Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 19 & 20, 2013

A double-dose of Great Stuff today (and again on Friday) as IndieReCon rolls on. Despite all the links from the Con below, I have NOT mentioned every post or video or chat from the first half! And then there are all the “usual suspects” you’re used to reading here. No more delays! Off we go…

FROM IndieReCon

Bob Mayer (@Bob_Mayer) starts things off with The Future of Digital Publishing. Okay, predicting the future is something best left to science fiction authors (but we’ll say we don’t predict THE future, but A POSSIBLE future), but Mayer’s taking trends and projecting from there. Besides his basic post, he adds 17 additional points in two comments. Key point of all is probably this: “The last thing is WRITE.  If you look at the bestselling indie authors, they aren’t much on Facebook and Twitter and blogging, etc.  They’re writing!  You must have product to sell.” I know some of us hate the idea of our work being considered “product.” Tough. It is. Always has been.

Jessie Harrell (@JessieHarrell) provides The Honest Inside Scoop: The Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing. Honest is right, particularly regarding the cons—or maybe we should say the realities—of being a publisher as well as a writer. Then Shelli (S. R.) Johannes (@srjohannes) gets into the “hats”—all 15 of ‘em!—self-publishers may or may not wear at any time in Entrepreneurial Authors Wear Many Hats. Personally, I’m not so sure about one: lawyer. Unless you actually have a JD degree, be careful here. And there are those, like Cory Doctorow, who do NOT see piracy (the reason for the lawyer hat) as a threat but another marketing venue, one you don’t have to put any effort into!

Harrell mentions up-front costs as a con of self-publishing. Miral Sattar (@miralsattar) gets more specific in her Costs of Self Publishing post. It’s good to see these numbers, even if they make you wince: forewarned is forearmed. One thing she does NOT mention is that you can, with some study and work on your own, format ebooks at no cost using Smashwords. (Disclaimer: I am NOT (yet, perhaps) a Smashwords user.)

We’ve all heard the advice to write a business plan, but who’s ever seen one for a writer? Denise Grover Swank (@DeniseMSwank) not only discusses hers, she provides excerpts from it in Setting the Foundation for Your Writing Career: A Business Plan. A long post but worth studying. Shelli Johannes follows this up with 8 sets of specific things to do in Marketing Plans Made Easy! Well, okay, easy once you get used to doing the kinds of things she recommends. (You DON’T have to do every single thing!) The point is the plan, not necessarily the specific details.

CRAFT

In this week’s vlog, KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) cautions that Your Character Might Be Betraying Readers If…. The “if” being if an apparently good character suddenly turns out to be bad. But is this the character betraying the reader, or the author? I’d say the latter. Even if you’re going for the surprise or twist ending, there need to be a few hints, a bread-crumb here and there, that might suggest that Character X isn’t quite what he seems to be. Then, when the big reveal hits, your reader smacks herself on the forehead and exclaims, “Why didn’t I see that coming?”

BUSINESS

Here’s a warning for any of you who are Christians, whether you write in the “Christian” genres or not: Victoria Strauss (@victoriastrauss) issues this Solicitation Alert: Blessed Hope Publishing. It turns out that BHP is a new “tentacle” (Strauss’s term) of a German company that solicits and sucks in naïve and/or desperate Christian authors with promises of publication, then ties them down with a contract that ensures little or no effort to sell the writer’s work, a near-total loss of copyrights by the author, and a near-zero chance of being paid. Even “better,” you don’t have to query them, they come hunting for—I mean—they solicit you! Other than that, it’s a great company! Writer: beware!

On the plus side, the Kristy Montee half of “PJ Parrish” (the other half is her sister Kelly Nichols) writes of their generally very positive experiences with self-publishing one of their first books and a new novella. “Generally” because they had a heck of a time formatting the novella for the Nook, but their experiences with the KDP Select program mirrors Joe Konrath’s, which I reported on last time. Check out their post, How to make it to the Big Show.

