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 Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content.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.

Hey, guess what? There’s a Part Two to this ol’ blogpost. Click me to go to there.

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…