Category Archives: Self-editing Tips

How to Write Good Dialogue (Part Two)

My ancient (by Internet standards) post on “How to Write Good Dialogue” is inarguably the most popular of my bloggish renderings, based on search data anyway. (You probably preferred this one because you don’t like to follow the crowd. You’re the anti-hipster of hipsters.) It seemed prudent, then, to follow that up with another post on dialogue. [Checks date on previous post.] Yeah, I’m a little slow when it comes to prudence.

Anyway, here you go.

Wait…you read the other post, right? Well click here (or above where it’s also linked because I’m a linking fool) first. Then come back to this page for more dialogical goodness. [I don’t need to mention that there are exceptions to everything I tell you below, do I? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that without a reminder, right? Good. Then I won’t remind you.]

Look, Who’s Talking Now? – One of the most common dialogue problems I run into with first-time novelists is that all the characters sound alike. While this can appear to happen in real life (see: junior high girls), it doesn’t really. The words we choose to spit or drool from our lips differ from one person to the next (even among junior high girls). So does the rhythm of those words – the spaces between them. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t have many words to choose from. Some people use big words because they read a lot of books or found an abandoned thesaurus while waiting at the DMV. Our speech patterns are uniquely our own. Listen. No, I’m not saying that so you’ll pay closer attention to this blogpost. I’m encouraging you to actually listen to Real People in Conversation. Then apply what you’ve learned to your fiction. If you know your characters well (this is a theme I will never stop shouting), you’ll know how each of them uses language. Write that way. In the perfect written world, readers should be able to identify characters simply by their dialogue.

Are You Listening? – When a character is talking, the presumption is that the people they’re talking to are really listening. Because, of course, what your character is saying is Really Important to the Plot. But maybe they’re not listening quite so intently after all. Maybe they’re queuing up a response, unwilling to hear what the speaker is saying because what they have to say is so much more important. (This never happens in real life. Ahem.) Or maybe they’re distracted by something going on around them. (Despite how they might look on the page, conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. The world spins madly on.) Or maybe they’re actively ignoring the speaker, not because they have something more important to say, but because they simply don’t like the jerk. Consider how the characters are (or aren’t) listening, and you’ll naturally write more believable dialogue.

Context Rules – Don’t feed lines to your characters so they can tell the readers what is going on. That’s just lazy and rude. Use context to deliver the details that people wouldn’t naturally be talking about. Show me the red button that triggers the missiles. Don’t make the character say, “This is the red button that triggers the missiles” if everyone in the room already knows that. Whenever a character reveals something that he wouldn’t naturally say in conversation with the person he’s talking to, I am pushed out of the moment, forced to consider the possibility that these characters are pausing their story to talk directly to me. That’s just dumb. (Unless you’re using that perspective/voice as a literary device. But please, don’t do this unless you’re really a brilliant writer. Thanks.) Build context, then trust it.

I Know, Right? – Characters who know each other pre-exist that conversation on the page; they have a history together. They communicate (just like you do with people you know) in a kind of shorthand. Not everything is said – not everything needs to be said. When Bob says, “He’s dead, Jim,” to Bonnie, there’s no need to explain this to the reader. Let the characters have lives beyond the page. As above, allow context to give us enough to figure out the rest. Instead of writing “Bonnie smiled, remembering how Bob always used to watch Star Trek.” Have her respond with a smile and, “No, he’s only pining.” Don’t explain it. It’s their in-joke. Some readers will know the references, some won’t. That’s okay. What all readers will get from that exchange is that these two have history – they know each other in a way that can be seen in a simple, unexplained exchange.

Say Something, Anything – Or don’t. Dialogue isn’t just words; it’s also the things we don’t say, the pauses and the spaces and the awkward, echoing silence. Sometimes the best thing a character can say is nothing at all. Use this sparingly for greater effect, but don’t ignore the emotional power of wordlessness.

Stop Talking – Break up those dialogue scenes with compelling expository writing. Just as Big Blocks of Expository writing can weigh heavy on some readers (I often hesitate before buying a book that is comprised of unending blocks of unbroken text), so can conversations that go on for page after page after page. It’s not a conversation, it’s a novel. Conversation is a piece of that puzzle, not the whole thing. Mix it up.