Dean Wesley Smith (@DeanWesleySmith) continues his serialization of the update of his ebook Think Like a Publisher with Chapter 6: Sales Plans. This is really an introductory chapter to those that will follow, but there’s some material at the end you need to read if you plan to e-publish: He lists how many distribution channels you’ll reach if you just use Amazon’s Kindle and CreateSpace, B&N’s PubIt!, and Smashwords. Want to guess how many that is? Four? You’re way cold. Okay, okay, um, 25? Still way cold. Seriously? All right, 50. Still cold. I’ll tell you: by his count, 122 major outlets worldwide! Would I like to sell through over 100 outlets? Are you kidding me? Oh, heck yeah!

SOCIAL MEDIA

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has over 175,000 Twitter followers, and you know what? She doesn’t care. It’s not that she’s arrogant about that number, but as she explains in How I Got a Six-Figure Twitter Following (and Why It Doesn’t Matter), there are many things that go into getting such a large following—things that many of the rest of us don’t have the chance to do, like be the Twitter lead for a major media company—and nearly half of her follower accounts are either fake or inactive! Still, that leaves over 70,000 active followers. How did she get them? Check out her discussion on the things she did to deliver quality less than 141 characters.

THE WRITING LIFE

Becca Puglisi (@beccapuglisi) shares some more ideas from fellow writer Bruce Coville on “Lengthening the Chain,” that is, doing things that will keep the reader engaged even after the story is done. The first two—on taking yourself, your art, and your business seriously, and not—aren’t terribly new, but the other two—never throw anything away, and embrace the unfinished chord—are at least new ways to express ideas about what we do as writers.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 14 & 15, 2013

The weekend is upon us—a 3-dayer here in the U.S., for “Presidents’ Day” on Monday—so you’ll have plenty of time for today’s posts. Enjoy!

PRE-ANNOUNCEMENT

Changes are coming to Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs and Critique Technique, starting Friday, March 1st. Watch for more news as we get closer to the big day.

CRAFT

Lisa Cron’s (@lisacron) 5 Reasons Why Readers Love Your Story is pretty dense, especially for a blog post. Not dense as in “stupid”—I wouldn’t be mentioning it here if that was the case—but dense as in giving you a lot to think about. Four of her five reasons get into the psychology of readers and reading—well, the fifth one, “you give readers hours of just plain flat-out fun,” is psychological too—so it’s all pretty deep insight. Not a light or quick read, by any means, but worth the time for a slow, thoughtful one. One other thing, though: don’t let it pressure you into thinking your every word has to be intensely personal and perceptive and meaningful and powerful. Remember that reason #5.

Amy Wilentz’s (@amywilentz) terrific How to Bring Subjects to Life in Your Nonfiction Writing is absolutely NOT just for nonfiction writers! Her discussion of how details about each character —and which details— not only tells but shows the power and value of the technique. If you, like me, have trouble building character descriptions in fiction (or nonfiction), this piece is for you. And while we’re on the topic of nonfiction, Alice Crider (@AliceCrider) offers a dozen or so questions to keep in mind (all reader-oriented) to help you with Powerful Non-Fiction Writing. Note that here too the questions can be reframed and applied to a fiction protagonist.

Okay, time to get your grammar geek on! Today we welcome Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. the @GrammarGirl) to Great Stuff. Her post addresses parts of the question, Where Do I Use Commas? Part 1: The “Oxford comma” (the one before “and” at the end of a list). “It’s a style choice.” In other words, be consistent about how you use it. Part 2: NOT between a subject and its verb. Ever. Part 3: Pauses DO NOT equal pauses. (Harvey Stanbrough has discussed the relationships between punctuation marks in general and pauses in greater detail here.) Part 4: whether to use commas around appositives, those words or phrases (like this one) that name or rename the noun they follow. (Space doesn’t permit me to even summarize the answer here.)

