Archive for category Writing Tips

It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog

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She’s baaaaack. Well, sort of. Today I have an extra special treat. This is going to sound super conceited but whatever, it is MY blog😛 . But first lemme caveat with this.

I feel I DO have a knack for predicting the next big thing. Case in point, in 1993 I was at an air show and there was an unknown all-female band I chatted with because no one was really over there. I loved their unique sound and gushed over how one member employed the banjo (an instrument forgotten at that time).

I told them I was sure they were going to be the next biggest thing in country music, and even bought some of the cheap merchandise they sold to support their music and prove I meant what I said.

That little band was The Dixie Chicks.

I’ve done this time and time again with authors and bloggers and I can tell you that if there is any sense in this world, J.E. Fishman (A.K.A. Dana Wolff) will be the next legendary author of our time. He’s already proven himself as a NYC agent and editor and he is one HELL of an author (multi-published).

Speaking of HELL, his latest release The Prisoner of Hell Gate written under the pen name Dana Wolff is by far one of the most amazing books I have ever read (and I pretty much hate everything
occupational hazard). Not only is the story sheer genius (Filed under “Stuff I Wish I Would Have Thought Of”) the prose is like fine French cooking.

If you like bare Hemingway writing with no description and lean sentences? This is not for you. But, if you are a lover of words and cannot help but GORGE on “perfect description”? Just plan on highlighting almost everything. My paper copy just became a damn coloring book. I gave up and got the audio so I would actually finish the book.

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In fact, I sent J.E. a message telling him I hated him. *flops on bed* I can’t wriiiiiiiite like that. I suuuuuuuck.

Seriously, I will blog more on this book later, but OMG. Get this book and if you want a MIND-BLOWING experience? Buy it in audio. Whoever did the narration? She needs to read every book I ever listen to for like
ever.

I will stop gushing now and let J.E. take over but like many of my other blogs foretelling the future (like the ones that predicted The Big Six would shrink, that self-pub would explode, that Amazon would HAVE to open a brick-and-mortar, that stretchy pants were here to stay)
one day you will come back to this blog and go, “She was RIGHT!”

Ouch! I got a cramp from patting myself on the back!

Okay, shutting up for realz now. Today, you guys get to learn today from a true master…

***

Two people are sitting on a park bench. What words do they use to talk to one another?

If you answered, How the heck am I supposed to know?, you are well on your way to understanding how to construct good dialog.

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You undoubtedly know, for example, that writing dialog depends upon knowing which characters are speaking, the details of their relationship, and other basic—or not so basic—characteristics they may have. What if one of these characters is mute? What if one of them is a two-year-old child?

And yet, so much dialog we see today feels so generic, so interchangeable. Why? I think that’s because dialog too often ends up working harder in service to the story—What happens next? What information does the author have to get to the reader RIGHT NOW?—than in service to the reader.

I believe that many readers want something more than only to find answers to the ever-crucial question, And then what happened?

Since our characters at times communicate directly with one another, dialog gives us a major tool that we can use to enhance our storytelling in a rounded way, not just to advance events.

Good dialog enriches the reading experience and creates greater empathy with your characters by deepening their individuality.

The main thing to remember when crafting dialog is:

Content and style are NOT two completely different things.

The way your character speaks reflects what your character wants—in that moment and in life.

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Here are some simple dialog techniques to keep in mind while writing. Remember, once you’ve committed to any of these for a particular character, be consistent without overdoing things:

  • Vocabulary. Big words vs small words. Technical jargon vs plain speaking. Foreign words vs straight English. Regional usage vs generic usage. Precocious vs ordinary.
  • Length. Some characters are terse and others are voluble. This distinction alone can speak volumes about personality.
  • Rhythm. This one’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. Listen to the voice of the character in your head. Some people speak fast and others speak slowly. How might you suggest this with phrasing?
  • Formality. Here’s another aspect of speech that can suggest much about your character. Does she use profanity? Does he speak in a stilted manner? Does she use a lot of contractions?
  • Verbal Tics. Maybe your character stutters or speaks with sibilance or has some other verbal tic. This can become an immediate identifier, but be careful not to overuse it.

With these tools at your command, you can begin to think about


Three Elements of Great Dialog

#1 Your character’s fundamentals:

  • Sex. “Man or woman” might imply a generalization, but perhaps your character goes against type. That would tell us something very powerful every time she opens her mouth.
  • Age. As we all know, a five-year-old boy generally speaks differently from a 30-year-old man, etc.
  • Physical Attributes. Perhaps your character sits in a wheelchair. What verbal techniques might she have mastered to get the attention of people who tower over her?

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#2 Your character’s history:

  • Upbringing in Time. People raised at different times use different vocabularies and constructions. Someone raised in the Seventies, for example, may use a very different vocabulary from a child of the Aughts.
  • Social Status. While the whole concept of social status is a moving target, there is little question that some people play to or against their status (by affecting an upper-class accent or, on the other hand, being more “street” than expected). The way they choose to speak in relation to their standing in society can tell us a lot about their character.
  • Education. Some people are book smart and some people attended the school of hard knocks. A Ph.D. often speaks differently from a high school dropout. Although, of course, you can also have fun playing against type here.
  • Recent History. If your character recently underwent some kind of transformation (before or after the story starts), this may affect the way she speaks.
  • Relationship to Other Characters in the Scene. This element is more contingent than the others, as it depends upon who else is in the scene. A woman speaks to her son differently than she speaks to her male boss. A man speaks to his female boss differently than he speaks to his girlfriend. How your protagonist speaks with subordinates, for instance, might also be very revealing of character.

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#3 Your character’s wants:

  • In Life and/or Story Arc. There is nothing more important in storytelling than what your characters want at any given moment and in the broader narrative arc. Therefore, it helps greatly if the nature of their dialog reflects their desires. If I kind of want a drink of water and you’re withholding it, I might be polite. If I desperately want it, I might be more direct, even rude. On the bigger canvas, if I’m racing against time to save the world from nuclear holocaust, I might choose to dispense with pleasantries. Then again, maybe not, if I have good reason to pursue another tack.
  • Mood in the Scene. None of us has just one way of speaking. How a character chooses to speak at a particular moment in the story might be greatly influenced by her state of mind.

When I’m writing, I try to hear the voices of my characters in my head and remember what makes them distinct from one another. When I self-edit and rewrite, I ask myself questions like: Would that character really use that word?

