Thursday, January 31, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter Five, Dialogue Mechanics

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 three years ago and since then, I have had more than a few conversations about these principles, most 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! You will have to get the book.)

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, 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. 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 you do not already know.)

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

B Y Rogers is the author of The Sin of Certainty plus a growing collection of short stories

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fixing Unlikable Characters

by Deren Hansen

Stephanie DeVita, writing on the Dystel & Goderich Literay Management Blog, asked about likable--or more to the point--unlikable characters:

Over the weekend, I came to the sudden realization that the manuscript I was considering wasn’t working for me for a specific reason: I found some of the characters to be completely unlikable. ... So for a writer, if a person comes back to you, having read your manuscript, with the critique that your characters are unlikable, how do you fix something like this?


Darth Vader + Kitten = problem solved, right?

Or, as David Horton playing King Herod in the Christmas Pageant on the old BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, said, after ordering his soldiers to massacre the infants in Bethlehem, “But kill them gently!”

More to the point, likability has more dimensions than good or bad. It’s one thing to give the otherwise-evil villain some justification because of something in their past that turned them to evil. But what do you do, for example, about contemporary characters who are unlikeable because they’re annoying, or tiresome?

A simplistic answer is to change the character so they’re no longer annoying or tiresome. That answer, though, masks a deeper question that you, the author, need to ask explicitly about every character (because your readers will ask the question implicitly): why would I want to spend time with this character?

Readers expect to get something in return for the time they put into a book. When readers say a character is unlikable, they’re really saying they find it difficult to predict what their return on investing time in the character will be.

Regardless of how morally reprehensible they are, we like characters that give us insight or teach us something.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dialogue Doctor

By Julie Daines

I recently had to put together some pages of dialogue that could be used as an audition scene for actors. This was in preparation for filming a book trailer.

No problem, I thought. I can just lift some dialogue out of a scene and stick it on a screenplay template in my Scrivener app. The Scrivener part was easy, but I learned something about dialogue in the process.

When I took my characters' dialogue away from all the tags and beats and internal thought woven through it and had to stick to JUST the words the characters speak, something happened.

My dialogue went from awesome to lame. Fast. Wake up call.

If I want to check my dialogue and make sure it sounds realistic, age appropriate, and organic (which is a fancy way of saying not cheesy), all I have to do is remove my perfectly placed tags, beats, and interiority and look at the words all by themselves.

Want to analyze your dialogue and kick it up a notch? Give it a try. You'll be surprised!

Shameless self promotion: I'm running a giveaway contest on my blog this week. Anyone can enter to win two wonderful books.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Art of Self Publishing

Today we have illustrator and author J.D. Holiday sharing some tips on self publishing children's books. I know many of you may want to traditionally get your books published, but for those who are adventurous or are open to self publishing, you'll find these tips very helpful.

My Tips on Self-Publishing
                                             By J.D. Holiday

I know of two ways to self-publish and I've done them both ways. One way is to use publishing services. There are many publishing services out there and some are not perfect to say the least. Some offer packages of different levels of services to pick from, others give you a set fee and they do all the work. They can cost from $500 to $1500, even higher to get your books in print. Most of them will take your files and design your book or you can upload your files and work out the design yourself. I know authors who have had good luck with some of these services and it seems simple enough if you have the money. I was not one of the lucky ones going this way and decided I had to learn what there was to know to have my books printed.

The second way I know of is to learn about getting a book made from beginning to end. This is sometimes called, independent publishing. Doing it this way, you have to hire the printer, the book designer and pros for anything else you find you can't do yourself; including the marketing and more. But there is satisfaction that comes from doing it all yourself.

For independent publishing, you will need to find information about every step you'll have to take. If your books need illustrations and you are not an artist, you should start right here. You will need to find an illustrator and pay them for the pictures or split the money made on each book you make with them. Though you can consider the two of you sharing the whole cost of producing the book together. In addition, you can buy stock photos for your book. (Research stock photos to find out more about it.)

If you do consider going the independent publishing route, you will need to find out about:
  1. Computer software or book design
  2. Starting your publishing business (Not all printers will work with anyone who isn't a publishing company.)
  3. Coming up with a budget
  4. Coming up with the money
  5. Buy your own ISBN numbers
  6. Decide if you will do POD (Print on Demand) or do offset printing
  7. Find a printer. (For picture books that may be overseas for 4-color printing and lower cost though you will have to order maybe one or two thousand copies and find a warehouser or a place you can store the books away from too much heat and humidity. There are also POD printers in the USA that do 4-color printing AND the cost is low.)
  8. Book consultants and packagers
  9. Galleys
  10. Returned books (You will need to know about this early on.)
  11. Marketing help and/or plan
  12. Website and SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
  13. Writing letters
  14. Business cards

AND much, much more!

