Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 6, How It Sounds by B.Y. Rogers

Guilty! Guilty as charged. Don’t look now but those are my hands in the guillotine (Please Ma, blindfold me first!). And they deserve their grim fate for the sins they have committed. After reading the next chapter in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, I am in abject despair. I have so much to correct in my writing. Time to get on it.

Chapter 6 – See How It Sounds

The problem with dialogue is, more often than not, with the dialogue itself rather than with the mechanics.

There are some mechanical techniques you can use when self editing that will cure one of the most common reason for flat dialogue: formality. (Buy the book to find out!)

The simplest  way to make your dialogue less formal is to use more contractions. (This one crucified me to the wall. When I wrote The Sin of Certainty. I was not even thinking about this. I just wrote. Then, one of my proofreaders (thanks Bob) pointed out to me that I NEVER used a contraction. Not in the dialogue, not in the narrative. I hadn’t even thought of it, it never crossed my mind that I was writing so formally. It wasn’t intentional but it was there. There is another technique mentioned but again, you have to get the book.)

Check to make sure you aren’t trying to shoehorn information into the dialogue that doesn’t belong there. (I like this. Dialogue is a great way to sneak in hints about a character’s past or a setup for a future event, but only if that information is useful to the scene.)

You don’t want your characters to speak more fully formed thoughts than they normally would, just so you can get in some information to your readers.

Weed out fancy polysyllabic words.(Guilty, at least at one time. A friend of mine once told me to dumb down my narrative, that I was using too many words that most readers will not be familiar with. My retort was that most people have already dumbed down their vocabulary and they should read the dictionary and not be so lazy. He was right, but I still think people are lazy and like water, they take path of least resistance when it comes to vocabulary. (Yes, I know ‘dumbed’ is not a word.))

Have your characters misunderstand one another once in a while. (This one gave me pause. I think I unwittingly attempted this with Rose and Mayor Brower in The Sin of Certainty. When I revisit that book, after I am finished blogging on this self editing theme, I am going to work on that relationship because Rose’s misunderstanding of Mayor Brower’s past is a key element and I think I can improve it. Okay, I know I can improve it.)

Good dialogue isn’t an exact transcription of the way people talk but is more an artifice, a literary device that mimics real speech.

Bring your ear into play. (Buy the book. There is several pages about this concept and worth the cost of the book.)

(Okay, this next point is very challenging, to me at least, and I am as guilty as anyone. Because of this single point, I have much to do with my previous writing. I do not think that I have that much dialogue to correct but I know it is there. I took the lazy way out and didn’t even know I was being lazy.)

(The section begins with a passage from Huckleberry Finn.) Beginning novelists, even today are often tempted to write dialect-whether it be southern black or Bronx Italian or Locust Valley lockjaw-using a lot of trick spellings and lexical gimmicks. It is the easy way out. (I discussed this with my wife. This is the very reason she stopped reading Huckleberry Finn. It was way too difficult to understand the dialogue.)

When you use an unusual spelling, you are bound to draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue and onto the means of getting it across.  (I think there is room, albeit extremely limited, for unusual spelling, but when it is as thick as Mark Twain’s depiction of southern black speech, when it makes the reader stop and decipher what is being said, then it is too much.)

So how do you get a character’s geographical or education or social background across? (For the answer, see page 110)

It takes courage to write like this, but it is worth the risk.

Explanations, -ly adverbs, oddball verbs of speech, trick spellings-these can’t really help your dialogue. They take the place of good dialogue rather than help create it.  Accept no substitutes.

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Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 5, Dialogue Mechanics by B.Y. Rogers

I am positively giddy about this post. The next chapter in Self Editing for Fiction Writers is precisely what Matt Stover preached to me over two years ago and since then, I have had more than a few conversations about these principles, most result with negative results.  But I have held my ground on and will continue to do so. What follows is so important so if you want to learn to write, again, I beg you, get this book.

Again, my comments will be in parenthesis (and there will probably be many of them).