With all that said, it pays to remember that a novel is entertainment and dialog is part of the entertainment. Therefore (duh) the best dialog is entertaining. Try to be clever without showing how smart you are. Follow the above guidelines AND do so in a fresh and entertaining way. Then you’ll be well on your way to crafting memorable and effective dialog.

***

Thank you! Please show J.E. some love in the comments with any questions or thoughts. This is a really great opportunity to talk to a fantastically talented and proven Big Five author. If you want more on dialog from J.E. check out The Big Thrill for MORE!

And remember bloggers have big hearts, short attention spans and long memories. We DO remember who shows the love! And any comments for my guest count double in the contest. What contest?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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J.E. Fishman writes screenplays and is author of 7 critically acclaimed thrillers and several nonfiction books. His latest novel, The Prisoner of Hell Gate, was written under the pen name Dana I. Wolff and published July 2016 by the Picador imprint of Macmillan.

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! August 5th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages July 22nd

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist July 29th

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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63 Comments

Is Being a “Good” Girl Hurting Your Career? Why “Bad” Girls Become Best-Sellers

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Today is a repost because of a death in the family last week. But you know what? Life moves on.  I chose this post because we all need a good kick in the ass now and again, even ME.

It was a FUN post and a good way to get my moxie back
.because seriously my moxie got kicked in the face last week. I am sure NONE of you have been there. Feeling like a failure, like nothing you do matters?

Well, get over it. We are going to have a hell raising Monday!

Last fall I read Kate White’s I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know. There are bad books, okay books, good books and great books. But there is another kind of book and it’s the rarest.

The game-changer.

White has a witty, sassy style. She is seamlessly intelligent and down-to-earth in her fiction. And guess what? Her nonfiction delivers more of the same.

Back to our topic of being too damn nice for our own good.

Good Girls Don’t Become Best-Sellers

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Before you throw digital knives at me, please hear me out. I’ve been doing this social media thing since MySpace was big. I have three books under my belt, well over 1000 blogs, and thousands of hours of teaching. So I’ve been around long enough to at least make a very unscientific study of human behavior and I can tell you that men almost always have the advantage in the new publishing paradigm. They have the edge for the same reasons they gain the advantage in the workplace.

Those lessons our mothers and grandmothers passed on could be the very behaviors that have us standing in our own way. I feel this is particularly true for the writing profession since it is largely comprised of women over 30.

Women over 30 have lived long enough to see this world change more than it ever has in the entire course of human history. Who would have imagined we’d say things like, “I want a picture. Hold on while I get my phone!”

Many of the writers I work with believe they are struggling with branding because of the technology, but I don’t agree. I think women are finally in a position where we must choose. It is live or die. If we listen to our rearing we will lose and lose BIG.

We don’t like the new paradigm because we can’t hide behind an agent and wait meekly for outside approval. The new publishing paradigm lands us smack dab in the place we are most terrified.

What I am going to address can help the men (the “Nice Guys”) but since last I checked I am NOT a guy? Give your thoughts/perspectives in the comments *smooch*

But us older gals? I could kick myself for not seeing this earlier and it figures it would take a former Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine to help me see the light. I’m going riff with some of the ideas presented in Ms. White’s book and apply them to women in the world of publishing. We are taught to be Good Girls and is this having a devastating impact on our careers.

Then, since I hate whining and love solutions, we will throw out the rule books and explore what it is to be a “Bad Girl.”

#1 Good Girls Are Modest

It is unbecoming to brag, so we are modest and humble and we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

In the corporate world, men are more likely to own their accomplishments, whereas women tend to minimize their achievements. To paraphrase White:

If a man has four years of college French, he has no problem stating he is fluent. Women, on the other hand, will downplay their abilities. We say we have a “conversational grasp” of the language.

When it comes to writing, the second a man even starts a novel, he has business cards with “Author” as his title and he is securing a website. Women, on the other hand? Let’s pause that thought for a little test.

How many of you are aspiring writers? Raise your hand. No one will see.

Now, use that hand to smack yourself soundly and never call yourself that again.

Writers write. There is no try. There is no aspire. Aspiring is for wimps. It takes guts and blood to be a writer.

No one will take us seriously unless we do it first.

#2 Good Girls Need Permission

I cannot count how many writers (usually female) have written a novel, numerous novels and yet still refer to themselves as “aspiring writers.” They are waiting for permission to even use the title even though they have a blog and have written hundreds of thousands of words.

Men don’t do this. At least not in the same numbers. I can attest to that. I’ve met men whose writing was so bad they should have been banned from downloading Word until they took some grammar classes, but that didn’t stop them from having a marketing plan or hiring a PR person.

They don’t hesitate to secure a domain, build a blog, or hire the best person to design their cover and if they can’t get an agent? They are more likely to self-publish without needing outside approval to do so.

#3 Good Girls Don’t Have Desires

So many of us gals are afraid to want something. Why is it so hard for us to admit we want something? To claim a certain life? Why do we feel such shame and a need to hide who we are and what we desire?

It is okay for a man to want sex a promotion a raise to want to be a New York Times best-selling author, but for us? There is almost something dirty about wanting to write. Wanting to write and get PAID to write. Wanting to write and to…be famous for it.

Oh no! Kristen has gone TOO FAR! And there is only one punishment for lighting the grail-shaped beacon…

Dirty, naughty Zewt!

Spank us all!

If we are wives and mothers? The problem only compounds from there. I have a hard time expressing I want to go to the bathroom alone, how am I supposed to say I want to be published a LEGEND?

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#4 Good Girls Are Demure

Demure=INVISIBLE

As a social media expert for writers, do you know one of the biggest mistakes writers make in branding? They fail to use their names. They tweet as @fairywriter or @ILuvBooks or @dragongirl. They do all of this wonderful networking for months and years and yet it is almost all wasted effort. Why? Because unless I am going to change my name to Fairy Writer and slap that on a cover, that twitter handle is doing zilch nada nothing to build a brand.

Remember what a brand is?

A brand is when our name alone is a bankable asset. It is when a name alone has the power to drive sales.

When I get on social media and see writers using monikers, by and large it is women. Men do this too, but not in the same numbers. And, even if men use a moniker, the second I point out the fallacy, they are far more likely to change it. Women on the other hand are terrified of using their name and take way more convincing.

Men are also far more likely to start a blog. Women?

They have to have three angelic visions, four miraculous encounters and a committee of family members to tell them it would be okay to BLOG. Why is blogging so scary? IT IS FREAKING WRITING. It plays to a writer’s strengths, but I might as well ask writers to perform brain surgery from space with a Chia Pet and an egg beater.

What if people find out I like to write? 