The publishing business is not an easy one. I advise you to do your own research. The internet can help you find the information you will need. There are sites for just about everything on publishing. Research people who can do the jobs you can't do yourself and READ everything you can on publishing.
                                                                                                            ~JD Holiday

Some Books to Read:

PRINT-ON-DEMAND BOOK PUBLISHING by Morris Rosenthal. I can't say enough about this book. He covers the latest information about POD, the publishing business, and marketing your books while saying it in everyday language. His detailed information on Search Engine Optimization was a great help.

THE PUBLISHING GAME, PUBLISH a Book in 30 Days by Fern Reiss. Though I don't think anyone should undertake publishing a book in 30 days, this book has a good plan to follow. It goes through what to do and when to do it. You will define you goal, write the cover copy, understand book pricing, learn about software, book layout, and galleys. It has a list of PRINTERS, learn about listing your book with bookstores, and know how to ship books, (and YES) returns.

The Self-Publishing Manual, How to Write, Print and Sell your Own Books by Dan Poynter. This is a reference book for authors self-publishing with nothing left out and resources for everything.

WEBSITES  Morris Rosenthal's site.   This is a Reference Desk with everything at a click. Marketing/price setting/ design info/ editing/finance/ management/ technical info in publishing and links to everything self-publishers need.   Fern Reiss' site, like her book, keeps writers and publishers informed and up to date.   John Cullenton's site offers do-it-yourself find out about indexing, book coaching, shepards, packagers, book design, and typesetting. See his lists of specialists.   Aaron Shepard's site. This site has tips for young and older authors. Aaron Shepard's Bulletin is helpful with info on self-publishing, software for creating your books, printers info. I read his newsletter each month.   Pete Masterson's site. BOOK Printer's list and what they print, info on POD and Digital companies, Vanity press info, page layout, Book design, and software.

Copyright attorney, Lloyd L. Rich's site

Copyright attorney, Ivan Hoffman  

Copyright information.


J.D. Holiday is the author and illustrator of four children's books. Picture books: JANOOSE THE GOOSE, THE SPY GAME, and Matt Shelley's Halloween Misadventure with Award-winning author, Christy Condoleo, and the chapter book for 6 to 8 year olds, THE GREAT SNOWBALL ESCAPADE. J.D. Holiday is a co-host on It's Story Time, Gather 'Round with Christy Condoleo on Blog Talk Radio's World Of Ink Network:

You can find out more about J.D. Holiday, her books and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at

Follow J.D. Holiday at
Twitter: @JDHoliday

Publisher Website:

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Last week Scott Rhoades mentioned its importance. Cheryl Klein calls it the soul of the novel. Agents and publishers are looking for fresh ones. But what is this nebulous thing called voice?

Simply put, voice is the individual style of the author. It is what makes her writing unique. It conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character.

Author’s voice is different than finding the voice of your character. Some talk of sitting in a school cafeteria or eavesdropping at the mall in order to discern the voice of a teen. This discussion concerns author’s unique style.

Rachelle Gardner, agent for Books & Such Literary Agency, says voice is “about your originality and having the courage to express it.” Gardner says “your writer’s voice is the expression of YOU on the page.” She goes on to say that, as consumers of stories in books and on screen, we may unwittingly regurgitate characters or stories we’ve heard. Writers must strive to be original. Voice is somehow allowing the uniqueness of ourselves come out on the page. It is that simple. It is that complex.

How does one do that? Voice is not something you can study or learn. It is something you have to find, that develops. It grows and matures with your writing. Most agree that to develop you voice you have to write. And write and write.

I wanted to understand it so I set out to examine voice. It seems the more I examined it, the less I know.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter Four


As in my previous posts about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, my thoughts are in parenthesis. The rest are direct quotes from the book. I hope what I post is beneficial.

(If you are wondering what 'proportion' has to do with writing, think of it this way. How much do I give to my readers in any scene? Do I give them too much or too little? Then ask yourself this: too much or too little of what? Information related to the plot? Did I take 5 pages to write something that should have been written in 3?  At least that is how I am defining proportion. Your mileage may vary.)

Proportion problems...arise from the same lack of confidence that leads beginning writers to describe emotions they have already shown.
When you fill in all the details and leave nothing to your reader's imagination, you're patronizing them. (AMEN!)

Sometimes proportion problems arise when a writer is writing about his or her pet interests or hobbies. (This is why I mention taking too long to say what needs to be said. Taking 5 pages to show what you want to convey, instead of 3 pages, will bore your readers. There is a great example of this on page 68 of the book, oh, wait... sorry, you haven't purchased your own copy yet have you?  Tsk, tsk.)

