Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 12 & 13, 2013

Hope you’re not a triskaidekaphobe! Today’s double-13 day, and tells you it is: 2-13-13, or 13-2-13, if you prefer. Thirteen what to thirteen? Which reminds me of Albert the Alligator, a character from the old Pogo comic strip, for whom the 13th day of the month was always Friday the Thirteenth, even if it was a Wednesday.

What does that have to do with today’s post? Not a darn thing, as far as I can tell. In fact, you’re double-lucky to be finding out about today’s Great Stuff. Read on!

CRAFT

Here’s some really practical advice that we can all use: Writing Gender-Specific Dialogue from the Writer’s Digest There Are No Rules blog. Excerpted from a book by romance writer Leigh Michaels (@leighmichaels), the piece gives advice to women on how men think and act, and hence speak, and vice versa for men writing female characters. For example, women know and notice which colors go together and which don’t, while men generally don’t notice or care. That reminded me of a woman in my writer’s group who had a (straight) male character noticing that a woman’s eyes matched the color of her uniform. Um, sorry, no. We ad-dress-ed that. 😉 Have you run into this kind of thing? How did you address it?

Some writers like to have music playing in the background when they’re writing. Not me, it’s too distracting. But if you’re like Ann Aguirre (@MsAnnAguirre) and Let Music Set the Mood when you’re writing, you’ll definitely get her piece on Writer Unboxed today. But even if you’re not a writer/listener, there’s something for you here: a song may not set your mood, but it can set the story’s mood or reveal something about a character. In my first novel, one of my characters is a fan of rock music from the ‘60s to ‘80s and snippets from those songs will pop into her head from time to time, usually at high-stress moments. It tells you something about her and adds a new dimension to the scene. Do you do anything like this?

You might not expect to find advice on story-telling on ProBlogger, but that’s what Gregory Ciotti (@HelpScout) offers in The Science of Storytelling: 6 Ways to Write More Persuasive Stories. The piece is based on research by Dr. Philip Mazzocco and Melanie Green having to do with court arguments, but their six keys apply in fiction too. They are: audience, realism, delivery, imagery, structure, and context. Space doesn’t permit me to discuss them here, but slide on over and check out the article.

BUSINESS

So, we’ve all heard that the job’s not over when the writing’s done when it comes to books, right? Sure, but what exactly does that mean? Enter Boyd Morrison’s (@boydmorrison) What to Expect When You’re Expecting…to be Published,  a list of 31—that’s right, 31—things that you’ll do after you get that magical phone call saying your book has been accepted for traditional publication. Indie publishers: think the list doesn’t apply to you? Wrong-o, Kindle breath! Of course, some steps won’t, at least as written. But many will in one form or another, and often they’re entirely on you to do, rather than in response to a request from the publisher. A real reality check here.

Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) has published many articles on e- and print book design, so Book Design Quick Tips for Self-Publishers doesn’t have anything really new, except for a hint at the end about something he’s going to be launching soon—a book layout service, maybe? But this pretty long but useful post lays out the basics in simple terms. This stuff isn’t cosmic or über-technical and you shouldn’t fear it. Take the time to study and absorb it and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Nancy J. Cohen (@nancyjcohen) is releasing a new novel and using the free option on KDP Select for a few days. More important for other writers planning to self-publish is the other information on where and how to get publicity and reviews she offers in the FREE on Kindle post. If this is something to do, check out the post.

Looking into what the future might hold for Nancy, J A Konrath (@JAKonrath) discusses his recent experiences with having some of his books sold via KDP Select in his post Amazon Numbers. Three lessons to learn: (1) despite what he says, being a “name” in the business helps. It’s not required but your sales numbers will be better when you’re known than when you’re still an unknown. (2) Giving the book away for free boosts for-cash sales. I’m reading Cory Doctorow’s The Problem Is Obscurity right now, and he makes the same point. (Beats you over the head with it, actually.) (3) The more titles you have for sale, the better. Konrath closes this long post with two other discussions. He doesn’t like Amazon’s demand for exclusive sales fights for 90 days if you sign up for KDP Select (no one but Amazon seems to), and self-publishing gives you control over your work, which is a good thing.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Writing advice from @NathanBransford in <141 characters. It’s better than you might expect. (27 characters left.)

