Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, November 8 and 9, 2012

Wouldn’t you know it? The day I need to hurry, there’s LOTS of great stuff to write about. To work, then!

CRAFT

Let’s start with Jordan Dane (@JordanDane) on The Kills Zone and Writing Dialog – Tips. It’s not that there are any astounding new insights here but Jordan’s compiled a lot of good ideas into one easy-to-access location.

Similarly, Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) piece Read Like an Agent doesn’t break any new ground but provides a good all-in-one-place summary of why the first few pages of your book are so important and how to make them so strong they are, as she puts it, un-put-downable.

Robin LaFevers’ (@RLLaFevers) long but excellent article on Transformational Journeys—Working with Archetypes on Writer Unboxed not only lists and describes various archetypes, it also discusses how to use them to turn ordinary characters and writing into something far greater. Very well worth your time.

Also on Writer Unboxed, Lisa Cron (@lisacron) discusses 2 Ways Your Brain is Wired to Undermine Your Story—And What to Do About It. Her two main points are that we all have a tendency to write about the world the way we see it (to “see the world as we are” as she puts it) rather than how it really is, and we naturally resist any idea we don’t already hold to be true. Clearly, both of these things can work against us, especially if our characters hold significantly different views from our own, have different motivations, etc. Another terrific article.

Whether your manuscript is done or not, people are going to ask you, “What’s it about?” How can you answer without launching into your entire “elevator speech?” That’s where the one-sentence summary, or logline, comes in. Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) Writing a One-Sentence Summary provides an excellent—though not one sentence long—guide for how to construct it (courtesy of ex-agent Nathan Bransford), plus an example.

Finally for this section, Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) and his commenters provide their lists of The Best Writing Quotes That Ever Existed on 101 Books. Okay, so maybe “ever” is a bit of hype and the quotes aren’t new, they’re still worth rereading every now and then.

BUSINESS

Just one business piece today. Top 5 Goals for your Book or eBook Cover comes from Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) and is based on his experiences not only of designing covers himself but of reviewing hundreds of others. Quickly, the goals are: announce the book’s genre, telegraph its tone, explain its scope, generate excitement, and establish a market position. Of course, to get a fuller understanding of those goals, you need to hop on over to the article itself. It’s a quick and easy read.

THE WRITER’S LIFE

At the other end of quick and easy is Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s (@kriswrites) Want to Be Read 100 Years from Now? Here’s How. Now, from the title I thought this was going to be a piece on quality writing. Instead, it’s a very long piece on estates and copyrights. Not a happy topic but an important one. I just wish the post wasn’t over 3800 words long. SIGH.

That’s it for today. Monday’s post will be delayed as I’m (a) heading off to a science fiction/fantasy/horror convention in a few hours and then (b) taking part in a Veterans’ Day parade on Monday. We vets have made sure no foreign power has interfered with your right to read, write, and say what you wish (at least here in the United States) in the last 200 years. (This year is the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812. Has anyone noticed?) I hope you’ll keep that in mind not just this weekend but throughout the year.

Critique Technique, Part 34—Imbalance Between Narrative and Dialog

OK, I admit it: saying there’s an imbalance between narrative and dialog in a piece of writing is like saying there’s an imbalance between the ice cream and the banana in a banana split. For some people’s tastes, it’s not possible to have too much ice cream. Or too much banana.

But for most of us, there’s a sweet spot (pun fully intended), around which a little bit more ice cream or banana, or a little bit less, would still be OK.

The same is true of the balance between narrative and dialog. Except that the range is wider. Much wider.

It’s possible to write and publish a story that has no dialog whatsoever. I’ve done it. James Michener, I’m told, wrote hundreds of dialog-free pages at the beginning of Hawaii.

The opposite—no narrative at all—could be done too, I suppose, but not easily. At some point, the speakers are going to have to be identified within the conversation (after all, even one “Bob said” or “Alice said” dialog tag is narrative) and that runs the risk of the name-calling and “as you know, Bob” problems, which I’ll discuss in later posts.

So what we’re really dealing with here isn’t a 100% of one or the other situation, or even 50% + 1%, which is way too mathematical, anyway. It’s much more subjective but nevertheless real: what is the balance between narrative and dialog that tells the story effectively? Or more to the point, how can you as a reviewer spot when the relative proportions result in a story that isn’t told well?