You didn't read the whole paragraph did you?  (this is from the book. No I didn't. I was bored by word 11. Again, get the book!)
Proportion problems can arise inadvertently, sometimes through cutting.

So how do you avoid proportion problems? In most cases it's quite simple: PAY ATTENTION.

A warning: paying attention to your story does not mean ruthlessly cutting everything that doesn't immediately advance your plot.
Is it really needed? Does it add? Should it be shorter/longer?
Bear in mind that most readers may not find such topics as interesting as you do.

Once you have trained yourself to see how changes in proportion affect your story, you can begin to use proportion to shape your readers' response to your plot

The safest approach is to make sure the material you're writing about helps advance either your plot or your narrator's character.

B Y Rogers

Time flies when you're having fun

Yesterday was my son's gymnastics class. It's the third one he's been to, and I kid you not, for the last three weeks the only way we get through any school related thing, or anything at all, is because of the promise of one hour of uninterrupted jumping and fun in his class.

On the way back home, he sighed and said, "One week to my next class..." and then, looking out the window, he added, "I really tried not to have fun so the time would go slower. But no, it didn't work."

When I managed to have a coherent thought after his words, I thought that for me writing means the same thing gymnastics means to my son. I usually write my best at night, and all day long, I look forward to the time I'll finally be able to sit down and write a few words or edit a chapter. Most nights though, I'm so exhausted I can't wait to go to bed and have some well-deserved sleep. But for me, if I don't get a daily dose of something I love--writing--I don't feel satisfied, no matter how much sleep or chocolate. I commit to protect my writing time, be more flexible with when I write and for how long. After all, it doesn't matter if I have a two-hour block. By the time it's over, it feels like five minutes because I have so much fun doing it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Home Improvement Guide to Story Structure

by Deren Hansen

[Several people who were unable to attend my presentation last week asked about the subject. What follows is one of the topics I covered.]

There is an eternal law, inscribed into the very essence of the universe before even the gods came on the scene, that any home improvement project will require at least three trips to the store.

Don't believe me?

Many creation myths show the gods making several attempts before we get the world in which we live. Even the book of Genesis has a do-over with Noah.


Many stories are basically a series of try/fail cycles.

Consider the archetypical home improvement project:

  1. Having decided to undertake some repair or improvement, you go to the store and get what you need.
  2. After working on the project for a while, you make another trip to the store to get all the things you didn't know you needed.
  3. Finally, a few injuries and explicatives later, you make a final trip to the store to get what you really need (as well as to replace the pieces you broke).
Of course, there are times when you make one trip because you know what you're doing and what you need. The point is that you would rarely tell a story about that activity because, a, "This was the problem so I got that part I needed and fixed it," story is boring--in fact, it's not a story, it's a recipe.

For a story to be interesting, it must show how the protagonist triangulated on a solution to a difficult problem. It's like the process of artillerymen finding the range to a target: the first shot falls short so they increase the elevation; the second shot lands behind so they dial back, but not as much as the first setting; the third shot is much more likely to hit.

And suddenly, without trying, we've discovered the three-act story structure: try/fail (act 1), try/fail (act 2), try/succeed (act 3). Each try is a possible solution and each fail shows why the solution falls short as well as ratcheting up the scope of the problem. In the realm of DIY, for example, you fail to reattach the loose tile in the bathroom because the wallboard behind has water damage, but you can't just replace the wallboard because the pipe inside is leaking.

If you scrape away all the formal baggage around, "The Three Act Structure," it really is that simple.

[That said, like any good DIY project, there's a big gap between the theory and actually putting it into practice in the form of a finished novel.]

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Original Ideas

There are no original ideas. 

Or are there? 

If there are no new ideas then why are we all still trying to write something original? And why do people keep reading?

I have been excited about the novel I’m starting. The idea seems new and fresh enough that I have thought a lot about how to make it work. I couldn’t think of any other book that had been written from this angle. Then I picked up Far World by J. Scott Savage, and there it was. A character who was born on earth, but we are meeting her in another world as the story begins. She doesn’t even know earth exists. My idea. It’s already been done. Of course.

What’s fascinating is to see what Scott Savage has done with this idea. It’s very different than what I’m writing. Even though it’s the same idea, it’s a different angle. A different character. A different world. 

If you stare at life from a different angle you may see a new facet to an old idea. A writer asks new questions that haven’t been asked quite like that before. We turn life inside out and find the extraordinary. We examine it and look for a new facet to that old way of looking at a situation.

We write something original.