Thursday, July 31, 2014

Snoozing over tired dialogue

Hiya! Lisa speaking. Tehe, I'm speaking about speaking!

Dialogue doesn't get talked about very much in the writersphere, and when it does, it seems to me that the discussion is about getting the wording right/age appropriate and having too much or too little dialogue. So when I recently come across three different bits of dialogue that I'm really tired of hearing, I wondered what I could have my characters saying that has also exhausted its welcome. Help me out here. What are you tired of hearing from characters' mouths be it movies or books?

Here's my list:
1. "I don't normally do this / I'm not the type who usually does this kind of thing"
She says before hopping in bed with someone she just met. BTW, I'm not slut-shaming. Do the new guy. I don't care. Just find something different to say.

2. "I have a bad feeling about him/her/this."
SO many characters are psychic nowadays...except they're not.

3. "I'd like that."
She says when he asks her out / asks to call her later. WHO SAYS THAT IN REAL LIFE? Nobody unless they're mimicking a Lifetime movie.

4. "Toto, we're not in Kansas/Texas/Florida anymore."
It's not witty anymore either.

Dan: What a great topic, Lisa! I agree that dialogue is hard and you don't see many craft articles about it. What I'm trying to say is, I have a good feeling about this! Rule of thumb: If you've written a line of dialogue that you might hear in a B-list movie, it's probably cliché. Example #2 above illustrates this perfectly. Other tired dialogue clichés that I see often:

  • A character whose role in the conversation is only to prompt another character to talk more / explain things to the reader: "Why?" "And why is that?" "What do you mean?". 
  • Exposition disguised as dialogue, or even worse, dialogue delivering tons of backstory: "As you know, Frodo, Sauron is the root of all evil." (Tolkien didn't do this, of course). Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors but he did this a lot in The Dragonbone Chair.
  • Characters who talk without contractions. Unless they're royalty, it doesn't mirror reality.
Tired dialogue often doesn't sound like something you'd overhear in a coffee shop. Real conversations are kind of ugly. Probably too ugly to mimic precisely. The right balance is probably somewhere in between. One of the masters of dialogue, in my opinion, is Ernest Hemingway. Go read some of his short stories. "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" is a good place to start.

Karlie: I really hate it when an author tries to make dialogue too dialect-heavy. Like this: "Lookee hyar, Gal, ya don' wanna mess up ya whole life like Ah did."
Sadly, this is not an exaggeration. It may give a clear picture of how uneducated Marv is, but it's a lot of work for the reader. And pages of dialogue that looks like this? Forget it. I'm done before I even got started.
We can still draw a clear picture without being annoying: "I done messed my whole life up, Gal."

And those awful one-liners really need to be put out of their misery:

1. "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."
Seriously? Maybe this was funny once, but it has LONG since lost its appeal.

2. "Shut up and kiss me."
So says every single romantic comedy out there, and about 50% of everything else.

3. "Don't you die on me!"
If I had a dollar for every time I heard that...I'd still be counting my money.

And for the grand finale...

4. "It's quiet, isn't it," Bob said. 
"Yeah. A little too quiet."
And this is immediately followed by things getting unquiet.

Don't get me wrong - I find myself still using these. I doubt if there's a writer out there who doesn't. But we're learning quickly that some things should never make it past the first draft, LOL.

Caitlin: I will definitely admit that I have done some of these. Not using contractions is a really big problem for me, though I hope I'm getting better at catching myself. (See, I just used "I'm" instead of "I am"! And yes, I want a cookie for that... :) ).

I think all the ones you all brought up are great. I especially hate when the heroine tells the hero to shut up and kiss her. If you want to kiss him so bad, stop chit chatting and kiss him! And, Lisa, I completely agree with you on not only the dialogue but the troupe of the girl who would never ever ever have a one night stand...until she does! (I would go so far as to say that that in itself is a wee bit of slut shaming because it's basically saying "don't worry, this character IS good, because she normally doesn't have sex.")