THE WRITING LIFE

I could have put Keith Cronin’s (@KeithCronin) Write Like You Mean It up in the Craft section, but since it’s really about attitude—making the effort to make anything you write a piece of quality writing—it fits better here. Keith’s piece is pretty long but he uses that length to approach the basic thesis—if you want to be considered a professional writer, write like one whenever you write, even on Twitter or Facebook—from a variety of different angles with the intent that if one doesn’t resonate with you, another one will. What do you think? Is this your approach?

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?

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, October 9 and 10, 2012

Plenty of ground and great stuff to cover today, so let’s jump right in.

CRAFT

Rachelle Gardner’s (@RachelleGardner) right when she says there aren’t very many articles on Foreshadowing out there in the blogosphere, so hers today, on that and “its black-sheep cousin, telegraphing,” is a very useful review of what they are, how they differ, and when to use or not use foreshadowing. Check it out.

KM Weiland’s (@KMWeiland) piece on How to Keep Your Fight Scenes Interesting is another one covering a rarely-discussed topic. As she notes, maybe it’s a surprise that a fight scene could be boring, but it can, and she offers a couple of easy techniques to keep your reader dodging those flailing fists along with your hero.

Our last selection today comes from Kelly Nichols, one half of the team who goes by the pen name P J Parrish. “Heed this advice now!” she warned desperately on The Kill Zone is a hoot, particularly if you, like me, are death on overusing adverbs and on dialog tags that explain too much. Tell us how many adverbs you found in Kelly’s post in the Comments below. Not all of them end in –ly, by the way.

WRITING TOOLS

Keith Cronin (@KeithCronin) loves how-to books, at least when they deal with writing. Who knew? Well, now we do, and in his Confessions of a “How-To” Junkie on Writer Unboxed he lists a baker’s half-dozen (OK, 7) of his favorites. Like me, you’ve probably read some of the books on his list but not others, and agree with some of his selections and not others. No matter, the main post and the comments are a good resource list for your own future reading.

Mike Fleming (@hiveword) guest posts about, or perhaps I should say, advertises his new—and free—online fiction organizing software called Hiveword on The Bookshelf Muse. I haven’t tried this tool and don’t know anyone who has, but if nothing else, Mike makes a case for planning before writing in Plan Ahead With The HiveWord Writing Tool.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND MARKETING

Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) provides some very practical and QuickTips for Contests & Giveaways on The Book Designer. These ideas take away some of the mystery about marketing one’s book on line.

THE WRITING LIFE

At a recent writers’ meeting, we got to talking about the member of one group who seemed to be using the group as a place to vent her frustrations and stresses with a part of her life. She claimed, the group leader said, to want to write a book about what she was going through. While it seemed at first that she wanted to approach Writing as Catharsis, we learned later that maybe that wasn’t her primary motivation. Nathan Bransford (@NathanBransford) takes on this topic in his latest post. While not all writing is, or needs to be, cathartic, if done for the right reasons, it can help a writer make sense of his or her world.

BUSINESS

Today’s last post is no surprise. Last time I wrote about the settlement between Google and some of the “Big 6” publishers over Google’s scanning of books. Yesterday Victoria Strauss (@VictoriaStrauss) posted on Writer Beware® Blogs Writers Slam Secrecy of Book Publishers’ Deal With Google. The post is mostly a copy of a joint press release from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Writers Union, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America about their letter to the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, asking them to reopen an investigation on possible violations of federal law. The issue is still whether authors are going to be paid for their work if a reader accesses it through Google’s Book Search project. As I’ve noted before, this story is far from over.

Have you found any great stuff out there on the web? Share it in the Comments below.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, September 4 and 5, 2012

Wednesday already! How did that happen? Putting up that Critique Technique post yesterday must have thrown me off. Well, anyway, lots of terrific stuff to get to, so no more stalling!

As usually, we’ll start with matters of craft:

  • Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) announces and begins a new series on DIY MFA called Creative Power Tools. Tool #1: Words gets things going. This is somewhat surprising post because it compares words to weapons. OK, we’ve heard that before, so we’ll see how this series develops. Gabriela also announces an upcoming project with super-publicist Dan Blank.
  • Speaking of “super,” super-agent Donald Maass (@DonMaass) is back on Writer Unboxed with a piece on why and how your characters need to change Without Delay. What’s interesting here is that his observations, as he notes, apply to all genres of fiction, “literary” or otherwise. The longer you delay having your characters change, he writes, even a little bit, the more likely it is your readers are going to get bored and look for something else to do.
  • Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) looks at another thing that can chase readers away when she asks Is Your Scene Break a Lying, Cheating Fraud? Well, that’s certainly a provocative question! To be clear, it’s not the scene break itself that can be the problem, but what happens on either side of it. If the scene before the break ends with something dramatic but the scene that follows doesn’t live up to the expectations the drama placed in the reader’s mind, that’s where you get into bait-and-switch territory, which is what Kim helps you avoid.
  • We go back to Writer Unboxed for Therese Walsh’s (@ThereseWalsh)  Interview with Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck), author of the recent book Hemingway’s Girl. What I want to point you to is the portion of the interview,starting about 5 questions in, where Robuck discusses dialog, layers of the story, and publication. That’s not to say the first part of the interview, about research and Hemingway’s relationships, aren’t interesting, but I think the later parts are better.
  • We’ll close this section with 3 Free Photo Tools for Author Bloggers on Joel Friedlander’s (@JFBookman) The Book Designer blog. Friedlander introduces us to photopin.com, which helps you search through the gazillion photos that are posted on Flickr for the one(s) you really want. Then there’s freeonlinephotoeditor.com, which is, surprisingly enough, what it says it is. The last tool is one that exists in Google Image search: a way to use one image to search for others like it. Now that’s pretty cool. I haven’t tried any of these tools myself but they do sound like they’re worth a try.

OK, on to business stuff:

  • Patrick Icasas (@PatrickIcasas) writes the first of two guest blogs relating to freelance writing this week on Writer Beware! Blogs, this one on 7 Freelance Writing Scams and How to Fight Them. These scams have to do more with folks who are writing non-fiction pieces for hire than writing fiction “on spec,” but even fiction writers should give this post a look. You’re not immune to at least some of them.
  • On a MUCH happier note, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) provides 6 Tips for Successful Networking. Rachelle’s writing about the in-person kind, the kind that leads to sweaty palms, stammering and blathering, and much general discomfort among writers. It doesn’t have to be that way, and Rachelle’s tips can ease the fear and pressure.
  • Finally, Kimberly Vargas writes in Radio Days on WordServe Water Cooler about her experiences with the online radio program, The Authors Show. Since I’m going to be doing a local radio interview myself tomorrow, this had some personal interest, but the point is that radio interviews are often a lot easier to get than other kinds of publicity. Local radio stations with talk segments or a talk format are always looking for content and not all shows are about politics. Online programs reach an even wider audience which can be, at the same time, more focused by topic or genre.

One more piece, in the “that’s interesting” category: Michael Swanwick has a short piece about what appears to be The Oldest Novel in the World & Its Genre. The book is Callirhoe by Chariton of Aphrodesias, and it was written around the first century A.D. Would you believe, it’s a romance novel? I guess since the author was from Aphrodesias, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, August 13, 2012

Quite a variety today in these top-five posts. Let’s jump right in.

  • Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) reprises something he posted earlier this year on 101 Books: John Steinbeck On Writing, the master’s 6 tips on the craft. Steinbeck is yet another writer who counsels reading one’s dialog out loud. As I wrote in my comment to Robert’s piece, the advice applies to narrative, non-fiction, and poetry, too.
  • Next up is Michael Swanwick’s advice to Kill Your Darlings. By itself, the title is hardly new. What Swanwick does is different, however. He starts by critiquing the opening paragraph of “The Fish” by Isak Dinesen, then critiques his own critique! His points in the meta-critique are (1) critiquers are often critiquing for their own benefit, to keep reminding themselves of what they need to do to write well, and (2) those critiques may not be valuable to other writers, especially new ones. Or they might be. Interesting piece.
  • Clare Langely-Hawthorne connects the Olympics and Writing–Learning from Failure on The Kill Zone. While critiquing the Australian press’ focus on their athlete’s “failures,” such as placing second in an event, she notes that that focus on winning isn’t unique to them (since when is being second best in the entire world a bad thing?) but also that that degree of success, indeed any degree of success, is built on the “failures” of the past.
  • Rachelle Gardner (@Rachelle Gardner) uses an interview with Cheryl Strayed (@CherylStrayed) to discuss when someone should write their memoir. Strayed’s answer to why it took her so long to get to the point where she could write Wild, her story about her 1,100 mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, had two parts. She needed the time to (1) learn her craft and (2) gain sufficient perspective on what she’d learned from that hike. Gardner emphasizes the importance of both of those points.
  • Finally, Bruce Holland Rogers guest posts on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog about Selling Flash Fiction Via E-Mail–Successfully. This is doubly interesting. First, it’s a sales model I hadn’t seen before: readers pay $10 a year to subscribe to his web site (shortshortshort.com) and in exchange get 36 flash fiction stories a year from him. Second, editors DO NOT consider this work to have been “published,” so he can–and has–collect, publish, and sell the work again later. There’s even more to this concept. If you write flash fiction, this might be something to explore.

