Diagnosing Dialogue

Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?

  • I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
  • I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
  • I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
  • I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.

But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

  1. Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
  2. Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
  3. Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
  4. Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
  5. Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
  6. Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was great”

    “Did you have lunch?”
    “Pizza. It was great”

    By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling

What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?

Uncovering Shakespeare

I love musical covers—where one artist performs, and often changes, another artist’s song.  I’ve taken a lot of gentle teasing over the years because of this, because many people see covers as a form of copying someone else, rather than an original work.  But for me, it’s always been about interpretation—it’s fascinating for me to see how someone can hear a song, internalize it, and fundamentally change it while still leaving it enough like the original that it’s recognizable.  For someone who’s always been fascinated by the creative process, the act of interpretation and working within the boundaries that entails is just as interesting as the act of creation.

My love of cover versions isn’t limited to music.  I find literary covers to be endlessly amusing.  Unlike musical covers, their literary equivalents are very often humorous—or downright farcical.  Though it’s also a common trope to retell a famous story from a new perspective, or create an unofficial prequel or sequel.

Of late, I’ve become enamored of several rather interesting covers of stories by William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a prime target for these literary interpretations.  I’m sure this stems from Shakespeare’s centuries-old theater tradition—a medium which practically revolves around interpretation.  My reading list, over the past months has a generous dose of the bard, done with irreverent tribute.  I thought I’d share a few fun ones with you.

The first entry in this list is rather traditional in its inspiration.  William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher, was born when the author attended a modern interpretation of The Merry Wives of Windsor the same weekend he watched the Star Wars Trilogy for the umpteenth time.  There are actually three books, Star Wars, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return (this last one has yet to be released), and each of the three translates the movie not only into Shakespearean language, but also into a staged play format.  Perhaps these books are nothing more than a mash-up, but there’s something delightfully silly about hearing sci-fi speak retrograded to the times of Romeo and Juliet.  Literature it’s not, but for those steeped in Star Wars mythology it’s a delightful way to waste time.

Next on the list is a pair of books by perennial farcissist, Christopher Moore. Fool is the play King Lear retold from the point of view of the last character listed in the dramatis personae, the fool.  Moore takes this minor character from the original play, and creates, not a power behind the throne, but a character so grounded in absurdity that he is able to remain sane while those around him dissolve into madness.  It’s not Moore’s best book, by any stretch of imagination, but for someone whose list of works includes A Dirty Job, and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, saying this one isn’t the best is not a knock.  The sequel, The Serpent of Venice (which I have only just begun to read) is a little more ambitious in its interpretation.  Not only does it use the same fool from King Lear, but amalgamates plot elements from Othello, The Merchant of Venice and Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

The last entry is perhaps the one that takes the most liberties with Shakespeare, but also in an odd way stays the most true to the source material. To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North is a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, that started life as a Kickstarter project. The ambitious, 700+ page paperback, lets you make the decisions as to how Hamlet turns out. North makes little to no effort to stay true to the language of Shakespeare, but does a whimsical and wonderful job of providing a new voice through which he narrates the farcical plot twists that litter the book. To be sure, with the correct choices, you can read the book with the same plot and timeline as Shakespeare’s text—although to do so you’ll have to put up with a little goading and mocking by the narrator. But it’s so much more fun to read the story as another character—hint: if you choose to play the king the book is very funny, but only 3-6 pages long. The magic of this book is uncovered if you are adventurous enough to play Ophelia. With Ophelia you have a bevy of increasingly non-traditional storyline—including spurning Hamlet, and pursuing a science-post-doc.

I know there are those of you who are horrified by all these recommendations that take extreme license with the immortal words of the bard, but for me who can’t seem to get enough cover versions, this variety is just the right spice for my summer reading.

Nurture vs. Nature

url-18Where do your ideas come from? Do they spring into your head not-quite-fully formed (Nature), or are they the process of laborious trial, error, sweat and tears (Nurture)?

Are you the type to go to a coffee shop with a notebook and pen to brainstorm ideas for a new story? Can you look back over these old notebooks and see the idea develop over time–from crossed out, embarrassing fist lines and awkwardly incomplete characters until you can finally see the semblance of a summary paragraph?

Or are you the type–like me–who finds themselves jumping out of the shower (or pulling over the car…or at a friend’s house asking for scrap paper) to write something down before the fleeting thought vanishes again?