One thing I struggle with in dialogue is sounding a certain age or a certain gender while still being original. Yeah, maybe most 22-year-olds don't say something my character would say, but that's what makes her quirky. Or maybe most guys don't talk that way, but that male character isn't like most guys. It's a delicate balance for sure, trying not to stretch beyond believability while still having your characters sound fresh, i.e., not just like every other person in that demographic. It's something I'm still working on, for sure.

HELP US OUT! Writers and readers, tell us what you think is beginning to be overdone so authors can steer clear.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Have you ever been afraid to hope? -Turn It Up Tuesday

My character Johnny thinks he is tough but underneath it all, he's afraid. Terrified of hoping and having those hopes dashed. Johnny clings to hopelessness instead. Which is why Winter Storm by Joshua James explains my character's mindset so perfectly.

Pain, don't go
You remind me of a winter storm
Faith, don't grow

Enjoy the song! (Maybe enjoy is a poor word choice; the song is pretty sad)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writing Workshop: Tips for Giving and Receiving Critiques

Dan here. I thought I'd start the conversation -- and let all of YOU continue it -- on guidelines for critiques by writer's groups or critique partners.

Critiquing, also known as workshopping, is a critical part of finding success as an author. Basically, this is the process by which you solicit feedback for your writing from people who (1) are writers themselves, and (2) are not related to you, and therefore are more likely to give you honest feedback. If you take a short story writing or creative writing course, odds are you've participated in these exercises. 

A workshop for writers to share and critique one another's work is a wonderful resource, but it can also be the source of anxiety, embarrassment, and injured feelings. This has happened occasionally in some of my writers groups, and when it happens, no one wins. 

Tips for Offering Critiques

I'm a member of the Critters Workshop, operated by Andrew Burt (also known as "the Critter Captain"). He often refers workshop members to an article, The Diplomatic Critiquer, which offers some excellent guidelines on writing critiques that are helpful, instead of hurtful. Among them:
  • Be polite and respectful. The former is about word choice, and taking the time to write "Might I suggest a comma here," instead of "Put a comma here." As for respect, assume that the author knows what he or she is doing, and phrase your remarks accordingly.
  • Critique the writing, not the author. It's tempting to make inferences about an author's experience, skill level, or background when offering critique. Don't do that. Focus on the work at hand.
  • Don't state your opinion as fact. Your response to someone's story is your opinion. There is no right or wrong, and you should be careful to word your comments as "I felt that" or "I think that" to reinforce that it's one critiquer's opinion. 
  • You are not The Authority. You are not playing the role of parent or teacher here, but the role of a peer. Anything that comes off sound like you feel you're superior should be re-phrased. Don't cite authorities to "back up" your comments, and avoid coming off as bossy. 
Critiquers vary in the way that they tend to deliver critiques. Personally, I've always been a fan of the "compliment sandwich" technique, which takes the following format:
  1. Begin by offering your favorite parts of the story, what you liked best, and what worked for you.
  2. After that, discuss things that didn't work for you, and offer constructive criticism
  3. Close by touching on the strengths again, and offering some words of encouragement.
Let's face it: most authors have fragile egos. Sandwiching your critique between compliments and words of encouragement will go a long way. A lot of authors will know exactly what you're doing with this -- I usually recognize it when people use it on me -- but they'll still appreciate it.

Tips for Receiving Critiques

One of my writer's groups evolved out of a course we'd taken together at a local university. There, the instructor laid out a format for the peer critique (it was face-to-face, obviously) that we kept long afterward. 
  • We'd all read the same piece, and then each person would have a turn to offer his or her feedback (taking as much time as desired, within reason). EVERYONE would comment, even if just to echo the sentiments of those who'd gone already. 
  • During this entire time, the author of the piece would remain silent, even if the urge to answer a question or correct a misconception was burning the very fiber of his soul. 
  • Once everyone had offered comments, the author had a chance to respond to them, ask for clarification, offer clarification, etc.
You'll note that this format helps avoid confrontation and argument, and encourages even the less-outspoken critiquers to offer their thoughts. Some other tips I'd offer along the lines of receiving critiques, either online or in person:
  • Always thank the critiquer. Even if you hated every word he or she said, that person still took time out of a busy life in a busy world to read your work. 
  • It's OK to answer questions, but don't argue. This will go against your nature, because you'll want to defend your writing like you would your own child. Resist this urge. It will encourage open, honest critiques the next time around.
  • Listen to advice, but don't feel obligated to follow it. This is your story, and you need to do what's right for it. Often in Critters I get very contradictory critiques: one reader hates part of the story, but another loves it.
  • Key in on repetition. One critiquer who's confused about a certain turn of phrase might be a chance event. If two or three people make the same remark, however, it might be time to take a hard look at the offending passage.