Critique Technique, Part 28—Awkward Dialog

Ah, dialog. It’s hard for many writers to do well. When it works, it crackles, sings, inspires, enrages, chills, thrills. But when it doesn’t, does it ever show. It may be stiff and stilted, choppy or verbose, confusing or confused, the list goes on. Any or all of those characteristics can be acceptable, even necessary, when they reflect the character of the speaker. It’s when they don’t that there’s trouble.

There are many reasons for this. First off, dialog in writing—all writing: fiction, memoir, and non-fiction—is not natural, but has to sound natural when read, especially out loud. Real dialog includes pauses, repetitions, false starts, bad grammar, slang and jargon, incomplete sentences, and other problems.

Fictional dialog does, too, but with a difference: when written well, the author means for any of those things to be there, if they are. Fictional dialog is “better” than natural speech without seeming to be constructed, even though it is.

Perhaps even more than in narrative, every word must be the right word. Sentence structure must be just right to convey the proper degree of tension—from raving rage to the gentlest soothing. Every speaker must say just the right thing, especially when that’s just the wrong thing.

I could go on. Many authors have. There are dozens of books on writing effective dialog. That’s why this series of posts will have so many entries.

There’s no particular reason for starting the series with dialog that’s awkward, other than these problems are so common. The good news for you as a reviewer is that bad dialog calls attention to itself. You feel the problem as you read it. You find yourself saying, “Huh?” or “Get on with it, will you?” or even throwing the story across the room in frustration.

But let’s get a bit more specific about a few ways dialog can be awkward. We’ll start with dialog that is stiff or stilted.

First off, what do I mean by “stiff” and “stilted?” They’re very similar, so I need to be clear on how they’re different. Stiff dialog has these characteristics:

  • It is often too grammatically correct. Sentences are complete, with an explicit subject, verb, and object.
  • Sentences may be long and rambling (see below) or short and choppy, like this: “Bob went to the store. He bought a loaf of bread and a half-gallon of milk. He paid for them in cash.”
  • The speakers avoid using contractions, saying “I will” rather than “I’ll,” for example.
  • It’s emotionally flat, even when trying to express strong emotion, perhaps by avoiding the strong language that high emotion requires.
  • The pace never changes and often plods.

In short, stiff dialog sounds the way a robot in a bad science fiction movie would speak.

Stilted dialog is stiff, and then some. It adds extra degrees of formality, “expert” or erudite language (like that), and emotional distance between the speakers. Sentences in stilted writing (dialog or narrative) tend to be longer and more complex than they need to be and to use many words where few would do. The result can be something like this: “As you can see, madam, by virtue—or lack thereof—of your behavior, it shall be necessary for me to make inquiries into the nature and number of your previous liaisons with potential suitors in order that I may be better informed as to their, and your, morality and any potential indications of turpitude or depravity.”

As opposed to, “So, Alice, who’ve you been screwing lately?”

There are other ways writing can be unintentionally awkward.

  • Unclear personal pronoun references can be a real problem. When there are two characters of the same gender in a sentence or paragraph, referring to both of them with pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers) can leave the reader confused over which pronoun refers to which character.
  • Conversely, using the characters’ names over and over can be just as awkward. There’s no confusion over who’s being referred to but repeating the names doesn’t reflect natural speech patterns.
  • “Talking around” a topic, that is, using euphemisms or indirect language rather than coming out and naming the thing, can lead to real confusion for the reader, whether it’s the narrator or a character speaking.
  • Abnormal word order is a technique writers will use when they’re trying to make a character seem “foreign”—Yoda from the Star Wars movies—or uneducated. Used sparingly and in character, this technique can be fine. Use it too much, though, and the reader will struggle.

While I’ve concentrated on dialog here, awkward narrative shares all of these faults. The only difference is that it’s the narrator “speaking” directly or indirectly to the reader, rather than the reader listening in on a character’s thoughts or a conversation between two or more characters.

