Tag Archives: good writing

Reblog: Pantsers vs. Plotters

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.

After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

I wrote this blog post for nyareads.com. Read the entire post here.

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Should you care if readers care about your characters?

Once upon a time, I described my fiction as character-oriented.

I’d bandy about that phrase in conversations with friends (or anyone, really) who asked about my writing. I used it in query letters to agents and editors while precociously comparing my early sword-and-sorcery fiction to the works of Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, and other authors of books with dragons on the cover.

“Character-oriented” just seemed to be the logical expression for my work because, at the root of it all, I loved creating characters. Back when I was I writing medieval fantasy—and attending to the world building that went with it—I created countless characters to fill roles from lowly peasant to powerful tyrant across a centuries-long timeline. (Though there weren’t any invincible protagonists, I’m happy to report.)

It was an easy exercise:

Step 1: pick a name.

Step 2: pick a personality.

I spent more than a little time creating character profiles so that the people who populate my stories transcended a mere two dimensions. Because I wanted my readers to understand the characters and to see them as clearly as I did.

I also wanted readers to care about them.

In fact, I’m confident I said this very line at writing workshops in college: “If I don’t care about your characters, I won’t care what happens to them.”

These days, I don’t know if would use “character-oriented” to describe my fiction. I look back at The Renegade Chronicles and some of my other early work, and it’s clear there was a lot of focus on the different personalities. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you write about a motley group of freedom fighters thrown together by fate and forced to get along…or die trying.

But once I turned the page from straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy to something more nuanced, I find most of my ideas start with “What if…?” and not “Who is…?” Inklings of the story—the plot, that is—tend to come first, though the types of people who will weather these scenarios come in at a close second.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

The more I think about it, the more a term like “character-oriented” seems superfluous. Characters are but one element of a story. Like setting and plot, they are essential ingredients of a story. But are they any more important than the rest? Shouldn’t a story be character-oriented, plot-oriented, setting-oriented, and so forth?

More to the point, can a reader care what happens in a story if he or she doesn’t care about the characters?

The question haunts me because I’ve been accused of creating unlikable characters. Vincent, the protagonist of If Souls Can Sleep, isn’t the nicest guy. He has a lot of problems. He treats people poorly. And the fact that something supernatural seems to be happening to him does nothing to make him a better-adjusted citizen, particularly in the short term.

Whenever a beta reader would remark how they just can’t bring themselves to like Vincent, I’d argue (if only to myself) that it doesn’t matter. My goal was to make him realistic, and, realistically, people can be jerks.

Yet I also wanted him to be relatable and maybe even sympathetic.

While it wasn’t important for Vincent to be likable, it was arguably important for people not to dislike him so much that they dismissed his fate. Apathy is the enemy of every writer. So I suppose I had a decision to make: either make Vincent utterly unlikable so that my reader roots against him or take steps to make him more likable so that they could root for him.

I confess that I did soften him up a big in the rewrite, and reducing the intensity of his bad behavior not only made him more sympathetic, but also refined his character arc. Maybe he isn’t the most likable guy, but he has enough qualities now to make the reader care what happens to him.

A similar criticism arose for the protagonist of my short story “Going Viral.” A friend and fellow writer commented, “…I didn’t feel one bit connected to Sam by the end.” Also: “As a character, I found Sam neither relatable nor empathetic…the first syllable of ‘character’ is ‘care.’”

Come to think of it, I made Quentin E. Donovan (the Quentin E. Donovan), the “star” of another short story intentionally unlikable…

But in the case of Sam and “Going Viral,” I’m willing to chalk up Sam’s shortcomings to the fact that I struggle with short fiction. I also agree with my friend when he acknowledges that character development is even more challenging within the confines of short fiction.

It raises an important question: if the rest of the story is successful, does it matter whether the reader gives a damn about Sam?

A storyteller’s only job is to con the reader into turning one more page. We can’t directly control how anyone feels about anything, though, yes, a fair amount of manipulation comes with the territory. Writers have a handful of devices at their disposal to capture and keep a reader’s attention.

