profile picture to a picture of your celebrity lookalike” week, “change your status to the fruit that corresponds to your relationship status in a bizarre and completely non-effective attempt to raise awareness for breast cancer” month, and the recent ALS ice bucket challenge during which we all enjoyed the sight of our employers, friends, and celebrity crushes being doused in ice water to raise money for ALS research.

Trending now on Facebook is a status which challenges users to post a list of the 10 most influential books they’ve ever read. Not their favorite books, necessarily, just the first 10 books that come to mind when thinking about the books that shaped their thinking, their attitude toward reading, or their taste in literature. When 130,000 people’s lists were compared and studied, a list of the 20 most frequently listed titles was revealed.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a scientifically perfect list– everyone’s definition of “books that stayed with you” is different– but it’s obvious that the authors who ended up on this list managed to connect with readers in a way that left an impression. As any good writing resource will tell you, there isn’t one way to write a great book (or a memorable one, or a significant one, or… etc.), but as we see from this list, there are factors that several of these influential authors have in common that are worth thinking about if you aspire to join them on this list when this trend resurfaces in 50 years or so.

  • Write more than one book. Almost none of the works in the top 20 titles were the author’s first novel. Jane Austen wrote drafts of Lady Susan, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey before Pride and Prejudice was completed, Margaret Mitchell wrote at least three (unpublished) novels before beginning Gone with the Wind, and Suzanne Collins wrote and published an entire separate series before finding insane fame as the author of The Hunger Games. The takeaway here is, if you’ve worked and slaved over your first manuscript for years and still haven’t found huge publishing or sales success, don’t give up on that first work entirely, but for heaven’s sake, start writing something else! Novel-writing is like any other art; the more you do it, the better at it you get.
  • Write the story you want to write. If C. S. Lewis were writing today, he’d probably be told that his Christian themes were too strong for a general market children’s series. Tolkien might have been discouraged from writing fantasy because it’s not currently “trending.” Harper Lee might have been advised to use an adult protagonist if she wanted adults to read her book. If you have a story you want to write, write THAT story without worrying about which box it might or might not fit into. You can let an agent/editor worry about that down the road, but you’ll write a better book if you let the story and not the market drive your writing.
  • Write for children. Of the top 20, seven of the titles that were most often cited as staying with the reader are books which are classified as children’s or young adult. The books a person reads when he is young shape his view of reading, his taste, his worldview, his beliefs, and the likelihood that he will continue to read as an adult. As evidenced by this not-so-scientific list, a book that connects to a young readership will be remembered long after the flavor-of-the-week erotica-disguised-as-romance or suspense thriller on the “adult” bestseller list.
  • Write books that are just fun to read, period. Two words: Harry Potter.

As always, these elements should be taken as more descriptive of influential writing than prescriptive– obviously, if your story is a depression-era family saga, you shouldn’t re-work it to make it “fun to read” (see: “write the story you want to write”), but it’s interesting to look at these titles and see what elements they have in common that you may be able to harness in your own writing.

Have you posted your list of “10 books that have stayed with you?” What titles were on yours that were missed from the “top 100?” Were any of your titles books for children/young adults?

Real Life Characters (a guest blog)

September 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

What are you afraid of? This was the question I pondered several years ago as I considered giving writing another shot. I’d been writing stories all of my life, but never shared them. One of my worries was that I would offend someone—especially someone in my family. But I also knew that to write a great story, I must be willing to take a stand. If I tried to please everyone, I’d end up with a mushy mess.women's fiction

Recently I heard New York Times best-selling author Elizabeth Berg address this same fear. When she wrote her novel, DURABLE GOODS, about a child afraid of her dad, she worried how her father would react. She asked her mother to serve as a buffer and remind her dad that “This is fiction.” Well, her father didn’t see it that way. Elizabeth Berg admits things were a little stilted between them for a while. But in the end, they had a frank discussion about her childhood and they grew much closer.

This is probably the best case scenario for an author. Personally, I’m not that brave. To err on the side of caution, I decided to create characters so different from my family that no one could be hurt. In my first series, the main character’s parents are no longer alive. And instead of a brother, she has a sister.

But I’ve also found that when I base a character on a real-life person, they tend to become three-dimensional so much easier. Sometimes I think of someone I know, write the character, then change the physical attributes, quirks and of course, the name. In the end, I’m the only one who knows who inspired me.

