Category Archives: Writer’s blog

10 Tips on Writing Dialogue

Writing riveting dialogue is as easy as walking the plank! It seems like a straight path. We all speak, we all listen to others speak, we can hear our characters speak, but if you’re not careful and if you’re not paying close attention to where you’re going, the path (plank) will end and you (and your writing) will wind up a soggy, dripping mess.

More often than not, dialogue is a must in fiction, but having your characters speak just because you like the sound of their voices isn’t a good enough reason to include huge chunks of dialogue.

As with every other word you write, your dialogue must serve a specific purpose. Dialogue must contribute to the plot, reveal character and provide necessary information to the reader. Really good dialogue offers foreshadowing and breathes breath into your characters.

Dialogue gives your characters a verbal as well as physical distinction. Each person must sound different if they are to be believable. Through their conversations, readers should be able to sort out your characters educational background, age, occupation, and where they are from.

Here are a 10 few tips I’ve picked up on how to write good dialogue.

Listen Up

Listen to people, to their natural speech patterns, to the music of every day speech. Then edit out the filler words, all the ums, and the ahs – as they say, all the boring bits. Real people may speak like that, but your reader doesn’t want to read their hesitations unless you as the writer are including them to paint a clearer picture of the speaker.

Comes Naturally

In order to give your dialogue a natural flow and not sound stilted use contractions, have your characters break off sentences, and have them interrupt each other.

Listen Harder

You will never be able to hear your characters if you don’t listen. But beware. It isn’t good enough to just let them ramble while you write everything that comes out of their mouths. It can be a huge mistake to relinquish complete control and/or to indulge your characters,  allowing them to rant endlessly and to go off on wild, irrelevant tangents. By copying down verbatim what they say you run the risk of becoming nothing more than a transcriber. What you must do is listen to not only what they are saying but also what they aren’t saying.

Subtext

The subtext to any conversation indicates what is implied rather than what is stated explicitly. When you hear what your characters aren’t saying you’ll be able to lace your dialogue with subtext. Away from your story, you may want to have your character keep a journal. Once you’ve done this for a while you’ll see what motivates the conversations they initiate and how they respond to what others say to them. Lean, anticipated dialogue is more interesting and powerful then paint-by-number style conversations, i.e. I did this, and this, and this, because…

No Dumping      

Beware of talking heads who are hell-bent on dropping every piece of information needed (and not needed) into the lap of the reader as they babble on and on and on. Dialogue is not to be used for information dumps. Although it does play a part in revealing information, dialogue cannot be the only way you provide pertinent facts to your reader. Let your story unfold naturally using all the tools at your disposal – back story, setting, description and action.

Break It Up

Dialogue should contribute, not dominate your story.  It is extremely important that you drop your reader into a scene, allowing them to see as well as hear what is going on. To accomplish this you will have to break up long sections of dialogue with action. Move your characters around while they are speaking. Show the reader what they are doing, how they are standing, what they are touching.

Tag It

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to think of clever ways to say he/she said. It’s the conversation you want the reader to see, not the tags. The occasional cried, barked, whispered, are okay but start adding too many and your tags stop being part of the wallpaper and will become an annoying distraction.

What Did He Say?

Be very careful when using dialects. My advice would be, if you aren’t really good at writing a unique turn of speech or regional accent, that you avoid it. Of course, what a character says and how they say it tells us as much about him as his actions do. So by all means, give your characters a distinctive voice, but limit your vernacular to the odd word or phrase per character.

Punctuate

If you don’t know the correct way to punctuate dialogue, learn it. Nothing can be more frustrating than writing (and potentially good dialogue) that is incorrectly punctuated. There are several good grammar books available for writers to learn this all important skill.  A quick internet search will provide you ample reference books to choose from.

Say It Out Loud 

Always, always, always read your dialogue out loud. What appears brilliant to your eyes may sound phony and stilted to your ears. Only by hearing it will you be able to determine whether your words sing or are completely tone-deaf.