BUSINESS

Michael Swanwick hasn’t weighed in much on business but this time he does, at length, with How Does a Writer Make a Living Today? His approach and view is much more measured, especially with regard to self-publishing, than say Joe Konrath, primarily because Swanwick still publishes primarily in print. But he ends with this point: every time someone has predicted that some change will mean that writers will no longer be able to make a living writing, we find a way.

TECHNOLOGY

Wow, where do I put this post? It could fit in Craft, or Business, maybe even Social Media. I’ve decided to put Harry Guinness’s (@harryguinness) Creative Penn guest post Why And How To Use MultiMedia To Enhance Your Ebooks here, because it’s about using technology to add additional dimensions, specifically photos and videos, to ebook storytelling. To be sure, this isn’t a new idea, but as Guinness notes, it’s becoming easier, cheaper, and more easily available every year. Will this technology change storytelling? Of course. How much? That’s very much still to be determined. For better or worse? That’ll be a matter of individual opinion. But check out what’s possible.

FUN

Haven’t had the chance to point to anything by Writer’s Digest editor Zachary Petit in a while but Bug-Out Bags for Writers is just too fun to pass up. The good news: none of the bags are very big. The bad news: well, you had to bug-out, after all. That’s bad enough. 😉 What would go in your bag?

Critique Technique, Part 41—What Was That Again?

Confusion!

photo credit: Richard Scott 33 via photopin cc

Ever had one of those moments when you’re reading through a story or article and the author’s description of a place or event or person makes you stop and say to yourself, “Wait, did I miss something?” Sure you have. We all have.

It’s okay to confuse a reader if it’s done intentionally and in a way that makes them want—no, need—to read more. But confusing descriptions that stop the reader and in so doing, interrupt the flow of the story, are another matter.

When these kinds of problems show up, it’s a good bet the author either knew what they meant and didn’t realize it hadn’t come out that way on the page, or they had no idea what they were trying to express. As a reviewer, you’re likely to be the first person to pick them up, so it’s your job to identify the problems and help the author fix them.

Confusing descriptions can come in at least these four forms:

  • Vague or insufficient detail;
  • Contradictory or inconsistent information;
  • Inappropriate or irrelevant information; or
  • Details the narrator or POV character shouldn’t know.

Let’s look at each.

Vague or Insufficient Detail

I covered vague descriptions in Part 40. Insufficient detail is another matter. Here there’s simply not enough information for the reader to build a picture of the character, object, or setting of the current moment of the story. An easy example is when the writer doesn’t identify the time or place when a scene begins. Another might be when he places a scene in a hotel room but give no other sense of what kind of hotel it is: a Motel 6 or the Ritz Carlton. Or, to continue the image of the river valley from Part 40, it might be wide and shallow or narrow and deep, lush and verdant or barren and dry, but the author never tells the reader.

If these details are important to the story, whether they’re setting mood, placing the piece, or revealing something about a character, if there aren’t enough or clear enough details to do the job, they need to be added or fixed.

Contradictory or Inconsistent

These kinds of details can cause the reader to laugh when the author didn’t mean for her to. Contradictory details can be useful for revealing character—the muscular he-man who’s afraid of germs, for example—but if the contradiction shows up without a clear purpose, such as to signal some kind of change, that’s a problem.

What often happens is that one detail shows up in one place, and then the contradictory or inconsistent detail shows up some time, maybe even chapters, later. In my first novel, I had a character who in one chapter stood 5 feet 11 inches tall. Several chapters later, she was 6-foot-2, and no, she hadn’t put on heels. Oops!

These kinds of problems can be hard to catch, especially if you’re reading a work a chapter at a time with weeks in between chapters. There’s no easy fix for this. If you have the kind of mind that will retain those details, that helps but even that’s not a guarantee. Catch them if you can.

If the problem is a contradiction, and you catch it, make sure you discuss it with the author to determine whether it was intentional or not. If it was intentional, then he may need to make the purpose of the contradiction clearer.