How Do You Workshop?

How do you and your critique partners operate? If you'd like to offer your own tips on giving and/or receiving critiques, I'd love to hear them.

Caitlin This is great stuff, Dan, and it includes a lot of reminders that I needed to hear (*blushes*). I don't have a whole lot to add except a slightly different take on the author staying silent. We did this in my grad school classes and I liked it. After all, you can't sit there with everyone reading your published book and say "Well, what I meant by that was..." The work has to speak for itself and so it's interesting to have to listen to what others think without correcting misconceptions.

After grad school, I joined a critique group, the Metro Writers, that was more casual. They encourage discussion throughout. It felt weird at first, but now I see them serving a bit of a different role than I had previously thought they would. Sometimes it becomes clear right away that what I meant to say didn't come through, and instead of everyone reiterating that point, we can immediately move on to discussing how to adjust it so my vision comes through, and I like that a lot too. Admittedly, things get more rambunctious than they ever did in my grad school classes, but it's a different kind of helpful.

This may work for me because I have stages of critiques. I usually bring stuff to my writers group that I know I'm struggling with, whereas what I send to my online critique partners is usually much more polished (though still a work in progress).  I think different stages of the writing process perhaps can benefit from different styles of critiques. But I agree that the above rules are great to keep in mind no matter what your group's style!

Karlie: Thanks for the great advice, Dan! I'm definitely filing this away for future reference.
My biggest problem is being bossy, both online and in the real world. I have to keep a constant watch on myself, as I'm sure my friends will tell you, LOL.

I think every critique group should have a variety of critiquing skills...say, a person with an eye for world/setting, someone who excels at judging characters, and a plot wizard -  a few Grammar nazis never hurt either. ;) That way everyone comes away with a well-rounded, overall look at their story.

I have yet to find a writer's group I can attend physically, but my online critique partners are nothing short of heaven sent. I whole-heartedly recommend joining one to writers of all levels and stages. Find a good one, and it's so worth it!

Lisa: Great post, Dan! I like to do the sandwich method too. It's just nice to start and end the review with something the author did well, sandwiching the criticism in between. Bread (praise), meat (criticisms), bread (praise). It starts and ends the critique on a nice note. Another reason I like the sandwich method is typically writers think of their novel as their baby; hearing a constant barrage of negative things about their baby will only sour the relationship, not to mention discourage the author. In my opinion, encouraging the writer is as important as giving feedback. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday: The Dance

It's Karlie bringing you a song for Turn It Up Tuesday!

Nolan Cabaret lost his fiancee Kelly in the most tragic way possible, and two years later, he's still trying to move on.

The Dance by Garth Brooks is especially appropriate, because throughout the book, their relationship is compared to a masquerade dance. Nolan used to believe he would do anything to go back and change it all, to lose the parts of his life that cause him so much pain now.
 But to do that...he would've had to miss the dance.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Body Language: Utilizing Every Move

Hiya, it's Karlie bringing you this post.

We've all used body language to get our point across, both in fiction and real life. But I'm afraid we've gotten into a rut - just HOW many times do your characters roll their eyes, anyway? How many disgusted sighs have you used in the past week?
Let's dig a little deeper.
One of the elements of good fiction, after all, is saying as much as possible in just a few words. Using body language can add tension to dialogue - while also making us wonder if the character means the words he/she is saying.
It can also add weight to the scene.

Emotional Repercussions:

Did you know that...

- If Michael picks up something heavy, like a paperweight, and balances it in his hand, it will help him make an important decision? Studies have shown that people tend to give their opinion more weight if they're holding something heavy.

- If Lois hugs Tim, she instantly feels more relaxed? A man's scent comforts and calms a woman.