So, I figure I’ve played it safe. No one can accuse me of slander or misrepresentation. Right? Yet my mother-in-law asked if the mother-in-law in my books is nice or mean. Wait a minute. I wasn’t thinking of her when I wrote those characters. (Let me just say that I have a kind mother-in-law no matter what my books represent.) But this was a scary reminder of what I risk every time I publish something.

women's fictionWhat happens when my daughter is old enough to read my novels? I have to admit she has influenced the children in my stories. The fact that she wanted a telescope for Christmas (which made me so proud) or the fact that she said she swims not like a fish, but like a mermaid (which made me laugh) or the fact that she needed special tutoring to overcome her dyslexia (which broke my heart). In one ironic twist of fate, I wrote of a child who fell asleep chewing gum and woke up with it stuck in her hair. A few weeks later, my daughter actually did this. Once I got over my case of deja-vu, I re-wrote the scene and had the mother work much harder to try and remove the goo before resorting to cutting it out.

Will my daughter someday be mad that I wrote about her misdeeds? I hope not. The truth is I’m a better writer because of her. I owe her so much for opening my eyes to the struggles and joys that motherhood entails. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t be able to relate to a large part of my audience. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t realize what a crazy, emotional roller coaster parenthood is. I used to lean heavily toward the “nurture” camp, but now realize what a wild card DNA is. Who really knows if they’re making the right decisions when it comes to their kids? It takes eighteen years to see the results and even then, are they a finished product? I think not. Oh, this motherhood thing is a challenge! Fortunately, struggle is what makes a good story.

So, if you’re afraid to write because you think you’ll offend someone, just start writing. There’s no guarantee that even if you produce the most innocuous story, you won’t bother someone. Do your best to alter names and any other obvious identifiers, but then go for it. The truth is, the point of literature is to evoke emotion. Some people will love your work and some people will hate it. C’est la vie.

For all of my efforts to write about people that were not at all like my family, here is what my mom said when she finished reading my novel, A SISTER’S PROMISE: “OK, which sister was you and which one was your brother?”

Neither. Both. I’m not saying.

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Karen LenfesteyKaren Lenfestey, a Midwest Writer’s Fellowship winner, writes “happy endings with a twist.” She has just published her fourth novel, A WEEKEND GETAWAY, which begs the question, “Should Bethany track down the daughter she’s never known just to give her bad news?” To receive a free copy of the prequel, FRIDAY A LA MODE, visit www.karensnovels.com.

 

The Future of Private Eye Fiction (a guest blog)

September 5th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 4 Comments

Scrape that gum off your shoe, and try this one on for size: private investigators. What goes through your head when you picture one? A tough guy in a trench coat spouting gruff, side-of-the-mouth dialog that’s sharp enough to shave with? Brassy, wisecracking dames in distress? Fistfights, gunfights, and dark, glistening city streets, all put to the music of a lone, wailing saxophone? Well yeah. I do, anyway. Matter of fact, most of us do. But somehow over the years that mythos turned into a stereotype, and we are all poorer for it. Because make no mistake, there are some gems to be found. The masters from the early years showed us how to do it: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen … even Mickey Spillane had his moments. A lot of their work was magic.

But beginning in the early sixties, private eye fiction began to fall out of favor. James Bond—and don’t get me wrong, I love the guy—and gadgets started taking over. Private shamuses (shami?) waned, and then transmogrified (gotta love them college words) into objects of ridicule. Only in the last decade and a half or so has the reading public decided to give the genre another try. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we simply were ready for heroes again.

Thankfully some good writers have stepped up to the plate. A cursory perusal showcases such talents as Sara Paretsky, Loren Estleman, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, and many others. These writershave helped expand the borders of PI fiction. Now we have lady PIs, gay PIs, midget PIs, kid PIs, part-time PIs, handicapped PIs, just about everything under the sun except for spiritual PIs.

Until now.

Question: can a faith-based private investigator hold his own in a secular market? Answer: why not? Lord knows (excuse the pun) there’s a need. Okay, so what would such a creature look like? How would he (or she) act when confronted by J. Evil Villain? Pray for him? Shoot him? Pray for him and THEN shoot him? I’m not sure. But something tells me these ideas would be a lot of fun to pursue. And someone’s going to do it. Maybe even me. All that to say, the future for private eye fiction looks bright, no matter what brand of gumshoe you favor.