Inappropriate or irrelevant

These kinds of confusing details show up when the author isn’t clear in her own mind what she’s trying to describe or what she means to do with these details. In this case, she may throw lots of things at the wall to see what sticks, or have no idea that what she’s doing isn’t working.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I read part of a first draft of a memoir from a member of my writers’ group. She spent several pages describing things she and a friend had done. Her intent was to illustrate aspects of this important character’s personality, but the collection of vignettes was a tangent at that moment in the story and that much of that kind of detail was out of place. Not entirely irrelevant but certainly inappropriate.

The good news is that these kinds of details do a great imitation of a sore thumb. As soon as you find yourself asking the author, “Why are you telling me this,” you’ve found something you need to flag. Be sure, though, that you also explain why the details in question aren’t appropriate or relevant and, if possible, suggest where he might use them instead.

Details the narrator or POV character shouldn’t know

These problem details can be very tricky. Let’s say the work you’re reading is a murder mystery and the character (who we’ll learn later is actually the killer) comes into a detective’s office, looking to hire her to “solve” the case. Let’s say the detective is also the narrator and reports noticing that the potential client had a hole in the sole of her left shoe. So far, so good, except that the client never stood, sat, or walked in a way that would have let the detective see that sole! Even if that’s the sole problem with the scene (ahem), it does put a hole in the author’s credibility.

Like some of the other problems I discussed above, these details are likely to show up when the author hasn’t thought through the scene well enough, or hasn’t realized what he’s done. He knows what he intended!

Let’s sum up, then, with a few questions to keep in mind as you’re reading:

  • Do I have enough information here to give me a clear mental image of the person, place, or thing I’m supposed to be sensing? (Remember, details aren’t just visual but can engage several senses.)
  • Do any of the details contradict each other in ways that confuse me rather than revealing something important?
  • Are any of the details here inconsistent with what I was told earlier in ways that are not meant to reveal a change?
  • Do the details I’m seeing here distract me from the main story?
  • Do I wonder why I’m being given this information now?
  • Is the narrator or POV character telling me something he shouldn’t be able to know at this moment in the story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, identify the nature of the problem and what the author can do to fix it. Next time around, the writing should be much better.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 7 & 8, 2013

Today’s post has to be one of the most value-packed I’ve had in quite a while, and that’s saying something. And for those of you in parts of the US who are bracing for some really rough weather this weekend, maybe this stuff will be what you need to carry you through—so long as you have electricity and the internet, anyway. Enjoy!

CRAFT

Jordan Dane (@JordanDane) is about to bring out the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy that is driven by, among other things, a love triangle. Because the story focuses on relationships, her 5 Key Steps to Adding Depth to Your Fictional Relationships post on The Kill Zone is worth a look, even if you have to get through the biographies of the characters first. The steps can be summarized this way: give the characters both internal-internal conflicts and internal-external conflicts to deal with.

Now this is ironic (and a little creepy): a post on The Kill Zone (above) about a love triangle and relationships, and a guest post by retired homicide detective Garry Rodgers (@GarryRodgers1) on The Creative Penn on How To Get Away With Murder—or fail to get away! All in the service of writing stories, of course, but still…. So if you’re interested—for art’s sake!—take a look. If you dare.

Denise Jaden (@denisejaden) covers a subject that I’ve rarely seen discussed: Writing Effective Grief in Fiction. It’s so easy for writers, especially new ones, to take a character’s grief and turn it into melodrama, and in so doing, drive the reader away. Jaden’s five practical tips for how to make that character’s emotions real, compelling, and yet not overwhelming (for the reader) will be valuable for anyone who’s writing about characters in fiction or memoir who are dealing with loss.

Let’s finish up this section with a terrific post by C. S. Lakin (@cslakin) on KM Weiland’s WORDplay blog: The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell. Everyone wants to know that, right? Okay, so I’ll spill the beans right now: every scene needs a “high moment,” the instant where the point of the scene (which every scene must have) is made. It can be big or subtle, but everything else in the scene builds toward that point and that moment and the movie camera of your writing is what follows the characters and the action to them. Take the reader on that journey to that moment and you can’t help but “show.”