I already mentioned plot, setting, and, of course, characters. We also have themes, backstory, subplots, tropes that comes with various and sundry genres, tension, pacing—in short, anything and everything that could possibly compel a reader to travel from front cover to final page.

One could argue whether or not characters are the most important aspect of a story, but few would content that it’s OK to skimp on character development. If a writer neglects the work that enables the average reader to form a connection with the protagonist in particular, the rest of the literary elements are going to have to work that much harder to hook and hold the reader.

So how exactly can an author make his characters “connectable”?

  • Make us like her.
  • Make us hate her…or love to hate her.
  • Make us pity him. (A creative writing professor once told me you can instantly make readers pity characters by putting them in denial.)
  • Make us root for him because he’s an underdog.
  • Make her relatable…just like somebody we could meet on the street.
  • Make her utterly exceptional…someone we could never meet in our real lives.
  • Make him have big problems.
  • Make him have depth.

For more advice, there’s a nice, in-depth look at how to make readers care about your characters at novel-writing-help.com. And here’s five more tips at writersrelief.com.

Now it warrants mentioning that not every character will resonate with every reader. We all have different preferences and unique backgrounds. You can’t please all of the people any of the time, but as a writer, you should aim to please as many as possible.

And even if characters on the whole aren’t your strength, just make sure they aren’t a weakness.

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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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The two sides to every story

Ask a hundred different people for their definition of “good writing,” and you’ll get a thousand different answers.

On a very basic level, the creation of a story can be divided into two parts: concept and composition.  Without a command of both sides, a writer—more specifically, his or her story—is bound to fall short of greatness.

Coins of the Philippines

Like a coin, there are two sides to every story. Just don’t leave its success to chance. Photo by Kadayawan (own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Concept

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’ve always wanted to write a book about…”?  Or “I have this great idea for a story…”?

When it comes to fiction, most of us dive into the ideas behind a story before we ever ply the pen or keyboard and transpose thoughts from mind to page.  The aptitude for artfully stringing sentences together typically comes later.

Now inspiration comes in many forms, and creativity often strikes without warning.  But a handful of traits do not make a character.  A theme cannot serve as substitute for plot.  And a thin storyline can be stretched only so far.

In short, not every inkling is worthy of a novel.

Understanding how to combine concepts—knowing what to keep, what to lose, what to tweak—forms the roots of good writing.  Of course, all of the wonderful ideas in the world won’t amount to much on their own.  They must grow into something that can be experienced by the outside world.

Composition

At some point in our education, we all learn to write.  Common curricula tackle the basics (e.g., parts of speech, sentence construction, and proper punctuation) as well as the assembly of these verbal apparatuses into a purpose-driven piece.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and an end, and they typically contain a climax and a resolution.  Essays and research papers pose a hypothesis from the outset and are filled with arguments built upon evidence.  Etc., etc.

Writing is an art, yes, but those who neglect the science of it tend to turn readers off by breaking both documented and unspoken rules.  If you litter your prose with homophones, run-on sentences, repetitious words or phrases, and incomplete thoughts, your readers won’t take you seriously.

If you have any readers at all.

Then there are those who go beyond merely competent writing—those who work such wonders with words that there’s no doubt they were put on the planet to pursue this art form.  These writers conjure up mind-blowing metaphors and paint the most evocative imagery in the reader’s imagination.

The Craft

Both the sides of the craft—concept and composition—require creativity.  Neither half is inherently more important than the other.  They depend on each other.

Granted, there are some writers who could crank out a vignette about an everyman or everywoman simply plodding through life.  No extraordinary back story, no mind-blowing plot twist; just a series of otherwise unremarkable events.  If that author’s exquisite use of language pulls readers in and keeps them engaged, the style alone might transcend the mundane ideas behind the writing.