- If Jennifer washes her hands, she is less likely to second-guess that huge decision she just made? So if she breaks up with Jared, send her to the kitchen to wash the dishes and decide she's definitely better off without him.

Physical Cues:

Here are a few examples...

  • fingertip kiss–praise
  • Nose tap–keep it secret
  • Head toss–negatives
  • Chin Flick–disinterest
  • Eyelid pull–I am alert

Do you rely on cliche, run of the mill body language? Or can you find a different way to get the point across?

Caitlin: I struggle with this so much! I have used The Emotion Thesaurus, but, for me at least, it  usually results in me way over using particular actions. Honestly, it's something I'm still working on a lot, so I'm not sure I have a lot of advice. The best thing I've found is just closing my eyes and really trying to "see" the character say something and then describing what they do. But even that doesn't quite solve things. I'm definitely looking forward to what everyone else has to say, and, Karlie, the above actions are great. I will have to "steal" some of them. :)

Dan: When I hear "body language" I think about that old human resources training gem: "93% of communication is nonverbal." Where did that figure even come from? I did some digging, and found that it's attributed to Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor who studied verbal/nonverbal communication at UCLA. He proposed that there are three elements of face-to-face communication: verbal elements (words), tone of voice, and body language. When it comes to liking someone's message about how they feel, he found that words only accounted for 7% of it. Tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%) had a much greater impact.

Even so, if someone wrote a book that was only 7% dialogue, I probably wouldn't read it. A lot of physical description and tone-of-voice modulation is going to get annoying pretty fast. So it's about finding unique body language that conveys information when it's needed. Body language can reinforce as well as contradict what's being said. If a guy tells a girl that he loves her, but does so while his eyes wander to a different girl nearby, that's good to know. Now, please excuse me while I go look in the Emotion Thesaurus for alternatives to eyebrow-raising.

Lisa:  I try to give my characters a body language version of catch phrases. Like, one of my characters pokes his tongue on his cheek when he's nervous. One of my other characters tugs on her earlobe when she's excited. This same character is a dancer, and when she's uncomfortable she wants to do her favorite dance move - a pirouette. It's just not always socially acceptable, so she has to curb that reaction, sometimes mid-turn. I think one thing we can learn is that, yes, body language is situational, but it's also dependent upon personality. The rut we get into, I believe, comes from thinking of the situation only, not considering the personality. So, that's my sage advice. Think about the personality you've created before you give a kneejerk hum-drum body language movement. And when it's just some side character who wasn't important enough to do extensive character summaries, hence s/he doesn't have the most developed personality, I do something like Caitlin: close my eyes and imagine people's actions. Sometimes I even try to imagine myself in the situation and what my body language would be.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

She's a mess; he's a mess. Turn It Up Tuesday

One of the main characters in my WIP starts out a little bit of a mess and becomes a bigger and bigger mess as the story progresses. It's her life, and she has no choice but to try to manage it. Sometimes, though, she looks for an escape.
It seems like Ed Sheeran wrote I'm a Mess especially for my character. In my head he did anyway.

See the flames inside my eyes
It burns so bright I wanna' feel your love, no
Easy baby maybe I'm a liar
But for tonight I wanna' fall in love
And put your faith in my stomach

Let's just hope her night of escapism ends with more of a symbolic thing in her stomach.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

These Characters Are Inauthentic Because They Don’t Poop

Caitlin here. We’ve all reads books that suspend disbelief to the point we can’t enjoy them. There’s a strange plot point that maybe we could believe if there was more supporting evidence—but there isn’t. There’s a character action that’s hard to swallow, but, perhaps if we had known this one little additional fact we would have bought it. 

These are the issues that good critiques partners bring up.

However, I think, as a writer, you need to be careful not to instantly address every single issue that a skeptical reader might have. 

My husband and I joke that, on some level, almost every book we’ve ever read is inauthentic because they never discuss a character’s bowel movements. Yeah, I know, it’s a little gross, but think about it. Surely these characters go to the bathroom!? Why isn’t it mentioned!? Why would the author leave that out!? 