It’s also important to note here that this imbalance can strike almost down to the paragraph level. There’s nothing wrong with a single paragraph being all narrative or all dialog, but problems can start to show up within just a cluster of paragraphs, far below the level of a scene.

The central question is whether you remained engaged with the story. Did your mind start to wander? Did you start skipping material? Did you find yourself confused, having to go back to reread a passage? If the answer to any of these questions was yes, that could be a sign that the balance between narrative and dialog is out of whack. (It could be a sign of other problems, of course, but for now we’ll ignore those possibilities.)

Especially in fiction, when a piece has a run of paragraphs that is nothing but narrative, the author may be info-dumping or lecturing the reader. When that happens, the pace will drag or even come to a complete stop. Readers will skip ahead to where the action picks up again.

Similarly, large blocks of narrative can be signs the author is “telling” the story, rather than “showing” it. If he describes what a character thought or felt, rather than letting the reader experience those feelings or hear those thoughts, he’ll do it through narrative.

These are both examples of the dreaded “expository lump,” that carcinoma of words which, if allowed to spread, will suck the life out of a story. When you find one, it’s time to put on your best Lady Macbeth and with a cry of, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” wield your reviewer’s pen.

The key, again, is engagement: if a piece is filled with page after page of nothing but narrative but you can’t put it down, it’s working and imbalance isn’t an issue.

Too much dialog reveals itself in some ways that are similar and some that are different.

Dialog can be an expository lump in disguise. In this case, a character does the lecturing, instead of the author/narrator, by either making a long speech to another character or ruminating in interior monolog.

“Long” can be subjective, by the way. A single paragraph of a dozen lines can be long if it makes the reader lose interest.

Dialog can also get out of balance if the contents of the conversation are boring. Dialog can be boring if:

  • it fails to move the story forward,
  • its relevance isn’t clear,
  • it deals with insignificant matters,
  • the characters are just exchanging information, or
  • the characters show no emotion or interest in what they’re discussing.

The common thread here is the lack of conflict. Effective dialog has a spark, an energy that keeps the reader intensely inside the scene.

Dialog-as-info-dump suffers from a similar problem but in this case there’s no opportunity for conflict because the speaker just won’t shut up.

Another way dialog can be out of balance is if the author is using it (intentionally or otherwise) to avoid providing the kinds of details that narrative provides best. There are times when just a brief bit of narrative—a description of a gesture that reveals contradictory emotion, for example—can show what dialog alone cannot.

Relevant setting details are another example of good use of narrative rather than dialog. If an author tries to have a character describe something verbally, it will likely sound stilted and awkward. She’s using the wrong tool for the job.

Finally, dialog gets out of balance when the reader loses track of who’s speaking. Even if two characters are speaking with highly distinctive voices, after a while a reader needs a cue in the form of a dialog tag to be sure he’s still on track. This is even more true when there are more than two characters in the scene.

Dialog’s different and shorter sentence structure results in space on the page with no printing on it. This “white space” lets the reader rest a bit. Narrative can provide something similar. Small insertions of narrative—the dialog tag, the descriptive detail—also provide a restful break, however brief, that keeps the reader engaged.

To sum up, then, how can you as a reviewer tell if a piece’s narrative and dialog are getting out of balance? If the balance seems off, is it because:

  • The author is lecturing or info-dumping, in either dialog or narrative?
  • The author is providing too much detail, too little, or via the wrong method?
  • The author is telling what should be shown, or showing what should be told?
  • The characters are discussing things that make the story drag or in a way that loses your interest?
  • The author is failing to mix the dialog and narrative in ways that allow you to rest, even while you stay interested?
  • The author lets you lose track of who’s speaking?

If you find any of these situations, be sure to let the author know and suggest alternatives.

What signals to you that a piece’s narrative and dialog are out of balance?

 

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, November 6 and 7, 2012

Ahhh, blessed peace! A day without political ads. Even so, we’ll have one—just one—fun piece (promise!) on presidents. But before we get to that, a bit on craft, a bit on the writer’s life, and a larger bit on the business of writing. Let’s get started, shall we?

