Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

CRAFT: Dialogue - All you gotta do is listen

I'm told I write great dialogue, or at least good dialogue, but who knows?  It's all subjective and a matter of opinion.  However, I do like to write dialogue and my first draft is almost entirely just...dialogue.  Probably proves nothing at all but I thought I'd mention it as a sort of credential.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this dialogue thing because there's nothing that can't be improved upon.  If you're currently having problems with your dialogue (no one thinks they are having problems with their dialogue but an honest critique partner might let you know) the fastest way to find out is to read it aloud.  Or, better yet, get a friend to read it aloud while you listen.  If it sounds stilted, it's because it is.

Some of you may know that I write historical romantic mysteries--sort of.  One of the biggest myths about the Regency period is that no one used contractions.  Not!  Sure, when they were giving a formal speech or when in a particularly hoity-toity situation this might be true, but on a day-to-day basis...naw.  People use contractions when they speak.  They also leave out words, speak in half-sentences, and otherwise butcher the language.

However, you do have to make what your characters say at least seem to make sense so you can't go completely crazy.  So, here is my advice on the subject of dialogue.

Regency Period
Give your hero and heroine a break and let them use a few contractions so their speech sounds less stilted.  Those are the two characters you really want your readers to bond with and no modern reader is going to bond with a character who sounds like she's talking with her nose in the air.  If you have older characters who are very proper, let them take the heat and enuciate everything perfectly and speak very properly with no contractions.  I'd also allow the normal citizens to speak with contractions--you know, the hawkers in the street and the poor little flower girl selling voilets on the corner.

If you actually look at documents from the period, not only do they use contractions, but they use so many abbreviations that I actually have a hard time figuring out what they're trying to say (and why do they HATE the letter 'e'?  It's the letter most commonly left out...).

The Duchess of Devenshire wrote to a friend in 1788...
I don't know in my Life that I Pass'd so many Miserable Hours, S. had so completely involved himself with Ly D. in that a suit was actually commenced against them in the Doctors Commons...however, thank God! The business is hush'd up...

I see "don't" used a lot in letters and reported conversation, so that's at least one contraction you are completely safe in using for Regency-set stories.

The point here is that you want your hero and heroine, at least, to sound human and like someone the reader could care about.  No one likes a stuffed shirt.  'Nuff said.  (Oh, and if you want to really sound historical, abbreviate everyone's name to just an initial, capitolize most of your nouns, and replace all your 'e' characters with a apostrophe ( ' ).  Yeah.  Right.

This "don't use contractions" rule probably came about by readers of Jane Austen who was very sparing of contractions (she mostly didn't use them) but I think it's important to realize her novels were somewhat formal affairs where everyone pretty much spoke correctly. But even this high authority had her moments...

From PERSUASION by Jane Austen
"Yes, I have.  Presently.  But here comes a friend, Captain Brigden; I shall only say, 'How d'ye do,' as we pass, however.  I shall not stop.  'How d'ye do.'

Be aware that all writers are writing for their audience and their times.  In Austen's time, readers preferred main characters who spoke beautifully and it is mostly the secondary, 'lower class' characters who may be portrayed as speaking in a more informal fashion (although this is not 100% true even in Austen).

If you are writing now, be aware that while 'lower class' characters may still speak more informally, most of our readers are not going to bond with characters who speak like they have a poker stuck up their rear end, hence my suggestion to let the hero and heroine use a few contractions to make them easier to like.

I've said that about a dozen ways now, so I'll move on to more modern time frames.

If you want to write good dialogue, you're going to have to be a good listener.
When I was in High School, I had a teacher who thought he was hot stuff and decided to teach us "kids" that we were not good listeners.  So, for one of his lectures, he talked about a technique for listening which he called reflective listening.  It's a real technique and I urge you to try it.  This dumb-ass teacher just made the assumption we would not know how to do this, but anyone who has parents knows just how far they can push them, and they know because they're using reflective listening.   Teenagers know perfectly well that when dad says, "That's enough!" in a certain tone of voice, he means, you had better shut up and run like hell because the world as you know it is about to explode into a million jagged fragments and if you're here when that happens it is not going to be a good experience for you.

