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Three Minute Thursday

Three Minute Thursdays are a slightly longer version of Two Minute Tuesdays, aimed more specifically at fellow writers. Every Thursday, we will have a short series on the in and outs of writing, covering inspiration sources, how-to guides, nut and bolts of building a story, and the actually mechanics of writing well.

 

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Editing 101: Part I

It has taken me two years of concerted effort, reading several books, listening to many podcasts, and writing multiple novels and short stories to understand the value of editing, and to start to come to grips with ways to do it. Over the next series, I want to talk through editing methods, editing tools, and also when to stop editing and head back to the drawing board.

First, we need to get some terms in place.

 

Editing has layers, and they are not the same. They use different tools to achieve their ends and are not usually done together, though they can be. Just like writing a novel, there is no right way to edit; there is only a right way for you. To be sure you have found a method that works for you, experiment with multiple ways.

 

From top-level to bottom grit and detail, we have:

 

Beta reading. This is like a manuscript edit, but where no comments are left chapter by chapter, only a kind of final “this is how I feel.” Everyone has had the experience of reading a book you know is not good but liking it anyway, and reading a book that is objectively good but disliking it. When you tell a friend why, you are doing a kind of light beta edit review. It is one level down from just reading the book as a reader for fun. Everyone should do this for their novel at least once after you have finished it.

 

Manuscript editing is a top-level edit, which pertains to the structure of a book. Do plots work? Do characters work? Are they consistent? Did you drop threads of the story? What about your theme? Did anything jump off the page as boring? Too remote? Did you change the point of view without meaning to? This is very much the chapter and structural level of the book. Did you tell the story you thought you set out to tell? People don’t generally read this way, so learning to do a manuscript edit is a skill in its own right.

 

Line editing is the next deeper level of dive. This is less concerned with the consistency of the story and more concerned with the individual sentence and paragraph structure and how they hang together. This can be grammar and spelling punctuation issues, but more often it can be voice. Do characters sound like themselves? Are you fixing up white room issues so people can picture a scene better? When you read it, does it flow, or is there effort in the task? Did someone’s eyes switch from green to blue partway through by accident? This is a very slow kind of reading, often with rule books beside us as we learn how to restructure sentences. Like manuscript editing, it is yet another skill that takes time to learn.

 

There is also copy editing and formatting, which is literally how the book looks on a page, and print structure, which we won’t talk about much here.

 

Finally, there is the dreaded garbage pile. I don’t recommend deleting any book you have ever written. But sometimes something we create can’t be salvaged; it needs a fresh start. A complete rewrite is its own kind of edit and shouldn’t be discounted. It is always easier to tell the story a second time.

 

We will go through each of these, with tools and tips, to help your stories take the shape you want them to. But remember, you can’t edit what you haven’t created, so get out there and write.

Find Your Percentage

We need criticism

How much negativity in your feedback can you stand? 10%... 20%? 90%?

Every writer needs negative criticism. We need to be told no. We need to be told what we are doing is not good enough. We need to grow. Growth without being told why we are wrong is very difficult to achieve, but we don’t all have the same tolerance for being told negative things.

 

Deep down, we all know this is true. If nobody ever told us we were wrong, or pointed out our errors, we would all still be five-year-old children struggling to get by in the world. We need “No.”

 

I can’t tell you what your percentage is. I can only tell you what it is not. It is not 0%. And it is not 100%.

 

When nobody tells us what we write is crap, and every author writes real stinkers sometimes, we will never know it could be better. Our own words sound better in our heads. Gaps in our stories don’t stand up and wave their hands to the author because we know what we meant. When a character acts outside of their personality, we know why, because we know what makes them tick. We need to be told these things by someone else, so the number is not zero.

 

It is not even close to zero for most people. And the more you learn how to hear that what you did is wrong, the better writer you will be. We grow tolerant of the criticism, don’t take it personally, and learn how to incorporate it into our pieces.

 

Remember, “No,” doesn’t indicate the feedback has to be unconstructive or mean. Sometimes it might be, but an understanding of why everyone says no is incredibly important.