Don’t you think they should if you hope they will pay money to read your books?

#5 Good Girls Feel Comfortable Losing

Well, I tried and that’s all that counts. 

We women are notorious for placing ourselves in no-win situations. Out of one side of our mouth we say we can’t be on social media because we don’t yet have a book for sale, but when we do have a book for sale? Oh, well I feel so awkward talking to people because they might think I am selling my book.

*bangs head on keyboard*

When a man publishes a book, he is there to win. He isn’t there to see his name in print. He is there to see his name in lights.

But us gals? We are notorious for settling. We feel awkward admitting we maybe kind of sort of would like to be number one. Men have no problem admitting they are on social media because they would like to sell books.

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Okay, enough of the “Good Girl” stuff.

I hope I’ve made my point. Now *rubs hands* it is time for me to help you cultivate that inner Bad Girl.

If you want this dream, the first step is to know it is okay to want it. Many of you are moms, wives, and caretakers. Maybe you already have a great career and it is “selfish” to want to write. And I am here to say, YES. It is. And sometimes a little selfishness goes a long way. Men outpace us because they are better at being selfish.

We must learn to stuff a sock in the inner Good Girl’s mouth and channel that inner Bad Girl because she is dying to get out more. Being a Bad Girl doesn’t mean we aren’t still kind and gracious, but it does mean things are going to change.

#1 Bad Girls Do It Afraid

Nothing remarkable happens in the comfort zone. You are going to have to suck it up and writer up. Only sociopaths don’t feel fear. Fear is natural and normal but it gets in the way of greatness. I feel women are far more afraid of failure than men. We wait to be “perfect.” We can’t say anything until we have the perfect book. But perfect is the enemy of the good. Do it afraid.

Yes. You might fail. Odds are you WILL fail and good! Keep failing. It’s how we learn.

My motto?

If we aren’t failing, we aren’t doing anything interesting.

So understand everything I am about to tell you is likely going to scare your pants off.

It’s okay, the erotica authors can lead the way😀 .

Pay attention to that feeling because you will need to remember it. If something scares me (like writing this particular blog), likely I am onto something BIG. It is a sign I am heading in the right direction.

#2 Bad Girls OWN IT

Good, bad, ugly. We own what we do. I admit when I left sales and dreamed of becoming a writer, I wrote the world’s worst novel. It was being used in Guantanamo Bay to break terrorists until it was banned under the Hague Convention as torture.

But you know what? I finished a novel. I did something everyone says they want to do but then never actually do. I own the bad, but what’s been harder? Learning to own the GOOD.

It took weeks for me to put the emblem on this blog that I was named one of Writer’s Digest’s 100 Best Blogs. WHY? Because I am a work in progress, too😀 .

#3 Bad Girls ASK FOR IT

How many writers are waiting for someone to deliver their big break into their lap? We go to conferences and practically throw up in our shoes at the thought of asking an agent if they’d like to hear about our book. WHY? It is their JOB. Agents don’t have a job without writers.

Ask for what you want. Guess what? All they can do is say no. But, they might just say, “Yes.”

When I wrote my second social media book, I had the terrifying task of finding blurbs. So, I took my own advice and did it afraid. I made a list of all my favorite authors and then
asked. Guess what? New York Times Best-Selling Author James Rollins said, “Yes.”

He already knew me and loved my book.

Omgomgomgomgomgomgomgomg…

But I never would have known had I not dared to ASK. Bad girls don’t hear, “No.” We hear, “Not yet”😉 .

#4 Bad Girls DO IT

A lot.

We write. We blog. We tweet and by golly we slap our name on it while we are there. I get that the house is a mess, but guess what? It can wait. Most men aren’t waiting until the house is immaculate and all the laundry is done and the kids are all asleep to take time to write!

How many of us are getting up before dawn or staying up after midnight because our dream might just inconvenience someone else? Let them be inconvenienced for a change!

We ladies bend more than the karma sutra and that is okay, but if our husband actually has to watch the kids for an hour in the evening that is too much?

No.

# Bad Girls Are In It to WIN IT

Again, I love, love, love Kate White’s book because it reminded me of so much I’d forgotten. Yes, I am a full-time author, blogger, and C.E.O. but I am also a mom and spend way too much time in yoga pants and covered in crumbs. It is easy to forget to be hungry. It is easy to lose our way unless we are vigilant to keep the path. It is easy to let other people’s opinions matter too much.

Lionesses do not lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.

Bad girls don’t whine. We don’t make excuses and we do not politely wait our turn. We understand life is short and we need to make our time here count.

Understand that this is an amazing world that is rich in bounty and there is enough to go around. Don’t let anyone diminish you. This is your dream. It isn’t your little hobby or your “thing” it is YOU. It is your dream and it is OKAY to WANT TO WIN.

This seems like such a simple thing, but I hope you see how pivotal this realization is. I can give you all the branding and blogging lessons in the world and it won’t help. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a confidence problem.

Vow today to make a change. Start by admitting you want the dream then, for the love of all that is chocolate, slap your NAME on it. No more hiding. I will find you on Twitter and pull your @FairyGurl wings off😉 .

*kisses*

What are your thoughts? Do you see any “Good Girl” behaviors that have been undermining you? Do you have a hard time calling yourself a
writer? Do you have a hard time with the notion of social media because the thought of admitting you have a dream scares you spit-less? Have you bothered to get a domain name, a website? Blog? Are you afraid to ask for what you want? Do you put everyone and everything ahead of your writing? Are you waiting for permission? Do you feel like you are a poseur or a fake? Do you struggle with perfectionism?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And yeah yeah I am stressed. Got most of it out of my system last week so these classes will be intense because I east pressure for breakfast. So help me focus on something positive and take a class. Today is my official last day of pity party so ur good.

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

 Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!) July 8th

July 8th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! July 15th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages July 22nd

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist July 29th

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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116 Comments

5 Ways to Make a Blogger Want to Stab Us in the Face

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Lately, I have been getting a ton of emails from hopeful writers wanting me to write reviews of their books on my blog. Somehow, somewhere I ended up on some marketing guru’s “list” and if I find out who it is, it will not be a good day for that person since they are charging hopeful writers for incorrect information.

Caveat emptor, my kiddos.

I know none of you—beloved followers—are guilty of these mistakes, but I will say that making that shift from unpublished newbie to “pro” is harrowing and we all do some really stupid stuff. It’s part of why I write these posts because none of us has this information embedded in our DNA. We have to learn some time, so maybe this can save you or someone you know some embarrassment.