Of course the fact that both my parents got their PhD's in Child Development/Psychology also means that I may be a little more familiar with this technique than your average skate-boarding/head-phone-wearing/pink-haired psycho.  Anyway, this technique involves listening.  You rarely say anything and when you do, it's basically an attempt to restate or clarify what the speaker has said to make sure you really understand them.  It responds to the person rather than to the impersonal or abstract.  You are not asking questions or telling what the listener feels or wants-you're listening and reflecting back what they are saying.

So, how will this help you?  It will make you listen to what people are saying and how they are saying it.  Then, when you go to write dialogue, you are going to write it the way you remember people actually speaking.

Like I said, unless they are giving a speech or are in some formal situation, people speak very off-handedly.  They rarely use a complete sentence.  Depending upon the character, they may not even speak grammatically.  I would caution you, however, not to go insane and start using a lot of bizarre spelling to indicate dialects or accents, because that is a dialogue killer.  It makes it unreadable.  All you have to do is sprinkle in a few characteristic words that a particular character likes to use, and that will make the reader "hear" the dialect without making them go insane trying to decipher mispelled/phonetic words. 

Let me give you a few good examples of dialogue from recent books, set well, recently.

From DUTCH UNCLE by Peter Pavia
"Right now?  I'm trying to get back to New York."
"Is that right," Leo said.  "How much money you got?"
"I don't know, I got a few bucks."  He knew the amount to the penny, $12.97, but there was no reason Leo had to know it, too.

"You feel like making some?"
Harry didn't know if he liked the way that sounded.  "What do I have to do?"
"When was the last time you saw your uncle?"
"My uncle," Harry said.  "What uncle?  How do you know my uncle?"
Leo looked at him like he knew a secret.  "I'm talking about your uncle Manfred."

I love this because Leo answers a question with a question which is just so in character.  You see what I mean about the casual tone?  This sounds exactly like two guys talking...which is what it is.

From DEJA DEAD by Kathy Reichs
"What do you think you're doing?  You break that door, trou de cul, and you're going to pay for it."
"Police," said Claudel, ignoring the asshole reference.
"Yeah?  You show me something."

I included this because it shows you exactly what I mean about dialect.  She doesn't make it impossible for the reader by trying to do some phonetic hijinks to show a French accent or dialect.  What she does is include one small phrase, trou de cul, which she even defines for the reader on the next line in a very off-hand but expert manner.

Now, the final example from a book which is almost entirely dialogue.

From BIG TROUBLE by Dave Barry
"So what you're telling me," Evan Hanratty, organizer of the Killer game, said to Matt, "is that her mom beat you up?  Her mom?"...

"She jumped me from behind," said Matt.  "And there were two of them.  And I wasn't gonna hit women."
"Looks like they hit you pretty good," said Evan, studying Matt's lower lip.
"Well, I got a lot of help from my backup man," said Matt.
"Hey," said Andrew, "call me crazy, but when somebody starts shooting, I leave."

Note the use of italics (reversed here, actually, for purposes of this blog) to place the emphasis on certain words.  This is important because it gives this the right rhythm for the speakers, who are teenagers.

My final tips are:

  • Don't have conversation consisting of silliness like line after line of "Yes." "No." "The weather is fine."  That sort of dialogue is a time-waster and can be covered in a simple:  She agreed.   Don't waste space on conversation that is going nowhere.  There is an exception to this and it was done in DEJA DEAD when the police were grilling a suspect.  The suspect only answered in monosyllables, but it was important to the scene.
  • Don't use perfect sentences--no one talks like that.  Listen to the rhythm of real conversation and try some reflective listening to pick up what people are really saying and how they are saying it.  (Just don't get confused and start to think you're a psychologist and begin asking questions like:  Is it accurate to say that what you are feeling when you say that is...)
  • Don't be afraid to use a sprinkling of contractions in Regency-speak.
  • Don't go insane and use a lot of garbled phonetics that no one is going to take the time to sound out or understand.
  • Try to keep the conversations "in character".  If all your characters sound alike, you've got a problem.  People have different pet phrases--it's often a good idea to figure out a rhythm and/or pet phrase for your main characters that will indicate to the reader who is speaking.  It will give them a handle and make your characters seem more realistic.  For example, you could have a detective who frequently uses the phrase, "I see," when questioning suspects.  I like to key this off of other character traits when developing conversational traits.  Some people are very sound-oriented.  They need to hear something to understand and remember it, so as a student, they may prefer a lecture to reading material in a book.  This person may use phrases such as, "I hear ya," or "We're not all singing the same song," when they talk.  They use phrases related to the audatory senses when possible.  Someone who uses the phrase, "I see," may be more visually oriented.  A person who is a "do-er" or who needs "hands on" to learn something, may use phrases such as "I can't get a grip on that," or "I can't grasp that."
  • Read your dialogue out loud.  If it sounds formal and/or stilted and it's not intended to do so, then cut out a few words.  Make it more casual.  You don't need to be grammatically correct in dialogue--only in the other parts of your writing.  Of course, punctuation is still important. :-)