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Farewell to a Friend

This past weekend, I was reminded of the true meaning of unconditional love, a lesson that will stay with me forever and that will hopefully make me a better person and by extension, a better writer. As a rule, I have tried not to discuss my family too much (if you know me personally, you will know there is little I enjoy talking about more than my family) and have tried to keep the focus of my blog postings on writing. But, with your permission, I would like to share with you what losing our sixteen-year-old black Labrador Retriever has meant to me and to my family.

Jazz wasn’t supposed to be our dog, but in the split second it took for her to tear past me sixteen years ago, my heart knew she was indeed, my dog. As it turns out, an acquaintance of my husband had an eight month old puppy that wasn’t getting the attention she deserved and this woman cared enough for her, to want to find a family who could give her what she needed. My husband thought of his brother who already had one Lab and it was at his brother’s house I first met my dear friend. Unfortunately, the idea of a female partner drove the first dog crazy, which drove my brother-in-law’s family crazy, the end result being, Jazz came to live with us.

Jazz was a perfect match for our family and before long she adopted my husband as her favourite person in the universe.

But alas, for the past year we have watched as Jazz’s body began to show her age and ultimately betrayed her. Over this past weekend, my husband had to carry her down the stairs. Knowing he had a day of gardening in front of him and knowing Jazz wasn’t about to let him do so without her, we placed her bed next to the planter. She never lay down. Refusing to leave his side despite her obvious pain, she dragged herself back-and-forth from the shed to the garden, matching each of his movements with lumbering strides and occasional stops to catch her breath. It was obvious her body had finally decided enough was enough. Yesterday morning, we made an appointment for her and again carried her outside to sit in the gazebo one last time while we had our morning coffee. For the last few days, I have thought about Sasha Trudeau’s black Lab that sat at the lake’s edge where Sasha’s body had been swept by an avalanche slide, also refusing to leave his friend’s side. I cried when I read that story knowing full well Jazz would have done the same.

The joy of having Jazz in our lives and now the sorrow I feel with her passing, will make me a better writer.

I’ve talked about it before, but in order for a writer, regardless of their genre, to write relatable stories, they must be willing to dig deep. Having just gone through the painful experience of watching Jazz struggle to remain the best dog for us, and then to watch her close her eyes and hear the vet whisper, “She’s gone,” has added another layer to me and hopefully to my future writing. Whenever I am called on to write about loyalty, sacrifice, dignity, unconditional love, or letting go, I will be able to look back at Jazz’s life and know I’ve seen each before.

She was a dear friend and we will miss her.

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And a One, and a Two, and a Three

I don’t play music, but I sure do love it. Shake my paternal family tree and look out, because a lot of very good musicians are going to land on you. I’m extremely proud to say my three children, and now my grandchild, have all inherited the musical gene. Music is and always has been a huge part of my life.

So, no one had to tell me how music could/would affect my moods. When I’m facing long hours of housecleaning, I like to put on fast, upbeat music which energizes me. Never having been a person who enjoys exercise, I make sure my IPod is loaded with great music before I set out for a walk. When one (or all) of my children were being, let’s call it—challenging, and I found myself wondering how much I could sell them for, I’d dial in CBC Classical and watch their (and my) mood quiet.

Now that I write full-time I don’t have the luxury of waiting for my muse to stir awake whenever she feels like it. Each and every day, I arrive at my computer determined to produce. Nice, but some days my darling muse really does just want to stay in bed. So, what’s a girl to do? Music. The quickest and least painful way to end my muse’s snorefest is to plug in Mozart Symphony No. 40 and let it rip.

A lot has been written about the power of music on the brain and creativity. It’s a proven fact that children who study music perform better in school. It turns out Einstein used music for creative inspiration. In particular, pieces paced at 60 beats per minute engage the brain at a lower subconscious level and with a relaxed mind, our creative brain is able to roam.

Classical music works best for me, but you may have to try different types to find what gets your creative juices flowing. Although I don’t listen to it as I’m writing, I often put on songs with strong lyrics—Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Carol King, (Did I just date myself?) when I’m trying to get my brain in a poetic frame of mind. However, as a general rule, I prefer instrumental pieces when I’m actually working. Being a wordsmith, I get too lost in the lyrics if I hear someone else’s brilliant language.

What do you listen to when you write?

Here’s an interesting video about improv and what your brain looks like as you are creating.