Before you answer, we both must acknowledge that most of us are probably some mix of the two extremes. However, for most of us, one of these processes is dominant over the other. For me, a programmer with a touch of OCD, working out an idea on paper can often devolve into a messy organic flowchart where I try to list all the possible branches and outcomes of an idea. I have much better results thinking about the subject matter or a character, and letting my subconscious mind work on whatever it wants to work on within the subject.

Sometimes this results in an interesting character–which I’ll sketch out on paper, so I don’t lose her voice–then it’s back to casually mulling over the plot, or setting, or something else about the story. Sometimes, the other parts of the story come first. Over the years this has let me base my stories on plot, characters, settings, themes, and once I even based a story on an idea for the structure of a story.

It’s not hard to find a bevy of articles espousing–or attacking–either of these methods. Just a couple days ago I read an article saying that those ideas which come to you in the shower, or while you are drifting off to sleep, aren’t actually worth writing down, because they’re just not good enough.

To most, if not all, of these opinions I say, “BAH!” What they nearly all fail to acknowledge is that everyone comes to their own ideas by a different process.

Those ideas that come to me while my mind is idling in the shower are good ideas. I know this because I’ve written them down. They are not, though, fully-formed, fleshed-out ideas. But I recognize them for what they are–part of the puzzle that will fit together to become my story.

One of the most important things you can do as a writer is to understand where your own ideas come from, and learn how to capture them on paper.

What about you? Where do your ideas come from?

Finding Free Photos

Today’s post isn’t intended to help you with your writing. Today’s focus is helping you with your blogging…or website…or even your social media presence. And it’s target isn’t just our readers. Today’ I’m also talking to the people who write for us here at Today’s Author.

Finding an image to use in your blog posts is always just a little stressful. I’m sure we all make the best effort (*clears throat*) to find images that are licensed as Creative Commons or some other Royalty Free source. But it’s not easy. Even when you make the effort you can run across photos that are not free to us, but were distributed–intentionally or unintentionally–as free to use.

As writers, we should all want to make sure that people are getting credit–and when applicable, payment–for their creative work. But for something as mundane as including a picture in a blog post, being ethical can be quite a bit of work.

Well…it just got easier.

For years Getty Images, the largest photo service in the world, let us use many of their images as long as we were willing to put up with a watermark.

But now, Getty has changed the way they share their images. Now a huge number of pictures can be used free, without a water-mark, using their new auto-embed feature. Which also has the side benefit that it gives credit to the content creator.

Here’s how it works (Note: I did not try this first, so I’m writing these steps as I’m trying it–Let’s see how easy it is.

    1. Go to the Getty Images website.
    2. Search for something. I’m testing the claim that many of these pictures are about very current events. So I’m searching for “SXSW”.
    3. OK. That was easy. Now I’ll find a picture I want. Hover over it and look for the embed button (see the example picture below). OK, not all the pictures have this feature enabled–but it wasn’t hard to find a bunch that did,

getty_example

    1. Click the embed button.
    2. In the pop-up box, copy the embed code.
    3. Paste that code into your own blog. Here how it looks.
Embed from Getty Images

Wow. That was significantly easier than I expected.

Looking at the code, by doing this you might have a little less control over placement of the image than with a traditional photo embed. Though I’ll admit I didn’t try to play around with anything more than the size of the image.

This new tool makes it a lot easier for us bloggers to keep on the right side of copyright law. Giving credit where it’s due, is a ridiculously awesome side-benefit.

The Only Way Revision Works (For Me)

keep-calm-and-revise-revise-revise-4We talk a lot about the rituals and habits of writing.  It’s the same for just about every blog, website, magazine or class that I’ve had experience with.  What time of day should we write?  Do you write every day?  Do you journal?  Don’t edit while you write.  Write by hand.  Don’t write by hand.  Caffeine precedes inspiration.  And so on.  And so on.

There are powerful reasons for this focus.  The processes of inspiration and creation are hard to talk about because the act of creation has never been well-understood.  So we talk—sometimes, talk to death—the minutiae that surround the process, because it’s too scary to tackle the real issue head on.

However, more often than not, advice surrounding the process of revision sounds remarkably similar to the instructions on a shampoo bottle….Revise.  Repeat.