So what can you do to help repair awkward dialog or narrative? Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the author to read her work out loud before she submits it to you. Or, read the unedited work out loud to her so she can hear just how awkward it is. But don’t exaggerate the problems! Let the awkwardness speak for itself.
  • Help the writer loosen up his writing by breaking sentences up, varying their lengths, and creating sentence fragments.
  • Point out where the characters and narrator can and should use contractions.
  • Propose language that better expresses emotion.
  • Delete excess words and phrases or substitute shorter, punchier ones or ones that address a topic more clearly.
  • Put words into the normal, or a more natural, speaking order.

Awkward dialog or narrative will undermine a reader’s confidence in a writer perhaps faster than just about anything else. It’s immediately obvious. It’s also generally easy to fix, and as a reviewer, you’ll do your writer-friend a huge favor by helping them do so.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 27, 2012

When I started this morning’s reading, I thought I might be seeing slow day at the end of a busy week. Boy, was I wrong! In fact, as I type this, I’m considering breaking this post into two: one strictly on craft, the other on marketing and publishing, since there’s so much on each. Have to see how this develops. We’ll start with craft.

  • Harvey Stanbrough’s (@hstanbrough) hilarious but on-point Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance zings the idea that there’s some ideal ratio between how much narrative a story has and how much dialogue. Particularly in Harvey’s sights is the false credibility of percentages, the idea that if someone quotes percentages, what they’re saying must be right and true. (I’m thinking of a certain writer and blogger who does this with plot points.) For my money, the “right” balance between narrative and dialog is the one that tells the story best. Because every story’s different, there will never be a single ratio that will apply to every one.
  • Kathryn Lilley (@kathrynelilley) weighs in with another funny piece, this time on The Kill Zone: Drop That Polysyllable!This time the target is the idea that some words are “too fancy” for a piece. Many sides to this argument, some of which are hers, some her commenters, some mine:
    1. New-to-the-reader words improve their vocabulary, which is a good thing;
    2. Making the reader stop reading while they reach for or activate a dictionary distracts them from your story, which you don’t want;
    3. Showing off your vocabulary, just because you can, pisses readers off, and pissed-off readers won’t finish your work;
    4. Mark Twain’s argument about the right word versus the almost-right word–if the right word’s not common, it’s still the right word; and
    5. Whatever happened to using context to suss out the meaning of an uncommon word, eh?
  • OK, I’ll fit one serious piece in here: Gabriela Pereira’s (@DIYMFA) The Villain’s Journey–Recap from ThrillerFest, in which she discusses not only how villains and antagonists differ, but ways to make villains more interesting–not just by the usual way of giving them a goal opposite to the hero’s but by giving them the same goal but with different means and motives for achieving it.

Ordinarily the transition from craft to marketing and publishing would be quick and clean, but today there’s a post that covers both, so that’s where we’ll go first.

  • Marcia Yudkin (@marciasmantras)  writes In Praise of Ripening on Writer Beware (R) Blogs! The “ripening” she refers to is writers spending the time to learn their craft, rather than inflicting whatever they come up with on the world via self-publishing. That sounds like such an old-fashioned idea to many, especially given the get-rich-quick siren call of the internet, but alas we know what’s really happened: crappy book after crappy book thrown out there, not even worth its 99¢ asking price. Let’s hope this is just a phase in the development of e-publishing that will wear itself out after enough wannabes fail. But then, there’ll always be more wannabes out there, won’t there, and modern day P.T. Barnums willing to take advantage of them.
  • Along those same lines, Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) posts a video today on why Bookstore Distribution for print-on-demand books is such a bad idea. This math, unlike the phony math Harvey cites above, is hard to argue with. And brutal.
  • Dee DeTarsio (@deedetarsio) guest posts on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog about her Small-Budget Marketing Experiment. Not all marketing efforts produce big results. Dee offers no explanations for why hers performed as it did, but that’s not the point in this case. She’s just reporting on what happened.
  • Which gets us to two posts that come via Nathan Bransford’s (@nathanbransford) These Past Few Weeks in Books.
    • Penelope Trunk’s (@PenelopeTrunk) How I got a big advance and self-published anyway is a blunt and almost-no-holds-barred tale of her experience with a major (but unnamed) publisher and their incompetence (in her view) at marketing. It’s clear from the post why she killed the contract for her non-fiction book. What’s not clear is whether her experience extends to fiction publishing as well or to other (Big-6?) publishing houses. Still, her point about the major houses not having any market information to guide their marketing efforts is in line with an article I mentioned in a previous post about the data Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other companies who sell e-readers are gathering through their e-readers.
    • Laura Hazard Owen (@laurahazardowen) provides some additional context on Paid Content in her interview with Trunk. She provides some background on Trunk herself, how Trunk came up with the numbers she threw at the publisher’s marketers, other views of Trunk’s opinions, and Trunk’s own reaction to those responses. In addition to the fiction/non-fiction divide I noted above, I should also note that Trunk’s book is a compilation of her own blog posts, which might also be a significant difference–or it might not–when it comes to how a publisher would plan to market it.

