Writing 101: Dialogue Part I

No matter how young you were when you first put pen to paper, there is at least one thing you have been doing much longer than writing. Unless you are Emlyn Chand, who claims to have sprung from the womb with fountain pen in hand, you were a practiced pro at talking well before you wrote your first masterpiece.

So why is it that adding dialogue to our work is so painful? Dialogue is another one of those skills that if done well is seamless in a great piece of fiction. However, if you don't follow some basic guidelines your novel will start to resemble Frankenstein. And I'm not referring to the cuter, funnier Young Frankenstein.

Here are the basic tips I found in how to write excellent dialogue (AKA dialogue that doesn't suck). Since this is such a broad topic and one that I am especially bad at, next week I'll cover even more useful tips!

First tip, listen to how people talk. This is a perfect excuse to take a seat at your favorite coffee house, library, or lunch table and eavesdrop on other people. Feeling extra bold? Use the record memo feature on your iPhone. Some people would call this being nosy. As writers, we get to call it research. But don't just listen in, write it down. Don't skip lines, don't gloss over the hiccups, write it down verbatim.

You'll probably find two things from this exercise. One, people in general have a very poor grasp on the English language. And two, real dialogue is not going to work in your novel.

So now that you have this conversation on paper, tip number two is to slice and dice. Cut out all the filler words like 'um' and 'ah' that we are all so quick to use. This should give the scene an immediate improvement, but you're not done there. Next, figure out what the main subject on the conversation is, and cut out anything that isn't.

Like a magpie with a shiny object, people tend to get distracted by the things around them. If one of your speakers uses the phrase, “And that reminds me...”, you have just hit a tangent. Dialogue should not include every fleeting thought that pops into your character's head. Stick to the point.

Next, check to see if this conversation has a purpose. You have some dialogue free of fillers and all on one subject, but does anyone care? Let's say your MC is getting a book at the library. While checking out the book, she enters into a conversation with the librarian about how great said author is. Go ahead and picture yourself as the subject of this conversation. The talk is brief, on topic, and full of articulate language. Great! Does it have anything to do with your story about Cyborg aliens intent on destroying the planet? Darn! You were about to get some great PR, but that scene will need to be cut.

If you've followed the tips above, your dialogue is probably looking pretty good. Now it's time to take a look at your tags. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to let your reader know who is talking. Here are some things your tag should not do.

    • Give the reader backstory on the speaker
    • Give character traits for the first time
    • Pull the reader out with creative verb use (hint: no one actually ejaculates words)
    • Get on a soapbox

I know it's tempting. All that he said/she said on the page can make you feel boring, but trust me, tags should be boring.

However, you can feel free to shake it up with a he asked/she asked tag occasionally. Also, it is OK to add action to a tag so long as it makes sense. For example: “You're hilarious,” he said, stirring his coffee. This is fine, not stellar, but fine. What's not fine? “You're hilarious,” he said while taking a sip of his coffee. No matter how awesome your character is, he probably can't talk and drink coffee at the same time.

Now that you have some decent dialogue and the reader knows who is who, give your words some context. Chances are, your characters are not having this conversation in a vacuum. Life is happening around them, so don't forget to remind the reader. If your characters are chatting at a coffee shop they might hear the ding of the bell over the door, the espresso machine gurgle, or the waitress take the order for the next table over. It's important to slip in parts of the environment to keep the conversation realistic.

And don't forget that your characters are not statues. Unless they are, in which case please skip this paragraph. When people talk they fidget and move, blink their eyes, and have facial expressions. All these things can give the reader greater insight into your character and break up yards of quotation marks.

But in the words of Bon Qui Qui, “Don't get crazy”. There is a fine line between adding context to your characters' conversation and interrupting them. I like to imagine the stage directions in a play. If the playwright gives the actor an action for every line, the actor loses the freedom to interpret the role. If, as the author, you give too much context, your reader loses the ability to imagine the scene for themselves.

So there you have it, some quick tips on dialogue. Next week, I'll cover some additional subject like the all important voice and accents (yuck!). As always, I'd love to hear your suggestions for what to cover in this series. 'Till next week, y'all!

Writing 101: Backstory

And Now...the Back of the Story.

Our characters are fascinating people (or creatures for the fantasy fans out there). They have complex lives full of drama, love, pain, and joy. As the creators of these characters we know all about them and want our readers to love/hate them as much as we do.

So how do we do that? Most importantly, spend the first three chapters of your novel giving the reader a full account of the past twenty years of your character's life so they can fully appreciate the subtle nuances of your character's actions.

Wait, what? We aren't supposed to do that? Well, there goes 15K from my word count. But I promise, knowing what (insert character) wore to Prom her Junior year is going to be really important later on.

OK, so you need some backstory. The real trick is dishing it out at the right time, in the right format, and in the right quantity. That seems pretty straightforward, but if like me you want to know more, here are some helpful tips.