Likewise, a writer could come up with a brilliant concept—an unexplored aspect of the human condition or an intriguing new situation—and be found wanting when it comes to execution.  Maybe said writer could be forgiven for his or her shortcomings in the composition department if the ideas are compelling enough.  Maybe.

Most of the time, a writer must strive for mastery of both sides of the story before he or she is successful.

Depending too much on concept or composition will only reveal the weakness of the other.  Many readers won’t waste their time with a well-written but boring (or otherwise conceptually flawed) book.  And a writer who has an amazing concept but lacks the chops when it comes to composition can’t hope to do his or her idea justice.

The solution, unsurprisingly, is practice.  Challenge yourself to take your ideas to the next level.  Keep at those finger exercises, read and learn from better wordsmiths than yourself, and then watch your prose improve.

You’ll never get a straight answer when it comes to what makes “good writing” good.  But if you fail to deliver in either the concept or composition department (or both!), you’re bound to get an earful about what makes writing bad.

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Watch out for these five overused words

When a fledgling writer first takes a stab at the craft, he or she is apt to make a few fundamental mistakes.

One such error is assuming that the more words one uses, the better.  Perhaps it stems from penning so many papers in high school and college.  After all, most essay assignments come with word or page quotas.  A student quickly learns to cram in filler words to make sentences extra robust.

The words "and then."

“And” and “then” can cause problems on their own. But when they team up, watch out!

And don’t get me started on those lovely long words that take up half a line all on their own!

Academic writing aside, most folks who concentrate on fiction and creative nonfiction strive for the opposite.  Simple, straightforward syntax rules the day not only because the writing reaches a broader audience, but also because even advanced readers tend to prefer tight, fast-paced prose to a narrative that is drags due to excessive words.

(Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader.  But few people gravitate toward fiction that reads like a dissertation.  It’s as much a matter of tone as a matter of composition.)

The first step to tidying up a manuscript is finding the words, sentences, and even paragraphs that impede a reader’s progress.  A writer must measure every phrase carefully and decide whether it moves the story forward—either by advancing the plot or by presenting pertinent information about characters, setting, and so forth.

As with most aspect of writing, the devil is in the details, and often it’s the smallest, most innocuous words that clutter up clauses.

Here are five words that appear more often than necessary and should be the first on any writer’s chopping block when tightening up his or her work:

Then

“I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

The problem with “then” is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic value.  Readers assume that, unless otherwise indicated, the actions occur in chronological order.  The event in one sentence precede the events in subsequent sentences.  So in most cases, “then” is redundant.

Despite its semantic shortcomings, “then” occasionally can be helpful in terms of sentence structure variation, rhythm, and clarification.  Just be sure to use it sparingly.

Note: if writing in the present tense, the same goes for “now.”

Also

Like “then,” “also” seldom adds anything meaningful to a sentence.  It belongs to a family of adverbs that show a relationship between ideas, but like its relatives “both” and “either,” “also” can quickly cause sentences to slog, especially if used habitually.

Again, a reader understands that when two thoughts are separated with a conjunction—particularly “and”— the second item also belongs in the collection.  The same is true for the context among sentences.  There’s seldom a need to start a sentence with “also,” as demonstrated below.

Also, “too” and “as well” are just “also” in disguise.

And

I challenge anyone to write a story of any substance that completely avoids the word “and.”  The result, I posit, would be awkward at best.  But while conjunctions like “and,” “or,” and “but” are essential to the English language, “and” can become a crutch like the others on this list.

Notice my what-not-to-do example for “then”: “I did something.  And then I did something else.  And then…  And then…”

Not only does “and” like to tag team with “then” to create redundancy, but also it encourages run-on sentences.  “And” also appears when a writer lists a series of items or actions.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with series, too many of them can make a scene sound more like it belongs in an instructional manual than a manuscript.

Consider this example:

“I grabbed my coat, opened the door, and slammed it behind.  On my way to work, I stewed over the argument I’d just had with my girlfriend, swore at the sluggish traffic around me, and fumed at the thought of what awaited me at work.  Frustrated and weary, I stomped to my desk.”