So five ways to make a blogger want to stab us in the face.

#1—Send a Request Via Form Letter

It’s funny, I blog on certain things and time passes and I think “Whoa! Everyone knows not to do that! I don’t even need to talk about—*brakes screeching*—SERIOUSLY????”

First of all, let me emphasize that requesting a book review is no small thing, which is one of the many, many reasons I almost never do them. In over a thousand blog posts, I have done ONE. Count it. ONE book review on my blog.

Why?

Here are some basic reasons why I almost never, ever do book reviews (other than the fairly obvious reason that I am NOT a book blogger). The blogger has to secure a copy, take time to read the book (12-15 HOURS of undivided attention). Then she has to analyze the book and then craft an intelligent post
for FREE.

We are asking for about a 20 hour time commitment. Again
for FREE.

This means that if you meet a book blogger or reviewer, you should just hug them or make a small large burnt offering of coffee and chocolate. Reviewing books is a really tough and often thankless job.

Meaning, the very least a writer can do when asking for such leviathan effort, is to address the BLOGGER BY HER FREAKING NAME.

When I see this crap in my In Box? It makes me see red.

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And lately I’ve been getting far too many of these kinds of e-mails.

#2—Fail to DYH

Do your homework! DYH is actually a two-pronged deal. First of all, any a$$hat with a web site and a shopping cart can claim to be a “guru” with a list of reviewers/book bloggers for sale. I’m not exactly certain how these folks do what they do, but I imagine it involves combing the internet for popular blogs then finding our contact e-mail and selling that list. The problem is that these folks may or may not have done any kind of research.

They are simply looking for popular blogs then charging writers for that list.

The e-mail pictured above? This person apparently got my name off a list he’d paid for. A list of bloggers who review literary fiction.

Yeah.

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#3—Fail to Make the Match

To reiterate, I am not a book reviewer and even if I were? I would rather be water boarded than read self-published literary fiction. Yes, I am a troglodyte—judge me all you want—because I’d rather be water boarded than read most traditionally published literary fiction.

I know! I am uncouth and horrible and plebeian and I will totally own it. I read all kinds of fiction, but like most literate humans, I have my ranking of favorite genres
literary being dead last and about ten slots below instructions on how to update to Windows 10.

But while you might be horrified to find out that I don’t care for literary fiction, it IS useful information.

If we are looking for someone to review our books, we need to make sure we are finding reviewers who are passionate about the genre.

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Do not try to get an expert in literary reviews to look at an epic high fantasy. It wastes your time, the reviewer’s time and it’s just a bad plan.

First of all, it highlights we didn’t do the research to see what kind of books the reviewer specializes in. Secondly, the reviewer might not possess the right set of eyes for judging our work. This is like taking our BMW sedan in to a mechanic who works on BMW motorcycles. Sure, he works on BMWs but the skill set is completely different.

If someone who doesn’t like your genre reviews your book, that already stacks odds against the reviewer having an enjoyable experience which bodes ill for your work. Also, if that person hasn’t read a lot of the genre, he will be ill-equipped to give a solid review. All genres have expectations and a good reviewer understands what those are.

#4—Fail to Even Get Eyes on the Blog

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What I’ve found particularly unsettling about this barrage of messages from hopeful writers is that not ONE of them took time to even stop by and look at my blog. All of my archives are available. In fact, google my name with book reviews and not a single book review.

Getting a book review should be approached the same way as looking for an agent or publisher. Do the research. Look at their site. Who are they? What do they do? Double-check everything, especially any paid lists. We need to make sure that the information is even accurate, but more specifically? We need to make sure it is a good fit.

Check the blog to make sure you want that reviewer getting hands on your work. Is the reviewer any good? Is he professional? Is she kind? And I don’t mean kind as in using kid gloves on the work, but we don’t want to just hand our stuff to a reviewer who gets hits from crushing authors’ will to live.

My expertise is in content editing. I have earned the nickname The Death Star and for good reasons. In fact, I’ve been killed in at least five novels that I know of from authors who were grateful for my Red Pen of Doom
but who also wanted the joy of legally murdering me.

NOT book reviewer material.

Not. Just don’t.

#5—Make Zero Effort to Engage Ahead of Time

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Granted, I don’t do book reviews. I am, however, generous with other stuff. I have had folks who regularly comment on my blogs and after a few months might say something like, “Ugh, I wish I could win your contest. I am just so stuck!” And guess what? I will message and say, “Hey, send me ten pages.” Why?

Reciprocity.

This commenter has taken valuable time to be supportive of me and my blog.

I don’t imagine book bloggers are much different. If we find book bloggers we like, take time to engage, share their posts and form even a loose connection, this can go a LONG way toward making it to the top of their list for a review. Those who “cold call” will rarely be made a priority by any reviewer worth his or her salt.

In the end, manners and kindness go a LONG way. What are your thoughts? For the book bloggers and book reviewers out there, would you have anything else to add?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

 Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!) July 8th

July 8th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

We are doing ANOTHER round of Battle of the First Pages!!! July 15th

The first time we did this we had some tech issues doing this new format and we’ve since worked those out, but for now I am still keeping the price low ($25) until we get this streamlined to my tastes.

LIMITED SEATS. This is an open workshop where each person will submit his or her first page of the manuscript for critique. I will read the page aloud and “gong” where I would have stopped reading and explain why. This is an interactive workshop designed to see what works or what doesn’t. Are you ready to test your page in the fire?

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages July 22nd

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is 90 minutes long, 60 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

Your First Five Pages Gold Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique your first five pages.

Your First Five Pages Platinum Level

This includes the webinar and a detailed critique of your first twenty pages.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist July 29th

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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107 Comments

Are You Botching Your Dialogue?

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Today we are going to talk about dialogue. Everyone thinks they are great at it, and many would be wrong. Dialogue really is a lot tricker than it might seem.

Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals wouldn’t bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders.

I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are reflective of WHO we are. Dialogue can not only show age and gender. It can elucidate level of education, profession, personality, ego, wounds, insecurity, and on and on and on.

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In fact dialogue is so powerful that one way we know we have done our job as a writer is when we can remove all dialogue tags and the reader still knows which character is talking. This said, there are a LOT of newbie errors I see when it comes to writing dialogue and that’s what we are going to talk about today.

#1 Please Punctuate Properly

When it comes to dialogue, we need to make sure we are punctuating properly. This might seem like a picky matter, but improper dialogue punctuation is a quick way to end up in a slush pile. If a writer doesn’t yet know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, then most agents (or even readers) simply aren’t going to commit any more time.

