Thursday, February 28, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 8, Easy Beats

As usual, my thoughts and comments on in parentheses. All the other kicks are just there, man.)

Beats are the bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his and rubbing his eyes- the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as 'stage business'.

As with interior monologue, it's very easy to interrupt your dialogue so often that you bring its pace to a halt.

As with the Fran Dorf example at the beginning of the chapter, there is wonderful dialogue in here (another example)-surrounded by so many beats, both internal and external, that its effect is lost. The fact that the beats themselves are interesting and well written doesn't keep the constant interruptions from irritating the reader.

As with physical description, some writers may overuse beats because they lack confidence. After all, if you show every move your character makes, your readers are bound to be able to picture the action you describe...when you describe every bit of action down to the last detail, you give your readers a clear picture of what's going on but you also limit their imagination-and if you supply enough detail, you'll alienate them in the process.

Of course, it is possible to err in the other direction and include too few beats. Page after page of uninterrupted dialogue can become disembodied and disorienting after a while, even if the dialogue is excellent.

What's needed are a few beats to anchor [your dialogue] in reality.
The idea is to strike the right balance between dialogue and beats.
So what's the right balance? (see page 149!)

Knowing where to put your beats is not as important as knowing what beats to insert.

Beats can be pointless, distracting, cliched, or repetitive.
So where do you find good beats? (Oh, the tip offered here has kept me busy all week. Page 152 folks!)

(The last two pages of the chapter consist of an example with and then without beats.) The scene is still moving-the dialogue effectively conveys what's going on and its importance, and it's easy to tell who is speaking. What is lost is a great deal of resonance, the deepening of the emotional content. You need beats for those.

Dig it!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What's it About?

by Deren Hansen

A writer considering a new project and a reader considering whether to read a new book are both confronted with the same question: "Is it worth my time?"

For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?

Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it about?

While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you might have something worth undertaking.

The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware, though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane, need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)

You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.

Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents box in a Wikipedia entry).

How do you do it?

Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.

Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through the project, even it if changes over time.

The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.

* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley

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

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Is Everyone's Stomach Clenching?

By Julie Daines

I've been thinking about physical clichés a lot lately. And by thinking about I mean battling with.

There's this kind of evil Catch 22 thing with show don't tell. We don't want to say our character is mad, that's telling. (I was so mad = telling.) So we try to show it. But then we're stuck with a physical cliché. (I clenched my fists = physical cliché.)

So we swing back to the telling, only we try to make it sound better. (Red hot anger pulsed through my veins = fancy telling.) What's a writer to do?

I wish I had an easy answer. But writing is hard. And good writing is really hard.

We've got to figure out how to show our character's emotions in other ways that are subtle and yet get the point across.

Here are a few ways to accomplish that, but they are NOT the easy answer we're all hoping for.

  • Well written dialogue can carry a lot of emotion. 
  • Well written interiority will open the door to a ton of emotion--especially if that interiority includes motivation. If the character's motivations are clear, we will already know exactly how the character will react to any situation.
  • Use an objective correlative. See my post here. If you don't know what that is, you really need to, so go read the article. But like most things, less is more, so don't overuse the objective correlative.
  • Avoid naming emotions. See more tips about that here.
  • Read. Read the good books that expertly accomplish the show don't tell rule. And look out for physical clichés and other forms of telling as you read.
  • There is a place for some description of physical emotions. Just be sure to use it sparingly and judiciously. And avoid the really overused ones. (Stomach, jaw, or fists clenching, tears, all manner of breathing and heart pounding...) On the Bookshelf Muse blog, they have an Emotional Thesaurus. This can be useful for finding a less cliché way to show a physical reaction.
Those are a few I thought of off the top of my head. What are your suggestions for avoiding physical cliché? 

Julie Daines
A Blind Eye (Feb 2013)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

WIFYR 2013

Mark your calendars. June 17-21 is the date for this year’s Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers, a.k.a. WIFYR. (For details: ).

WIFYR is an incredibly inspiring conference. It is a chance to learn and be pushed. It is a place to relax and mingle with other like-minded people. There is an aura to it. It is filled with people who want to make your story and their stories the best they can be and people who can help them do that.