 

On the other side of that coin, the number can’t be 100%. Nobody can be told they are bad at something all the time and keep marching forward forever. Some people have a lot of grit, and they will push through 99% of the time, but that glimmer of hope has to be there. Nobody can believe they are a failure all the time.

 

So, what do we do about these numbers? First, you need to go find them. If you are a writer with no feedback, you need to fix it. Find a meetup that does book critique swaps. Find beta readers. Pay a literature student.

 

Find someone who will be in your corner. A friend, a spouse, a family member, a co-author, or an editor. Someone has to believe in you. It takes courage to tell people you are a writer, but if you don’t, you will walk a very hard road alone. Introduce yourself as an author. Introduce yourself as a creative, and you will find there are more kindred spirits out there than you may think.

 

Work on finding your tolerance level. Find your critics and embrace them. Find your supporters and embrace them too. Most importantly, remember that writers write.

Perspective

Who you link to for a POV is extremely important in storytelling. I am going to give an example of a very short piece told from two perspectives. This is the same scene; the same action beat and the same outcomes. In one case we lock on to the knight, in the other case we lock onto some marauders.

A knight's last stand

Knights POV:

Kenneth stood resolutely at the entrance to the ancient stone church, his grip tight around the hilt of his sword. The late afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on his chainmail, heating the metal to an almost unbearable degree. Sweat trickled down his brow, stinging his eyes, but he did not let his spine bend. He had prepared for this moment with meticulous care, ensuring every strap on his armor was secure and every piece of his gear was in place. The shield on his left arm felt snug, its weight a familiar comfort. But despite all his preparation, Kenneth knew it would soon be tested in a way it never had been before.

Before him, spread out across the stone courtyard before the small church, were at least a dozen marauders, their weapons glinting wickedly in the harsh sunlight. They were a motley crew, hardened by years of raiding and plundering, and their eyes were fixed hungrily on the church. Kenneth could see the greed in their expressions, the anticipation of easy spoils. But they would find no easy victory here.

His thoughts drifted briefly to his grandmother, inside the church. She was the reason he stood here now, facing such overwhelming odds. She was a frail woman, her health failing, and she had taken refuge in the church, when the town had been targeted for pillaging. Kenneth had promised her he would keep her safe, and he intended to keep that promise, no matter the cost.

He recalled the times she had cared for him as a child, her gentle hands tending to his scrapes and bruises, her stories filling his young mind with dreams of valor and honor. She had been his rock, the one constant in a life filled with uncertainty. Now it was his turn to be her protector.

The sun blazed down, intensifying the heat beneath his armor. Kenneth's muscles ached, and his mouth was dry, but he refused to be daunted. He could not afford to show any sign of weakness. The marauders were watching, waiting for the slightest hint of fear or hesitation. Kenneth had to be as unyielding as the stone walls behind him.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself. He had faced battles before, but never had so much been at stake. The weight of his duty pressed heavily upon him, but it also gave him strength. He was not just fighting for his life; he was fighting for his grandmother's life, for her peace, and for the sanctity of the church she had found refuge in.

The marauders began to stir, their leader raising a hand and barking orders. Kenneth tightened his grip on his sword, his eyes narrowing. He had no illusions about the outcome of this battle, but he would not go down easily.

The first of the marauders reached him. Kenneth felt the impact reverberate through his arm, but he held his ground, parrying and striking with a determination born of desperation and love.

For his grandmother, for the promise he had made, and for the honor of a knight, Kenneth fought; a bulwark against the tide of darkness, a lone warrior standing firm in the face of overwhelming odds.

 

Marauders’ POV:

Bilko squinted against the glare of the sun, feeling the heat seep through his ragged clothes and burn the exposed skin on his neck. He flexed his left hand, the stump of his missing finger throbbing with a phantom ache. It had been years since that brutal winter night, but the memory was still fresh—left to freeze outside the church, the matron's cold eyes watching him shiver, her heart unmoved by his pleas. That church had been a symbol of his suffering, and now, it was a beacon of hope for his desperate family.

