DON’T PANIC

Writing fiction can make you crazy.

Here’s how.

Step One – Over the course of your next three lifetimes, visit a few thousand publishing-related blogs and read every nugget of writerly wisdom you can find. Pay particular attention to literary agents’ blogs. They’re jam-packed with practical tips, such as:

“If your novel includes a prologue, you’re obviously a demon from the pit of hell. I don’t represent demons. At this time.”

“Don’t even think of misspelling the word query. Seriously, stop thinking about it. Have you stopped thinking about it? I didn’t think so. Please go away.”

“Backstory in a novel is like back hair on a competitive swimmer. It slows you down. And it’s totally gross. Three words: laser hair removal.”

Step Two – Look up published authors’ websites. Then read about their writing journeys and routines, where you’ll discover inspirational gems like these:

“I write an average of twelve million words before breakfast. Then I go for a 30-mile run and save a beached whale or two before lunch. Well, on my off days.”

“I sold my very first book. I wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on cocktail napkins while distracted by a lounge singer crooning Neil Diamond songs. It was a story about cannibal vampire monkeys. No one had written a story about cannibal vampire monkeys yet, so it became a bestseller. My next book is about cannibal vampire orangutans.”

“I wrote 97 novels before landing an agent. That 98th novel is the charm, writer friends. Just hang on until the 98th. Be encouraged!”

Step Three – Read every book you possibly can on writing.* Here are some of my favorites (I might have gotten the titles wrong):

Writing Adverbally for Fun and Profit

The First-Time Author’s 127-Step Guide to Probably Getting Published

I Wrote a Bestselling Novel. That Qualifies Me As a Writing Teacher. Buy This Book.

Step Four – Meet regularly with fellow writers at a trendy coffee shop to talk about your works-in-progress. Pay close attention when crit group members say things like this:

“Your protagonist should wear a hat. I think your book would be ten times better if she wore a hat. A blue hat, with white, frilly trim. Or you can keep her hatless. But then your book will suck.”

“You totally need to rewrite chapter one. And all the other chapters, too. Except for chapter nine. That’s the one with the sex scene, right? That one is brilliant. Did you want me to return this copy of the manuscript? How about I just keep chapter nine.”

“I thought your story was lovely. I especially liked the part where the cannibal vampire monkeys attacked the…what? That wasn’t your story? Yours was about a woman who is reunited with her long lost sister? I must have misplaced that. Sorry. But have you read the one about the cannibal vampire monkeys? You should write one like that.”

Step Five – Go insane.

Everyone on the planet has writing advice. (Including me.) If you try to take it all in, your head will explode. If you try to apply everything you do manage to take in, your head will explode. If you stuff dynamite in your mouth and light it, your head will explode, but that’s beside the point.

The point is this: DON’T PANIC.**

Study the craft. Read helpful blogposts and books. Listen to wise counsel. Then write. And write some more. And when you need a break? Take one. Don’t beat yourself up because your collection of writing advice isn’t complete. This isn’t Pokemon.

You have no reason to panic. You have plenty of time to follow your unique writing journey. Unless you’re on deadline. Or have sticks of dynamite in your mouth. Then you might want to panic at a level commensurate with the potential for serious injury. (Helpful hint: deadlines trump dynamite.)

Meanwhile, enjoy the ride. (And take notes. Someday you’ll probably want to write about it on your blog. You know, to inspire other writers. Or make them insane.)

Happy writing, kids. And relax, okay?

 

*I should probably mention here that I’m writing a book for fiction writers, too. The working title is, “Your Muse Isn’t Real (And She’s Trying to Kill You).” It will be a small book filled with potentially helpful advice and an equal portion of possibly harmful advice. You’ve been warned.

**The title of this post is offered in honor of the late, great Douglas Adams, who could have penned just those two words and I would still call him a favorite author. However, he didn’t stop at two. He wrote a few more. Many of them were quite well organized. You should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again.

 

Write Where You Are (But Don’t Stop Moving)

I blame Winesburg, Ohio.

Not the city; the short story cycle by Sherwood Anderson. Of course, that blame would be misplaced. It was my fault – my ignorance – not someone else’s brilliance that sent me down a wrong path.

I had been writing (and editing) for years. Non-fiction, mostly, since fate and opportunity had conspired to offer me relative success there. But one day I decided to pursue the dream I’d harbored since grade school – to become a published author of fiction.

First, I would have to overcome a few obstacles, most notably, my complete lack of fiction writing ability.

Perhaps that’s overstating it. I was reasonably skilled at telling stories. But like so many eager beginners, I had a tendency to overwrite. I used a hundred words to say what could better have been said in five. Recognizing this tendency wasn’t enough to solve it, though, and this is when I figured out that to get better, I would have to be more intentional in my study of the craft.

After the third book on writing, I began to experience advice fatigue. Do this. Don’t do that. And don’t you ever even think of doing the other thing. I’m sure it was all good and wise advice, but most of it sounded like white noise.

However, there was one piece of advice that rose above the noise: the admonition to read, read, read.

I didn’t want to waste time reading bad books, so I looked up lists with “best” in the title and prayed they weren’t compiled by illiterate gnomes. There were a lot of lists. Too many. So I had the brilliant idea of asking a literary-minded friend (he smoked a pipe and once had a goatee) to recommend his favorites. He offered just one.

Winesburg, Ohio,” he said.

Before I’d even finished it, I had come to two very important conclusions: 1) I wanted to write short stories; and 2) I wanted to write them as brilliantly as Sherwood Anderson.

The book was still warm when I sat at my computer desk and started writing the first of what would someday be a collection of short stories mentioned in the same breath as Winesburg, Ohio. A few hours later, I realized the only way this would happen is if that breath were expelled in answer to the question, “What are the best and worst collections of short stories ever written?”

My short story wasn’t brilliant. It wasn’t even half as good as the stories I’d written before. What happened? Why did my writing suffer so greatly in my attempt to write beautiful prose?

I was writing ahead of myself.

I was an average writer trying to manufacture brilliance. I simply didn’t have the raw materials to create anything but a cheap imitation.

There was a moment (maybe two) when, in my frustration, I considered giving up entirely on my writing dream. It would be months before I’d pick up the virtual pen again. But one thing I didn’t give up: reading. I read classics. Popular novels. Literary triumphs (some of which I admittedly couldn’t finish). Women’s fiction. Fantasy. Young adult. I read everything I could get my hands on.

And then, when I finally sat down to write again (because apparently it’s impossible to quit writing if you’re a writer), I didn’t try to write a literary masterpiece. I just wrote where I was. I filled the page as best as I could with words I already knew (more, thanks to all that reading) and in ways that felt natural. Some of my stories were quite good, others were merely good. But the more I wrote, the more I started to like the sound of my voice. And the more I read, the more my voice matured.

Somewhere in the midst of that season of discovery, I went back to those abandoned white-noise writing books and gave them a second chance. And behold, there was wisdom. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

Some writing advice only makes sense after you’ve written enough words to earn it.

I used to want to be as brilliant as Sherwood Anderson. Now I just want to be as brilliant as Stephen Parolini.

I’m getting there, word by word.

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.