Revision is never that easy.  Any writer who’s ever clashed with their editor, but had trouble expressing the reasons for their objections can attest to that.  Likewise, how many of us have moved a paragraph or two earlier in the manuscript, only to move it back when we second guess ourselves—only to move it back again…and so on?

While revising is not, strictly speaking a creative process, there is undeniably a creative aspect to it.  After all, revision is not just removing.  If you decide that a certain scene needs a little more detail—or more emotion—to feel genuine, you have to create that detail.   But the analytical aspect is at least as important.  It takes experience and judgment to know what’s going wrong in your story.  It naturally follows that if revision is partially a creative process, you may still need some of those same tools you use to create.

In the last year, as I analyzed my creative process, I’ve learned about my revision process as well.  I write by hand.  Maybe it’s because I learned to write just before computers were everywhere, but I’m just more creative with a pen than I am with a keyboard.  Then I use the process typing my story into the computer to revise.   But in the last year I’ve learned I have an extra step.  My first revision works best on paper.  I’d rather move a paragraph by circling a paragraph and drawing an arrow to its new location than by using my word processor’s cut-and-paste.  It’s just easier for me to read through it and try the story out both ways.  It’s less permanent.  It’s less of a decision and more of a question.  Then, when it’s time to type it into the computer I’ll make my choices.

I write better at night, but I edit better right after work—maybe because my job is analytical.  I write better in slightly-noisy venues like coffeehouses and restaurants, but I edit better in comparative quiet—maybe a radio or TV playing softly in the background.

What about you?  Have you ever thought about how you edit?  Do you know what works for you and what doesn’t?  Let us know in the comments below…

Mainlining Iced Tea

I didn’t always enjoy writing—in fact, I can still remember a time when I hated to write.  Through public school all the way up into high school I wrote for school assignments–and did well at it.  But only occasionally did I ever find it enjoyable.  And then it was generally because I liked the assignment more than deriving any real pleasure from crafting something that people would enjoy reading.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when that changed.  I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I guess it happened slowly through my college years.  That was when I had the freedom to pick classes that interested me.  Sure, I had to take a history class, but I got to choose the Peloponnesian war over WWII and it’s effects on Modern Society.  That class had a lot of writing–and a professor that was a real nitpicker–but I remember enjoying writing my essays.

Later, as I moved into advertising courses, and a host of creative writing classes, and essay-centric classes that explored interesting subjects, writing became more and more of a joy.

I’m certain that much of that had to do with my ability to tackle interesting subject matter.  Added to that was the fact that I was now skilled enough at writing that it wasn’t a source of undue stress.  But there was something more.  I had finally stumbled upon the truly artistic side of writing.  I had begun to feel about words what painters feel about paints and colors.  The words began to have beauty in and of themselves.  Words became things–sure, things with specific meanings–but still they were things. Building blocks.  Paints.  Notes.  Colors.  Rhythms.

This was when writing stories and essays became fun.  When I would take my notebook and pen, find a 24-hour diner, stake out a booth, mainline iced tea, and produce pages and pages and pages of…well, sure some of it was crap.  But a lot of it was good.  And even the stuff that wasn’t good, was fun.

My whole writing career, that’s the feeling I’m trying to replicate.  When I sit down with my favorite fountain pen, and some mid-quality paper, I’m trying to rid my mind of all my problems and get back to that booth with the endless iced tea, and the steady stream of words.

And colors.

And notes.

And paints.

And rhythms.

Focus for 2014

focus-300x300My creative writing goal for last year was to review and regroup. I spent the year going through old notes, unfinished stories, snipets, ideas, and a lot of junk. The idea was to judge what was worth keeping and what could be permanently forgotten. Then I took all that and organized it so that I can get to it again.

And I did a pretty good job. I’m left with one unfinished story that I still feel is worth finishing, and a good-sized database full of characters, scenes, dialogue, and thoughts that I can both find and use, when I need them.

But all that was prelude to a different goal. Now that the reviewing and regrouping are out of the way, this year I’m going to focus on redeveloping the habit of writing. Being creative is hard. Especially if you don’t do  it everyday. And I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing.

There are many excuses I could give for this, and some legitimate reasons, too. But there’s no point in spelling them out, because even if you have real reasons you’re not writing, if you have the time and energy to list them, they’ve become excuses.

So what are my goals for 2014?