Ten of men stood ready, their eyes fixed on the lone knight guarding the entrance. Bilko’s stomach churned with a mix of hunger and determination. His family, like those of his comrades, was starving, crushed under the weight of oppressive taxes imposed by the local feudal lord. The same landlord who had funded the church that now housed the treasures they sought. Gold items, relics, anything that could be sold or traded for food—these were their salvation.

The leader of their band, a burly man named Grigor, raised his hand and barked out orders. Bilko tightened his grip on his crude sword, feeling the rough leather of the hilt bite into his palm. They had raided before, but this was different. This time, it was not just about survival but retribution. The knight stood in their way, a final obstacle between them and the chance to feed their children, to see their wives smile again, if only for a night or two.

 

Bilko's eyes scanned the church’s defender, noting the glint of his chainmail, the oversized shield, the set determination in his stance. This knight, whoever he was, had prepared well. But Bilko knew that even the most well-prepared man could be overwhelmed. Numbers were on their side. God help him that he would be one that survived. Then, God was unlikely to intervene in his favor.

He thought about his own preparations, the whispered plans around the campfire, the resolve in the eyes of his comrades. They had nothing left to lose. The oppressive sun bore down on them all, knight and marauders alike, but it was a different heat that fueled Bilko—a burning need to right the wrongs done to his family and friends.

Grigor gave the signal, and they began their advance. The knight, ever vigilant, raised his sword and shield, ready to meet them. Bilko's heart pounded in his chest, each beat echoing the silent promise he had made to his family. This was for them, for every night his children went to bed hungry, for every time his wife had cried over an empty pot.

His sword met the knight's with a metallic crash, the impact sending a jolt up his arm…

 

Author's POV

These are meant to be somewhat silly little stories. They have too many passive sentences, and the use of internal thoughts for characters are a touch redundant. The point to be made are not these things which can be polished. Although this is the exact same story, choosing to see it as the knight, or choosing to see it as the assailant make for very different hero’s and very different villains. Always pick you POV wisely.

As a writer experiment with doing more than one POV for the same scene. You never know what you might discover.

Dialogue: When to Shut Up

We have talked before about good and bad dialogue. In summary, bad dialogue is dialogue that is long-winded, generic, tells us nothing, and is fundamentally disposable, meaning the story wouldn’t be any different if it were gone. It teaches us nothing, explores nothing, duels with nothing, and gets us nowhere.

Dialogue we want to keep is always the opposite. It is useful, has layers of meaning, sometimes by things not said between the lines that are said, and is memorable.

Today, we want to also talk about contrasting dialogue: making one character look good by making another character look worse. Just like in real life, you can build yourself up, or you can tear others down—it works the same for characters. For example, look at Shrek and Donkey from the movie Shrek. Donkey is the comic relief. He has long-winded lines of dialogue and is generally the comic relief even inside an already reasonably light-hearted story. He is made all the more long-winded by his stance next to Shrek, who is stoic and silent most of the time.

Shrek and Donkey, silent vs chatty

More than this, we have talked in the past about making it clear who is speaking, even when you minimize dialogue tags. This remains the case here as well. By having a contrasting pair of characters who are speaking with two very different tones—one long-winded and one quiet and terse—it becomes very obvious who is speaking.

“Can I say something? You was really, really something back there. Incredible. That was really, really great back there. Man, those guards they thought it was all that, then you showed up and bam! They were tripping over themselves like babes in the woods. See that, that really made me feel good to see that….”

When Shrek is finally more verbose, it matters. What he says carries meaning, as opposed to Donkey, who has been jabbering on for minutes now.

“...Listen, little donkey, take a look at me. What am I? Oh, really tall? No, I’m an ogre. You know, grab your torch and pitchforks. Doesn't that bother you?”

“Nope.”

Again, we have a swap. The response is itself short, concise, and meaningful. Donkey could have had a long, rambling response, but he didn’t.