Also, if you are paying good money for an editor, they have a hard time getting to the MEAT of your story if they are spending all their time fixing disastrous punctuation.

When I get samples from new writers, I see a lot of this:

“Have a nice day” she closed the door and that was when Kristen had to spend the next few hours repairing punctuation.

“Have a nice day.” She closed the door blah blah blah
.

OR

“Have a nice day,” she said. She closed the door blah blah blah…

The comma goes INSIDE the end quote mark and then we add a tag. If there is NO tag word (said, asked) then we insert a PERIOD.

DO NOT use actions as tags. Why? Because actions are actions…not tags.

“Have a nice day,” she closed the door said.

For all the neat ways dialogue is punctuated, refer to a handy dandy grammar book.

#2 No Weird Dialogue Tags

This goes with the “no action tags” idea.

“I have no idea what you mean,” Kinsey snarled.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Jake laughed.

NO.

Characters can say things or ask things but they can’t smirk, snarl or laugh things. Again, when agents, editors, or even savvy readers see these strange tags, it is a red flag the author is green.

#3 Stick to Unassuming Tags

When using tags, keep it simple— said, asked, replied (maybe). Why? Well, I hate proffering rules without explanation so here goes.

Simply? When we add those creative tags on the end, we are coaching the reader. Our dialogue should be strong enough alone to convey the tone we want. When we coach the reader, we are being redundant and more than a tad insulting to the reader.

“You have some nerve showing your face,” she spat.

See what I mean? By adding the “she spat” I am essentially telling you that I worry you aren’t sharp enough to know this character is upset.

But, I am betting the dialogue alone—“You have some nerve showing your face”—was plenty for you guys to give the appropriate tone of voice in your head. I really didn’t need to add the “she spat.”

I know that keeping to simple tags seems harsh, but if we have done our job writing dialogue, the tags will disappear in the reader’s mind. The dialogue will simply flow.

Additionally, if we write using Deep POV, we don’t even need/use tags.

“I have no idea what you mean.” Kinsey refused to look at him and polished the wine glass so hard she wondered if she’d bore a hole clean through.

See how the character is DOING something that tells us the tone of the dialogue. Remember that communication is about 90% is nonverbal. Body language is a big deal.

Notice we are showing and not telling. Instead of spelling out that Kinsey is irritated, we have her DOING something that shows us she is ticked and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. This also keeps “said” from getting annoying. We shouldn’t need to tag every sentence if the writing is strong.

#4 Do NOT Phonetically Spell Out Accents

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Yes, when we dust off old volumes of literature we see that the writers (I.e. Twain) wrote out dialogue phonetically to show the accent of the character speaking.

BUT…Herman Melville also spent over a hundred pages talking about whales for the same reasons. Most people lived and died in isolation. Travel was reserved for the very rich. Photographs and paintings were rare. There was no television, radio or Internet.

Just like Melville’s readers could live an entire lifetime without seeing the ocean (let alone a whale), Twain’s audience in Europe likely would never travel to the rural American South. Thus, they would have no concept of what a Southern accent “sounded” like. Therefore, in fiction, it was perfectly acceptable to phonetically write out how someone would have talked.

These days, if we are writing a character who has an Irish brogue or a Southern drawl or a Cockney accent, we no longer need to spell it all out phonetically. The reason is that there has been so much entertainment (movies, etc.) that we know what an Irish brogue should sound like and when we “spell it out” for the reader, it makes the dialogue cumbersome.

Spelling out every single word phonetically will wear out the reader. This dovetails nicely into my next point…

#5 DO Feel Free to Use Unique Words, Expressions or Idioms

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I write a lot of characters who are Texans. It’s true I don’t need to write out the Texas accent phonetically, but I can add in some terms and expressions to keep the reader “hearing” a Texan in her head without making my dialogue weird.

“Y’all won’t believe this. Delroy got a job. A J-O-B.”

“Who’d hire him? He’s useless as ice trays in hell. ”

Feel free to use a couple of words that convey an accent—ain’t, gonna, bloody—just avoid spelling it out in entirety or risk frustrating readers.

#6 DO NOT Have Characters Constantly Calling Each Other By NAME

I see this one a lot and it is seriously weird.

“Biff, what are you doing?” Blane asked.

“Why Blane, I am making a present for Buffy. You know how Buffy is about her birthday. What are you doing Blane? Are you having lunch with Beverly?”

Okay, so I am being a bit silly here to make a point, but how often do you call the other person by name when talking? Who does this? Worse still, who does this over and over and over, especially when there is only one other person in the room? Try this in real life.

Me: Shawn, why are you home so early? I thought you’d be at work.

Hubby: I had to run an errand, Kristen.

Me: Well, Shawn I have to run to the grocery store.

Hubby: Kristen, that is…

Okay, I am giggling too much. Y’all get the gist.

#7 Do NOT Write Dialogue in Complete Sentences

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My above examples are kind of a twofer. Not only is the dialogue seriously strange with everyone using a proper name, but notice all the dialogue is in complete sentences. Most people don’t talk that way. If we do, we sound like a robot or a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the language.

Is it wrong to have dialogue in complete sentences? No. But usually it is ONE character who talks that way and it is an idiosyncratic trait particular to THAT character. Ie. Data from Star Trek or Sheldon from Big Bang Theory.

#8 Avoid Punctuation Props

Avoid overusing exclamation points and ellipses. Again, if our dialogue is strong enough, readers will “get” when a character is yelling or pausing. Especially avoid being redundant with the punctuation and the tags.

“Get out of my house!” she yelled.

Really? No kidding.

And remember
that
when we use
a lot
.of ellipses
we are being annoying
.not

.dramatic.

(And ellipses are only THREE dots and in some cases four😉 ).

#9 NO “As You Know” Syndrome

I love David Mamet and I really love his Letter to the Writers of The Unit where he tears the writing team a new one. I love forwarding on his advice, because no one says it better and this is just as true for novels as it is for screenplays. I’ve included the best lines about dialogue:

Look at your log-lines. Any log line reading, “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS
” is NOT describing a dramatic scene.

Here are the danger signals. Anytime two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of s&%$. Any time any character is saying to another “AS YOU KNOW” that is, telling another character what you—the writer—need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of s&%$*. ~David Mamet

No brain-holding. We are in the drama business, not the information business.