“Musician and researcher Charles Limb wondered how the brain works during musical improvisation — so he put jazz musicians and rappers in an fMRI to find out. What he and his team found has deep implications for our understanding of creativity of all kinds.” TED Talks

your-brain-on-improv-charles-limb-on-ted-com

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You Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine

Oh, when to show your work and when not to, therein lies the question. For many writers we have been showing our writing to teachers and parents all of our lives. After all, most of us knew we wanted to write from the time we were in grade school. But once you’ve graduated from class papers and essays, once you’ve become serious about your work, when is a good time to show others your work and who should you show it to?

Don’t show it too soon

Too often we are excited and proud of our work and like new love, want to shout it from the rooftop. I suggest when you feel the urge to strip and strut during a first draft that you keep your shorts on and not show it to anyone. Step away and take a break. Although it is brilliant that you think you are the next Shakespeare, showing others your work when it is in those early stages of development could derail you and make the second, third and fourth drafts difficult to face. By nature a first draft is just that, a first draft. It’s cookie dough that has yet to be shaped and baked. Don’t get me wrong, cookie dough is delicious, as I’m sure your first draft is, but it isn’t a cookie and your work isn’t a story yet.

When you spend time yakking up your work and flashing it around to all and sundry, you are depleting your own creative energy. Save that energy and direct it toward your next draft.

Be careful who you show it to

So you have heeded my advice and decided to hold off showing your baby to anyone until you have given it a bit of spit and polish. Now the question is who do you show it to?

Not your mother. Lord, not your mother.

Moms are great. I have one and I am one. But when I think of moms, I think of them as belonging to one of two camps. You have the cheerleaders and you have the crushers. Although my mother thinks I am amazing as her kid, her biggest worry is I’ll get too big for my britches and feels it her duty to keep me grounded with comments like: You can’t make money as a writer. Don’t quit your day job – oops too late for that. Aren’t you finished that book yet?

Cheerleader moms are not much better. Although you never leave them feeling like you want to slit your wrists, their comments may not be valuable feedback. Remember your crappy tissue paper artwork she still has in a shoebox in the closet? I rest my case.

There’s a reason doctors are not permitted to operate on family members! Friends and family are most likely not writers and showing them your work is at best little more than a crap shoot and at worst bone-crushing, mind-numbing, ego-shattering suicide.

Writing Groups

I am privileged to belong to a very good critiquing group and have found their feedback valuable. As long as there are one or more skilled writers in your group, or at least beginning writers who are taking the necessary steps to become skilled writers i.e. workshops, courses, reading about their craft, I would suggest you listen to what is being offered. Most groups are able to provide feedback on structure, character, pacing and syntax. However, it is still important to remember it is your work and it would be artistic suicide to allow your writing to be dictated by a group. Don’t write to please your writing group.  Weigh carefully and thoughtfully what they suggest. If you ask six writers their opinion of your work, you will undoubtedly receive six different opinions. If however, all six, or the majority of the six, hold the same opinion, listen to them because there is very likely truth in what they are saying.

The other caveat I offer is you must trust your group members to critique the writing, not the writer.  Be careful that the criticism never becomes personal. As writers we tend to be sensitive people and our egos are easily wounded. If  you ever feel the feedback has shifted off your writing and onto you personally, run for the hills. Trust is non-negotiable in a writing group.

Beta Reader

Like a good  Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, one trusted, honest, reliable person to read your writing will keep you on track. It is priceless to have a person who has the best interests for your writing in mind and who knows your work and your intention for the work. Although it may appear they are a rare bird, I know they exist. So, seek out and find one of those rare birds.

A reliable beta reader, a good writing group and determination to make your writing the strongest it can be will take you the distance.

I would love to hear how you decide when and who to show your work to.

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5 Ways to Writer Proof Your Life

Current Closet OfficeThis past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a writer’s conference and spent a big chunk of the day in the company of two younger women who between them have seven children under the age of nine. I applaud these brave women who, despite their young families, are still working hard at their craft. I know when my three children were little I neither read nor wrote for fifteen years. It is no small feat juggling work, family and a passion. My hat is off to you ladies and your commitment.