Still, this entire set of posts is a powerful reminder to not-yet-published authors to go into the entire experience with your eyes wide open, your expectations realistic, and your homework done. Publishing–traditional or electronic–is a business, and the business world does not treat the naive or the unprepared kindly.

 

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, July 23, 2012

A busy Monday follows a busy Sunday. Let’s jump right in, starting with a few pieces on craft.

  • Joseph Putnam’s (@josephputnam) The #1 Secret of Great Writers on Write to Done has to be the lead post, if for no other reason than its Ernest Hemingway quote. Hem told an interviewer that he’d written 39 drafts of the last page of A Farewell to Arms. Shocked, the interviewer asked what Hemingway was doing. Papa’s answer: “Getting the words right.” What a great way to illustrate that writing is rewriting. There’s just no getting around that.
  • In a related vein, Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) wonders Is Talent Overrated? She’s picking up on Geoff Colvin’s (@geoffcolvin) thesis in his book Talent Is Overrated that talent alone isn’t enough, but that focused hard work on improving one’s skills is the most important thing. In fact, Colvin and others go so far as to say that if you’re not actively trying to get better, you are probably getting worse. Personally, I think a degree of talent is necessary as a base to build from, but I 100% agree with the “actively trying to get better” part. It drives what I do–including rewriting! Especially rewriting.
  • Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s Villains in Fiction post on The Kill Zone is pretty much a review of what’s well established regarding making a story’s baddies believable. What jumped out at me was Jim Bell’s (@jamesscottbell) quote from Dean Koontz (@deankoontz), which reads in part, “The best villains are those that evoke pity and sometimes even genuine sympathy as well as terror.”
  • Henry McLaughlin (@riverbendsagas) picks up on something I first encountered in a Writer’s Digest article by Steven James (@sjamesauthor). McLaughlin’s Everybody’s Talking at Me on WordServe Water Cooler discusses how what characters say and how they say it depends on their status relative to the other character or characters in the scene. James’ article was a real eye-opener for me. McLaughlin’s is a good one, too.

OK, now for a couple of how-to’s (or is that how-tos?).

  • Chuck Sambuchino’s (@ChuckSambuchino) How to Publicize and Promote Your Book: 7 Pieces of Advice on Writer Unboxed is a blunt assessment of the realities of book marketing from the author’s point of view: “Coverage is insanely hit-or-miss…” At the same time, and to maybe make matters worse, we should note that Chuck may actually have had some advantages most of us don’t have because he works for Writer’s Digest. Bottom line: marketing is a lot of work.
  • Videos on blogs are becoming more and more common. Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) lists 15 Steps to Create Great Blog Videos on The Book Designer. To be clear, there can actually be more than 15 steps–or fewer, depending–and Joel’s advice is Mac-specific but the main message is that preparing a quality video involves a lot more than just standing in front of a camera and jabbering.

And finally, who says “young people” don’t read? Check out the photos on Robert Bruce’s (@robertbruce76) Reading On the NYC Subway on 101 Books, and the Underground New York Public Library site they come from. Attention writers: there are readers of all ages waiting for your work!

Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

This post begins a series on narrative and dialog. Stated most simply, narrative and dialog are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monolog (sometimes shown in italics).

While it’s true that dialog can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader:

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”

Oy.

On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialog—I published one that had only internal monolog; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

One reason is that we engage in dialog every day: we talk to each other. Characters need to do that, too. Dialog:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says reveals what he knows, how she’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how she perceives another character, and so on.
  • Can build or relieve tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.

In short, dialog is all but essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier Critique Technique articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialog appear in narrative, too, and vice versa. But there are also some problems that are unique to dialog, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Inappropriate language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialog;
  • Name-calling within dialog; and
  • Using dialog to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start. What other problems would you like me to discuss in this section? Add your suggestions in the Comments below.