BUSINESS

When Kristine Kathryn Rusch (@kriswrites) titles a piece What Writers Need to Know, you can bet that, well, it’s time to get another cuppa before you start to read it. Let me see if I can catch the basics here.

  • Whether you’re traditionally published or indie, you need to know a lot about writing, publishing, managing a business, design… and a lot more.
  • You’ll never know everything there is to know and you may not ever know much of it really well.
  • If you’re not continually learning more, you’re falling farther and farther behind. That said, don’t try to learn something all at once. Work on each topic in bite-size chunks.
  • Writing well is still your first and foremost obligation but your chances of having a sustained successful writing career are minimal at best if that’s all you learn and know.

This long as usual post rambles a bit—you can safely skip down to the first list and skim after it—but if you want a career, this is advice worth reviewing.

Along these same lines, Joe Konrath (@jakonrath) calls his latest post How To Sell Ebooks. Can’t get much clearer than that. The thing is—and this should be no surprise—there’s no silver bullet or secret password but instead ten different areas we each need to address in order to have a shot at success. Why should we listen to Konrath? Because he’s now sold over a million copies of his books.

It’s certainly not every day that I point you to a piece from Science News magazine, but today’s online post by Rachel Ehrenberg (@REhrenberg) is appropriate. Even though In Hollywood, buzz beats star power when it comes to predicting box office take is about movies and popular music, it tells how scientists have demonstrated that the most successful ones earn their success not from who the performers are but how much the work is being talked about after, but especially before, it is released, and how widespread the buzz is. This is what the marketing experts I occasionally cite here say about books, too: build your platform before you publish.

Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) answer to the question Are Self-Pub Books the New Slush Pile? is a qualified no. Her five reasons have mostly to do with marketing considerations; in fact she doesn’t say a word about the slushy quality of many self-pubbed books. That’s refreshing. It’s refreshing, too, that she’s open to the possibility that self-pub books could become more important over time. (Well, they already are.)

FUN

Yeah, after all that heavy information, a little fun is what we need to close off the day and head for the weekend, and you’ll find it here, in Carol Barnier’s (@Carol_Barnier) Pet Peeves and Grace on WordServe Water Cooler. You can guess what the “pet peeves” part is all about, but will you be byoosgusted by it? Actually, I think you will. 🙂

What was your favorite article today? Or the one that helped you most?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 5 & 6, 2013

After a couple of big posts, today’s is much lighter. I imagine you might appreciate that. Some of today’s posts are practical—character and setting development, for example—others are thought-provoking. Feel free to disagree with them.

CRAFT

This writing technique definitely won’t be for everyone. It’s certainly “different.” But if it works for you, terrific! What I’m talking about is Cinthia Ritchie’s (@cinthiaritchie1) piece on the Guide to Literary Agents blog called Marathon Training to Finish Your Book. Cinthia models writing a novel on Hal Higdon’s plan for training for a marathon. It’s a very different way of approaching the “write every day” mantra because it varies how much time you’re to spend writing, with “long writing days” comparable to the long training runs marathoners do as they prepare for the big day. Check it out. Maybe it’ll fit with your life and schedule. Maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, forget it.

Two pieces today on characters and characteristics. Donald Maass’s (@donmaass) The Man (or Woman) in the Mirror on Writer Unboxed and freelance editor Jodie Renner’s (@JodieRennerEd) Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero on The Kill Zone. You can tell from the title that Renner’s piece is more focused on certain kinds of characters while Maass’s offers questions to ask yourself about yourself with the intent of then making those answers—good or bad—part of your characters, especially your protagonist. This is classic Maass and for my money a far better set of tools than creating the simplistic list of traits (what does your character eat for breakfast?) that other authors (NOT Renner!) often suggest.