  1. I will write everyday. It might be a blog post, or a journal entry. Maybe personal correspondence. And maybe–just maybe–a little bit on a story.
  2. I won’t schedule any exceptions to #1, but I will allow myself 1 failure/week without guilt.
  3. Since I’m rebuilding a habit, I’m going to start small. January 1-January 15, 5 minutes/day minimum…January 16-January 31, 10 minutes/day minimum…and so on. So by the Ides of March my minimum will be 30 minutes per day–which is where I’ll stay.
  4. I will learn not to stop when I’m on a roll. If I start at 11PM, and I’m really going, bedtime can wait.

And to give myself the threat of consequence…if I don’t contribute, SIGNIFICANTLY, to my personal blog (which has been largely neglected for a couple of years) in 2014…I’m deleting it.

You may notice that these goals do not include writing X stories, or anything to that effect. In fact I do have a project, that I’ll be working on this year. But right now we’re in the early stages and haven’t developed a deadline…or announced the project. Keep an eye out for news.

Milestones and Checkpoints

Tomorrow marks the end of Today’s Author’s first year. Rob and I started this blog because another blog was ending it’s run, and we didn’t feel like we were done. When we started we really didn’t know what to expect, or what this would become. We had a few authors we knew who decided to come on board, and a few we were less familiar with. And while I don’t know what Rob would say, as long as we got a little traffic and a little participation, I’d call it a success. But I think we got a lot more than that.

Today’s Author’s 2013

  • 269 Posts (counting this one and tomorrow’s writing prompt) – That includes:
    • 152 Posts by our writers
    • 107 Write Now Writing Prompts
    • 10 Writer’s Circle Discussions
  • 1647 Comments (as of the drafting of this post) – That’s a little more than 6 comments per post.
  • 15 Writers – That includes some writers we’d never even “met” when this blog started. We’ve lost a couple in the last year to busy schedules. And we’ve had one take a step back to deal with a terrible, terrible year–and hope she’ll be back to the pen sometime soon in 2014.

Looking deeper than just the numbers:

  • We’ve had our own Sharon Pratt have a post featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed section, which presents highlights from around the blogging platform’s community.
  • Our Tuesday and Friday Wite Now Prompts are now listed on The Daily Post, one of WordPress’ own blogs (about blogging).
  • And perhaps, most importantly, we have steadily grown a community of writers whose goal is to help inspire and motivate each other.

It’s all better than I’d hoped. Now I’m anxious to hear what you think–our readers and our contributors. How do you think we’ve done in 2013, and what would you like to see in 2014?

NaNoWriMo, Don’t Stop Now

or

What to do with your 50,000 words now that you’ve won NaNoWriMo

dont_stopCongratulations. You’ve survived a NaNoWriMo November. Not only that, you won. You kept a vigilant eye on that daily goal. And you met–or even exceeded–that goal enough days in the last month that you’ve emerged from the fray with 50,000 words. Now, it’s time to take a look at what you have.

You’ve got a bad, first draft. I’m not trying to tear you down. I’m just telling you what is, in all likelihood, the truth.

But that’s OK. NaNoWriMo, isn’t designed to get you to write a polished novel. It’s supposed to get you off the sofa and into your writing chair. And it did that. But NaNoWriMo is just a first step. And I’d like to give you a little advice on how to take the next step, and do something with what you just wrote.

1. Pause, Don’t Stop

Do you know how long it takes to break a bad habit? Or to create a good one? 28 days. If you do something for 28 days, you have changed YOU. You are now a more productive writer. So we don’t want to lose that. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the pace you’ve been holding yourself to isn’t sustainable–at least not if you have school or a job (or both). Plus, over the past month you’ve probably negelected a few things–maybe even an important person in your life.

So for a couple days it’s a good idea to calm down. Rregroup. Relax. Take your understanding sweetie out for a thank-you dinner. Catch up on a few deadlines and that pile of laundry.

And while you should NOT keep writing at the breakneck pace you’ve been pushing for, you should definitely keep writing. Every day. Even if it’s just a little. Unless your story ended at 50,000 words, just keep writing that. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes each day.

You’re not done, but yes, you deserve a break. A small one.

2. Evaluate

NaNoWriMo doesn’t really allow time to look over what you’ve written. That’s intentional. It’s real purpose is to show you what you can do if you turn off your internal editor. But now you need that annoying alter ego with the red pen. Reread your NaNoWriMo output with a critical eye.