That’s three “ands” in three sentences, and while there’s no crime in that per se, the idea of grouping actions—and emotions—gets old very quickly.  Yes, combining the verbs “grabbed,” “opened,” and “slammed” in a single sentence is quicker than dedicating three separate sentences to the motions, but employing too many of these “grocery lists” grows wearisome.  Either space them out or determine which actions can be cut—and likely remain implied.

(For that matter, we don’t even need “frustrated and weary” in the last sentence because we already know the protagonist’s mood from prior sentences, and “stomped” communicates the emotions effectively on its own.)

Said

When it comes to speech tags, “said” is very much in vogue.  In fact, novice writers often get scolded for using fancy variations, such as “stated,” “declared,” “reported,” and “told.”

And yet, when a writer intersperses action or deftly uses voice—via word choice, sentence structure, etc.—to otherwise indicate the speaker, “said” just gets in the way.

More on that here.

All in all, reducing the number of speech tags is an easy way to reduce the word count and pump up the pace of dialogue.

Was

“Was”—and “is,” if you prefer the present tense—can present like a plague if you’re not wary.  Just because any given sentence can contain some form of “to be,” doesn’t mean it should.

Action verbs are always stronger than copular verbs.

Let’s look at that last sentence as an example.  I could have said, “Action verbs always dominate a sentence, whereas copular verbs simply connect a subject to the predicate.”  The semantics aren’t identical, but the latter gave me an opportunity to be more specific and more creative.

Another example:

“I was so hungry that I ate the whole box.” vs. “I devoured the entire box.”

Not only does the second sentence lose a few unnecessary words, but also it is arguably more impactful because it uses “devoured” instead of “was so hungry.”

Beware of the copular verb’s clever cousins, modals: “can,” “could,” “might,” “must,” “should,” etc.  Used in moderation, copulars and modals are harmless; however, when relied upon too regularly, they are bound to let you—and your readers—down.

I suspect every writer has his or her own stable of overused words or a particular construction he or she employs too often.  How often is too often?  However many times it takes a reader to become distracted by it or otherwise bogged down by it.

For instance, I used the “not only…but also” sentence structure three times in this relatively short post.  If it didn’t serve such a fine example of my final point, I’d likely go back and find other ways to express the same thoughts.

Another example from my fiction writing is the word “eyes.”  For some reason, whether giving a character’s description or trying to convey emotion during dialogue or other action, I default to calling attention to people’s eyes.

But now that I’m aware of this tendency, I always stop after typing the word “eyes” and decide if there’s a better way to proceed, possibly by employing a different sensory description.

The five little words outlined above don’t do much harm on their own.  Their danger comes from numbers.  Pruning a handful of these small words from a short story or avoiding them throughout a novel can add up and result in a leaner, meaner manuscript.

The best writers don’t jack up their word counts with filler words.  They understand that true skill is conveying meaning with fewer words, not more.

Did I miss any other common offenders?  Do you have a literary pet peeve that (figuratively) jumps off the page and pokes you in the eye?  Let me know below! 

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When it comes to dialogue, don’t trust the word on the street

One of my earliest college writing assignments involved a little espionage.

Having spent plenty of time playacting the part of spy in my youth and, in later years, transplanting such imaginative adventures to written page, I eagerly embraced the challenge my professor put forth.

A mysterious-looking man in a trench coat and fedora...the Dialogue SpyMy mission: to choose a random conversation between two people, eavesdrop and write down every word.

Later that day, I lingered in a classroom building’s lounge where fellow students were wont to while away time between classes, catching up on reading assignments, cramming before quizzes, or just chatting with classmates.

Today, I couldn’t tell you much about my marks other than the fact that they were young women.  I recall even less about subject of their conversation.  Their gossip meant very little to me because I knew nothing about them or the people they discussed.  Nevertheless, I surreptitiously jotted down every word.