 

Remember, having a character as the strong, silent type can be very meaningful when they speak, especially when paired with a chatterbox. But if you want everyone to come across as important, and their words to have meaning, sometimes we need to look for times to shut them up. Sometimes, less dialogue is more dialogue.

Dialogue: Filler Words

Crafting dialogue that sounds like real speech while still being purposeful and engaging can be difficult. Real conversations often include filler words, interruptions, and tangents, but too much of this in writing can make dialogue seem disjointed or boring.

FIller Words, to use at your peril

I created a character once based on the vocal cadence and mannerisms of Dr. Michael Greger, a famous author. He is unique, and I wanted a person with that tone, vocal pauses, and intonations to help me remove dialogue tags and the like around him because it would always be clear when he was speaking. Check out the link to his speaking, a great talk and a great example of a unique voice.

When you listen to more of his pieces, he has the occasional vocal pause and a very unique, to my ear, up-and-down sound to him. I tried to explain it, mimic it in the dialogue, and my beta readers and editors said it was terribly distracting and annoying to read.

How had reality failed me?

The more I write, the more I fall into the camp that reality and novels cannot match, though I know other authors who insist otherwise.

In real conversations, people often interrupt each other or speak over one another. Incorporating this can make dialogue feel more lifelike, but it needs to be done judiciously to avoid confusing the reader. People rarely speak in perfect sentences. They use contractions, trail off, and change direction mid-sentence. Mimicking this natural flow helps dialogue feel authentic, but again, it can be hard to read. Real conversations are filled with "um," "uh," and other filler words, but too much of this reads wrong in a book and slows down the reader. I now use them sparingly to add realism without detracting from readability.

Think about what characters sound like in your head as you read. We assign a voice to them ourselves. We can influence that voice as authors to our readers, but the reality is we can’t force anything. Different characters should have distinct ways of speaking. This includes vocabulary choices, sentence structure, and rhythm. For instance, as we have mentioned in past postings, a professor might use more complex language than a teenager. But the use of these verbal cues and odd tics must, I think, be used sparingly to attribute speech in dialogue. While the human mind in real life seems to filter them out, in a book, we are not so lucky.

We all know tight, wrong-sounding speech when we see it. Breaking it down to the parlance that belongs is hard, but practice makes perfect. Experiment with vocal pauses, broken-off speech, and nonsense segues, and then see how they read when you review the work. Sometimes they will work, and sometimes they won’t. But dialogue, like all aspects of writing, needs practice. So, get out there and write.

Dueling Dialogue

Dialogue should be a verbal duel

We have talked about dialogue tags, action tags, and the setting dialogue inside of a larger context of the tale. For the moment I want to strip away all the extraneous and just discuss the verbal portion of dialogue and what the people want. Dialogue should be a duel. Dialogue whenever two or more people are all rehashing what we already know and everyone is in agreement is dull. We want to see the conflict in the conversation where each person is trying to get something they want or convince someone else they are wrong.

To do that we need to go into each of the dialogues we have with some guild lines. Here are five I like to use, among others that are suggested by many venerable authors. I’ll keep some examples to fantasy and magical worlds.

 

1. Define Clear Objectives for Each Character

Each character in the dialogue should have a clear objective that drives their conversation. This objective could involve gaining magical power, defending a kingdom, or uncovering ancient secrets.

Example: In a debate between a sorcerer and a knight in the traditional “noble,” sense, the sorcerer aims to convince the knight of the necessity of using dark magic to defeat a looming threat, while the knight seeks to uphold the kingdom’s predefined laws and ethics.

Outline each character’s goals and their strategies to achieve them. This clarity will keep the dialogue focused and purposeful.

 

2. Create Tension with Conflicting Perspectives

The essence of dueling dialogue is the clash of opposing views. Characters should have distinct and conflicting perspectives that drive the narrative tension.