If the story has held up, great. Highlight sections that might not be up to the quality you want. Move stuff around so it flows better. NaNoWriMo left you with a beautiful mound of clay that looks kind of like a story. But now it’s time for careful sculpting to bring out the details.

If your story didn’t hold up, that’s OK too. Because I guarantee you there are snipets of gold in that morass of 50,000 words. Now comes the time to find those hidden treasures and get rid of the rest (BTW, “get rid of” means move into a different document so you can look over it if you need to. It does NOT mean delete).

Which brings me to a question. At the end of NaNoWriMo was your story done? If so you can skip Step 3 and head directly to Step 4. But for the other 99.9%, Step 3 is for you.

3. Keep Writing the Story

Just because NaNoWriMo is over doesn’t mean your story is. Finish it. If the heavy word count is something that was working for you, then keep sprinting. Or, if the gaps in your plot were starting to bug you, but you couldn’t patch the cracks and still win, now is a great time to slow down and smooth over the rough spots. Do a little character backstory, or chart out your plot. Now that you’re not on a strict deadline, you can take a little time and proceed with a little more deliberation if that’s what you want.

What you don’t want to do is set the 50,000 words aside and say, “I’ll get back to it later.” Too many NaNoWriMo novels have died because the author lost momentum. NaNoWriMo tries to make a habit of out writing now. Don’t settle back into the habit of writing later.

4. Edit

After your NaNoWriMo novel is written, you don’t have a finished book. You have a finished draft. So here’s the time when you go back over your work and tweak, rewrite, path, expound…whatever you need to do to turn a rough draft into a second draft, and eventually into a finished work.

How long did it take you to write your daily NaNoWriMo word count? 2 hours? Then set aside 2 hours each day to edit and revise your book. If that wasn’t a pace you could keep up, then make it one hour.

Wrapping it up

If you haven’t noticed the theme running through this post, let me sum up.

You’re not done. So don’t stop.

Getting Some Distance

There’s an old aphorism that in order to write about love, you can’t be in love. That is to say that you must have lost love, and be removed from it, before you have the perspective to write about it. You may have encountered this is your own writing, in a different way. Have you ever been told–or told someone–that you were too close to your own story?

What’s that about? Is there any merit to the idea that by putting a work aside, and forcing some emotional distance between you and it, that you can gain a sense of perspective?

Maybe we can answer that by looking at a different kind of love–love of a place.

James Joyce’s Dubliners is a collection of short-stories set in Dublin, Ireland in the early twentieth century. Critics at the time hailed the work as capturing the essence of living in a modern Ireland. And since it’s publication in 1914, it has been held up as the epitome of capturing a time and a place in fiction. But while Joyce had most definitely lived in Dublin–he was born there and lived in and around Dublin for 22 years–he wrote Dubliners while living in Zurich and Trieste. In fact, in letters he wrote that he used the stories to remind himself about why he missed Dublin, as well as reminding him of why he left.

The reason that putting some space in between you and you own fiction can, sometimes, be helpful, is that the absence of something from your life–and from your daily consciousness–has a tendency to distill your memories of that thing–that place, that person, that story–down to most memorable aspects.

I have been divorced for nine years now. When I look back on the years I knew my wife the things that stand out to me are the very best and worst of the relationship. I remember, with great fondness our trip to the Salt Lake City Olympic Games–it was probably the best vacation of my life. And, equally, I remember coming to terms with infertility, and the growing stretches of time we spent apart, until ultimately we were no longer a couple. But I have to work to remember the little joys and trials of daily life with her. I’m sure we had favorite restaurants we frequented, or television shows we watched together, but I can’t recall any of these.

Time has distilled the entire relationship down to the truly memorable things–the good and the bad. The trivial things–that matter immensely to day to day life–get smoothed out and pushed to the background.

Likewise, after some time away from a story, the things that stick in your head, are those characters, those scenes, those lines of prose, that captured your attention and boiled in your subconscious. Those are things that made you have to write the story. And the little things, the scenes you wrote just to get the reader to the next good part, the flat character who serves merely as a distraction, and the clunky prose that you always meant to make better but never did, those things get forgotten. And once you reread your work, they stand out like headlights in the desert. As you reacquaint yourself with the story and characters, what you love and hate about it will rise to the surface.

You can write your story, and you can write it with love…but maybe the two of you just need a little distance.