Every false start.  Every verbal crutch.  Every grammatical violation.

When reviewing my transcripts later, I came to a few conclusions. For one thing, most people are far from eloquent.  When engaged in casual conversation, we interrupt one another.  We even interrupt ourselves.  Occasionally, we use the wrong words.  And if counted how many “ums,” “ahs,” and “actuallys” sprinkled throughout our speech, we’d be amazed.

In other words, if a writer were to accurately capture human communication and translate it to the written word, he/she would end up with a string of fragments and incomplete thoughts through which a reader would inevitably struggle.  Most of the time, the result would be an incoherent mess.

Which, of course, was the point of my top-secret assignment.

This lesson was reinforced in later years when I worked as a reporter.  Oh sure, some people are capable of providing the perfect quote, a sequence of phrases that succinctly sums up their perspective on a given topic.  But most of us use far more words than we need to.  We ramble.  We utter copious pronouns because, in the context of an interview, the reporter understands what is meant by “he,” “she,” and “it.”

Yet when the reporter goes back to his/her desk to rearrange the interviewee’s answers and evaluate which quote belongs where in the article, it becomes obvious that there is often a chasm between what people mean to say and what they actually say.  It’s truly a treasure when a reporter gets that perfect, impactful quote.  More often than not, however, the phrases and clauses between quotation marks remain rough-edged, unrefined.

When I made the switch from journalism to public relations, writing press releases allowed me to do something I never dared to do as a reporter: I reworked spokespeople’s quotes.  Quite often, I was encouraged to create such quotes from scratch and later run them past my “sources,” who might add a thought here or make a word swap there.  But the finished result was almost always a clear, coherent (if, at times, clearly artificial) collection of clauses that efficiently and effectively communicated the point.

Unlike how people actually speak…

In fiction, nothing takes a reader out of story quicker than stilted, sterile, and/or sloppy dialogue.  The good news is that you have full control over the words that come out of your characters’ mouths.  Here are some tips for how to handle the infuriating idiosyncrasies of human speech and deliver effective dialogue:

1. Shorten, streamline, then slash some more

Even though people in real life prattle on and on, a writer must be mindful of his or her “word economy.”  That doesn’t mean every sentence has to be reduced to a simple, subject-predicate construction, but short and snappy does wonders for pacing.  A reader’s attention has to be earned, and once you lost it, you might not reclaim it.

Consider each situation.  If two characters are passing each other in the hall at work, they wouldn’t likely engage in a twenty-minute conversation.  But if they’re unwinding at the local waterhole after hours—while imbibed a few alcoholic beverages—then a few run-on sentences might be just what the doctor ordered.

A common error I’ve encountered in rough drafts are conversations that simply go on too long.  Not only do the characters say in three sentences what they could have said in one, but also the subject itself circles back on itself again and again.  The chances of this happening increase dramatically if these artificial people are having an argument.  Real-life bickering is repetitive, but no reader wants to endure page after page of repetitive back-and-forth.

When in doubt, err on the side of fewer words.

2. Intersperse action

Dialogue can be like swarm of locusts, hungrily devouring a scene or even an entire chapter.  That might not be the worst thing in the world, just as long as it doesn’t leave the rest of the narrative desolate and devoid of life.

When a writer really gets into a verbal exchange between two (or more) captivating characters, it’s easy to lose track of everything else.  However, if the result is several consecutive pages of pure quotations, you end up with what I like to call Voices in a Vacuum.

Readers want to experience the story through as many senses as possible.  If a long conversation is needed, remember to plant some action in between speech tags so that the reader has something to” look at.”  And don’t forget the setting.  Where are these people?  Have they really been sitting perfectly still on a couch this whole time?  Is the rest of reality on pause while they bear their souls to one another?  Not likely.

Unadulterated dialogue appeals to just one of the five senses: hearing.  And when we speak in real life, our mannerisms convey meaning as well.  Indeed, body language often says more than our mouths!