So the question is how does a writer (or any artist for that matter) balance a writing life with the rest of their life?

Unplug

The first thing I would suggest is, if you live with a lot of people, buy yourself some good earplugs. Although my children are now grown, they haven’t all left the nest and my house is packed to the rafters. I know with 100% certainty that I would never have written a single word over the last ten years if it weren’t for earplugs. Earplugs and a commitment to make my life work are what help me survive the mayhem.

I live in a 2,000 sq. foot house with six other people (three generations ranging in age from 62 yrs – 2 yrs), a sixteen-year-old, ailing dog and four cats. (Some days I peer around my noisy, nuthouse and honestly wonder whether I’m in fact, living in a displaced person’s camp or maybe an animal rescue shelter.) We have a suburban sized lot and at present five people are sharing my car. Lucky me. Well yeah, I am lucky. Although it often (very often) doesn’t feel like a good thing to have so much activity swirling around me, I think my art benefits from our offbeat life.

Plug In

I strongly suggest that whatever your current living arrangements are, steal from your own life. The craziness of my house provides me with endless story ideas and plot twists. If last night’s brouhaha over wet rags left in a toddler’s bicycle basket vs. abandoned pop cans, juice glasses and coffee mugs on a workbench is any indication, I will never run out of material.

Space Out

I envy writers who are able to write anywhere, coffee shops, food courts, but I’m not one of them. I need a designated writing space. Never having had the luxury of spreading my family out over a 10,000 sq foot mansion or 50 acres of land, I’ve had to be creative when it comes to creating a writing space for myself. When I was a teenager my mother moved us (herself and four kids) to a three bedroom apartment. Finding space to steal away and write seemed impossible until I discovered our walk-in closet. I pushed my desk into the closet and pulled the door closed. In creating my closet office, I’d found a safe place to pour my teenage heart out onto the page. Today, I still have limited space to call my own and have once again created a closet office. Five years ago, I turned the smallest room in the house into my office and in an attempt to maximize the space, pushed my desk into the closet. TaDa!

Disconnect

Seems like a pretty simple suggestion and we all know what we have to do, but most of us are not always strong enough to do it. So I implore you, please help yourself by reducing your opportunities to diddle. Disconnect (or at very least shut off) Facebook, Google and your email account. If you are really good, and manage to get a lot done in the allotted time you’ve set aside for writing, reward yourself with an hour of playtime on your computer, but not until you are satisfied with your writing efforts. No cheating.

TVless

Do not have a TV in your writing room. If you have a favourite show and it airs during your writing time, watch it later on cable on demand, or on the internet (to be considered your computer playtime) once you’ve finished work. Simple but true.

If you allow it to, life will suck the artist right out of you. But…if you embrace your wild and crazy life, I promise you, your art will become a living, breathing wonder.

 

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The 3-D Release of Your Story

Every writer knows they have to show not tell what’s happening in their story. I’m sure we’ve all been guilty, at one time or another, of reporting our scenes rather than living them.  I’ve tried very hard to pay close attention to show-don’t-tell as I move my characters through their scenes. Yet, I recently received a critique that mentioned “…it seems to me that they (my three narrators) report the events in a very episodic fashion.”

I’ve been chewing on this for a week or so and this morning, have come across an article from Writer’s Gym and an interesting essay, Animate a Three-Dimensional World, by Catherine Bush. I love when the right article comes across my desk or computer screen at precisely the right time. After reading this short essay, I now believe I know how to bring life to my scenes.

In my attempt to stage my scenes, I’ve been moving my characters through a two-dimensional world. What I in fact, need to do is animate my fictional world and populate it with three-dimensional characters who live in a three-dimensional world. I have to 3-D my fictional world.

It’s not enough to simply move characters, describing the actions they take along the way. With this in mind, I see what my instructor meant when he commented I should “…leapfrog over much of the quotidian and unimportant domestic moments and details and obvious staging (e.g., dishwashing, tea drinking, turning on stoves, making phone calls…which bring nothing to the story).” To do this, he’s suggested I bring my narrators up and out to give them a wider view of their lives. Another way of saying, 3-D them.

We want readers to imagine our characters, and their environments, as having literal solidity and depth. Catherine Bush

Fair enough. Okay, how?