According to Vicki Hinze the one absolute place backstory doesn't belong is in the opening pages. This is your chance to capture a reader's attention, so you need to hit them with the here and now.

I love her advice for how to incorporate the history that your character needs. “Think of bites. You can't eat a roast in one bite. But you can eat a roast by eating a lot of little bites. It's the same thing, for the same reason. So you don't choke.”

Hinze doesn't agree with the idea of cutting all backstory. And neither do I. By picking just the right slice of history to share, you give your reader better understanding of your character's motivations. Hinze agrees that these little nuggets of info “evoke the images and feelings you want the reader to have so that the reader reacts emotionally and logically to the characters the way you want them to react.”

So how do you pick which nuggets to share? Camy Tang has a great checklist to keep you from fluffing your MS with info a reader doesn't need. If you answer these questions honestly, you'll probably come up with a fairly short list of declassified facts.

1. Is your backstory absolutely relevant?
2. Is your backstory short?
3. Is your backstory broken up or inserted all at once?
4. Is there a dire reason for a character to need the information?
5. Is there conflict preventing the information from coming to light?
6. Is the information tied to some type of action?
7. Can you create a situation where someone needs to know the information?
8. Is the backstory given from the point of view of the character with the most to lose?
9. Is the backstory realistically and believably conveyed by the character?

So that covers when and what to include, but the hardest part for me is the how. Nothing is worse than the “As you know, John, we've been friends our whole lives.” Unless John has amnesia this is not going to impress your reader.

Going back to Tang, she suggests beating the information out of your characters. Or something like that. She suggest you “make that person have to fight to get the information. Create conflict that tries to prevent the character from finding out what they need to know. Let the witness be slippery or reluctant. Make obstacles for the character, and the reader will be drawn into his fight to find out the information.”

Kathy Steffen suggests that we expose critical backstory through dialogue. She says, “A veiled reference to something in the past can intrigue a reader.” I say, this sounds good but is probably harder than that. If you make your comment too veiled, the reader might be confused.

JK Rowling is a master at weaving in the little details. When bits of information needed to be shared, she often has the character unable to give all the information. Just as we were about to learn something really juice, Snape would but his greasy nose right into the thick of it. As a reader this gave us just enough to know that something is important, but also enough intrigue to keep us readeing to find out what it is.

I also love shushing my characters. When the big mouth brother is about to tell a tale of past embarrassment, the MC stops him cold with a look of murderous rage. No need to spill all the beans, but the damage is done.

So how do you know if you've done it right? Steffen suggests utilizing a very high-tech device to locate and eliminate unnecessary backstory. The Highlighter. Go back and highlight anything that is background information. If it doesn't happen during the time line of your tale, it's history. Then take a hard look and determine if it is essential information to the reader in order to understand your character's actions. If not, it has to go.

The cold, hard fact is that you have to write your character's history. After all, our past is what shapes our future, and this is true for you as a writer and for your characters. Unfortunately, most of that backstory is for your eyes only. While it does nothing for your word count, backstory will help you to write characters that hold a reader (and hopefully an agent).

Here are the links I used for today's entry.

Do you struggle with backstory? How do you handle it? Share your thoughts with other writers.

Do you have other writing issues you'd like to see covered here? Please let me know.

Writing 101: Transitions

As promised, here is the first installation of my new Writing 101 Series.

Remember that movie “Dude, Where's My Car?” (stick with me on this). In one scene the MCs are in a drive-thru and after every item they order the clown face box responds, “And then?”. “I'd like a diet coke”, “And then?”, “I'll take a medium fry.”, “And then?”...You get the idea.

All good stories are like this scene. First something happens, and then something else, and then something else, until we come to the end.

Good stories with smooth transitions get us from that first point to the end in a way that never makes the reader stop to ask “And then?”.

You'll never see a review that raves about the amazing transitions of someone's novel, but if they aren't there you're going to hear about it. Words like clunky and dragging describe books that probably have major transition issues (among other things).

According to Wikipedia, “Transitions provide for a seamless narrative flow as a story shifts in time, location, or POV. They aid the internal logic of a story by moving readers from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, scene to scene, and chapter to chapter with grace and ease.. “

Don't we all wish we could write with grace and ease?

So how do we create seamless transitions without making our readers bleed from their eyes? Here are the best tips I could find from the folks who know, along with some of my own less genius insight.