Obviously, I’m being a bit facetious, but I’ve definitely encountered readers and writers who have questions like these about extremely miniscule, often logistical, aspects of a story. Don’t get me wrong, I like to discuss the intricacies of books, so I enjoy these types of questions during book clubs. And, in regard to my own work, I’m thankful for all of these questions because every single one helps me think more deeply about the project. However, it took me a while to realize that just because someone wondered about X it doesn’t necessarily mean I should throw in a couple of sentences addressing X. Instead, I need to parse out what is vital to telling the story from what is just extra information and background noise.

But this is incredibly tough. I’ll admit, I’m still figuring out how to make these calls. How do you handle this issue?  How do you decide what information is imperative to keeping the reader in your corner and what is extraneous and just clogs up the flow of the story?

Dan: Wow, Caitlin, what a hook! But I think you've raised two good discussion topics: character believability and reader feedback. It's actually a good sign when you have readers challenging you over a character detail, because it means they're close enough to that character to care about it. One believability issue I've seen while critiquing -- and been called on in my own writing -- is when a character changes his or her mind too easily. When a character has a strong motivation, and that motivation suddenly changes, there needs to be a damn good reason for it. Maybe a whole pile of reasons. Think about it: in real life, when two people disagree on a subject they feel strongly about (such as politics or religion), neither one is easily swayed to the other's point of view. Fiction should reflect this.

The other question that Caitlin raises is this: when should an author follow (or ignore) reader feedback? Not every piece of advice offered will be gold. It's your story, after all, and you don't have to please everyone. You'll never do that anyway. Choosing the right critique partner will help: if the advice comes from a fellow author whose work you know and respect, you're more likely to value it. My day job happens to be genetics research, and when we're trying to publish something we face this issue all the time. An editor will send our manuscript to 2-3 qualified researchers at other institutions for peer review. Those reviewers will identify major and minor issues with the work. Then, it's up to us to decide which points to address, and which to push back on. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but so is all of writing.

Karlie: This is something I struggle with a lot. Yes, we want to see this character living life, so we can relate to him. But...really, what little details are necessary?
I tend to land on the far side of either end of the scale. Either I'm going way overboard, or I don't put nearly enough in. But like you said, Caitlin, it's such a fine line to walk sometimes I make myself blind trying to see it. So what I do is try to make it significant to the story itself - is the tension in the room crackling the air? Excuse me, I need to find the restroom.
Does he want to prolong her walking out the door? Bend down slowly, pull his socks on one by one, thinking frantically of something to say that might make her stay.
Things like this - that can be woven into the narrative - can serve a dual purpose. Give us the tidbits of life that make the character real, and add to the emotion and tension of a scene.

Lisa: I agree with Karlie. If the detail isn't relevant to the story itself then I don't include it. With that said, I do try to find a way to marry minute real-life details into something relevant in the story. A while back I realize that my characters never got sick (okay some get deathly sick, but I mean run of the mill sick). So, I gave my next character allergies and wove them into the fabric of the story. The book I'm currently working on has my female main character with anxiety that gets bad enough she will throw up. While I don't think having your character gross readers out by pooping "on camera" will reel your readers in :D, I do think there are always ways to add more realism to our characters' lives. But some things just aren't going to move the scene forward, nor the plot. I once read a story that had a character cooking broccoli. Twice. I was so bored. The author could have had readers enter the scene later. I once read that the best way to keep readers intrigued is to enter the scene late and leave early. This keeps readers from having to read extraneous details like cooking broccoli and pooping, and I'm all for that!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Lonely by Christina Perri

Karlie with you today! My song is The Lonely by Christina Perri. When you lose someone who's always been there, you inevitably lose part of yourself. A big piece, a little piece, a good piece, a bad one...but you lose something.

Loneliness can't replace it.

This song doesn't just go with one of my stories. It's for Anne. It's for Sable. And most of all, it's for Shelly and Julia, who lost the most.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

In His Head - Nailing Character Voice

Voice, voice, voice. We keep hearing that this is very important in the novel, but how many different definitions have you heard of voice? I've come across a couple of hundred. Yes, I'm a blog junkie. The problem is that voice is really hard to explain. So I've decided that it might actually better to explain HOW TO GET IT. What strides do you take to nail the right voice in your novel and keep it consistent? Do you do character chats? Interviews? Take on another persona and worry about the split personality disorder later? (I don't recommend this). What is the magical formula? What are your character voice fails? Ever done such a good job finding your character's voice that YOU starting talking like your character? (Another thing I don't recommend, especially if your character has a colorful vocabulary and you live in the bible belt.)