Sometimes it can be difficult to silence loquacious characters, but unless their words are moving the story forward in a significant way, get ready to press the backspace key.

3. Replace action

Bad dialogue bogs down the pace; good dialogue encourages momentum.

In an effort to smooth out transitions between straightforward action and dialogue (because dialogue actually is a kind of action), it can be helpful to replace an ordinary description of motion with a voiced reference to an action.

Take this (admittedly ridiculous) excerpt for example:

Professor Improbable laughed wildly.  “With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”

He turned to his slump-shouldered assistant, Rogi, and asked, “Bring me the thermal calibrator at once.”

Rogi reached for one of the many tools scattered on the table and handed a gadget to the scientist, who curtly informed him that he asked for a thermal calibrator, not an infrared coupler.

Rogi tried again and, luckily, got it right.

“Thank you, Rogi.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

Here’s an alternate approach:

 “Mwahahaha!  With a few minor adjustments, the Chrono Cruiser will finally be ready for its maiden voyage!”  Professor Improbable turned to his slump-shouldered assistant.  “Rogi, bring me the thermal calibrator at once.  No, no, no!  That’s the infrared coupler.  Ah, yes, that’s the one.  Thank you.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past five years…”

The action is implied in the dialogue, and Professor Improbable—whom we suspect always monopolizes the conversation—can recap his master plan without needless interruptions.  Just make sure you don’t waste the reader’s time by having the dialogue and the narration convey redundant information.

4. Develop voice

Dialogue is perhaps the most intuitive element through which one can execute characterization.  A person’s vocabulary and delivery say an awful lot about him or her.  Casual chats, heart-to-hearts, quarrels, exchanges with random strangers—all of these present opportunities to add dimension to a character.

The goal is to give each character an individual voice, a strong voice that will inform the reader who is speaking even before they get to speech tag (e.g., “said Professor Improbable”).  Consider your character’s culture, education level, disposition, etc. when determining which words ought to come out of his or her mouth.

Just don’t get carried away.  Even if Rogi ends up having a speech impediment, a reader isn’t going to w-w-w-w-want to h-h-h-h-h-have t-t-t-t-t-t-to n-n-n-n-n-n-n-navigate a-a-a-around too m-m-m-m-m-many v-v-v-v-v-v-v-visual h-h-h-h-h-hurdles.  The same goes for representing accents.  Put in an affectation here and a native word there.  Please don’t pump each paragraph full of apostrophes to imply clipped sounds or otherwise butcher perfectly good words.  Subtlety is key.

Dialogue should round out your characters, but rarely can talk-heavy scenes exist solely for character development.  Every word needs to move the story forward, including quotes.

5. Read it out loud

The best way to gauge whether your dialogue rings true is to read it out loud.  Better yet, have someone else read it to you.  Listen for tongue-twisting syntax and garbled semantics.  Listen for flow.  Are the transitions logical?

Listen for sentences that are just too tidy.  Unless your protagonist is a grammar teacher, he or she is going to end a sentence with a preposition now and then.  For that matter, the rules of proper grammar don’t apply within quotation marks.  Awkward, unconventional sentence structure in dialogue won’t reflect poorly on you as a writer (if the rest of your sentences are grammatically sound), though it will send a message about the character in question.

Every good spy knows the best lies contain at least an ounce of truth.  The trick with dialogue, as with any aspect of fiction, is making something artificial come off as natural.  To become adept at writing dialogue, listen to how the people around you really talk and then make it better.

But not too perfect.

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I should be thankful, but…

These are exciting times for writers, I’ve been told.  Often.

Never mind that fewer hardcover and paperback books are being printed and distributed throughout the country.  Even though brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the typewriter, I’ve been assured there’s a bright dawn on the horizon for those who have stories to share with the world.

Thanks to the Internet, e-books and a cornucopia of other online resources, it’s easier than ever for fiction to flow from writer to reader.