Chapter 5  Dialogue Mechanics

What is the first thing acquisition editors look for when they begin reading fiction submission? (Not going to tell you!)

Because it is such hard work, generations of writers have developed mechanical tricks to save them the trouble of writing dialogue that effectively conveys character and emotion…Not surprisingly, these are tricks to avoid if you want to you want your dialogue to read like the work of a professional instead of an amateur or a hack.  (My graphic artist suggested I take a look at writing.com, which I mentioned in my previous post. I looked at two short stories that were submitted for comments on that site. One was so terrible when it came to dialogue that I could not finish reading it. It was too painful. I suggested to both authors to get this book. They need it desperately!)

Imagine you are at a play. It’s the middle of the first act. You are really involved in the drama. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, “Do you see what is happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity?” (Great metaphor)

If your dialogue isn’t written well, if it needs the explanation to convey the emotion-then the explanation really won’t help. (AMEN!)

It’s showing and telling applied to dialogue.

Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence on the writer’s part, perhaps it’s simple laziness, or perhaps it’s a misguided attempt to break up the monotony of using the unadorned said all the time, but all too many fiction writers tend to pepper their dialogue with -ly’s. Which is a good reason to cut virtually one you write. Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.

(Rennie Browne and Dave King make a reference to “Tom Swifties” , which made me laugh. What got me seriously interested in reading when I was in the 6th grade was the Tom Swift series, by Victor Appleton II. Ah, the memories!)

Don’t make speaker attributions as a way to slip in explanations to your dialogue (“he growled,” “she snapped”)

To use verbs like these last three for speaker attributions is to brand yourself as an amateur.

Verbs other than said tend to draw attention away from the dialogue.

Said, on the other hand, isn’t even read the way other verbs are read. It is, and should be, an almost purely mechanical device, more like a punctuation mark than a verb.  (BINGO! Think about this. When you read dialogue, do you really pay attention to the word said? We don’t, at least I do not, unless the author adds an attribution, which then makes me pause. Should not the speaker’s words in the dialogue tell me if the character is angry, sad, happy, clueless? If the writer builds the character correctly and develops the scene correctly, I will already know if the speaker is angry or not.)

(Here is something I did not know.) Decide how you are going to refer to a character and stick with it for at least the length of the scene. Don’t use “Hubert said,” on one page, “Mr. Winchester said,” on the next and “the old man said,” on the third. If you do, your reader will have to stop reading long enough to figure out that the old man is Hubert Winchester.

(Purchase the book and learn what “beats” are.)

If it’s clear from the dialogue who is speaking-you can dispense with speaker attributions altogether. (Again, build your characters correctly!)

(Learn the difference between dashes and ellipses.)

The truth is, only editors and reviewers really notice these things. (You may not think these principles are important but they will make the difference not only with getting your tome published but how many sales you make.)

“Mr (Robert) Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the “he said” locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom say anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper, (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: “‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.” The book may sell in the billions, but it is still junk. -Newgate Callendar, The New York Times Book Review

Life – Grist for the Writer’s Mill by Dellani Oakes

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find myself watching others and listening to conversations, filing them away for later use. Little bits of life enter into my stories in one way or another. I don’t always do it on purpose, sometimes it just happens. Other times, it is deliberate. My eldest son and his friends have entered into my novels in more than one guise. They have such a colorful turn of phrase, creative insults and snappy repartee, I can’t avoid it. More than once their conversations have stumbled across my pages. Many of the young, twenty something men in my novels are based on combinations of their personalities.

Personalities, conversations, character types, all of these are grist for the writer’s mill. Let’s face it, when something is good, we’re not above snatching it. I don’t mean plagiarism of another author’s work. I’m talking about our own experiences. Sometimes that boring conversation overheard in the electronics department at Wal-Mart can be used all or in part for something else. I file these away in my mind. Sometimes, so I won’t forget details, I write them down to remind myself, but more often I rely on my memory to implant them where they need to go. Not my most reliable method, considering my memory these days, but I prefer to do it that way. Then my presentation isn’t colored by something I’ve already written out.