I take my WYFIR full on. The morning workshops are phenomenal. Nationally acclaimed and other talented and published writers and illustrators head up the faculty. (This link displays the faculty biographies: ). You and a dozen or so others spend five mornings, four hours a day together going over manuscripts. Not only does your work get thoroughly critiqued, but also you learn as you participate. Not that every instructor runs it the same way, but I have found most faculty members have participants share and critique the work of each other. You may be asked to prepare critiques ahead of time. Then, taking turns, the whole group discusses each story. Having your work critiqued can be intimidating, but real growth comes from it and it is usually done in a kind and caring manner. It is possible to have two critiques done of your work. The morning sessions are spent in critique yet there still is time for agent and editor visits and lessons on the craft from your faculty member. It can be an intensive week. The mental satisfaction, however, is well worth the price of registration.

If time constraints are an issue, WIFYR offers just afternoons. There are a wide variety of topics and presenters during the breakouts. These sessions come on the heels of the keynote and plenary speakers from the likes of the agents and editors invited each year and are part of the package the morning workshop people receive.

New, this year, are mini one-day morning workshops in addition to the weeklong ones. (Link to the mini workshops: ).

Carol Lynch Williams is the mastermind behind this annual event. She pulls in talented people as faculty, speakers, or presenters. Carol has an MFA in Writing for Children and Adolescents from Vermont College and she teachers creative writing at BYU.

The Waterford School campus is an ideal setting. But what makes the conference is the collegiality. People from novice to published attend and share and mingle and grow together.

Hopefully this is your year to blossom as a writer. A week at WIFYR can help realize that dream. It is a magical experience.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Truth About First Drafts

by Scott Rhoades

"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." --Terry Pratchett
The first draft is the most dangerous part of the writing process. It's dangerous for a number of reasons. Among them are that the first draft can become the catalyst for you hating your writing. It's also dangerous because it could make you fall in love with your writing.
Most first drafts are never finished. Writers become discouraged when the brilliant idea in their head lands on the page with all the beauty of (crap) on toast. This almost always surprises new writers, and sometimes it surprises experienced writers. How can something that was so engaging and exciting when it was in your brain be so boring and stupid when it comes out?

If we are to finish the first draft, we have to realize that this is normal. Books don't escape the mind fully fledged and ready to fly. They come out all scraggly with more pink, bumpy skin than feathers, and even the feathers that are there are useless and ugly.

Believe it or not, the picture to the right is a newly hatched bald eagle. If it survives, it will become one of the most beautiful, graceful, and powerful animals on the planet. But if it's not nourished and allowed to develop, it won't. Just like your story.
It's so easy to look at all the problems in that first draft and decide you cannot write, that you are obviously a hack, or worse than a hack. Your characters lack depth. Your plot is full of holes. Brilliantly conceived scenes work as well as a tricycle on a freeway. So you quit. Your eagle dies.

Another danger of the first draft is that you will fall so in love with it that you can't see its flaws. You love your characters and your prose and your plot and everything as perfect. The moment you finish that beautiful draft, you rush out a query or you self-publish your work before its ready, mainly because you don't want it to be messed with by editors and others who you see as negative and critical because all they do is suggest things that can be improved.

You bounce from critique group to critique group, looking for the group that appreciates your genius rather than pointing out all of the imagined flaws. Don't they see how each change destroys the rhythm of your perfectly crafted sentences? Are they too stupid to recognize the symbolism of your images? OK, maybe some things could be changed, but then the work is no longer pure, like it was when it flowed forth from your brain.

The truth about your first draft is this: it is not finished, no matter how proud of it you are. And, it might be terrible, but it can be fixed.
Going public with your first draft is like moving into your new house after it has been framed. If you understand this, you can get past the first problem. So what if your characters lack emotion in the first draft? It doesn't matter if the plot twist you couldn't wait to write fell flat. Your new house isn't very useful when all it is is a frame. But if you keep working at it, it will become not only useful but something that you enjoy for many years, and that becomes an important part of your family and the memories that are created as you grow up together.

I'm struggling, as I always do, with the feeling that my first draft is pointless and useless, that it's a disaster, and that I'd be better off abandoning it and moving on to one of the brilliant ideas bouncing around in my head. Fortunately, I know that those ideas will also come out like crap on toast. And that I can fix my current draft. I've surrounded myself with supportive people, including a writing group that sometimes seems to have more faith in me than I do.