    Get to it.
    According to Gail Gaymer Martin , the easiest way to start a transition is to use your POV characters name as soon as possible. John stared out the window of his condo. Behind him the room boasted an austere decor, void of personal effects. A woman's touch would make all the difference. Immediately we know who and where. John has gone from the diner (for example) and is now in his condo. 
    Imagine if the same author took the time to describe the inside of the condo first. The room boasted an austere decor, void of personal effects. A woman's touch would make all the difference. John stared out the window of his condo. Same sentences, different order, big difference!
    What time is it?
    From the all-knowing site eHow, I gleaned another golden nugget. It is OK to occasionally tell your reader how much time has passed. For example: Twenty minutes later, Katie finally relaxed into her lonely bed. This can also be used before the transition. Jason knew ten minutes was plenty of time to get to the post office. End scene, open scene at post office. Passage of time: no more than 10 minutes.
    I like this option for it's simplicity, but overuse can give the reader a headache. Unless you're watching an episode of 24 there is no reason every minute needs to be accounted for. 
    Tag, you're it.
    According to Jessica Page Morrell “...readers do not need to follow characters through every doorway.” And she's right. But if your character leaps through a worm-hole, best to let the reader know. If your character moves around a lot (think Clive Cussler) an easy way to keep the reader up to speed is a chapter tag. 
    Chapter 10
    June 10th, Birmingham
    No Namby Pamby transition
    My favorite tip comes from author and writing expert Mike Klaassen. He suggests that we let our transitions pull double-duty. In other words, don't just get the reader from A to B, give them a reward for following you there.
    It had been weeks since Karen had seen Mark.
    OK, it works. We know what's going on and that fine. But what if...
    The leaves of the wide oak tree transformed from vibrant green to a gorgeous shade of sunset before falling to the lawn below, but still no sign of Mark.
    Sometimes it is effective to transition without a transition. After all, only highly intelligent individuals will be reading the masterpiece each one of us is creating. Riiiight. There's a lot to be said for trusting the reader to make a jump with you, but please be careful. If not done right, your reader is going to feel like their book has a missing page.
    Here's my rule of thumb on this. If, as the writer, you don't know how your character got to where they are, then neither will your reader. If you know, and it makes complete sense, then go for it.
So there you have it, five easy ways to transition your reader. Here is my final thought on the subject. A transition is not an opportunity to info dump on your reader. Just like any other part of a story, character traits, setting and back story need to be woven in small doses. Four paragraphs detailing the landscape of your characters newest location does not a transition make. OK, it does, but don't expect the reader to still be there when you get done.

If you do this right, the first time your reader asks the question “And then?” they'll have reached the end and be begging for more.

I hope you found this useful or entertaining (preferably both). Feel free to share your thoughts on these transition techniques and any others in your toolbox.  Also, please let me know of other topics you'd like to see covered!

Here are some sites I found helpful in writing this week's blog. Enjoy!

Is taking things into her own hands (Writing 101)

The world of writing and publishing books is scary. I understand that and I haven't even submitted my first query. The literary world is chock full of reasons to keep your lights on at night and the covers pulled over your head, but for me the worst is the unknown. Like many aspiring authors I ask myself almost daily, “Is my writing really good enough?”

If I'm being completely honest with myself, I have to answer no.

So what's a gal to do? Cry in her Cheerios? Burn her notebooks? Absolutely not!

Just because I don't think I'm good enough right now in this very moment doesn't mean I can't be. If I really want to get better I have to be willing to put in the effort. It has to be about more than just practicing my craft; I have to actually work at it.

Throwing a basketball at the hoop won't make me a basketball player.  Pumping out words on my keyboard doesn't make me a writer. If I want to be a center forward for the Chicago Bulls (not likely since I'm only 4'10”) I need to know how to play basketball, then practice it. Likewise, if I want to be the next JK Rowling (Brandon Sanderson, fill-in-the-blank) I need to learn how to write and then do the writing.

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression here. I know how to write. But I know there are things I could do better. Much better. Like what? Well, lots of things. So how are you going to get better? Good question. I'm glad you asked.

While I'd love to attend every web seminar, writer's conference and boot camp that catches my eye, my pocket book has it's limitations. I think most of these are very worthwhile, but there is a better (read: cheaper) option out there for folks like me who don't have the liquid funds available.

So here's the plan. Each week I will select an area of writing that I think I need to work on. I'll do some research through the web, the library and any other free/cheap resources I can. Then, I'll post my personal findings here. We can learn together.

Starting next week look for the first edition of my Writing 101 series. My focus will be the pesky transition. I hope you enjoy it!

Do you have areas of interest that you'd like to see covered in the series? What part of the writing process holds you back from finding publishing success. Let me know and I'll try to include it in the series.

Is (almost) over the free e-book.

With the world of publishing changing before our eyes, more and more would-be authors are turning to self publishing to get their works out to the masses.  Many are offering some of their titles for free in the hopes of hooking fans who will willingly fork over $4.99 to read more.  This can work, however, if your free book only offers readers what they pay for, you could be forfeiting future readers should you ever find that elusive publisher. 

As someone who's come across all too many bad freebies I've put together my top five corrective actions before hitting the publish button.