Often, my own experiences are parts of the characters’ backgrounds and upbringing. My own likes and dislikes color their choices. I try not to do it, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. They are a part of me, therefore they have certain of my personality quirks. I don’t think they ring as true as people if I don’t make them realistic. For example, the music my characters like. I have a broad reach of musical tastes, but you won’t catch me listening to much rap. Not my thing. My characters reflect that dislike.

I love music, art and theatre. Many of my characters are creative in more of these areas. I have several musicians – mostly guitarists, since my boys all love to play the guitar. I have lots of characters who love to sing, because that’s something I love to do. One is plagued by perfect pitch – another is tone deaf. Fortunately, as they live in totally different eras, they will never meet.

People whom I’ve met in passing, have entered my stories. The grouchy old lady who hit me with a shopping cart in K-Mart – she’s in a book. The stone deaf old man I encountered in the produce department of Winn-Dixie who wouldn’t move when I tried to get by – he’s in there. Grocery clerks, orderlies at the hospital, traffic cops, doctors, teachers, hair dressers – all of them have entered my stories in some form or fashion.

Some are done in the form of a tribute. The orderly, who cared for my daughter when she broke her arm, has been in more than one book. Not only was he genuinely kind to her, he was stunningly handsome. Tall, broad shouldered, muscular, with gorgeous eyes, straight teeth and big, gold hoops in his ears. She and I still remember him well. Whenever I need an orderly, I trot him out.

Another is a dear friend who was like a second mother to me. She was a wonderful lady from Manchester, England. She was warm, kind, loving and took everyone to her heart. She was also feisty and didn’t take crap from anyone. I needed just such a character for my romantic suspense novel, Undercover Lover. Thus, Julia Cross was born. She is my tribute to my dear friend.

Not only people are grist for the writer’s mill. Weird things that happen also enter in. Something that happened to my husband, will one day make it into a book. He was sitting on the balcony of a friend’s condo having a cigarette, when a man came out of the room in the condo across from him. He checked to see if his neighbor was looking, but didn’t check across the way to the other building. He whipped off his wet bathing suit and hung it over the railing. Suddenly, my poor husband was flashed by a pale, fat man! Fortunately, he’d seen worse, so he wasn’t seriously traumatized, but it very nearly put him off his dinner.

Something I’ve already used was something that happened when I was driving. An odd encounter with motorcycles on Riverside Drive eventually became the beginning of my novel, The Ninja Tattoo.

Author advice through the ages has been Write What You Know. I’d like to change that up a bit and say instead – Write What You Observe. Everything you see, think or hear can become grist for the writer’s mill.

From Beginning To End by Karina Gioertz

It took me nearly thirty years to perfect my writing process. I’m counting the early years, because the truth is that I’ve been writing for most of my life. I was in elementary school when I wrote my first book. It was about a cat named Daisy who roamed our neighborhood and it was a joint effort between myself and several other kids in the neighborhood, but I still count it. My next big project was in middle school when I filled two notebooks in a handwritten story about a pony named Clementine (what can I say, I LOVE animals). Along the way I also began writing poetry as well as a book dealing with the loss of my father because a friend of the family suggested it might be helpful to others to hear a child’s perspective. At the time, I didn’t get very far with it, but nearly twenty years later I was finally able to sit down and put into words everything I was left with after his passing and how I have lived with those scars ever since.

Starting in middle school and carrying on all through high school, I entered into probably hundreds of story ideas, and exited two seconds later. Back then I couldn’t figure out why I was unable to commit to these bursts of creativity that I was initially so excited about and it wasn’t until much later that I realized that my biggest problem was my lack of patience. I simply couldn’t write out my ideas fast enough, so while I was putting pen to paper my mind was running a mile a minute, replaying every detail over and over again to the point that I was bored with the whole thing and lost interest after having only handwritten a few pages.