Lisa: I do SO many interviews. Seriously, I'm up to seven for each main character since starting my eighth novel. But they're so great if you do it right. Here's the trick: answer them in first person. It doesn't matter if you're writing in third person or second, dual POV... Just answer in first person in exactly the way you feel like your character would.

"But, Lisa, I don't know how he'd answer. That's the point of me reading this blog post."

Then answer as closely as you can. GUESS what he'd say. Soon it will come to you as more absolute, more concrete than a guessing game. In the end, his voice should roll off your tongue (brain) with no effort at all. The reason I do so many interviews is because I need to know this person's history in order to know how he would talk or think. If he is sixteen years old, I need to know what has happened in those sixteen years in order to get his voice thoroughly in my brain. Nope, it's not a good idea to include all those sixteen years worth of backstory in your novel, but knowing it is going to completely work in your favor as his author. I could include links to interviews, but I don't keep a list. It's too easy to type in "character interview" into your search engine and get them. Plus, different ones each time keeps me on my toes.

Also, this isn't an interview but it's always good to do a Myers & Briggs work-up on your character. Sometimes stuff doesn't always match up to the character you want to have (most of the time it does, though), but it's a very good start and keeps you from grabbing psychologically contradicting character traits.

Dan: Great topic, Lisa! Voice is so important for a new writer. It's what makes your submissions stand out from the rest of the pack, but I agree, it's very hard to define. But there are some mechanics of establishing a character's voice. Does he speak formally, perhaps reflecting class or education level? Is she sincere or sarcastic? I'm a fan of writing short pieces (500 words to a short story) from a character's point of view (first person) to really get into his or her head. Writing character monologues -- ones that won't be used in the main story or book -- is another useful pre-writing exercise, as discussed on this week's Writing Excuses podcast.

Caitlin:  I come from the (made up) Gabriel Byrne school of writing. He once said this about acting: "It's when you present yourself as truthfully as you can, in a given situation, that you are being that character. Even though you're being yourself."

It's the opposite of method acting. Instead of taking on another persona, you reach deeper into particular facets of your own persona. So, basically, I already know all of my charecters intimately because, in one way or antoher, they're me.

In terms of getting their voices right, I do something similar to an interview. I free write responses to different prompts. I've found the prompts in The 90-Day Novel to be especially helpful.

In terms of finding/refining my voice in general, I think it helps to closely read other writers who have strong voices. This doesn't have to be fiction. In fact, the writer I'd most like to emulate in terms of diction and tone, Amy Leach, writes essays about nature. While reading, I pay special attention to their word choices and rhythm and think about why I like it. I might even try to write a new sentence that has the same grammatical structure just to get into the right head space.

Karlie: I'm not as heavy on the interviews as I should be, and I'm afraid it shows sometimes. I'm going to print out some good ones and make myself sit down and do them.

I also love doing the prompt responses! That has helped me tremendously - it's a great way to get a handle on the character's personality and reactions, too.

The one that threatens to land me a one-way ticket to the funny farm is also my favorite - actually speaking the character's lines out loud, facial expressions and hand gestures included. I can get a good feel for the emotion that way, and also refine the dialogue.

Excellent post, Lisa!

Writers, what's your plan of attack to nail voice? Readers, have you ever read something that had the voice all wrong? Do you have an idea how writers might improve character dialogue and monologue? Do share!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Worlds Away by The Eels

Today's Turn It Up Tuesday post isn't specific to only one of my books. It just quietly goes with all of them.

If any of you watched Cirque Du Soleil, you'll remember this song, Worlds Away by The Eels. The simplicity of it just reminds me that characters are reflective of people, full of emotions and yet capable of simplicity, a simplicity that wouldn't be wrong. Just real. 
It's the tone of the music rather than the lyrics that pulled me into this song. There's a sweet longing here that hits the spot in my whimsical writerly brain.

I hope you enjoy!