Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Write Better Dialogue

It's Dan today, and I want to talk about dialogue. Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of writing fiction, especially for those of us who have considerable experience in non-fiction writing. Narrative and exposition are relatively straightforward by comparison. When it comes to having characters talk to one another, the correct approach isn't always clear. This may be why dialogue is often a weak point among new writers trying to break in.

Earlier this year, Lisa wrote a great post on tired dialogue in books and movies. It made for a very useful discussion of what NOT to do. Today it's the other side of the coin: how to write better dialogue. Because I'm not an expert, I've collected some great craft articles from around the web and will share the highlights.

Basic Rules for Dialogue

First up is a nice article by Abigail Carter, 10 rules for writing good dialogue, in which she reminds us that:

  • Dialogue needs to have a point. It should carry the plot forward, develop character, and/or reveal inner motivations.
  • Good dialogue contains differing points of view, and each character should have a unique voice. 
  • Dialogue is not for long speeches (monologues) or explanations. It's tempting to fall into the trap of "As you know, Jim..."
  • Great dialogue builds tension. Characters argue, insult, or leave things unsaid. They lie to one another. When the reader knows this, but the other characters don't, it's a very tense situation indeed.
Fantasy Faction has an excellent guide on effective versus ineffective dialogue that illustrates some of these rules, and also notes that dialogue can do things to help the reader, like breaking up big pieces of exposition or providing a breather during intense action sequences.

Mechanics of Dialogue

This is another area where amateur writing shows, particularly in the use of dialogue tags and beats. Dialogue tags are often over-used or too visible, while beats (character actions that break up spoken parts) are often under-utilized. Michelle Hauck recently wrote an informative article on the difference between a tag and a beat. There's also a useful piece at BubbleCow on this topic. A lot of craft articles link to it, but the links are broken. I managed to find the correct URL, and here it is: writing effective dialogue

Punctuation is an important aspect of dialogue that's easy to screw up. In a show of pure serendipity, today's Daily Writing Tip was a gem on whether to place commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside or outside closing quotation marks. In brief:

  • Put the periods and commas inside the closing quotation marks.
  • Put question marks and exclamation points inside the quotation marks if they belong to the quotation
  • Put question marks and exclamation points outside if they belong to the framing statement.
Here's an example of that last point on usage:
Did you hear the inspector say, “Label all dangerous chemicals”?
Ha! And you thought punctuation always went inside the quotes!

Creating Character-specific Dialogue

One of the most challenging aspects of dialogue (the 202 course, if you will), is making each character sound unique. In other words, the things that are said should reflect the speaker. Melissa Donovan has a nice guest post over at Novel Publicity (note, I don't know anything about this company, so please don't consider this an endorsement) on 10 creative ways to write character-specific dialogue.  Among them:
  • Vocabulary and slang that reflect the character's background
  • Catch phrases, like Scarlett O'Hara's "fiddle-dee-dee" in Gone with the Wind.
  • Other-world sayings (for sci-fi/fantasy). For example, "May the force be with you."
I can't think of a better way to end this post, so now it's your turn. Where do you struggle with dialogue? If you have tips or articles to share, please do so!

Caitlin: Great points! I'd just add on one of my personal ticks: contractions. I usually write without them, which isn't good in a narrative voice but it's especially bad in dialogue. Even most "formal" characters will use some contractions while they speak. I know to look out for it now, but I still catch myself doing it a lot.

Karlie: LOL, Caitlin, I find myself doing the opposite. I write a lot of fantasy, and my kings and queens tend to say things like, "Okay, let's do that" instead of, "As you wish." So I have to walk a thin line between too formal and not formal enough. 
I really don't have anything to add - wonderful, informative post Dan!!

Lisa: In my role as editor on a writing website called Valorpen, I come across talking heads all too often. What I mean is I'm floating in white space while two characters are having dialogue back and forth with nothing in between:
"Don't kill the spider," Jill said.
"Why? Because they kill flies?" Henry asked.
Jill smiled. "No. Because it's pretty."
"You're so quirky." Henry turned to leave. "Let's go."
"Let me look a little longer."
Henry sighed. "Fine, but if you even think of scaring me with it, think again."
"Scaredy cat." Jill rolled her eyes.
"Cats aren't scared of everything," Henry said.