I understand that revision is, for me at least, a long, drawn-out process. For me, it works better to fix one issue, and then the next, and on down the list of things I always do wrong until it's time to do it again. It's not as much fun as that euphoria you get as you're enjoying that creative energy of letting the story pour out through you. But if you work hard, and listen to supportive critics (and ignore your own rather less supportive inner critic), your story will, eventually, after a long period of development, grow up to become this:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Iron Writer

Two weeks ago, a fellow author from Virginia asked me to guest post on her blog. I have done several such posts and was expecting it to be some sort of author interview. She explained that she was involved in a blog tour and requested I write a 500 word flash fiction piece involving four elements. She said I have until March 18th to complete my little piece. The story had to include a dead gypsy, a swordfish, a jug of moonshine and a 1959 ZIL III.

I went to bed that night pondering how I could incorporate the elements a five hundred word story. I had no idea but the challenge was intriguing. I fell asleep with no idea what to do. Luckily, I thought, I had plenty of time.

The next day I was still at a loss. As I considered the elements, I decided I had better make sure I knew exactly what is a 1959 ZIL III. I googled it and had the entire story in my mind a minute later. Seriously, only a minute. I took about 5 hours to write and polish it. When I was finished, I found a strange satisfaction for what I had created in such a short period of time. I read it once again and smiled, amused at the creativity. I emailed the piece to her and I am interested to how she uses it but I will have to wait another month.

Then, and this is the really exciting part, in an unguarded moment last Wednesday, my muse Ida (named after Ida Pierpont, my English teacher at Pleasant Grove High School back in the 60's) did another drive by dream drop and flew away in the same breath. She does that. What if I created a blog using the Iron Chef format, but for writers. I would invite four writers to compete each week, using four random items, with a time day time limit to complete a five hundred word flash fiction story. I did a quick internet search, using 'the iron writer' and found not only the url was available, but no one had created a blog or website with that theme. Nothing. I was surprised, considering all the reality shows on cable. $18  and two days later, I had the blog up and running. It is not polished yet, but it a beginning. I posted it on Facebook, tweeted about it and blogged on it on my writing blog.
If you write and are interested in taking the challenge, just email me using the link on the web page and sign up. This could be fun. If you are a reader, I hope you find the flash stories amusing and maybe a little challenging. It is a great way to bring your creativity from the back burner.

The Iron Writer Challenge

Hope to see you there.

B Y Rogers

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Verisimilitude: Engaging Readers

by Deren Hansen

[The following is some of the material I covered in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, last week.] 

In a post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog by agent Jon Sternfeld called, Engaging Your Audience, he said:

"What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

"A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie."

The idea of giving your readers something to do nailed the issue for me. I trust if you've read a few of my posts here you won't be at all surprised if I confess that I like to think about things. Much of the enjoyment I get out of a good book comes from all the things it gives me to think about, not only while reading but during the times in between when I can't read.

Boring a reader by not engaging them is bad enough. But letting a reader get engaged and then invalidating their efforts with a sudden twist borders on the criminal.

You may object that such things happen regularly in the movies. If so, reread Sternfeld's last line in the quote above.

I have good reason to suspect the books I've read that failed to engage me were written by authors who looked to movies for their inspiration. I like a book with a cinematic feel, but there are important differences between the experience of watching a movie and reading a book. It all comes down to respect: crafting your story so that it is, in effect, a conversation with your reader (the back and forth Stenfeld mentions).

Engaging you reader, however, goes beyond simply giving them something to do. When a reader is engaged with your story, they will feel it has a greater degree of verisimilitude--they will judge it to be a better story--because of all they contribute to the experience of reading the story.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Family Life

Family life is important. It can be a challenge to keep your family strong, write a book and keep all the other balls in the air that add to the juggling act. I’ve heard many successful writers say that their greatest accomplishment is their family.
How does a writer keep it all in perspective and prioritize effectively? It can be stressful to spend time with a child struggling with homework, when you have a writing deadline. But remember, you can never get that moment back. You may never have another opportunity to teach that child what can be taught only in that moment.
Scheduling your time helps a lot. But as the mother of six children I've found a few other tricks that can help too.
Writing in timed segments can be effective, especially if you have small children. Be sure children have something to do, then set a timer for a chunk of time and let children (large or small) know that you are writing. Explain that when the timer dings, you will be able to listen again, but you need this focused time to write. Even small children can learn to understand this at an early age (if the writing segments are short).
Sometimes small segments of time don’t do it though, and you need some focused writing time. That’s when it’s time to escape. Leave somebody else in charge and find a quiet library or motel room. I’ve even take my laptop and parked in a less-than-easy-to-find parking lot where nobody would find me. Accomplish what you can in that focused time and then enjoy your family when you return home.
That delicate balance between family life and writing and the rest of life can be found.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


I think I’m studying this thing too much. When I first began writing, I wrote carefree, jotting down events as they came to mind. Then I was introduced to WIFYR and became aware that there are formats and procedures and formulae to follow. More and more, I began to research what the experts were saying on writing. Now I’ve got so many “do this, don’t do that” things going on in my head, I’m bound to go against some expert’s opinion with every sentence I write.