Rants and Speechifying – Rants can be entertaining. They’re usually fueled by strong emotion, so they tend to reveal a lot about the Ranter. Speeches, on the other hand, are often boring. In fiction, speeches typically appear on the page when there’s Something Very Important to say. Fine. But before you give a character a long speech, make sure he’s the speechifying kind (know your characters), and make damn sure it’s reasonable in context. So many speeches spouted by characters end up sounding like the writer is preaching to the reader. I don’t want characters to preach to me. I want them to react honestly to the circumstances they’re facing. In my experience, speeches serve best as background noise for while you check your email. Rants, however – even wrong-minded rants, especially those – can be dangerous. Danger is good for fiction. Boredom? Not so much.

‘Nuff Said – There will come a time during a conversation when one or more of the people involved will run out of things to say. Unless that’s the point of the conversation, end it sooner. Do something interesting with exposition to keep the reader’s interest. There will also come a time when a character simply doesn’t know what to say. This may be because you don’t know your character all that well. (You know what to do.) Or perhaps it’s because the conversation has simply run its course. End it. Don’t drag on conversations just to fill a page.

Bonus advice: Don’t drag out blogposts, either.

“He’s dead, Jim.”

(How To) Listen to Everything

The best advice about how to be a better writer can be summed up in six words: Read a lot. Write a lot.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said that to writers. (Not because it’s a secret. I just didn’t keep track.) If you’re not doing both of those things, any other advice you might unearth as you wander this vast Internet wasteland won’t do you much good.

There are no shortcuts to “getting there” as a writer. By “there” I mean a place where your writing is distinct enough that readers want to read all your books, and compelling enough that they forget you exist between the first and last page.

But you didn’t come here to hear six words you already know. You came here for the Secret to Becoming a Best-Selling Author. (Really? Um…that’s someone else’s blog.) No, you came here for encouragement and commiseration and the occasional bit of accidental wisdom. Today’s attempt at all three can be summed up in a single word. (You already know what it is. You’re observant that way.)

Listen.

You want to be a better writer? You listen. To everything. Here’s how:

Listen to other writers. Read their copious books and blogs. Try their writing habits on for size. (Except that “getting up at 4 a.m. to write before the world awakes” thing. Seriously. That’s just insane.) There is no “one size fits all” system for writers. Learn what other writers are doing, then adopt only those things that work for you. Please note: This doesn’t mean you’re destined to write your own “How to Write” book someday. It’s okay if some writers don’t do that.

Listen to your characters. Well-written characters are a writer’s best friend. They can help solve just about any plot problem, given the chance to speak. Make sure your characters have permission to tell the truth, then trust them when they tell it. If you’ve painted yourself into a plot hole, ask for advice. If they don’t have any, it’s likely that your characters aren’t as well-written as you’d thought. Start there.

Listen to your critics. There are two kinds of critics in the world – those who love the sound of their own voice more than anything, and those who love the sound of a well-written story. The former are attention-seekers who don’t really care about your words. Most people would tell you to ignore them. That’s solid advice. But I think there’s some value in listening to them once in a while. Not because they have great wisdom (though they might), but because they can teach you something about the human condition; like for example, narcissism. Then you can use this when you craft characters for your next novel.

The other kind of critics deserve your full attention. When they say “I struggled with Mrs. Jenkins’ motivation for killing the penguin,” they’re telling you “I really wanted this to work, but it’s missing something.” These sorts of comments are not unlike the way baseball fans lean into fair territory as the potential winning home run arcs through the air toward the foul pole. Good criticism is leaning toward hoped-for results. These folks want you to succeed. Try leaning along with them to see what they see.

Listen to your mother. That’s usually good advice in general. But when it comes to your creative work, there’s still something to be said for listening to Mom (or other Family Member of Significance). Maybe your mom is an honest-even-if-it-hurts mom. Lucky you. Brace yourself, then listen. She might not have a lot of insight about the literary brilliance in your novel, but she probably knows a thing or two about you. Who knows, you might discover a flaw in your writing voice that only your mom could identify. (“It doesn’t sound like you. It’s much too happy.”)

Or maybe your mom is an I-love-everything-you-do mom who still has that handprint ashtray on the coffee table in the living room even though she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Take those glowing words about your crappy first draft for what they are: a sincere desire for you to be happy and successful. This is fuel for the soul. Burn it while you revise that crappy first draft.