Soon after, I abandoned the idea of writing anything of length and focused solely on poetry for several years, mostly because it was the only thing I was ever able to finish.

Then along came motherhood and suddenly I found myself sitting at home alone with a baby and no one to talk to but myself. So, I borrowed my mother’s laptop and began to write. I wrote anytime my daughter was sleeping or contentedly entertaining herself with her toys two feet away from my desk (so… mostly while she was sleeping) and before I knew it, I had finished a screenplay. It was the most thrilling feeling to have actually completed something.

It took another two years after that before I was finally ready to write a novel, but once I did, there was no stopping me and before I knew it I had written three books back to back. Sure, it took me almost three decades to get here, but I not only have tons of ideas I collected over that time period I also needed to go on that journey to learn what worked for me. And I did learn from every aspect of it. The years of jotting things down in notebooks by hand is still my starting point now. Only now, I limit it to brainstorming and move on to typing when it’s time to really get started.

It’s a mess, but it only has to make sense to me…thankfully 3 years later I can still look at those notes and know exactly what I was talking about :)

Next I move on to a script writing program I downloaded a while back. It helps with my-lack-of-patience-versus-racing-brain issue because it takes very little to put the outline of the story into words. There are designated spaces for everything from descriptions to dialogue and has nifty features like remembering characters and locations throughout the story and filling them in automatically as you write. Sure, maybe it sounds like I’m being lazy…but I say why work harder when you can work smarter?!

This is where the years of writing poetry comes into play because I developed a habit of writing regularly. Therefore, writing on a daily basis is not something to be feared. Whipping out a few hundred words, or even a thousand, once a day isn’t daunting, it’s something I’ve done a ton of times before.

Once I finish the story in script format, I usually need a little break from the story. Nothing too long, just a couple of weeks to get some distance from it so that I can return with a fresh mind to a story I already feel like I know inside and out. After the break, I am usually ready to come back and find all the little details I missed the first time around and the story truly comes to life as I add more dimensions to the characters and take the time to focus on their journey and what motivates them to go on it in the first place.

I save this task for last, because if I started here, I would be right where I was in middle school. I love the details. I mean, I really LOVE the details…but they’re time-consuming and can be extremely distracting. I could literally get lost in them and if I didn’t already have a course mapped out for myself I would probably never reach my destination.

And I have to say, reaching that destination is pretty freaking awesome!

“They said WHAT?” by Eileen Register

When I’m creating a story, I strive to develop each character’s personality to the point that the character becomes a person, not just physically but psychologically, for the reader. In order to create that well-rounded character, I use a combination of devices: exposition, omniscience, and dialogue.

When we first meet someone, we depend on our eyes to help us decide whether or not it’s someone we want to get to know. Then we listen to what the person says, and that influences us further. How the person says it gives us more to go on. When we can see the person and hear what he or she says, we also have non-verbal cues to go on – body language and facial expressions. I try to give all of the same things to my reader that they would get IRL (in real life). Here’s an example – the first time Kendra and Daniel see each other after ten years, each has a different view of what happened to break up their teenage love affair, and their attitudes reflect that.

Exposition

When I am talking directly to the reader, telling him about what is happening, what a place or character looks like, or what he might expect to happen next, I am “exposing” facts that help the reader form a clearer picture in his mind about the plot, setting, and/or characters.

Example:
The sound of the dented old cowbell that hung from the front door of Kendra’s shop dragged her attention away from the web site she was working on. It was lunch hour, and her employee wasn’t due back yet. Darn, she hated interruptions when she was in the middle of a web design project. Hitting the save button automatically, she rose from her chair, rubbed her tired back and then turned and walked around the acoustical office divider into the main part of the store.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

In this opening paragraph of the novel, the reader learns about the setting and the main character through my direct descriptions. The juxtaposition of the “old cowbell” with her web site work hints that Kendra may be a twenty-first century woman but she’s still has an old-fashioned girl hidden inside.