Can you picture this scene? Me either :) I have no idea where Jill and Henry are in relation to each other. I have no idea what the scene looks like, whether they're in a building our outside or even what the outside or building looks like. I'm in white space, reading words in a dialogue instead of imagining myself in the scene with these two people.
For the record, I think Henry is justified in keeping his distance.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday - Devisionary by Ages and Ages

Johnny Smith wasn't named after John Wayne but the boy has the man's mentality regardless. Johnny, like John, is the strong silent type. Likewise, both are unwilling to trample on others. It's a wonder that Johnny came out like he did--his father is the worst kind of influence, and full of disappointments and selfish actions. His mother is only a touch better. Living in a trailer park doesn't give a soul many good influences to follow either. So how is it believable to have such a strong sense of wrong and right and a personality strong enough to follow through? It has everything to do with the time he was finally allowed to meet his grandmother who, regretfully enough, was dying. But the visit is packed with enough unconditional love to last him a lifetime: "They wouldn't bring you to see me, but I felt you in this world all along." Pats her chest. "Son, you're a strong boy and I love you. You're better than your mamma and daddy. I know it. You have to be good to people, you just be good. And you take care of your sister."
Johnny often wishes his sister wouldn't have been afraid to visit their grandmother that day too.

Devisionary by Ages and Ages sums up Johnny well.

Do the right thing do the right thing
do it all the time do it all the time
make yourself right, never mind them
don't you know you're not the only one suffering

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Where do your ideas come from?

And what do you do with them?

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! It's Lisa here and I may or may not be hyped on too much caffeine right now. I didn't come here to tell you that, though. Actually, I have a question for you: What's up with your story ideas?

Ever since I wrote my first book, it's been like an idea tree started producing abundant fruit in my head. Do you always have random story ideas filling your mind too? What do you do with them? I know you can't just write them all...can you?

So if you can't sit down and write them all right away, how do you store them away for another day? (Yes, I realize I'm rhyming, but I can't stop myself).
My other question is, what if your idea tree stops producing? If you've ever been without a good story idea, how did you get the inspiration for another?

I love movies, so a good movie always gets me thinking of What ifs, and that's really all a story idea is for me: What if such and such happened to two kids instead of this married couple that's in this movie?
Also, there's always a steady stream of What ifs going through my head regardless of movies. I have two teenage daughters...enough said. Where do you get your What ifs?

As far as what I do with these ideas, I try to temper my enthusiasm every time one catches. You know what I'm talking about. Most of the time those story ideas blow in and out of your mind so quickly that you won't even remember having the idea in the first place. It's gone like a dream when you wake up in the morning. And sometimes the story or the characters won't leave you alone. My thinking with that, though, is you can't just fly into writing the story because guess what's going to happen in one hour. Another story idea. Oops, which one do you want to write now?

The best route for me is to sit on an idea for a while (not literally:). Contemplate. Brainstorm. Write it down of course. If you're still excited about it days later, try for a first chapter. Still looking good? A loose outline is next. Still excited? That baby is getting written. Watch out, world! Here comes some kickass characters.

Karlie: I'm always working on four things at once. This is probably not the most efficient way to get it done, but I stay fresh and focused that way. And ideas...let's just say I'm not going to run out anytime soon. I've literally got almost fifty Microsoft Word files that only hold new ideas - some a line or two, some a few scenes, some plots, etc., etc. But before I start working on them in earnest, I use Lisa's method and just sit on them, working out plot lines. I might jot down a line or two so I don't forget it, but I won't really start writing until I have at least a basic idea of where I want it to go.

Dan: Ideas tend to come to me when I'm doing something mindless and banal, like waiting in line or driving on the highway. Most of them start with a what if; the first thing I try to ask myself afterward is who would make the best POV character. Because I know I'll have to be in that person's head, and obviously I want him or her to be right in the middle of the action.

I have a variety of writing notebooks and always try to get the inspiration down on paper. And I date it! For example, I found the page where I first laid out the seed of my currently-represented book, and it was dated 10/6/2012. I go back to those notes when I'm revising, or when I hit a creative brick wall. Often there's a plot thread or character sketch that I can use to get things going again.

Caitlin: For me, ideas are the easy part. It's finding an idea that I am willing to spend hundreds of hours writing AND that has legs that's the tricky part. That's where outlining and synopses come in. If an idea keeps pestering me for a few days, I'll draw up a synopsis. If I like that, I'll share it with my writers group or possibly my agent to get some thoughts. And yeah, like you all say, I have way more ideas than I can write, so a lot of prioritizing comes into play (though I'll usually let myself indulge if I'm feeling really creative with a lower priority project).