Now enough jawing. Somebody get this dame off my desk, hand me my heater, and cue the sax.
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John Robinson is the author of several gritty novels, including Abyss, Until the Last Dog Dies, To Skin a Cat, and Last Call. He lives in Ohio.

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 6, Accents and Dialect

August 20th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-or-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time.

 

The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

 

Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

 

  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin'” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.

 

If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”

 

I think this will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know– I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice

August 12th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.

Character Interview Reference Sheet

Name?
Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Economic status?
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?

There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).

What to Do With Your One and Only Story (A Guest Post)

August 8th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

All of us have a story. But not all of us have a story that is ready to be published.

If there’s no trembling in your fingertips, if there’s no hesitation, it may be that you want your story out there for the wrong reasons. It’s valid to want to be seen and heard, but if you’re going into publishing to have those needs met, you will be sorely disappointed.

Though many writers may begin that way, the best memoirs cling to the sanctity of the story free of the undue demands of an author’s ego.

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Sanctity is found in the calling. You need to ask yourself: Why am I writing this book? Is it to fulfill a childhood dream? Is it to pass down my story to future generations? Or is it because I feel God has asked me to share my story with the world?

The publishing journey is agonizing and hard and, for most, the rewards are few. There are some who strike it big and this may, in fact, be you—but be sure your motives are pure before heading into the arduous journey of exposing not only your own wounds, but your family’s as well.

I was standing outside by the woodshed one day, my boys playing around me, crying because my family was reading through the second draft of my memoir and they had a lot of changes they wanted me to make, and some hurts they wanted to express.

It’s a healing path, this writing about your life, but it’s a hard one. You will have stones thrown and even if you’re one of the few that makes it big, the journey will be painstaking and lonely.

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So, what to do with your one and only story?

All of our stories matter. But, here’s the thing: Some stories need to be passed on to future generations. Some stories need to be preserved via tape recorder, in a journal or diary, as a keepsake for the family. Very few of us have a story that needs to be published for public consumption, via traditional or self-publishing methods.

What were you put on earth to do? To pour your life into the radical act of living? Or to put words to your living? And where are those words to go? Into the hands of your children? Into the blogosphere? Or out into the world?

We’re all in a rush to be known.

Yet we’ve forgotten we’re already known by One who has counted the very hairs on our heads—and this truth needs to be the heart of all of our stories:

This desire to make God known, more than ourselves.

Now that’s a story worth telling.

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Emily T. Wierenga is an award-winning journalist, blogger, commissioned artist and columnist, as well as the author of five books including the newly-released memoir,Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look (Baker Books). All proceeds from Atlas Girl benefit her non-profit, The Lulu Tree. She lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two sons. For more info, please visit www.emilywierenga.com. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

 

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 4, Punctuating Dialogue

August 6th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

  • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
    “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
    Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
    “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
  • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
    Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
  • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as a whole.
    “Why didn’t you write to me?” she asked.
    “Because I hate you!” he responded.
    How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you”? –As it’s written now, the writer ends the sentence by quoting a non-question, but is asking a question with the whole sentence, so the question mark is placed outside the quotation marks so we know the speaker is asking a question. If the question mark appeared inside the quotation marks, it would change the meaning of the “I hate you” comment– “I hate you?” is not a declaration of hate, but a request for confirmation of information/an expression of incredulity.
  • Use single quotation marks to set off a quotation within a quotation or line of dialogue. A quote within a line of dialogue needs to be set off at beginning and end (don’t forget to close it!) with single quotation marks, and the rules for end punctuation are the same for these internal quotes.
    “You said, and I quote, ‘Be ready at seven-thirty.’ It’s seven-thirty. I’m ready,” she said, glaring at her mother.
    “How does it make you feel when you hear him say “I hate you’?” asked Dr. Harper. –the sentence from the above example was turned into a line of dialogue by enclosing it in quotation marks and adding attribution, so now the speaker is quoting someone else within his speech and that quote needs to be set off by single quotation marks. The line of dialogue as a whole, however, is still a question that Dr. Harper is asking, so the question mark appears outside the single marks around the quoted material, but inside the double marks around Dr. Harper’s words, per the rule above.

And always remember to begin (and indent) a new paragraph to indicate a change in speaker.