Listen to your inner voice. I don’t mean the voices in your head. Nor do I mean the characters’ voices here. I’m talking about the little voice that says things like “that doesn’t seem to be working” or “that’s kind of the best thing you’ve ever written.” I’m talking about your writerly instincts. Note: Like most of these bullet points, this idea is closely tied to the original six words. The more you read and write, the better your instincts. Does that mean a day will come when you don’t need an editor? Um, probably not. But it does mean when that editor asks “what if you tried something like this?” you’ll be able to answer the query with confidence.

Listen to hope. Believe that you can do the impossible. Because you can.

Listen to despair. It’s okay to feel like a failure once in a while. Fighting that feeling just serves to prolong it. Be emotionally honest with yourself. Say it with me: “I suck as a writer.” Go ahead and compare yourself unfavorably with all the other writers. Just don’t stay here. Remember that you’re the only one who can write like you. Maybe that doesn’t feel like a good thing today (because you suck). But tomorrow? Tomorrow it will be a grace.

Listen to the wind. We live in a loud world. All those voices above (and many others) are constantly competing for your attention. Sometimes the best thing to listen to is…anything but those voices. Take a walk through the forest and bend your ear to the wind as it bends the branches to the earth. Skip rocks across a pond and count each slap of stone on water.  Play hopscotch with the neighbor kids and let their laughter soak your spirit. Stand on a busy street corner and embrace the chaotic rhythm of the workaday world as a kind of urban music.

Don’t think about your work in progress. Just take in the sounds and silences of the world around you. This may be exactly what your brain needs to sort through the current writing challenge: uninterrupted time for the subconscious to do its best work. But even if you don’t become a better writer by listening to the wind, at least you will have listened to the wind. And that will make you a better person.

Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.

 

*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well. 

How to Write Good Dialogue

Well-written dialogue doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it quietly goes about its business, revealing truth and ferrying the plot toward its conclusion.

Bad dialogue, on the other hand, stands out like a man wearing a clown costume to a funeral. (Unless it’s a clown funeral. Then it’s like a man not wearing a clown costume to a funeral.)

But for all its invisibility, good dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting. Besides giving voice to your characters, dialogue frequently puts legs on that “show, don’t tell” axiom.

For a rare few writers, writing dialogue is as natural as breathing. It’s second nature to them. But for many others, writing good dialogue is one part chore, two parts challenge. For them, dialogue is an unrepentant thief of patience during the revision process.

For those who are in this latter category, I offer the following tips. As with pretty much every other bit of writing advice that exists, there are always exceptions. For example, you can use intentionally stilted or awkward dialogue to help shape a unique character. Maybe the creepy guy who’s stalking the protagonist never uses contractions. (This would certainly enhance his creepiness.) Maybe the daughter of the rich oil baron talks as if quoting lines from a bad romance novel because that’s all she ever read in her sheltered life. But even in those cases, it takes a deft writing hand to craft appropriate dialogue that fits both character and context. It’s not as simple as writing badly.

But I digress. On to the dialogue tips:

Simplify Attributions – As much as possible, just use “said” and “asked” and their variations in dialogue scenes. Or use nothing at all when the context makes it unquestionably clear who’s talking. People who bark, spit, grunt, or burp their words need to see a doctor. Or a veterinarian. Clever attributions can divert attention from the dialogue to the attribution itself. You don’t want this to happen. “Trust me,” he puked.

Don’t Be a Puppet Master – In real life, people bring assumptions and prior knowledge to a conversation. This is also true for your fictional characters. Don’t force dialogue through your characters’ throats because you need to tell the reader something. If the information wouldn’t naturally be revealed in the context of the conversation, find another way to deliver it. Your characters aren’t puppets; they’re people. Treat them as such.

Maintain Believable Pacing – Most conversations aren’t like a game of ping-pong, despite how convenient it would be to use ping-pong as a visual metaphor. Unlike ping-pong, the back and forth of conversation is uneven, sometimes dominated by one party, sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes languid. Context should always determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. There is a rhythm to good dialogue, but it’s rarely something you can set  your metronome to. Don’t force characters to speak just because you’re uncomfortable with their silence. Always let the moment decide its own pacing.