Try this quote on for size: “…readers really don’t mind setting description so long as it entertains them.” Say what? So saith KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) in How to Create a Surefire Awesome Setting (emphasis hers, by the way). While I think I’d use “engage” rather than “entertain,” the point of the short video is that setting description can add to, even enrich, a story when its presentation is one in proper balance with other parts of the story.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Here are two pieces of news I found both interesting and potentially important. According to Brian Clark (@copyblogger) in his post Get Over Yourself and Get On Google+:

  • Google+ has become the second largest social media platform, passing Twitter, and
  • Google+ isn’t a social network, it’s a topical network (emphasis his), meaning it is more “organized around content” rather than people per se.

Clark also suggests that this difference is important to authors and their platforms (he quotes former Google CEO Eric Schmidt for support) and that the difference is one thing that distinguishes Google+ from its major competitors. Disclaimer: I do not have a Google+ account. (Okay, okay, so maybe I should. All I need is a 25th hour in my 24-hour day.)

THE WRITING LIFE

Hmmm, I wonder if Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) was aiming Be the Gatekeeper of Your Mind at me—and you, dear reader. Why? She writes that she’s found she’s more creative if she reads fewer blogs, not more, and when she reads longer, more “immersive” work, like full-length books. Could it be she’s got a case of information overload? She seems to think so. What about you? Have you decided to pare back on your information input?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, January 8 & 9, 2013

Dystopian fiction and subplots, the future of fiction (maybe dystopian, maybe not), publicity in all its forms, and keeping your head in the game: we’re covering it all today. Dive in!

CRAFT

Dystopian fiction may not be your cuppa java—it wasn’t Karen Duvall’s (@KarenDuvall), at least not to write—but when she had a chance to write it she discovered 5 Ways Dystopian Fiction May Surprise You, which she shares on Writer Unboxed. The most surprising to me: opportunities for romance (love among the ruins, and all that).

So what good is a subplot, anyway? KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) explains why you should Use This Subplot to Bring Depth to Your Story. The “this” she’s referring to, by the way, is the emotional subplot, which brings out personal aspects of a character that wouldn’t otherwise be available to the story.

BUSINESS

Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) Commodity Publishing, Self-Publishing, and the Future of Fiction provides a very long for her overview of where she thinks the publishing industry is now and where pieces of it might be going in the future. There are points here I agree with and points I disagree with, sometimes vehemently. Give it a look, though. What do you think?

Ever wonder how to get book reviews? I have been lately. Dr. Rita Hancock (@DoctorRita) details how she went about Generating Buzz Through Book Reviews on WordServe Water Cooler. Note that some of her suggestions apply primarily to authors publishing primarily in print rather than electronically and it may not really be necessary to engage in 13—that’s right, thirteen—different publicity platforms the way she did, but her advice to start early is certainly on target.

Denise Wakeman (@DeniseWakeman) provides a bit of a sanity check against the last post with her post What’s Your Path to More Online Visibility? Her note that “you don’t have to do it all” is a welcome relief, although she also cautions, “Boosting your online visibility requires commitment and consistent action.” (Emphasis hers both times.)

Getting reviews is just one piece of the publicity pie, though. Rachelle Ayala (@AyalaRachelle) guest posts on The Book Designer on 5 Reasons It’s Hard to Market Indie Fiction and What to Do About It. Practical, actionable, reasonable advice.

THE WRITING LIFE

Jan O’Hara’s (@janohara) Solving a First-World Blogging Problem on Writer Unboxed, after a bit of a tease that makes a point, gets down to asking whether numbers (number of books sold this month, number of words written today, Klout score, etc.) really matter to writers and more importantly, if they do, how they should. In case you were wondering, 76.2% of her commenters agree. (I made that number up, by the way.)

Kind of in the same line of thought, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) advises, Don’t Feed Your Discontent. Among other things, she asks, “Are you worrying about things you can’t control instead of focusing on things within your sphere of influence?emphasis hers, and suggests ways to refocus.