Of course, you’ll always come across sentences which are more difficult to know how to punctuate correctly, whether because the syntax is a bit more complex or because the setting affects the delivery of the dialogue (e.g., a scene where a character is reading from a letter or a newspaper), but in general, knowing these rules will let you write and punctuate your dialogue with confidence.

If you’re feeling confident and want to try out your quotation-mark skills, try this quiz hosted by Capital Community College’s grammar help page for some practice in using these basic rules. Feel free to brag about your awesome score in the comments, or to publicly admit your shortcomings– we’ll try not to judge you. If you’ve run into one of those tricky punctuation situations not covered by these rules in your own writing, post it and I’ll see if I can offer any clarity– if I can’t, I’ll just sit here quietly until another reader more knowledgeable than I pipes in with the answer, and then I’ll nod wisely and agree. As always, thanks for reading!

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 3, Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue

July 29th, 2014 | The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

brick green no smile b:wToday, I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that he is fidgeting or won’t make eye contact, or that he keeps clearing his throat, or even by using one of those “said” alternatives like “stammered.” (Note: I said ONE! See my post on attribution. One is enough to set the tone for the whole exchange, especially when coupled with some description of the character’s physical demeanor. Don’t go crazy.) Don’t spend a lot of time trying to describe noises, either– while you may feel that it’s vitally important that your reader know that your main character said “Yeeeeek!” when she saw a spider, or that he hollered “RRRRGGGH” when he got shot in the leg, these “sound effects” generally come across as obnoxious and ineffective in actually conveying the fear or pain felt by these characters in those moments. Your story is better served by telling the reader that “a scream from the living room brought Ted running. Chrissy was standing on the coffee table pointing at the floor with a shaking finger,” or that “a growl of pain escaped from between his clenched teeth as she pried the bullet out of his leg”  than by including the scream or the growl as an actual line of dialogue. Let the reader’s imagination do the work of creating the sound effects rather than attempting “realistic” exclamations.

Once you’ve weeded the “realistic” dialogue from your manuscript, turn your efforts to writing natural dialogue instead. Natural dialogue has to do with a line of dialogue’s believability– are characters speaking in a way that’s believable for the time period, their age, their education, and their personalities? I’ve read a lot of dialogue supposedly spoken by modern teenagers which contained really archaic phrases or slang, and seen quite a few modern characters whose syntax was extremely formal; in both cases, the dialogue strikes me as unnatural because it isn’t believable that these characters would speak this way. If there’s a reason a character speaks a certain way– the teenage character is obsessed with 80s movies and that’s why he uses 80s slang, the main character has an IQ of 270 and his formal syntax is an illustration of how his extreme intelligence alienates him from his peers, etc.– make sure it’s clear to the reader, and keep in mind that even if you have a good reason for it, unnatural dialogue can still distance the reader from a story or character simply because the reader finds it distracting or difficult to connect with, so you may want to use it sparingly.

Natural dialogue also has to do with whether you’re allowing dialogue to occur in places and on topics where it makes sense or whether you’re forcing a conversation/monologue in order to divulge information to the reader. There’s a great scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Diana Rigg as Lady Holiday tells the receptionist (Miss Piggy) that she’ll be lunching with her brother Nicky. What could have been a single, naturally-occurring line about where she’ll be during the lunch hour segues into a monologue about how her brother is an “irresponsible parasite who squandered his half of the inheritance and has categorically no prospects– not that he’s grateful, he still gambles, incurs bad debts, uses my charge accounts, eats my food, and borrows my cars without asking permission. And certainly he’s not to be trusted– I wouldn’t even put it past him to try to steal my most valuable and largest jewel, the fabulous baseball diamond… Still and all, he is my brother.” Miss Piggy, the total stranger to whom Lady Holiday just poured all this out, understandably asks, “Why are you telling me all this?” To which Lady Holiday shrugs and replies, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.” Don’t make your characters be Lady Holiday. If it doesn’t make sense for characters to be conversing about a certain topic, find another place for your plot exposition.

I’m getting to the end of my series on dialogue– if there are any problem areas or questions about writing effective dialogue you’d like to see discussed before I end the series, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!

On Writer’s Block (a guest post)

July 25th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 12 Comments

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

There! I’ve gone and said it.