Avoid Long Monologues - I know. One of your characters is a blowhard. He likes the sound of his voice and this is important to the character development or plot. Let him have his way. But don’t make a habit out of long speeches unless the story requires it. Dialogue usually requires two people. And while one may say little while the other says a lot (see pacing, above), giving characters pages of monological diatribes risks boring the reader. And in my experience, long-winded monologues are frequently evidence of a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. Rather than revealing important information contextually and through creative “show, don’t tell” opportunities, they make their characters dump it on the page for them (see puppet note above).

Kill (Most) Adverbs – Do I need to say it again? Only use adverbs when they actually add something to the dialogue. If it’s clear the character is upset and yelling, you don’t need to add that she’s yelling “loudly.” Yelling is, without further qualification, loud. That said, you might actually find use for adverbs in the dialogue itself. Real people use them in conversation (though not as much as you might think). That’s fine. Just don’t staple them willy-nilly to all your attributions.

Use Contractions – Unless you’re writing a period piece or a novel that otherwise demands the stiff-upper-lippedness of contraction-free speech,  please use them without apology. They just sound more natural. This, by the way, holds true not only for dialogue, but also for the rest of your narrative. If you want to challenge this advice, that’s fine. Please have your well-thought-out reasoning notarized by at least three editors who agree with you before presenting it to me. Thanks.

Don’t Give Readers Whiplash – “A lot of newbie authors,” he began, turning to look her mascara-streaked face, “suffer from this malady.” He looked down. “They break up a single piece of dialogue,” he continued, “with so many little ‘asides’ that the reader gets whiplash.” He looked up into her eyes again. “Do you know what I mean?”

There’s a time and place for action in the middle of dialogue, and when done right, that action can greatly enhance a scene. A well-timed look or touch can speak volumes. Just don’t use action to distraction.

Use Dialects Sparingly – Some of the best novels ever written are packed with well-defined characters who speak with dialects that by their very nature reveal a certain level of education or perhaps a country (or region) of origin. Characters with unique or easily-recognizable dialects can add a great deal to a story. However, crafting believable characters with any sort of dialect is no easy task. In part, this is because the dialect you see with your eyes (on the page) has a much different “feel” than a dialect you hear with your ears. In some cases, dialect can detract rather than enhance a story. If your character’s speech is hard to understand (and this isn’t due to an intentional plot point), consider dialing back on dialect. And whenever you do use it, just be sure you’re consistent both to the way such a person would speak in real life, and from scene to scene in the story itself. Otherwise your characters will sound like Kevin Costner in…well…any movie where he attempts an accent.

What other dialogue tips do you have? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile…

“Happy writing,” he said.

The Editor’s Hat – 11 Tips for Your Second Draft

Your first draft is done.

Wait, it’s not? Then go away and don’t come back until it is. This is not the post you’re looking for.

The rest of you can stay, but only if you promise not to make fun of the people who aren’t finished with their first drafts yet. Because you were like them once. And I still am.

Okay. [I know. There’s no need for “Okay” here. It’s superfluous. I should just get right to the 11 tips. But I’m keeping it. “Okay” is an intentionally overused aspect of my subtly ironic faux-conversational style. What, you thought I didn’t know I overuse it? I do. Also? All this bracketed content would be meaningless without it.]

You wrote a novel. Sure, it probably sucks in its current condition, but so does so much published work, am I right girlfriend?! [For the record, I am not directing this comment solely to my girlfriend. First of all, I don’t have one. Second of all, I don’t have one.]

The good news is that you’re already done with the hardest part: you completed a novel. The bad news is that you still have to do the hardest part: make it good. [Yes, I said “hardest part” twice. On purpose.]

So then, here are 11 tips to help you get there from here.

1. Walk away from the novel. Celebrate the finished first draft with a bucket-sized margarita and then forget about it for a while. At least a week, preferably a few. You will need some time to transition from writer to editor. This transformation is not immediate like the way Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk. Additionally, your rage usually doesn’t come until after the transformation.

2. Put on your editor’s hat. [I mean this figuratively, but some of you probably would do well to interpret it literally. Especially if you haven’t washed your hair since you started writing the novel.]

3. Print out your novel. Or send it to your Kindle or other e-reader device. Reading the work in a different format than the one you used to create it will give you a much-needed fresh perspective.