That's it - have fun!  If you have dialogue pet peeves, I'd love to hear about them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Ways to Improve your Writing

As I've already mentioned ad nauseum, I'm in the midst of revising a manuscript. It's a good thing, too, because I can't believe how bad that manuscript really was, even though two agents have signed me based upon it. In any event, I got about half-way through revisions and started to worry that I was adding too much introspection.

How much is too much?
One way to get some sort of measure is to see what other, published writers have done. After glancing through a few books, I realized I needed a way to visualize the percentage of introspection in a book and I remembered a technique I had heard about in a writing seminar.

This technique consisted of taking a packet of different colored highlighters and marking the various elements such as dialogue, description, introspection, etc, with different colors so you could see at a glance the weight of each element. This is fine, but I find it's too much extraneous information and too many colors to deal with--too much information, but it was still useable if I exercised a little moderation. I just picked up one highlighter and highlighted all the introspection in one chapter that was at about the same "place" in the book as my current editing location. I wanted the relative placement to be just about even because as books progress, the amount of introspection often changes.

It worked. But here's the really exciting part: although I was about average as far as the amount of introspection, I had unexpectedly changed my hero, and not for the better. Somehow, going through marking things up made me realize understand other aspects such as this character change. Because of all my editing, my hero had started to overthink things. As I was editing, I added a lot of complex inner thoughts.

Women tend to do that, men--less so. Men tend to be more "direct" thinkers, perhaps even "simple" in that they don't circle around the barn when they can just walk right through it. Cut to the chase, bottom line. That's how my hero was before I started fooling around with him. In highlighting the introspection, I realized I was uncomfortable not because I had too much introspection, but because I was inadvertently changed my hero from a fairly straightforward guy into a convoluted, angst-ridden, hand-wringing person. Not good.

Sometimes when we think we have a problem, it isn't the problem we think we have.

Thank goodness for highlighters.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Damped Flailing

This is really more by way of reassurance than anything, because it takes me a long time to work things out and I'm trying to convince myself that I'm not a terrible writer.  Over the last few months, I've been trying to work out a way to write which will not require a million drafts, massive cutting, and even more gigantic episodes of rewriting.  I keep thinking there has got to be a better way--I've got to learn how to do this more efficiently and with better quality.  Right now, I'm stuck, and I mean STUCK in revision hell and it's making me think maybe I'm not such a great writer, after all.  I look at my critique partners who started out approximately when I did, and they are all published.  Some are e-published, some are single title published with traditional publishers. 

I'm still lagging behind, as usual.  So what am I doing wrong?

When I first started writing, I plotted out everything very carefully and grew distraught when halfway through I realized things weren't going according to plan and I had to replot.  At the same time, I was attending writing conferences and it seemed like everyone I knew (who got published--this is the key thing for me--I was looking at methods used by those who actually got published) thought that plotters were, well, a lower form of writer.  All my critique partners who got single title contracts with traditional publishers such as Kensington were pansters.

So, I thought maybe my problem was that I shouldn't be a plotter, I should be a panster--one of those writers who just write by the seat of their pants.  This technique slowed me down, though, because I didn't know where I was going with the story, so I sort of compromised by writing perhaps three phrases for each chapter that indicated to me what I wanted to do in that chapter.  Not in depth plotting, but I could stumble along with that.