Omniscience

Using an omniscient or “god-like” point of view allows the reader to see inside the minds of all of the characters. Thus the reader knows what each character is thinking about himself and others. It also gives the reader an inside track to what each character is going to do based on the way he or she sees the situation at hand. In addition to pushing the plot along, this device is a great way to “flesh out” or make another character “rounder” beyond what is described in exposition.

Example:
His slow, observant gaze noted the perfect fit of her sweater, its opalescent shimmer accenting and repeating the gleam of her gorgeous hair, and the trim, sophisticated man-cut trousers that skimmed her slender hips and ended just above chunky-soled, strappy sandals that echoed the dark pink of the trousers. Delicately painted toenails peeked from the sandals, and the irreverent thought floated through his mind that she had never liked pantyhose and obviously wore none now. Judging from the smooth fit of her trousers, she wore nothing underneath them, and he felt the resurgence of a long-ago throbbing that he had thought never to find again, an aching in his manly parts that he suspected only she could engender, even after all these years. [Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

In this paragraph, the reader enters the mind of the character, Daniel, and through his eyes Kendra is described both physically and personality-wise. It is also clear that Daniel and Kendra had been close enough at one time for him to know first hand that she didn’t wear pantyhose under her pants. Earlier in the chapter, the reader learns that Daniel is using a manual wheelchair, and in this paragraph a question that is often thought but rarely asked directly to a disabled man – whether or not he can still perform in the bedroom – is answered. Daniel is happy to see that, because of his memories about Kendra and how beautiful she looks to him now, he is reacting in a normal way that he may not have been doing since his injury. He’s thinking that Kendra is the only woman he’s reacted that way around. This builds on the idea that he and Kendra were lovers in the past and that he still has deep feelings for her.

Dialogue

What characters say to one another often tells the reader a lot about the speaker as well as the one he or she is speaking to. It can also be a subtle or even not-so-subtle way of hinting at what is to come (foreshadowing).

Example:
“What’s wrong, Daniel? Are you, like everyone else in this town, having problems believing that the poor little daughter of Sally the town strumpet could ever amount to anything?” Biting her tongue to still the angry words that threatened to continue, she stared him down.
“No! That’s not what I meant at all!” Daniel protested, knowing full well that she had hit the nail on the proverbial head, and hating his own small-mindedness. “I just didn’t know you had come back to Mayfield.”… he kept his eyes pinned to hers. “I’m – uh – glad to see you.”
“Oh come on Daniel. Let’s not start the lies again. You had no idea you would ever see me again and that was how you wanted it. You made that painfully clear ten years ago when you left.” Kendra’s color was high now, as was her anger at his deception as well as the long ago abandonment that had scarred her young heart so deeply.[Chap.1, Roller Coaster Ride]

This dialogue is loaded with information for the reader:
*Kendra has returned to a town where her mother had a really bad reputation, and she knows or feels that nobody expects her to be a success.
*Daniel realizes that he is guilty of thinking like the rest of the town and is at a loss for words.
*Kendra feels like Daniel is looking down his nose at her like the rest of the town.
*She believes he left her and had no intentions of ever seeing her again. In view of that perceived abandonment, anything he says to her right now will be a seen as a lie.
*There is a lot of unfinished business here for both Daniel and Kendra that still hurts deeply after ten years.

There are many ways to develop a character. Exposition is the most direct way for the writer to make sure the reader has a clear idea of the physical attributes and/or deficits and the personality of those who “people” a novel. Allowing the reader an omniscient view increases the opportunities for the writer to explain and describe characters through the thoughts and attitudes of those around him or her. Dialogue, which is my favorite device for characterization , makes for a more interesting read as the reader isn’t bored by paragraph after paragraph of indirect interaction. One of my readers told me that she felt like she was right there in the story with the characters. That’s what I strive for – making it real for the reader.

I’d love to hear how other authors develop their characters, so please feel free to post comments. It’s how I learn!

TTFN ~Eileen~

[Exerpt is from Grisholm County Chronicles series Book I, Roller Coaster Ride, which is available in Kindle ebook edition at Amazon.com