Cheryl Klein, Martine Leavitt, Alane Ferguson, Ann Dee Ellis, Mathew Kirby, Kathleen Duey; these are some of the gurus to whose savvy advice I try to adhere. The latest is John Truby. I recently caught up on some back copies of the SCBWI journal when I ran across an article in the November/December issue. It talked about Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Silly me. I went out and purchased it.

I’m not sure which of the 22 steps I’m on, as they are not readily laid out in the table of contents. Truby addresses story anatomy from a screenwriter’s perspective but his concepts can be adapted to any fiction writing. I’m on the chapter about story structure. Truby says story structure is how a story develops over time.

He says your MC must have a weakness and a need. The weakness could be the character is arrogant or selfish or a liar and the need is to overcome the weakness. Then there must be desire, which is not the same as need. Desire is what the character wants. It is the driving force in the story and something the reader hopes he attains. Need has to do with a weakness within the character and desire is a goal outside of the character. The hero must, of course meet an opponent. Truby says the opponent does not try to prevent the MC from accomplishing their goal as much as they are in competition for the same thing. In a mystery story, it would seem the protagonist is opposed to the perpetrator of the crime. Under the surface, however, they are both competing for their version of the truth to be believed.

This is where the conflict is with my work-in-progress (my incredibly slow work-in-progress). It’s a middle grade book, so the story is not as intricate. Do kid characters need the complexity of adult characters? I get it that you can’t make them too sterile, too one-sided. Should a middle grade MC be arrogant or a liar?

Likewise, I’m having trouble with the opponent aspect. In my story, there is no real antagonist. There is a mystery the MC is trying to solve, but no person is preventing him.

The experts say do this or do that. My gut tells me different. What’s a poor writer to do?

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Marginalization of Writing

by Scott Rhoades

Yesterday as I was chatting with my friend and fellow writer Cliff at a cafe in San Francisco, the subject turned, as it always eventually does, to writing.

Cliff and I met back in ancient times when he was the tech writing manager at Atari and I was an ex-Atarian making some extra cash on the side by contracting for my former employer. We also both write fiction and other fun stuff while working at tech writing gigs for major companies. We were lamenting the current state of computer and software manuals compared to the good old days of thorough (if not always good) printed manuals, when Cliff made the comment that writing--and by extension writers--has become marginalized.

It's true, and not just in the thrill-a-minute world of technical writing.

Being a writer used to really mean something, back when literary writers and popular writers were often the same people, when an author could become a celebrity and writing a book was an accomplishment beyond the dreams of most people.

Of course, we still occasionally see authors become celebrities, but more often we see celebrities become authors. Certainly, people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and John Grisham prove that writers can still become Somebody. I also don't want to minimize the effort involved in writing a book. Whether an author pens the Great American Novel or the worst first draft ever or something in between, completing a manuscript is something to be proud of. A number strikingly close to "all" people who at one point or another start writing a book never finish a first draft. Finishing that draft, no matter how bad it is, puts the writer so much closer to a dream shared by millions than the humongous majority who never finish or even start that book they are "going to write someday."

But being a writer doesn't seem to carry the same cachet it once did.

Maybe because technology has made it easier. Word processing software and the relative ease of self-publishing means that anybody with the drive to write (admittedly, as I've shown, a small number of people) can publish a book. I'm trying to be careful here. Please don't take this as a knock against self-publishing. I think, in general, the ability to self-publish is breathing a new different life into the book industry, as it has in music, and that it's one of the great advances of our time, for better and for worse.

More importantly, though, I think the marginalization of writers is tied more closely to the marginalization of books. We have so many more forms of entertainment today than the generation before us did. Take that back two or three generations and it's really astounding. A new book once had the same impact as a new blockbuster. That's not so much the case anymore, with very rare exceptions. Even major newspapers and magazines have reduced or eliminated the space they use to devote to the latest books.