I actually don't stress about writing ideas down quickly. Funny lines. Real life dialogue. Descriptions. A reminder to myself that I need to pay my rent. Yes, these are all things I rush to tap into my Droid or jot down! But for whole novel ideas, I'd rather let them germinate and breathe for at least a few days. And if I "forget" them, then they probably weren't going to hold my attention for the whole novel writing process anyway.

Those are good responses, guys. What about about visitors? What's your process? Comment below!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday: Aftermath

Hiya, it's Karlie, filling in for Lisa!

My song for today is Aftermath by Rascal Flatts. It's not really aimed at a specific character(s), but rather for any of them who have ever suffered a loss. I think we can all relate to it.

So, give it a listen! It's a really amazing song by a talented band.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Killing Your Darlings: Can You Really Wield That Dagger?

It's Karlie today!

If you've been in the writing business for very long, you've heard this phrase in various forms: "Kill your darlings."It just means you can't get too attached to any part of your writing, that you have to stay objective enough to see what needs to be cut and trimmed.

But...have you really stopped and let this soak in? Chances are, you just skimmed over it. Your head understood it; but your writer's brain did not.

You have to kill your darlings. Actually highlight whole passages and hit the delete button. Those scenes you love but don't add anything to the story, even though you've managed to convince yourself they do. Those chapters that you just take for granted have to be there, but if you were to look at them from a fresh viewpoint, are just twisty and meaningless.

This is a hard lesson to learn. I thought I had embraced this long ago, but the truth is, I just recently learned what it truly means to "kill your darlings."
And it hurts. Really bad. But it's actually...worth it. In the end, it made the story better.

How do you feel about killing your darlings, sacrificing the parts of the story - or even whole characters - you love?

Lisa: I've never sacrificed entire characters, though I've heard of writers who're about to be published who must. Their editors strongly advised it. I don't know what I'd do there. However, I have a process for killing my useless scene darlings that is relatively painless. You create a Word document, calling it Deleted Book Title Scenes, meaning my current WIP deleted scene file would be called Deleted 17 Promises Scenes. Karlie's file would be called Deleted Forsaken Scenes. And you cut your nonprogressive scene from your master copy and paste it in the deleted scene document. The reason this works so well is because these darlings aren't forever gone. You can trick yourself by saying "I might come back and get them later" but you probably shouldn't add them back. However, you can always pull from them from another story. I've done that once. Although, I don't have as many darlings as I used to. Either I'm getting better at outlining hence don't fall pray to writing those nonprogressive scenes as much, or else I'm becoming more stubborn and cannot be convinced that those scenes are unnecessary in the first place. :)

Caitlin: I do something similar with my darlings that are sentences or phrases that I just LOVE. I put them in one big word doc from all my books. And, occasionally, I have gone back and fetched them to use in something else. Because sometimes a nice turn of phrase that doesn't work in one scene, works well and adds to another. As for scenes, Lisa knows all to well I'm pretty bad at catching these myself (meaning entire scenes that don't really do much.) But, once they're pointed out to me, I can usually stand back and either heavily revise them to make them carry their weight or remove them entirely. When I signed with my agent, I had to make several revisions, including removing several scenes that I really liked. It hurts, for sure, but in the end I want to write an amazing book, not an amazing scene, so that helps me slash away at them. :)

Dan: I'm sure that, as with most writing advice, I find it easier to preach than follow myself. But I have had to cut big pieces from my book because the manuscript was stronger without them. One was a prologue for my current book. As is the case for most prologues, it had to go. My agent told me so right away. I hope to have an excuse to use it later. The same goes for a chapter in which my MC went bowhunting... I wrote that in November, and realized that it was just my inner self channeling the desire to go bowhunting. Axed.

When I must kill a darling, I do as Lisa does, and save these somewhere else (in my case, I have a Scrivener folder for them). No writing is truly wasted, if it helps you explore characters or world-build or practice writing. It's the literal interpretation of this advice that I struggle with: killing off characters. I just don't have enough George RR Martin in me.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Turn It Up Tuesday: Someone Somewhere Tonight

Hiya, Karlie with you today!

My song is Someone Somewhere Tonight by Kellie Pickler. It's such a lovely song, with so much that can be read between the lines.
Someone somewhere tonight,
Is taking their first steps
Letting go of the hands that held them
And trusting themselves

It's hard to take those first steps. Let go of everything and trust yourself for the first time, even if there's no guarantee there's something more out there.