The traditional publishing model, if not dying, is being forced to evolve.  And while The Way Things Are shift closer to The Way Things Were, many people are celebrating the fact that electronic formats make self-publishing an option for anyone with a tale to tell.

Consider this excerpt from Social Media Today’s “How Social Media is Changing the Publishing Industry”:

“The days of having a book in your head and never seeing (sic) in print are long gone.  Any writer or author can now bring their (sic) book to life with self-publishing and a viral social media campaign.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing?

Let’s start with some of the pros for self-publishing:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!

Why wouldn’t previously unpublished novelists be throwing their hats in the air?  No more rejection letters from big, bad publishing companies!  You always suspected the public would rave over your book, and now there’s no hoity-toity, fascist editor to block your progress.

At last, the Internet has made the publishing industry a democracy, where the people can choose what they want to read out of the widest array of possibilities imaginable!

But here’s the thing: Even though the old system was imperfect (as evidenced by the apparent decline of traditional publishers and an ever-decreasing number of new authors sharing shelves with the few big names), I actually liked the idea of having professionals decide which manuscripts get the thumbs up or thumbs down—even if it meant getting rejected.  The bar was set high, and I was happy to have something to work toward.

And because I’m a reader as well as a writer, I like going into a bookstore and knowing that the hard-copy occupants of those many shelves were pre-screened by someone who understood what was likely to be popular and, therefore, enjoyed by one or more target audiences.  I liked the fact that there were bookstores…

Sadly, I see the landscape of e-publishing not as a democracy, but as anarchy.  In an online arena where any word-slinger can make his or her mark on any number of websites, the average reader has to spend as much time dodging egregious affronts to the English language as finding exactly what he or she was looking for.  There used to be a “right way” to get published; now anything goes.

It’s like the Wild West, which was also free-spirited—but ultimately dangerous—place.

So when I hear the occasional success stories of those who have self-published or signed on with one of the many small online presses and made a ton of dough, my inner cynic can’t help but chime in:

1. A self-published author can earn more money per book sold, but there’s no guarantee anyone is going to find or download your book, and the more wannabes who put a 99-cent price tag on their novels—or worse, give it away for free simply because they want readers—the actual value of books go down in the public’s mind.

2. Social media channels give writers the ability to plug their product 24/7, which means that anyone who ever wanted to write the Great American Novel (or yet another Twilight rip-off) is doing the exact same thing, so good luck getting noticed.

3. There’s no editor to say, “No, your work isn’t good enough.”  ANYONE CAN PUBLISH A BOOK!!!  Which means for everyone decent book out there, readers will have to sift through hundreds of horrible manuscripts that shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Or the glow of an e-reader, for that matter.

The fact that the article excerpt above contained two grammatical errors in the first two sentences only underscores my concern of quantity trumping quality.  Just because anyone can write and publish his or her work in a digital format, it doesn’t mean he or she should.

This Wild West of the written word—while an exciting environment for dabblers; experimenters; and writers who don’t mind making time to be their own editors, publishers, and publicists—presents a more pessimistic scenario for readers, who will have to sift through a lot of worthless rocks to find those sparkling gold nuggets.

And writers those who have the raw talent and the fortitude to hone their craft (and make it darn near perfect before publishing it one way or another) will have to depend a lot on the luck of the draw.

Eventually, however, the Wild West will be tamed, and a status quo will come to the formerly anarchic arena of online publishing.  A just system will emerge to distinguish the true talents from the dreamers.  Hopefully, more authors will find financial success because there will be more opportunities than before the “Gold Rush” and less competition from all the cowboys who thought having Microsoft Word and an idea or two were enough to qualify them as good writers.

So even though I should be thankful to living in a time when, theoretically, I can get my fiction in front of as many readers as possible, I’m far more thankful for the opportunities that remain for selling my manuscript to a traditional publisher and that there’s still a chance I might see one of my novels, as a hardcover or paperback, in an actual bookstore.

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