Later we will talk about ways that we can use dialogue to convey character. What are your thoughts? Questions? Who are your favorite authors regarding dialogue? I adore Sue Grafton. Every one of her characters just leaps off the page. I love great dialogue and have been known to highlight it just to keep it. What about you? Or am I the only dialogue geek?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

 Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

July 6th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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86 Comments

Symbolism & Setting—The Perfect Marriage

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Today I have two very special guests. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are here to talk about a more advanced concept in fiction—symbol. Take it way, ladies!

***

We all want our writing to be layered. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. In stories, this depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, I think symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.

Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.

Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful in representing what you’re trying to get across in your story; readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean.

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But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute, but as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize it for what it means.

So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer of depth to a character or story. But where do we find these symbols? How do we choose which object or thing should represent the important theme in a story? Well, it may not be the first answer that comes to mind, but…

The setting is actually the perfect place to find symbols—because they’re built into every location.

Sometimes, the setting itself can stand for something. Kristen touched on this in her excellent post last week, where she used Shutter Island as an example. The prison is a prison, yes, but it also represents the guilt that keeps US Marshall Teddy Daniels locked away inside his own mind.

Other setting symbols?

A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary. A church could symbolize either hope or corruption, depending on the prevailing culture or the character’s experience. A city, a business, a natural landmark—whether you’ve chosen a rural or urban setting for your scene, the location can often represent an important idea that you want to reinforce for readers.

Sorry, couldn't resist
.

Sorry, couldn’t resist
.

But more often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.

For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live in another town or thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize.

Choosing something closer to home within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.

Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.

Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently.

In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.

As you can see, whatever settings you choose for your story can be mined for emotionally charged symbols and motifs. Sometimes it can be tough to figure out which one to go with, though; the good news is that symbols can be added at any point in the writing process.

If you know beforehand what your theme will be, consider choosing settings that could reinforce that idea. If your theme emerges organically as you write, you can bolster it by adding motifs later with objects that naturally inhabit the locations you’ve chosen. Either way, if you need a little help coming up with symbols for your story, you can always check out the “Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus” at One Stop for Writers, which explores a boatload of popular themes and possible symbols that can be used for them.

The setting is such a versatile tool that most of us frankly underuse. Make it pull its own weight by unearthing the symbols within it. And for more information on making your setting work harder for your story, see our latest books, The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces.

BIO:

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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***

Thank you Angela and Becca! remember that comment love for guests counts double for my ongoing contest.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out NEW classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

So You Want to Write a Novel THIS FRIDAY!!!!!

June 24th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

July 6th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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36 Comments

Setting—Why a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Hmmmm. Must be Walmart.

Hmmmm. Must be Walmart.

Today we are going to talk about setting and ways to use it to strengthen your writing and maybe even add in some dimension. Setting is more than a weather report. It can be a magnificent tool to deepen characters.

Setting Can Help Your Characterization

Setting can actually serve a dual role in that it can be not only the backdrop for your story, but it can also serve characterization through symbol.

We editors love to say, “Show. Don’t tell.” Okey dokey, here’s where setting can help you do just that.

THAT'S a desk with a story. "The menthol brings out the blueberry notes in the Yoplait
"

THAT’S a desk with a story. “The menthol brings out the blueberry notes in the Yoplait
”

Say you have a character, Buffy, who is depressed. You could go on and on telling us she is blue and how she cannot believe her husband left her for the Scentsy lady, OR you can show us through setting.

Buffy’s once beautiful garden is overgrown with weeds and piles of unopened mail are tossed carelessly on the floor. Her house smells of almost-empty tubs of chocolate ice cream left to sour. Piles of dirty clothes litter the rooms, and her cat is eating out of the bag of Meow Mix tipped on its side.

Now you have shown us that Buffy is not herself. We know this because the garden was “once beautiful.” This cues me (the reader) that something has changed. And you managed to tell me she was depressed without dragging me through narrative in Buffy’s head.

She couldn’t believe Biff was gone. Grief surged over her like a surging tidal surge that surged.

Writing is therapeutic, not therapy. Some of that introspection is great, but after a while you will wear out your readers. Setting can help alleviate this problem and keep the momentum of your story moving forward. We will get that Buffy is depressed by getting this glimpse of her house. You have shown that Buffy is having a rough time instead of being lazy and telling us.

Buffy needs to get a grip.

We judge people by their environment. Characters are no different.

If you want to portray a cold, unfeeling schmuck, then when we go to his apartment it might be minimalist design. No color. No plants or signs of life. Someone who is scatter-brained? Their house is full of half-finished projects. An egomaniac? Walls of plaques and pictures of this character posing with important people. Trophies, awards, and heads of dead animals. You can show the reader a lot about your character just by showing us surroundings.

Trust me, if a character gets out of her car and five empty Diet Coke bottles fall out from under her feet into her yard that is littered with toys, we will have an impression.

Probably the single largest mistake I see in the work of new writers is that they spend far too much time in the sequel.

What is the Sequel?

Plots can be broken into to main anatomical parts–scene and sequel. The scene is where the action occurs. A goal is declared and some disastrous setback occurs that leaves our protagonist worse off than when he began. Generally, right after this disaster there is what is called the sequel. 

The sequel is the emotional thread that ties all this action together.

Yet, too often new writers will go on and on and on in a character’s head, exploring and probing deep emotions and nothing has yet happened. The sequel can only be an effect/direct result of a scene. Ah, but here comes the pickle. How can a writer give us a psychological picture of the character if he cannot employ the sequel?

Setting.

An example? In Silence of the Lambs how are we introduced to Hannibal Lecter? There is of course the dialogue that tells Agent Starling that Dr. Lecter is different, but talk is cheap, right? Clarice goes down into the bowels of a psychiatric prison to the basement (um, symbol?). She walks past cell after cell of the baddest and the maddest. All of them are in brick cells with bars
until Clarice makes it to the end.

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Hannibal’s cell is not like the others. He is behind Plexi-Glass with airholes. This glass cage evokes a primal fear. Hannibal affects us less like a prisoner and more like a venomous spider. Setting has shown us that Hannibal the Cannibal is a different breed of evil. This is far more powerful than the storyteller poring on and on and on about Hannibal’s “evil.”

Setting Can Set or Amplify Mood

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Either you can use setting to mirror outwardly what is happening with a character, or you can use it as a stark contrast. For instance, I once edited a medieval fantasy. In the beginning the bad guys were burning villagers alive. Originally the writer used a rainy, dreary day, which was fine. Nothing wrong with that.

I, however, suggested she push the envelope and go for something more unsettling. I recommended that she change the setting to sunny and perfect weather. In the heart of the village the ribbons and trappings of the spring festival blew in the gentle breeze, the same breeze that now carried the smell of her family’s burning flesh.