Writer’s block is a condition belonging to those who can afford to indulge in it. Me? I’ve got deadlines. If the muses aren’t feeling up to snuff, so be it.  I’m still going to be sitting in that chair banging out words every day. If the muse isn’t cooperating, the words aren’t going to be fabulous, and they will have to be rewritten, or maybe even tossed in the trash can, but by gum those keys are clacking along in spite of any lack of enthusiasm. I tell myself, just write, even a measly paragraph can get the ideas started again. Or if I’m completely stymied, I’ll write something else. I’m always working on two books at once so I can alternate if needed. So what do some writers far more accomplished than I say about writer’s block?

Philip Pullman said, “Writer’s block… a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”

I think the best piece of wisdom on this subject comes from Barbara Kingsolver who advises, “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.”

So what about you? How do you push past a lack of inspiration in your work or home life?

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Dana Mentink is a romance and suspense writer, living in California with a fire fighter husband, two girls — Yogi and Boo Boo — and a dog with social anxiety problems. Her most recent title, Flood Zone, releases this month with Harlequin’s LI Suspense. You can find out more about Dana by visiting her website: www.danamentink.com 

Dana Mentink

Point of View (a guest blog)

July 18th, 2014 | The Writing Craft | 1 Comment

In the past few months, I have done developmental edits, line edits, or rewrites on over twenty novels, and assessed at least a dozen more for marketability. I’m now partially blind in one eye, and I occasionally twitch for no reason, but it’s been time well spent, working with some amazing storytellers.

If you are in the midst of writing your own novel, you might find it interesting that the most common editorial issue I encounter is the inconsistent use of point of view. I know it can be hard to maintain in longer manuscripts, which I view as a normal writing stumble — and job security. But I think sometimes newer authors are making pov mistakes repeatedly because they are not considering the flow of action and thought from the reader’s perspective, how illogical shifts can be disorienting.

“I tucked the gun in my pocket, walked in the office and shut the door, leaving Jim in the hallway. I noticed the raincoat on the floor beside the desk. Jim opened the secretary’s closet, moving old jackets and sweaters aside as he searched for the raincoat.”

This first person voice cannot see through walls or read minds (at least not in this story), so how does he know Jim is digging through the closet? He might know he TOLD Jim to dig through the closet, but Jim could just as easily have been distracted by a donut sitting on top of the waste basket. Of course, this also holds true if perspective shift happens in a third person narrative.

“Todd tucked the gun in his pocket, walked in to the office and shut the door, leaving Jim in the hallway. Jim opened the secretary’s closet, moving old jackets and sweaters aside as he searched for the one piece of evidence that might save his life.”

Yes, there is such a thing as distant, omniscient third person point of view where this last example might work, though I would still transition the reader from the office to the hallway, adding something like, “Jim frowned at the closed door. Not knowing Todd had found the coat, Jim walked across the hall to the secretary’s closet . . .”

However, in my humble opinion, the bulk of books being picked up by traditional publishers today are using first person point of view, or third person point of view told from the perspective of one character at a time. Shifts in view point are visually cued by extra space breaks, with or without something like this ********, or by starting a new chapter. Luckily for most authors, these two pov’s are the easiest to maintain.

“Todd tucked the gun in his pocket, walked in the office and shut the door, leaving Jim the hallway.

********

Jim frowned at the closed door. Not knowing Todd had found the coat, Jim walked across the hall to the secretary’s closet, moving old jackets and sweaters aside as he searched for the one piece of evidence that might save his life.”

New authors struggle with consistent pov more than the varsity players but no matter your level of expertise, if you’ve just kicked out a 300-page document, you might want to do a re-read with point of view in mind. Sometimes the shift is just in one paragraph, sometimes it’s a bigger chunk. If you are sticking with the distant third person pov, think about how the movement from character to character is being transitioned for your readers. For good examples, read classic authors who have used this perspective beautifully. You know, Dostoevsky. Marquez.

Of course, it’s not as if the occasional misstep with a viewpoint is the end of the world, not when you’ve got professional editors on stand-by via the amazing world of the internet. As an editor, I am certainly not discussing pov errors here because I’m trying to be smug or condescending, not when I’ve gone through the process myself. I like reading un-polished manuscripts. I like helping other authors with the finishing steps. I appreciate the behind the scenes, down in the mud, hard work that it takes for an author to produce a story, especially one of merit. I think most professional editors feel this way.

I wish you all the best of luck in your writing journey. Break a pen!

 

Published author Holly Lorincz is also the owner of a successful editing and publishing consultation business. See literaryconsulting.com. for more details.headshot-sepia-copy