The college student I sat next to on the plane this afternoon, a nice, intelligent kid from Berkeley City College talked to me about how people don't read much anymore, and when they do it's in smaller chunks. That's not news to us who have been around a while, but it was a great revelation to Edwin when it was talked about in class, and something that is increasingly more true all the time.

In a world of instant gratification and realistic sound and graphics, where computer graphics can bombard our minds without requiring a lot of effort or imagination on our part, working through a book for a couple weeks appeals to an ever-decreasing audience.

I don't think this marginalization signals the downfall of Society. It's just the way things go. We seldom crawl into hard-to-access caves to paint pictures of animals and hunters these days. And when was the last time you read a hand-copied illuminated vellum manuscript? We've already witnessed the demise of poetry and short stories as profitable enterprises. Magazine and newspaper markets are drying up. Technical manuals are almost non-existent. The novel is likely to follow some day. When I was younger, everyone wanted to write a novel. Then it was a screenplay. Now that it's easy to work out our writing fantasies and our need to express ourselves online and through self-publishing, anybody can say they write, even many who shouldn't but do. There is, ironically, probably more public writing happening now than ever in our history. When anybody can do it, and when much that is produced is somewhat lacking in quality, there is very little mystique left to being a writer. And so we are sent to the margins.

I'm just glad that those of us who participate in this blog, as writers or readers, are actively involved in bucking the trend. We write and we read and we value words. We enjoy the patience required to page through a thick book to find out what happens in the end. We love the pictures words form in our heads, and how deeply involved we ca become in characters' lives when we live with them for the time it takes to read a book.

We also understand that being in the margins isn't all that bad. In fact, the margins are where many of the great writers in history, like other kinds of artists, come from. Artists, and that includes writers, have rarely come from the center of humanity. It takes a special kind of weirdness to bring our subconscious to consciousness and to share our waking dreams with others. Whether writing continues to be marginalized until it is no longer valued, or it makes a comeback somewhere down the road, we will always have storytellers, even if the means of delivering the stories changes.

So bring on the margins. Anybody who has ever worked with an editor knows that the margins are where many of the best ideas take form.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 7, Interior Monologue

(Same guidelines as previously. My  wayward thoughts and comments are in parenthesis.)

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 7, Interior Monologue

One of the greatest gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts: interior monologue...allowing your readers to see what your character is thinking is a powerful, intimate way to establish that character's personality.

Constant interruptions are just as annoying on the page as they are in life, and this writer (from an example in the book, which you need to purchase anyway) has interrupted her dialogue with interior monologue over and over again.

So how do you know you've gone too far with interior monologue? (See answer on page 118)

It is also possible to have too little interior monologue.
(A one page example of dialogue, between a husband and wife, without any interior dialogue, then:) But her (the character in the example) exhaustion and intimidation need to be present in the scene as well as in the context. She doesn't stop feeling these things while she is on the phone with him. Because she's too intimidated to confront him, the writer can't show her feelings in dialogue. It would be difficult  to work Nia's specific feelings into emotionally weighted descriptions without breaking up the rhythm of the dialogue.

So what's the right amount of interior monologue? (See answer on page 122)

(Throughout the book, there are several cartoons to emphasis a point. In this chapter, there is one that I found especially humorous. In the single panel, we see two women, sitting at a table, in a very sparse room. The caption reads exactly as follows: "So far all her dreams have not come true but she wants high romance and a baby while her husband want to be, and is, a very successful broker, who takes graduate courses at night and wants no baby and at the same time she has more or less recovered from being in love with the well-digger who dug her well, which is good since he is married with three children and is a drug addict and an alcoholic and he claims he's dying, although there are no signs of this and she says once she finds an outlet for her unrequited love she will lose eighty-five pounds.  I enjoyed that sentence." (Get it?)

(Oh, here is a great one:) It's rarely a good idea to have your characters mumble to themselves or speak under their breath.
How to handle your interior monologue depends almost entirely on your narrative distance. (I am still trying to wrap my mind around 'narrative distance'. I will work on it more the second time I go through this book.)

Thinker attributions. Whenever you're writing from a single point of view-as you will be ninety percent of the time-you can simply jettison thinker attributions.