4. Pretend you just bought this novel with your own hard-earned cash. Read it. Have a pen nearby (and also a notebook if you’re reading it on an e-reader), but don’t plan on making a ton of notes this time through. If you come across something obvious – a big-picture issue or inconsistency or obvious error – go ahead and make a note of it. But mostly, just read the novel.

5. Walk away. Again. [Yes, it’s true. I’m doing this because I don’t think you get enough exercise.] Give the book time to settle into your subconscious. It’s amazing just how much of the stuff you think is fine reveals itself to be not-fine when you’re not actively staring at it. [There might be a psychological explanation for this phenomenon, but I prefer to believe it’s some editorial faerie alchemy at work.]

6. Pick up your red pen (or turn on track changes in Word) and start going through the novel again. This time, mark (or change) everything you see that doesn’t feel right. Look especially for the stuff I’ll be noting in the next four items on this list. [If I were a list purist, I’d include those four items here, since they’re really a sub-point of this particular item. Usually, I’m all about making sure lists are pure in their parallelness. But not this time. I committed to 11 items and this is the only way I’m going to make that number.]

7. Look for redundancy. Also look for things that you repeat. [Predictable? Yes. But you expected that, didn’t you. I’m here to please.] By the way, I don’t just mean repeated words. Those are pretty easy to solve. I’m also talking about repeated ideas. For example, if your protagonist complains about the impertinence of his boss on page nine, we probably don’t need to read about that again on page 18, and 48, and 93. Readers are smart. Once you reveal something, they’re likely to remember. Also, watch for repetition in descriptions. If we learn that Roscoe is a “giant of a man, towering over Lucy like a giant” on page seven, don’t tell us he’s huge the next time he’s in the room. (Unless context demands it.) Also? You probably should work on your similes.

8. Listen to your characters. Sometimes it’s helpful to read through the book focusing solely on one character at a time (especially their dialogue scenes). Yes, this can be time consuming, but it may reveal inconsistencies you wouldn’t otherwise have noted. Also, listen to the things characters aren’t saying on the page. It’s important that the unwritten stuff between one scene and the next is logical and purposeful. For example, is the protagonist’s surprise on page 88 warranted? Or did you reveal so much on page 58 that she wouldn’t even blink when her mother says, “I’m a vampire. And also, I watch Wheel of Fortune every day.”

9. Stop telling me a character’s thoughts about what he’s going to do just before you reveal the same thing through his actions. I know I’ve said this a million [exaggeration] times already on this blog, but this may be the one thing that bugs me most. A good scene doesn’t need the “telling” if the “showing” is well-written. Don’t tell me what Jeremy is pondering every time he’s about to do something. Sure, some pondering is fine – and probably integral in understanding Jeremy. And if your story is more of a telling story, then tell. But most of the time? Just have Jeremy act. We’ll see his intent, we’ll read and understand his motives in both the action itself and the result of that action. When you include both, you make readers feel stupid.

10. Kill your pets. [Please don’t call the ASPCA. I mean this one figuratively. Also, be thankful I didn’t quote the more commonly used “kill your babies.”] You’ve heard this one many times, so I won’t elaborate except to say, those “pets” aren’t just favorite words or phrases, they can also be the way you set up a scene or the way you describe a character or setting. If every character introduction begins with a detailed description of his/her eye color and height and favorite Starbucks drink, it’s time for some serious killing. Of figurative pets. Not literal ones. [Don’t forget to spay or neuter your pets. And hug them often (except goldfish). Especially after spaying or neutering (also, except goldfish).]

11. Be tough on the writer. Notice I didn’t say “be tough on yourself.” The editor’s hat grants you the right to challenge everything the writer put on the page. Don’t hate the writer (that will only lead to more therapy). Just be honest with him/her. If you do find yourself being especially brutal, that may be due to the fact that your first draft was especially sucky. Or it could simply be that your editor’s hat is too tight. [This is how I excuse the excessive red marks on every project I’ve ever received back from an editor. People really should learn their hat size.]

Oh, and when you think you’re finished with the editing, repeat the process. No, I don’t know how many times you’ll need to repeat the process. And yes, it’s possible to overedit your own work. This is where crit partners and professional editorial services come in. [Steve: don’t forget to produce a clever, yet humble commercial touting your own editorial services and then insert the link here. It would really suck if you just left this reminder instead.]

That’s all for today. I’ve got some editing to do.

Now, where did I put my hat…