CRAFT

Joe Moore (@JoeMoore_writer) wrote an excellent piece today on The Kill Zone on Kick starting your story. While that sounds like it might be plot focused, it’s actually character focused, with a list of about 18 questions about characters’ motives, goals, and obstacles. Answer them for your protagonist and antagonist and you’ll be a long way toward knowing the story. I’m doing something similar for my new WIP and it’s exciting. (Be sure to check out Jordan Dane’s and “Jim in Missoula’s” comments, too. Jim’s interview your characters technique is one I’ve used.) This one’s a keeper.

BUSINESS

Jordyn Redwood hosts self-described “book marketing expert” Rachel Simeone (@Zetablue), founder of Zetablue Marketing, who discusses The Book Review Conundrum: are they good, bad, or both, and how do you get authentic ones? Despite the recent kerfuffle over paid and/or fake reviews, they’re still an important way of getting people to make the decision to give your book a try, so this is a piece worth a look.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has a couple of posts I’m recommending today, although with caveats on both.

  • The first is 26 Questions on Writing & Publishing: My Answers on Reddit (note: to save you a step, the link goes directly to Reddit, not to Jane’s blog). The caveat should be clear from the title: 26 questions and answers is a lot. And, because the topics cover a wide range, not every question is going to interest every reader. That said, it’s worth skimming the piece for the topics that interest you. You do not have to have to be a Reddit community member to read the Q&A.
  • The second post is a video recording of an interview Jane did on a Google+ Hangout with a group of women who are part of the BABs, the Bay Area Bloggers. As with the Reddit post, you do NOT need to have a Google+ account. The caveat here is that the interview, called A Framework for Thinking About Author Platform, is a bit over 30 minutes long.

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The one post in this section is from Therese Walsh (@ThereseWalsh) of Writer Unboxed, on Admitting Defeat to Find Success. The piece is about far more than admitting defeat, though, it’s about what to do after you reach that point where you know something’s not working and you don’t know what or where or who to turn to to fix it. Therese suggests people to call on and things to do to get past that roadblock, even if it means completely redoing the work.

JUST FOR FUN

And finally, now that the Presidential election is over with, whether your happy or unhappy about the result, Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) of 101 Books and his readers offer up their choices for Literary Characters As President: The Good & Bad. And really, after the two years of non-stop campaigning we’ve just endured, who can’t use some creative “what ifs?” Enjoy.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, November 3-5, 2012

It’s interesting how the best posts over the weekend had to do with the writing life. We’ll do a couple of others first.

CRAFT

There’s a genre that lives on the boundary between mainstream fiction and fantasy and incorporates elements of both. In Defining Magic Realism Harvey Stanbrough (@h_stanbrough) discusses the genre and its key characteristics. If this is a genre you’re interested in or just curious about, check out this post.

SOCIAL MEDIA

I’m not a Google+ user myself but Maria Peagler’s (@SM_OnlineClass) How to Use Google+ as an Author Platform on Write to Done is one of the most thorough yet practical and approachable articles of its kind I’ve seen. If you’re already a Google+ user or considering signing up, this is a must-read article.

BUSINESS

Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) posts a long-for-him piece on why The Publishing Industry Is Not Deserving of Special Protection. This, of course, goes back to the various lawsuits floating around regarding Amazon and the Big-6 publishers, and his point is that while there’s some reason to be concerned about a potential Amazon.com monopoly over book distribution, that’s no reason for protectionist legal rulings simply because an industry is going through changes. Books will still get to readers. The prices may be lower and the distribution methods different, but readers will still read. Will the publishing houses embrace change and help shape it, or will they fight it to their own deaths?

THE WRITING LIFE

I’m tempted to write that it’s sad we need etiquette reminders and what a reflection that is of this day and age and yada yada yada but I’m not so sure this time and generation is all that much different from those who’ve gone before. In any case, Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) Manners Matter: 13 Etiquette Tips deserves a look. My absolute favorite, and one we need to stand up for when we’re on the losing end of it, is #11: “Pay attention to the person with whom you’re interacting.” In other words, when you’re talking with someone in person and your cell phone rings, LET IT RING. That’s what voice mail is for! It’s rude and disrespectful to blow someone off to answer your phone, check the latest instant message or tweet, or whatever. Why we don’t understand that is beyond me. GRRRRR.

On the topic of personal interactions, James Scott Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) post Making Readers One at a Time is not only an great example of treating someone—in this case, a perfect stranger—with kindness and respect, he shows how he was able to turn that stranger into a new reader of his books.