Then, attending a few more sessions, this time given by plotters, I realized I really did need to plot things out because when I didn't, my writing slowed to a crawl and I thought, if I did a good job plotting, maybe I wouldn't have to cut and rewrite so much.  These published writers who plotted often only did one draft!  Amazing!

Then, to my horror, I realized that a major part of my problem was what I was plotting.  I was plotting scenes or events, not character developments.  In large part, I thought this was necessary because I have a mystery element, so it made sense to me that if the body is found in Chapter 3, I ought to plot out that the body is found in Chapter 3. 

It is slowly dawning on me that this is not right.  I'm focused on the wrong thing.  I'm focused on the plot element happening--the body being found--instead of what is happening to the character at that time.  Here is what I mean.  If your story concerns a detective who doesn't trust women and he's called to investigate a death where it appears that a woman may be the killer, then the discovery of the body isn't the plot point you need to consider--the body is the "scenery" and you wouldn't say for a plot point that they discover a chair in the dining room.  The plot point is the fact that the detective is now involved in a murder which will test him in the way he deals with women. Will he allow his prejudices to influence his investigation?  How will he wrestle with this?  Can he be fair?  Will he ask to be assigned to a different case?

This is much more difficult - it's much easier to focus on what is happening instead of the character's issues and development (I refuse to call it a journey), but that is what is important.

That's why I end up cutting and doing rewrites - because after I've written the book, I realize that I haven't covered the character's development and that needs to be addressed.  (My first draft also consists almost solely of dialogue with small bits of action, so I actually have to add in all the descriptions, emotions, transitions, etc.  I even have to add in dialogue tags.  I remember one scene that went on for several pages with so few "he said" and "she said" tags that during revisions I lost track of who was speaking half-way down the page and had to go through and put tags in so I knew what was going on.  The amazing thing is that when I wrote it, I followed the conversation without any tags at all, quite well.)

I also have to "get to know" my characters and the only way for me to do that is to write.  As a result, I usually throw away the first chapter or two, because those are my crucible where I form the characters.  I can't avoid this.  I can draw all the character sketches I want, do all the interviews I want, do all the things other writers do to flesh out their characters, but until they start interacting with one another and the situation, I don't know them well enough to get a good start on the story.  Now, I have written two manuscripts where I believe I've started them in a place that might be Chapter One in the finished product, but I'm not holding my breath.  I won't know until I'm done editing them.

The bottom line of this is actually several bottom lines.
1)  It's okay to be a plotter, a panster, or something else, like me.  Everyone is unique and you really do have to write in the way that works best for you.  Try different techniques and see what you like.  Throw away the rest.  Don't feel like you're less talented just because you don't follow any of the well-known strategies.

2)  Sometimes, you can't finish a manuscript in one draft with one revision.  That might work for really tight writers--I know several in fact who do this--but for some of us, this just doesn't work.  The process of writing for me more closely resembles something a previous boss called damped flailing.

3)  Damped flailing is my technique.  It's for people who are not plotters and not pansters.  Damped is a term more often seen in physics, but it basically means to slow, decrease or stop the amplitude of an oscillating system.  Your book is the oscillating system and it's a real mess when you're done with draft 1--it's oscillating all over the place.  So, what damped flailing is, is starting out flailing around in a huge spiraling circle, trying to figure out your plots and your characters and get that down on paper as your first draft.  As you work on the story, the spiral gets tighter and your flailing around decreases, but doesn't entirely go away until you're done editing.  The some drafts may even cause you to flail around into larger spiraling circles again until you find all the pieces you wanted in your story, and take out all the bad bits, until you focus it down to a very precise, tight little story--rather like the eye of a hurricane.     

I wish I didn't have to do things this way.  I wish I didn't have to almost entirely rewrite my current manuscript, but this time around, my flailing is definitely damped and I'm hoping to get it right.

I hope this encourages you if you're like me and can't create the perfect masterpiece the first, second or even third time.  Or if you go through the pain of having to cut your first few beloved chapters because, after the fourth edit, you realize you really didn't need them after all.  It's all good.