Another technique for setting off interior monologue sharply is to write in the first person (often with italics) when you narrative is in third...Effective as this technique can be in letting readers into your character's head, be careful not to use it too often.

Interior dialogue can easily become a gimmick, and if overused it can make your characters seem as if they have multiple-personality disorder.

Generations of hacks have used italics to punch up otherwise weak dialogue...frequent italics have come to signal weak writing. (In other words, don't use italics.)

How do you set off your interior dialogue when you're writing with narrative intimacy?  (See answer on page 128)

(I failed to mention that this book is the 2nd Edition. I needed to clarify this so you understand the final paragraph.)

We have noticed since the first edition of this book came out that a lot of writers have taken our advice about showing and telling too much to heart. The result has sometimes been sterile writing, consisting mostly of bare-bones descriptions and skeletal dialogue. Yet fiction allow for marvelous richness and depth, and nowhere more so than through interior monologue. You have to be careful not to go overboard, but interior monologue gives you opportunity to invite your readers into your characters minds, sometimes with stunning effect.

B Y Rogers

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Verisimilitude in Dystopias

by Deren Hansen

[The following is some of the material I'm going to cover in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, on Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm.]

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood." (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you're dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

More generally, verisimilitude depends upon patterns and precedents, not arbitrary assertions.

Consider, for example, the recent bumper crop of dystopian novels.The societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos. At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications. But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clichés, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists: stereotying.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies is to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but buy in to it because they believe they can be winners too one day.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

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

Monday, February 11, 2013

What Filming Taught Me About Knowing Your Characters

By Julie Daines

I've always considered myself very well acquainted with my characters. After all, we've lived together in my head for several years. I know what they like and hate, what bugs them, and what they really want from life. I thought that was enough.

Until now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been working with a film director to create a book trailer for my latest release--A Blind Eye. It's been a very eye-opening (pun intended) experience to look at my story and characters from a visual/film perspective. The director is asking me a lot of questions that are making me rethink my relationship with my characters. 

What would Christian have hanging from his rearview mirror that tells us something about who he is? What might be laying on the seat beside him that gives us a glimpse into his personality? What music would he be listening to as he drives away? (Okay, that one I can answer.) What would he . . . 

Anyway, as we went through some of these questions, I thought: These little details give wonderful insight into my character and would be great in the book too! They are a perfect way to show who your character is without telling.

Someone once said you should understand your characters so thoroughly, you know what secret object they have hidden in the back of their closet. 

How well do you know your characters?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writers Wanted...

This was posted on our Facebook page:

Helper Business Association is looking for children's authors in the Price area to do a book signing event for our First Friday March 1st!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Writing conferences

The New York publishing houses have their eye on Utah children’s writers. Elissa Cruz, of the local SCBWI, said that publisher refer to us as the “Mormon Mafia.” Deren Hansen mentioned in his Wednesday post that Utah seems to have a disproportionate number of writers. It could be that we take our craft seriously as evidenced by the number of writing conferences in the state. Three good ones in particular are coming up soon.

Deren mentioned the LTUE next weekend. Years ago the brilliant Douglass Adams penned Life, the Universe and Everything, from which LTUE takes its name. Life, The Universe, and Everything is a three-day symposium that examines the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Their sessions are full of all topics imaginable to writers of these genres. They offer several editors and agents and you can sign up for a pitch session with them. For more information, click on their site:

In May the LDStorymakers meet. They, too, have some amazing sessions along with publishers and a pitch session. One of my critique group members is going and encouraging the rest of us to go. I’m having a hard time finding a reason not to attend. More information can be found here:

My favorite writer’s conference is WIFYR in June. Carol Lynch Williams does such a service to the children’s writing community by providing top-notch authors and a week to sit in their workshops and glean tips of the craft. This is a weeklong event with afternoon sessions offering speakers detailing the multiple aspects of writing. Real writing growth comes from the morning workshops. Guided and pampered by an acclaimed author, participants meet in an intimate setting with other like-minded writers Monday through Friday. The author shares their take on character and story development, trends in the publishing industry, and tips on how to move your manuscript out of the sludge-pile and get it noticed. Agents and editors will be at WIFYR, as well. Registration will open soon. Go here to learn more:

Whatever your ability level, you can kick your writing up a notch by attending any of these wonderful Utah offerings.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Self-Character

by Scott Rhoades

Writing about Sir Thomas Malory and his Le Morte d'Arthur, John Steinbeck said, "It is nearly always true that a novelist, perhaps unconsciously, identifies himself with one of the chief or central characters in his novel, Into this character he puts not only what he thinks he is but what he hopes to be. We call this spokesman the self-character."