1.  Each word counts.
My seventh grade History teacher forbid us from using the words "things" or "stuff" in any of our essays.  While sometimes it's a pain to replace them, they really don't have any place in your novel.  Words like this are nondescript placeholders and your sentence will be better off without them.  Dust off those Microsoft Word skills and use the Ctrl+F function to hunt down these prose killers.  Of course, feel free to leave them in your dialogue if it suits your character.  And don't stop there.  Do you have other words that tend to crop up in an abundance in your writing?  Now's the time to branch out and use some new vocabulary. 

2.  Outlining isn't just for research papers.
Please, please make an outline, if you haven't already.  Each chapter should be a main point with each scene as a subset.  If you can't decide what the main point of the chapter or scene is, how do you expect the reader to know?  This can be scary if you realize that an entire scene or (gasp) chapter doesn't really matter.  I'm sure the scene is a masterpiece, but if it doesn't move the story forward or divulge new info it doesn't belong.  And next time, outline first to avoid writing the scenes that will only end up on the chopping block.

3.  Does it matter.
Sometimes in an effort to create depth in our characters we give just a little too much information.  Do we really need to know every meal your character eats over the course of a month?  Probably not, but I don't know.  Maybe that information will be important when the character realizes in chapter seven that citrus gives him magical powers and he would never have know the key if not for his infamous food log.  However, if citrus has nothing to do with it and your character would have developed those powers anyway, you have officially bored your reader to beers.  The point is, be careful about all the details.  If you have too many your reader will start veering off course wondering about the courses.  And yes, the puns were intended.

4.  That's all folks.
In this humble readers opinion the last few chapter are what can make or break a book.  If the ending is bad, your reader will be left with a sour taste of your writing no matter how good the first 60,000 words were.  So what makes a good ending?  Resolution.  The ending needs to bring a close to all the conflict going on and it needs to make sense.  This is harder than it sounds and even the masters can blow this one.  Have you ever read The Dome by Steven King.  What a great book!  Right up until the end.  I won't spoil it for anyone still waiting to read it, but I was seriously disappointed.

Some of the worst offenders of this rule are series books.  For some reason, authors think that because they are planning a sequel or two it's OK not to resolve the conflict.  They are wrong.  While it's alright to leave a few loose threads to keep the story going, each book in the series needs to have a finite ending that resolves a major conflict.  A special note here: Do NOT leave the reader with a cliffhanger.  Save this kind of over-the-top marketing gimmick for TV drama/cop shows.  Your reader wants to know who killed JR and will not be pleased if your books ends with "To be continued."

5.  Your mom is not a good Beta.
For that matter, neither is your sister, brother, best friend, co-worker or any of the people in your book club.  These folks (hopefully) love you and while they are sure to give you some good tidbits on ways to improve your writing, they will find it very hard to be completely honest.  My suggestion: find strangers.  The good news is the internet is crawling with them.  Another idea is to stalk the stacks containing your genre at the library.  You may get some weird looks, but most readers will jump at the chance to read your MS.

Now arm your Betas (the readers, not the fish) with a full printed copy of your MS and a red pen.  I ask my Betas to circle anywhere in the MS where they get pulled out of the story.  This could be a glaring typo, a confusing phrase, or a character acting out of character.  Really, anything that makes them stop and go "Hmmmm".  In addition to these circles indicating work to be done, ask them to slash through any paragraph where they find themselves skimming.  Skimming is bad and generally means the reader is bored.  You either need to cut that paragraph or rework it to hold the readers interest.

There you have it.  Five ways to improve your writing and pull in more readers.  Plus, with all this extra effort, you can feel good about going ahead and charging $.99. :)

Is not really in Texas

Well, nor yet anyway. This short and sweet entry is coming to you live from the road. I'm pretty sure we are somewhere in Oklahoma. This 20+ hour haul from the Midwest to nowhere West Central Texas is giving me lots of time to explore my mobile options. I'm learning a lot of new things.

For example, I really stink at typing on my iPhone. Despite an impassive WPM on a standard key board, I am horrid on this tiny little pad.

Also, despite my resistance to joining, I am now addicted to Twitter. I'll even confess that I am desperate for someone to "retweet" me. That's right I am now a shameless social media whore. In fact, as soon as I'm done pecking out this little blog I will plug it on Twitter in the hopes that one of the 6 people who follow me will actually read this.

My final technology insight is that I have become completely dependent on my computer for writing. The blank page of my lined notebook is scary. Knowing tomorrow will put me in front of an actual computer screen for the first time in over two weeks is enough to make a grown woman cry in her minivan.

Still, I am determined to keep my resolution to work on my book at least a little every day until it's done. My goal: completed first draft by the end of March. Then I can let it sit for a month and start really editing in May. Hopefully I can query this summer.

So take that technology! I can and will blog at will. Now I have to log in to twitter.