Sometimes it is this odd juxtaposition in setting that can evoke tremendous emotion.

Think about how you felt watching the scene in Terminator 2 where the nuke goes off and obliterates a playground.

This tactic is especially useful in horror. Dead bodies are upsetting. Dead bodies at a church picnic are an entirely new level of disturbing.

Setting is a Matter of Style and Preference

Different writers use setting in different ways and a lot of it goes to your own unique voice. Some writers use a lot of description, which is good in that there are readers who like a lot of description. But there are readers who want you to get to the point, and that’s why they generally like to read works by writers who also like to get to the point. Everyone wins.

Whether you use a lot or a little setting will ultimately be up to you. I would recommend some pointers.

Can your setting symbolize something deeper?

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I challenge you to challenge yourself. Don’t just pick stormy weather because it is the first image that pops in your mind. Can you employ setting to add greater dimension to your work? Using setting merely to forecast the weather is lazy writing. Try harder.

In Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane’s story is set on an island at a prison for the criminally insane. What the reader finds out is the prison is far more than the literal setting; it is a representation for a state of mind. The protagonist, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels is imprisoned by his own guilt and need for justice.

Like the island, he too is cut off from the outside world emotionally and psychologically. Now an island is more than an island, a prison is more than a prison, bars are more than bars, cliffs are more than cliffs, storms are more than storms, etc. Shutter Island is an amazing book to read, but I recommend studying the movie for use of setting as symbol.

So dig deeper. Can you get more out of your setting than just a backdrop?

Blend setting into your story.

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When I teach, I liken setting to garlic in garlic mashed potatoes. Blend. Garlic is awesome and enhances many dishes, but few people want a whole mouthful of it. Make sure you are keeping momentum in your story. Yes, we generally like to be grounded in where we are and the weather and the time of year, but not at the expense of why we picked up your book in the first place
someone has a problem that needs solving.

Unless you are writing a non-fiction travel book, we didn’t buy your book for lovely description of the Rocky Mountains. We bought it to discover if Ella May will ever make it to California to meet her new husband before winter comes and traps her wagon train in a frozen world of death.

Keep perspective and blend. Keep conflict and character center stage and the backdrop in its place
behind the characters. Two fantastic resources to help you with setting are The Urban Setting Thesaurus and The Rural Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Do yourself a favor and just buy both of those today.

In the end, setting will be a huge reflection of your style and voice, but I hope this blog has given some insight that might make you see more to your use of setting and help you grow to be a stronger writer. What are some books or movies that really took setting to the next level? How was setting used? How did it affect you?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out classes below! 

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 24th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

July 7th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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30 Comments

Are Flashbacks Fizzling Your Fiction? Time as a Literary Device

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One of the most common blunders I see with new authors is they botch the “flashback.” Why? Well, for starters I don’t think subjects/techniques like these get talked about in depth very often (though I could write an entire book on just flashbacks alone). This is part of why I created this Friday’s class, So You Want to Write a Novel. All the lovely stuff English class never taught you😉 .

Additionally, many writers are mimicking what they are writing off what they “see” in movies. Problem is? Movies are a completely different medium. Film is concrete. Black letters on a white page? ABSTRACT.

But another problem with flashbacks? In my POV, the term “flashback” is far too broad.

We can mistakenly believe that any time an author shifts time, that THIS is the dreaded “flashback” I am referring to and the one I (as an editor) will cut.

Not necessarily.

We need to broaden our understanding of the “flashback” because lumping every backwards shift in time under one umbrella won’t work.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.36.44 AM

Seems legit.

I will add a caveat. While shifting in time can make for EXCELLENT fiction, we have to make sure we are doing it in the right spots. Most of the time, one of the worst places to have a flashback is in the first five pages of the work.

My reason is this. The first pages of our book are some of the most critical. We need to stick to ONE timeline long enough to hook a potential reader into the story and allow them to get grounded and care. If we bounce forward and backward, with a new time and new cast members and a new setting? Readers will get confused and likely put the book down.

Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.54.49 PM

Can it work? Sure, anything can work. But if we break the rule, better have a good reason for doing so.

The Trouble with Jumping

Think of writing a novel like being a figure skater in a performance. Sure, figure skating is already hard. The skater might stumble in a spin or meet a wall, but usually those aren’t the high danger spots. We can tell the trickiest parts of any ice skating performance by how they are scored.

What is the make or break? Jumps. The more complicated (and dangerous) the jump, the more points.

We can add “lifts” in couples skating, but the idea the same.

But jumps are a gamble. Nail the jump and WIN! Botch the jump and maybe it costs more points than it could have gained. Or, worst-case-scenario, the jump was so dangerous, the resulting injury is a career-ender.

Um
OUCH!

Um
OUCH!

Every time those skates leave the ice is dangerous, because one tiny mistake can ruin the magic. When we decide to shift time (jump), our literary skates are leaving the ice, so execution becomes paramount to keep the performance seamless.

Also, what new skater is doing a routine filled with ten quadruple Lutz jumps? Probably won’t find many Olympians doing that either😉 .

Now you see why I want you to use jumps sparingly/strategically. Also, if we are going to jump, we better know how to execute it lest we destroy a knee our story. Jumps are also blended into a fabric of a larger performance and serve the whole or we would be left with ice-jumping as a sport.

To continue with our ice skating analogy, all jumps are jumps, but they each are different types of jump and each has a varying degree of difficulty worth a corresponding amount of points.

The same idea applies to “flashbacks.” Yes, broadly speaking, all “going back in time” is a flashback. But there are different ways of going back in time. And, within each “way” of going back in time, there is a corresponding level of difficulty (and possible payoff).

Also, some of you may have more than one time-line and more than one “protagonist” and that can and has been done, but remember that jumps now reach a new height of difficulty. Because we are balancing partners, timing must be perfect and if one partner stumbles, it brings down everyone.

Before we talk about time as a device…

The Training Wheel Flashback

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 9.33.53 AM

The training-wheel flashbacks are the ones we should learn to nix right away (and the one I see most commonly with new writers). It is weak writing. This type of flashback does what training wheels do. They artificially “prop” up the weak plot and weak characterization.

Most of us start with training wheels. It is OKAY to be new. But eventually, we look rather silly.

When I wrote my first “novel”, I had two protagonists with parallel plots. Okay. More than a tad difficult for a first-timer, but all righty. But THEN, I kept feeling the need to go back and explain. How did they become friends? How did the one character develop such bad OCD she became agoraphobic? Etc.