The self-character doesn't have to be the protagonist, or even the antagonist. Usually, we plan this character carefully and give him or her a central place in the story, as Steinbeck suggested. Often, though, the character takes us by surprise. We write a character who is meant to have an important role, but a relatively short-lived one. Once we start writing, though, that character takes on a life of his own, capturing the author's imagination, and as a result evolves into a more important character than we had expected. That character often ends up giving the story a little something special that might otherwise have been lacking.

As my writing group can tell you, I had that experience in one of my stories, a Middle Grade tale about an orphan who comes into his own. The kid, Christopher, has a tutor named Alexander. In an early draft, Alexander had a significant role, but not a very big one. In fact, I had two separate adults who acted as Christopher's helper at different points of the story, Alexander and a cook, whose name I don't even remember. I think it might have just been Cook.

Alexander surprised me by coming to life and by taking on--actually making fun--a couple of my personal quirks. He is easily distracted, especially if there is something that can be researched. As I know all too well, there is always something that can be researched. I had too much fun with Alexander and, although there are very important differences between us, I identified with him. He's a comic character, but by parodying some of my own personality, I brought him to life, and it became obvious that I had to keep him around. So I axed Cook and kept Alexander throughout the story, except for a while near the end when Christopher needs to solve his problems without adult intercedence.

In a different story, I wrote a girl character who was meant to help the main characters for a short time. It's a fish-out-of-water story, and I used this character to help the protagonist and his sidekick understand and navigate their new surroundings. I'm not sure how it happened, but I ended up identifying with certain parts of her character, and her role expanded significantly. Maybe because she got to be the mouthpiece for my research, a teacher and a guide.

I don't know that either of these characters really represent me in the way that Steinbeck's "self-character" would. Chances are that I'm better represented by a different character that people who know me best recognize me in more than I do. But the fact remains that, by putting myself into some of my characters and using them to help me tell the story the way I want to, to say what I want to say, I've made these characters bigger than I had meant to and, I hope, more interesting to read.

Of course, we put more of ourselves into our stories and our characters than we think we do, certainly more than we intend to. But it seems like there's always one character who, whether we mean to or not, ends up representing us, maybe in unexpected and unintentional ways. That's the self-character. If you discover him and make use of him, your story is almost certain to be better because of him.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 6, How It Sounds

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter 6, How It Sounds

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.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Blooming in Unlikely Places: LTUE 31

by Deren Hansen

There is an established order to things: movies come out of Hollywood and books come out of New York. The coasts are where the interesting things happen and the middle states are what you fly over. And in an established order, you must go to the center if you want to succeed. No one will find you if you set up shop off the beaten path.

Except when they do. Sometimes if you build it, they do come.

Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31 will meet on February 14 – 16, 2013 in Provo, Utah. The symposium organized thirty-one years ago by a BYU professor has grown into one of the largest writing conferences in the Intermountain West.

Provo? Utah? There’s nothing there but snow, salt, and a peculiar religious tradition, right?

Actually, Utah boasts a surprising — some would say disproportionate — number of writers. And LTUE is only one of nearly a dozen writing conferences held in Utah. It’s hard to say whether the number of writers grew because of the conferences, or the conferences because of the writers, but we have a vibrant, vital writing community out here in what many would say is the middle of nowhere.


Because no one took any notice of the fact that portions of Utah look remarkably like Tatooine or that their Western home was far away from the bright center of the publishing universe. Instead, they devoted themselves to what they loved: they wrote and they found like-minded people who wanted to get together periodically and talk about writing. They didn’t worry (too much) about what was going on elsewhere or, more importantly, what anyone else thought.

Sometimes the best way to succeed is to forget about the established order, pursue your fascination, and simply invite others to share what you’ve discovered.

For those of you in the area, I will be sharing two presentations at LTUE 31: “Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction,” (Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm) and “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps,” (Friday, February 15, 2013 at 11:00 am). I’ll also be holding forth on various panels about anachronisms, archetypes, and anthropology. (And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, stop me in the hallway.)

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

Monday, February 4, 2013

Fake Name Generator

You have to check out this site!