Here's to all of us writers who flail around blindly, hoping for the best.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

CRAFT: Improving your writing

I've been judging writing contests lately, not that I'm published yet or have any great claim to knowledge, and I've noticed something that's been on my mind. Some writers just sound...immature. Not emotional immaturity -- I don't really know how you'd know about that aspect, but their writing is immature. I've noticed that most published writers do not have this quality.

Immature is probably not a good word for this, but I do believe that writers can improve so I wanted to use a word that implied it would be possible to get over it. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. What this quality is, however, is extremely hard to define. I believe that is what makes it so hard for many of us writers who get to a certain level to get over that last hurdle into publication. We may have wonderful characters, great plots, understand scene and sequel, and do it all, but our writing just isn't what it needs to be. It's not polished.

It is painfully obvious when I read contest entries that some writers are not polished, but many times, I don't even mention it because I can't define what the writing is lacking and how to fix it. I am sure, however, when I read it that it is not going to get published no matter how great the story itself is. So, struggling with my own rewrites and the fear that my writing is also immature, I'm going to try to describe what I think some of the issues are. It isn't easy.

1. Too many short, choppy sentences or incomplete sentences. Like this one.

    Many writers of suspense, mysteries or Chick Lit have developed a style that uses a lot of rapid-fire, short sentences. That is fine for a really tense scene or an action scene because the short sentences move the story more quickly, however this style can really get old very quickly. I sat in on an agent discussing some of the submissions they had seen and one of the things this agent mentioned was his dislike of incomplete and abrupt sentences. It is okay once in a while but not if the whole story is written in this style. You want to have a more flowing structure except in those passages where the staccato paragraphs are necessary because of what is going on. They should be the exception and not the rule. If you constantly use very short sentences, it develops this unpleasant rhythm very quickly, along the lines of See Jane run. Isn't Jane fast? Jane is tired now.

2. Sentences which are all alike. These can be short sentences, or long sentences, or sentences which all have the same structure.

    Here is an example.
    Robert came home from work a few minutes early only to find his wife in bed with Albert, the guy next door and Robert's used-to-be-best friend. Robert hadn't expected his marriage to end so abruptly nor had he expected to lose his only friend in the process. Robert also didn't expect to be indicted for murder because he wasn't good with surprises but he was very good with a gun.

    Okay, what was wrong? The fact that every sentence started with "Robert".
    You can make the same mistake by having every sentence start with a phrase, such as the following.

    Realizing that he didn't want to go to jail, Robert dragged both bodies into the garage and stuffed them into the trunk of his late-model Oldsmobile, thinking it was really too bad that he had to use his wife's car because if she had been in a position to know, she'd be furious that her trunk was about to be stained quite badly. Walking back into the house, he cleaned up the bedroom and changed the sheets since although he wasn't as neat as his wife, he wasn't such as pig that he wanted to wallow around in the results of his handiwork. Trembling with exhaustion, he finally cooked himself dinner and relaxed in front of the television, thinking nothing would really start smelling until at least tomorrow afternoon.

So, you want to vary your sentence length and your sentence structure, both. Most of the time, you also want to use longer (not run-on like me, but long-er) sentences to avoid the "Dick and Jane ran up the hill" syndrome. One thing you are battling is reader boredom and there is nothing that will bore a reader faster than sentences that all sound the same or pages upon pages of very short sentences. It sort of gets on your nerves after about 2 pages. (I'm telling you this based on my own frayed nerves after reading contest entries that average 25 pages, some of which have short, choppy and partial sentences throughout without any breaks at all. There may be one or two slightly longer sentences, but no nice refreshing paragraphs of more flowing text.)

3. The other problem I see in many manuscripts is a lack of vocabulary. I could argue this point--there are a lot of people out there who say you should never use big words, but frankly, I get bored with excessively simple writing. I like there to be at least a few interesting words, otherwise you again get that "Dick and Jane" effect. One thing to note is that you may want to step back and sort of unfocus your eyes and see if your sentences seem to all be short words on the page with nothing longer than six or seven characters. This is a very good clue that you may need to vary your wording a bit to give your writing some interest.

These things don't seem like much, and they aren't, until you have to read a bunch of manuscripts that do these things to you. Remember, editors and agents are reading many, many manuscripts each day. The last thing you want to do is get on their nerves or bore them. Believe me.