Faith can hold you up or hurl you to the ground. It's the moments in between that make it worth it; like this song's quiet moment. Somewhere in the world around them, someone is wasting away in prison. Someone is using alcohol to get them through the night. Someone is taking those first tentative steps, and someone is hanging in the balance between life and death.

But so are they.

 And it's a beautiful dance, even though it has to end. They have this moment, and it's enough because it has to be.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Time Management and Project Organization

Caitlin here. I’m always looking in to how to work more efficiently, sometimes to my detriment (as I spend a lot of time playing around with new time management systems :) ). However, I find the Getting Things Done system, in combination with some useful tools, such as Toodledo and Trello, helps me be efficient and (mostly) clear headed in all aspects of my life.

On that note, I’m also interested in the psychology behind productivity. Especially recently, as I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish this summer and don’t want that lethargy to follow me into the fall and winter!

This unproductive period coincided with starting a new time management cloud system* just for my writing that I was originally super excited about! It laid out all of my projects and tasks—EVERYTHING I was working on—in one glimpse. It also carefully estimated when my projects would be completed. I thought that was great!

…And, then, I proceeded to have the least productive three months of writing I’ve had in quite a long time. 

This can be blamed on many things, I’m sure, but it occurred to me that the quick glimpse of EVERYTHING I wanted to accomplish and how (very) long it was going to take for me to get to the “finish mark” was just too disheartening. 

I shook myself off and decided I needed a new approach. I stumbled on this article, which says it’s better to have processes instead of goals. Basically, the point is, it’s better to say, “I will spend four 25 minute blocks (throwing in the Pomodoro Technique!...I told you I was into this stuff :) ) a day working directly on my novels,” than it is to say “I will write three novels this year.”

So, I set up daily cards in Trello (with some ideas from this blog) to mark these new processes. So far it’s been working pretty well, though it’s probably too soon to know for sure. And, like I said, I’m always open to hearing new techniques. How do you motivate yourself to stay productive? How do you keep yourself organized and efficient? Or do you just feel so compelled to write you don’t even need a system (and if so, I’m jealous! :) )?

 *I still think the product is great on many levels, so I didn’t want to mention it here (in a negative light).

Dan: Time management, like reorganizing that junk drawer in my house, is one of those things that I know I should do, but never get around to doing. I appreciate the irony in that. It's true that many writing-oriented goals are difficult to meet because writing is hard, time is limited, and life gets in the way. Since most writers have day jobs and families and lives outside of the office, it's often a juggling act.

The best I can do is keep to-do lists. The cloud helps with that: I use Google Tasks and it syncs between my phone, iPod, and laptop. Beyond that, I usually avoid devoting too much time to "getting organized" because it takes away time from the writing itself.

Karlie: Thanks for those great ideas, Caitlin! Those are definitely worth a second look. I usually keep to-do lists, too - but I prefer to write mine down on paper. (Actual paper...I know!!) It helps me think and keeps me organized.

I don't really have a set writing schedule - my life is insane - but I definitely write at least a little every day. My (loose) goal is to finish a novel per year, and so far I've stuck with it.

Lisa: I don't use anything - no to-do list, paper or computer file, no magical cloud for me either. Just me and my motivation. Last year I wrote three novels, but this year is only going to produce two. Take from that what you will. I'm big on outlines and when one is done, you could call that my to-do list. My brain is tricked into believing an outline is the boss. It sees chapters that aren't written yet and it wants to write those chapters. Maybe saying this is going to jinx me now. :)
However, I could probably benefit from more structure with other aspects in my writing world such as querying and networking. I don't query near enough and always procrastinate. The same goes for networking - Twitter, blog commenting and checking Facebook (my biggest weakness). Maybe I'll check out some of your links for that, Caitlin. Thanks for sharing!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Don't want to hope anymore - Turn It Up Tuesday

My character, Charlie (short for Charlotte) is always hoping her father will step up and be the man she needs him to be. She only wants her hopes to come to fruition about him, and she can't stop hoping. But when he tells the ultimate lie, one that has the potential to yank all possible happiness from under her feet...
she's lost. Hope is lost, whether the lie is true or not, she is finished.

Sarah Jaffe's - Swelling portrays Charlie's mindset perfectly at this moment of enlightenment about her father.

All I wanna do now

Is lay down and die

If you're gonna do it

You'd better do it right

Or my heart won't stop swelling