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Thing is, I had no plot. But, even if I did have a plot, these were elements I didn’t need to go back in time and explain. They were friends. I am Author God and if I say they are friends, the reader accepts that.

The one character was OCD. That was all I needed. She was just OCD. That’s all. There was nothing in those flashbacks that couldn’t have been related current-time in narrative or dialogue. I didn’t need to hop in a Literary DeLorean and explain by detailing her abusive childhood.

In fact, had I not explained why she was OCD and agoraphobic, I might have maintained/increased tension because the reader would have hoped I might reveal WHY.

Flipping back and forth in time added way too many characters, places and problems that had nothing to do with the current story problem in need of resolution.

When I took hostages asked friends and family to read my novel, the largest complaint was I confused everyone. They had no clue what my story was about (namely because I didn’t know either). I’d strung together a bunch of beautifully written vignettes all across time, propped up with training wheels flashbacks.

Ah, but pretty prose does not a story make.

Shifting in time is something that can be and is done. It might be a parallel timeline (The Green Mile, The Notebook, True Detective).

It can be non-linear structure (Memento, Vanilla Skies, Pulp Fiction, The Murder House by James Patterson).

It can even be using true flashbacks for places in time that are critical to the unraveling current story problem (I call these Easter Egg Flashbacks). For instance, an event that happened earlier that directly relates to solving/conquering the real-time story problem that won’t work in a prologue (Love You More, by Lisa Gardner—and one of the BEST BOOKS I have EVER read).

We’ll explore all of these and ways they’ve been done well.

But, before we talk about bending time, let’s look at the inherent pitfalls to time travel (even when we do it well).

Bending Time

Back to the future, then past then future...

Back to the future, then past then future…

There are a lot of ways to bend time. But, like the quadruple axel, there are risks. Bending time is part of our author toolbox. There is nothing saying all stories MUST go from Point A to Point B in a linear, chronological fashion.

This said, we need to be careful how much we bend time and why we are bending time. Remember that every time we shift time, we can lose members of our audience. Yes, a handful of film geeks loved Memento. 

But, Memento is one of those movies that can probably only be done ONCE.

Pulp Fiction did a fabulous job of hopping all over time, but just as many people who loved the movie hated the movie and couldn’t finish. Same with The English Patient and The Hours (both the books and the movies).

We have to remember that, ultimately, stories are for the audience not for us (unless we are happy selling a book to ourselves). What experience are we giving them? Are we killing our tension and momentum because we keep jerking the reader back into a past that has no purpose other than exposition?

One of the reasons I play the Flashback Dictator, is that if I pull the training wheels away and help you learn to NOT rely on them, your writing will improve. THEN, if you do decide you must shift in time, you will be careful to do it with intention and will execute it WELL.

Instead of wobbling all over, any time shift has purpose.

A good litmus?

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

Some questions we might ask when tempted to go back in time.

FLASHBACK TEST QUESTIONS

Is this something that can be explained real-time?

For instance, in the series True Detective which I explored in this post, the story follows two detectives who do NOT get along. The more amiable detective is trying to get to know his tortured and gloomy partner.

Detective Marty Hart: Your mom alive?

Detective Rust Cohle: Maybe.

Just this line of dialogue speaks VOLUMES. Of course later, Cohle explains in a few lines of dialogue that his father returned from fighting in Vietnam when he was two. Mom couldn’t take it and left and he hadn’t seen her since. We didn’t need to go BACK there because Cohle’s family problems, him being abandoned as a toddler and resulting relationship with his dad, has nothing to do with the current PLOT problem
finding a brutal killer.

If I cut the flashback, does it really harm the story?

If you have beta readers, critique partners or an editor, try removing any scenes that “go back” and often they aren’t as critical as we believe. Maybe one or two we need to keep, but I guarantee most can be weeded out (unless this is non-linear plotting).

Have I started in the wrong spot? Am I telling the “right” story?

Sometimes when we get writing, our subconscious knows that the more interesting story actually happened earlier, which is why we keep going back. Often, changing WHEN the story begins helps.

Have I unintentionally smooshed TWO separate stories together?

IF we keep flipping back and forth, we might also be muddying two separate stories together. It might be we need to separate the timelines and give each story a separate stage.

Remember:

The PAST must be related to what is going on in the PRESENT and directly impact the FUTURE (how the story is resolved).

From Pulp Fiction to The English Patient to The Hours past and present are tethered and eventually the timelines converge and empty into the same gulf.

If we look and realize one timeline is going one way and another is going a different way and end in different places? A good time to cut in half and have two books😉 .

I hope this helps you guys understand the difference between the “bad” flashback and simply using time as a literary device. We will explore the ways we can bend time some more and I will work to give you tips for how to land that quadruple-axel without taking out a small village.

What are your thoughts? Do you struggle with movies or novels that bounce all over time? Have you struggled with shifting in time and maybe you were telling the wrong story or beginning in the wrong spot? Have any questions?

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out classes below and Battle of the Pages is almost full, so get your seat while you can!

Upcoming Classes

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Again, I am trying something new and offering an open and interactive workshop. Is your first page strong enough to withstand the fire?

Battle of the First Pages TOMORROW!!!!! ONLY A FEW SEATS LEFT!

June 16th, 7-9 EST. Cost $25

This is an interactive experience similar to a gong show. We will upload the first page and I will “gong” when I would have stopped reading and explain why. We will explore what each writer has done right or even wrong or how the page could be better. This workshop is two hours long and limited seats available so get your spot as soon as you can!

So You Want to Write a Novel 

June 17th, 7-9 EST. Cost is $35

Just because we made As in high school or college English does not instantly qualify us to be great novelists. Writing a work that can span anywhere from 60,000 to 120,000+ words requires training. This class is for the person who is either considering writing a novel or who has written a novel(s) and is struggling.

We will cover the essentials of genre, plot, character, dialogue and prose. This class will provide you with the tools necessary to write lean and clean and keep revisions to a minimum.

Character & Plotting (NEW CLASS!)

June 24th, 2015 7:00-9:00 P.M. EST. Cost is $35

All great plots are birthed from character. The core plot problem should be the crucible that eventually reveals a hero in Act III. This means that characterization and plot are inextricably linked. Weak plot, weak character. Blasé character, blasé plot.

This class will teach you how to create dimensional characters and then how to plot from inner demons and flaws. Get inside the heads and hearts of your characters in a way that drives and tightens dramatic tension.

This is an excellent class for anyone who wants to learn how to plot faster and to add layers to their characters.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook. 

 

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