Continuing with that theme, Becky Johnson (@beckyajohnson) writes about Stranglers or Wranglers? The Super Power of Encouragement on WordServe Water Cooler. Her story is about two critique groups at the University of Wisconsin. One called themselves “The Stranglers,” the other “The Wranglers.” Over the years, the members of the Stranglers, who had focused on criticism, never achieved any literary success, while the Wranglers produced a Pulitzer Prize winner. Johnson’s point: be sure to include encouragement in your critiques. Always good advice.

Finally, Mark Alpert issues a warning: Be Careful What You Read!!! It started when he noticed that after reading a log of Tom Wolfe’s writing, he began to write like Wolfe! Especially when it came to using exclamation points! To excess! Everywhere! What about you? Do you tend to pick up certain tendencies if you read a lot of one author’s work in quick succession?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, November 1 and 2, 2012

Yesterday and today have been much less depressing out there in blog-land than earlier parts of the week were, plus there’s some terrific content out there, so let’s get right to it:

CRAFT

Angela Ackerman (@AngelaAckerman) guest posts on Write to Done about something she knows a lot about: Character Emotion: Is It Written All Over Their Face? Her point is simple but important: faces aren’t the only places where characters show emotion. Body language, writ large (pun intended J, but don’t overdo it), not only can communicate emotion very effectively, it can also be easier to describe than a fleeting facial expression. And of course, although Angela was careful not to mention them, don’t forget the various thesauri, including the ones for emotions and body parts, on her own blog, The Bookshelf Muse.

Every so often Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) points her readers to articles from the Glimmer Train Bulletin, and today is one of those days, particularly a quick piece on Consequence and Agency in Fiction by Joshua Henkin (@JoshuaHenkin). If that sounds complicated or esoteric, it’s really not. It means simply this: for a piece of fiction to be successful, someone (the agent) has to do something, and that action has to have consequences, all of which have to be apparent in some way to the reader. Seems obvious, right? Apparently not, especially in some kinds of fiction (I wouldn’t be referring to “literary” fiction, now would I?).

THE WRITING LIFE

Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) addresses on DIY MFA a topic that many writers worry about (unnecessarily, I think): Idea-Stealing: How Not to Let Your Fear Stifle Your Creativity. Gabriela actually spends more time on the worry some writers have that they will steal someone else’s idea than on a writer’s idea being stolen. All of her suggestions are excellent but it’s worth keeping in mind that the chances someone will reproduce your exact story or you doing the same to them, are very small after you discount blatant plagiarism, and she lists ways for dealing with that.

Mike Duran (@CerebralGrump) guest posts on Rachelle Gardner’s blog with a thought-provoking question: Are Writers Too Insulated from Their Readers? He picks up on a point Joe Konrath made earlier, that “Readers are my customers, not writers,” to suggest that many of the things we discuss among ourselves, including blogs like this one, are the kind of “inside baseball” topics that our readers don’t care about. All readers want to do, Duran argues, is enjoy the stories we write. While he’s got a point, it’s worth noting that there are some genres (literary not being one of them) that have a way to de-insulate their writers: conventions (not writers’ conferences), where fans and writers meet.

BUSINESS

That post serves as a nice transition into these posts on business. Let’s start with a very long Business Rusch post from Kristine Kathryn Rusch (@kriswrites) called No Reader Left Behind. Her most important point, among many thousands of words, is this: “Make your books as widely available as possible. Don’t rank one reader above another. Don’t leave any readers behind.” (Italics hers.)

Michelle Gagnon (@Michelle_Gagnon) makes a plea on The Kill Zone to quit the sniping and insults between advocates of traditional publishing and e-/indie-/self-publishing. “Enough already,” she says, and she’s right. There are plenty of ways for writers to get their stories in front of readers (see above) and the “right” way or ways is or are the one(s) that work for each of us. Thanks for the sanity, Michelle.

And finally, speaking of e-/self-publishing, Tracy R. Atkins (@TracyRAtkins) provides a long and detailed but informative Guide to Book Launch and Advance Sales Strategies with CreateSpace and Lulu on The Book Designer. If you’re considering publishing through either of these venues, be sure to check this post out.

So what do you think? Any thoughts on these posts? Anything else you’ve found that’s worth sharing? Let us know in the Comments.