Create a visual shift and move the reader’s eye and attention—high to low, near to far. In doing this, the writer creates a sense of depth.

Show a scene through something—through a smeared window or heat rays rising off hot asphalt. Draw an image of something frail or transparent moving over something more solid—a child observing his world as flickering candlelight waves off his bedroom walls. Make your reader experience your characters world, a woman walking with the worn inner lining of her shoe rubbing against her heel, the edge of a glass top table pressed against his forearm. It’s not enough to ask, what does my character hear, feel? The writer should also ask, what else do they hear, feel? Distant voices raised in another room while a radio plays in the foreground, the feel of wet seeping through a damp cotton shirt. By weaving in these 3-D details, the writer brings depth to a character’s world.

I love the idea of layering my scenes. In my first draft, I report what I want my reader to see, then on subsequent drafts I can move my reader’s eyes up, down and all around. Easy as pie.

As I finish the short story I’ve been having a fling with, and I’m about to travel downtown to pick up the hard copy edits of the first 75 pages of my novel, I now feel like I have direction and look forward to implanting some 3-D effects into my work.

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Staying the Course

My intention for this blog has been to take readers along with me as I work my way toward publication. It wouldn’t be fair of me to only present one side of my journey. If I pour it on too thick and only trumpet my successes, I run the risk of readers wanting to reach through their computer screens to grab hold of my neck and choke the very, show-off life out of me. On the other hand, there is nothing more depressing, or off putting than to read a poor-me post. So, in fairness to you dear reader, I’ll admit, today I’m feeling a bit disjointed.

Last week, Oprah brought her Life Class to Toronto and I’m thrilled to say, I was there. The experience of being in the same building as the woman I’ve admired for most of my adult life and hearing from the four inspirational speakers she brought with her was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I lay full credit at Oprah’s feet for helping me identify my life’s purpose and for giving me permission to go after it. At a time when I was still knee-deep in childrearing, Oprah’s book club reminded me that once upon a time I loved to read. Before finishing her first book of the month selection, I remembered in addition to reading, I loved to write.

The first show was about gratitude and the second (which I attended) was about forgiveness. I’m so grateful that I’ve found my life’s purpose and that I was able to share my Oprah encounter with my sister. By the time the show began, I’d already forgiven the nutcase who thought asking 9,000 people (mostly women) to make their way downtown and line up for general admission seating was anything but a really, really bad idea. Lining up and dealing with the nonsense of said 9,000 people, who were held for hours like cattle, was nothing short of insane, but all is forgiven.

So why the yuk feeling?

Two days before my big Oprah experience, I was riding a writer’s high. At our WCDR (Writing Community of Durham Region) breakfast meeting, I received a Len Cullen Scholarship and saw my first poem published in the Word Weaver.

Two days after Oprah, I felt the air had been sucked from my chest, when I received the long awaited critique from my U of T instructor, who wasn’t completely blown away by my brilliant (my adjective, not his) 75 page submission. Although he was very kind, and very likely correct, hearing a great part of my work requires a significant overhaul, was a bitter pill to swallow.

While reading his comments, the horrible little devil on my shoulder set into his predictable rant. See, told you not to get too big for your britches. Followed of course, by imagines of my well meaning mother reminding me I should have listened to her and kept my head low and set my sights even lower.

But wait.

Having my Oprah experience sandwiched between two successes and one, maybe not full on failure, but certainly huge disappointment, could not possibly be an accident. Could it? Nope. I know there’s a lesson in here and I suspect the lesson is – DON’T GIVE UP. There will be ups and there will be downs along my journey. I believe everything that matters to you will be tested. Holding your dream and your vision steady will not always be easy, but will nevertheless serve you well. The good and the bad are all part of the whole picture.

So I’ve taken the weekend to process last week. Then I reached out to my trusted tribe. They know my novel well and have alternately held my hand and kick my butt as need be. Not being people who will sugar coat anything, they agreed with some of what my instructor said, disagreed with some and added their own take of what is working and what isn’t working. Now it’s up to me. This is my novel and my dream and I have no intention of letting go of either.

One mile at a time!

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