There must be something in the air this week—New Year’s resolutions starting to fail, maybe?—because here’s the third article posted in the last two days on keeping focus: James Scott Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) Don’t Let Worry Drag You Down. His pyramid diagram puts into a concise image the writer’s path. Keep climbing.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten for staying focused on your long-term goals?

Critique Technique, Part 37—As You Know, Bob

Businessman and woman arguing

Photo by Ambro, courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Whenever characters speak, they’re transmitting information, to one or more other characters and/or to the reader. That information can be truth, lies, or something in-between; it can be emotional (a state of being or feeling) rather than factual; it can be directive (an order or warning) or informational; it can be direct or indirect; it can be any combination of these. This is nowhere near a complete list.

It can also be boring as hell.

What happens is that sometimes, with the best of intentions (or maybe just not knowing any better), an author will use a character to dump information on the reader, rather than doing it himself through narrative. No matter how it’s done, info-dumping isn’t a good technique.

This problem usually happens in one of two ways:

  • Characters make speeches or give lectures;
  • Characters tell each other things they already know, which is called the “as you know, Bob” problem.

Now, to be clear, sometimes a character making a speech is fine. In my WIP, that happens three times. To make sure I didn’t put the reader to sleep in any of them, I broke up each speech repeatedly with at least some of these:

  • Interruptions from a disruptive audience member;
  • Weather;
  • The behavior of the speaker, including meaningful movement around the location of the scene; and
  • Audience reactions.

In each case, I took what could have been long blocks of sleep-inducing monologue and turned them into active, action- and tension-filled events.

Sometimes, too, it’s just fine for one character to remind another of some detail:

Alice: “Wait, didn’t Jackson have a history of going off his meds?”

Bob: “Right! How could I have forgotten that?”

Boom! Done! Instead of:

Alice: “As you know, Bob, our files contain a series of cases, from January 1982, October 1994, August 2000, and March 2004, in which Jackson went off his medications, particularly his Prozac®, properly known as fluoxetine, for extended periods of time. As you further know, failure to maintain a prescribed regiment of Prozac at an appropriate dosage can result in a wide range of adverse events, including….”

Bob (and the reader): “Zzzzzzz.”

The good news, at least for you as a reviewer, is that both of these problems are easy to spot. When it comes to speeches, you’ll find long, uninterrupted blocks of monologue. I’ve seen them go on for pages. Ugh. Even if the speaker is telling a story, this isn’t the best way to do it because the story is being told second-hand. That creates an emotional distance which blunts the story’s impact.

“As you know, Bob” incidents will often involve just that phrase (unless the character’s name isn’t Bob, of course), or one much like it: “Let me tell you, Bob, in infinite and excruciating detail everything there is to know about this situation” (or piece of equipment, or whatever). That’s a nice big red flag for you.

Helping the author fix the problem may not be quite so straight-forward but is still very doable. You can:

  • Ask him whether the information is really necessary right now. His first reaction is likely to be that it is, which should then lead to the discussion of how much the reader truly needs to know at that moment. The answer, 999 times out of 1,000, is a lot less. You can then discuss how he can spread out the key details and drop them into the story at the points where they’ll have the most impact.
  • Discuss with her other ways to present the information.
    • In the case of the character telling a story, for example, she could shift into a flashback in which that story becomes immediate scene.
    • In the case of Jackson going off his meds, Alice and Bob could quickly call up his data file and refresh their memories with actions and snappy back-and-forth conversation about how Jackson did something worse each time.
    • Note that in both of these examples, a key element of the fix is to get all of the characters of the scene active. When monologue turns into dialogue, when characters’ statements are interrupted by their revealing, contradictory, or reinforcing actions—in other words, when the characters themselves are engaged in the story—the pace and tension will pick up and the reader will be engaged, too.

When a character makes a speech or one character tells another something she already knows, it’s a good bet the author means well but just isn’t clear on the best way to present that information. You, the reviewer, have a great opportunity in these situations to help make a story—and the writer—significantly better.

Have you seen these kinds of problems in other writers’ work? How did you help them overcome them?