Fake Name Generator

I know you've seen many sites to help generate names. I personally have used baby name sites. This one is much more than just names.

Fake Name Generator give EVERYTHING you'll need for your new character. Here's a random character I tried:

Donna R. Hegwood

1545 Pallet Street
White Plains, NY 10601

Phone: 914-394-5878
Email Address:
Username: Hadet1993
Password: Neingah2ooc
Mother's Maiden name: Moor
Birthday: May 6, 1993 (19 years old)
Visa: 4539 2374 1084 0342
CVV: 506
SSN: 084-32-2754
Occupation: Rancher
Company: Budget Tapes & Records
Vehicle: 2004 Suzuki Swift
UPS Tracking Number: 1Z 94A 854 46 7847 142 5
Blood type: O+
Weight: 166.3 pounds (75.6 kilograms)
Height: 5' 6" (167 centimeters)

Can you believe it? With one or two clicks you get everything from a name to a website to blood type. Crazy! It's fun to play with :) You can put in different countries and nationalities too.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Writing in the Christian Children's Market

This week I thought I would change it up a bit and have Christian Author Elizabeth Kail Arnita share why she writers Christian picture books. This is a huge market many children's writers don't think about breaking into. It doesn't matter what church you go to, the fact is, if you are a Christian this is a market you might want to consider breaking into if you're frustrated with the main stream children's market.

Why do I Write Religious/Christian Based Books for Kids
By Elizabeth Kail Arnita

In Proverbs 22:6, the Bible states, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”  I believe when parents enlighten their children to the truths of Scripture, they are not only giving them “good rules” to live by, but enabling them to become people who make a positive difference by leading lives that go beyond themselves.   

More than ever, it is easy for people to lose their way in this big world.  For me, the Bible is the GPS system for living.  It not only offers directions on where to go, but also gives excellent counsel on how to get back on track when you take wrong turns.  As any good GPS system does, the Word of God alerts the navigator to danger ahead and gives them alternate routes.  It pilots the reader through difficult circumstances and even displays “Points of Interest” that intrigue the most experienced traveler.  We can choose to utilize the life lessons of those who did and didn’t follow God’s instruction to help us reach our own destination.  No matter how lost I am God’s Word always offers a way home and everyone can relate to the trails we find in the Bible no matter our religious background.

What is amazing about the stories in the Bible is they are no different when you look at their structure from any other fictional or historical storyline we might read today. First, each story as a beginning, middle and end. There is a main character, a problem/conflict, antagonist, failures and the stratify ending once the conflict is resolved. You can also see a mentor in each story. Jesus told many stories to his followers in this same way. 

In navigating through life, today’s children face more obstacles than any other generations.  By taking the teachings from the Bible and turning them into a modern day story, children can learn many of life lessons. On the road of life, there are so many bumps, detours, road blocks and wrongly labeled signs; if guidance is not given, getting lost is inevitable.  I have chosen to write stories based on Biblical foundations that offer parents another way to address wise council into their children’s life.   It is my prayer that the lessons open discussions, giving opportunities to delve deeper into some of life’s twists and turns.  By God’s grace, the stories can be used to help people strengthen their relationship with Him or others in their life.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Arnita is the youngest of 12 children. She learned early in life about family dynamics and the concept of sharing. After graduating in 1983, with a degree in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, Elizabeth married Shadi and they have been blessed with four fabulous children. Her love for the Lord has opened her eyes to a world in need and ignited her compassion for those who are less fortunate. She and her husband founded and continue to manage Welcome The Children; a non-profit organization that funds and supports children who are experiencing the reality of poverty. Elizabeth Arnita has designated all of the proceeds from her book sales to support WTC.

You can find out more about Elizabeth Arnita, her books and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at

As you can see, writing children's lit based off your religious background can help inspire story ideas and give you another avenue to break into print. You don't have to quote scripture, just use a favorite story from the Bible (or whatever book your religion uses). 

If you don't want people to know your religious background...use a pen name. 

My reason for having Elizabeth Kail Arntia share her thoughts today is to show how inspiration can come from all over. In books we read, religion, family history, etc. Don't limit yourself as a writer because you're afraid what others might say.

Jack Remick (poet, short story writer and novelist) once said to me, "A serious writer has a bookself." What he means is to write more than you will even see published. Write more than one book, short story, poem, etc. You must keep writing and building your bookself even if you haven't published a manuscript yet. So open those wings and start flying.