Example: In a council meeting, an elven elder argues for isolationism to protect their mystical forest, while a human diplomat advocates for an alliance to fight a common enemy. Develop strong, well-defined viewpoints for each character. The more polarized their opinions, the more engaging the dialogue will be.

 

3. Use Subtext to Add Depth

Subtext adds layers of complexity to your dialogue by revealing hidden motivations, emotions, and conflicts beneath the surface.

Example: A rogue and a mage discuss a treasure hunt. The rogue could say, “I’m sure your magic will be useful,” implying doubt in the mage’s abilities if you put the right tags around it. Incorporate subtext through tone, body language, and choice of words to convey deeper meanings and unspoken thoughts.

 

4. Pace the Dialogue with Tactical Shifts

Keep the dialogue dynamic by varying the pace and intensity. Characters might start with a calm exchange, but as the stakes rise, the dialogue should become more heated and intense.

Example: Two wizards debate the ethics of using forbidden spells. They begin by citing ancient texts, but as emotions flare, their dialogue quickens and becomes more confrontational. Maybe energy flares around them. Threats begin to fly.

Plan the rhythm of your dialogue. Make sure you have beat points to tell you when the individual characters ramp up the tension or the stakes, and make sure you know what the reaction will be from the other party/ies.

 

5. Employ Rhetorical Devices and Wordplay

Enrich your dueling dialogue with rhetorical devices such as metaphors, analogies, and irony. Clever wordplay can add wit and sophistication, especially when you are fitting it into the grandeur of a fantasy setting.

Example: In a battle of wits between an ancient fae and a human, the fae says, “humans are but pebbles in the steam of time,” to which the human can challenge, “A single pebble can start a blockade of a million pebbles to divert the river.” (Cutesy example but the idea remains.)

Use rhetorical devices to make arguments more compelling and memorable. This also highlights the intelligence and eloquence of your characters, or their lack of it if you go out of your way to create shallow responses.

 

Here’s a short example incorporating these tips in a short back and forth:

Sorcerer: “You cling to your code of honor as if it’s a shield against the darkness. But honor won’t stop the demon horde.”

Knight: “And you believe that by wielding forbidden magic, you can control chaos itself? Power without restraint is the true darkness.”

Sorcerer: “Power is neither good nor evil. It’s how we use it that defines us. Would you see our kingdom fall to uphold your principles?”

Knight: “Better to fall with honor than to rise with corruption. Your magic may win battles, but it will lose our souls.”

Sorcerer: “And what use is a soul if it perishes along with the body? Survival is the first rule of nature.”

Knight: “Survival at any cost is not living, it’s merely existing. We must stand for something greater, or we are no better than the beasts we fight. How are we so sure you are not as bad as they are?”

This example shows characters with clear objectives, conflicting perspectives, subtext (power vs. morality), tactical shifts in the conversation’s intensity, and the use of metaphors. It raises over the short exchange to direct threat.

 

By applying these tips, we can create dueling dialogue that is engaging and thought-provoking, while also immersing the reader in the world of our fantasy settings.

Now, go write an argument. :) 

Talking about Singing

In novels, song and verse are, or can be, a kind of dialogue that elevates the piece. In real life throughout human history we have sung. Some books say we may have even sung or hummed notes before we had words. Songs carry emotion with them inherently, and when song or poetry is used in a novel, they can be used to express the emotion of a person, the history of a place or the lore of a land. They do so with what is effectively monologue, or group dialogue if sung in a chorus.

As an example of all a song can be in a novel, specifically in fantasy where we need to do heavy lifting in our writing to explain the world, they can express a lot in a short space. I will start with the most widely quoted song I know of from literature. A walking Song, by Tolkien: (Many versions of this song being sung can be found on YouTube, one of my favorites is linked here.)

sing.png

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

 

This is perhaps the most common version of the song because this is the version which appeared in part in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy movies. Let’s start here. What does it say about the singer? It gets to say in a single verse “I live in a small place, far from other bigger places.” It sets a stage for the idea of the local protagonist going out onto the bigger world. It is pretty, it begs the question of the quest or the travel tale. But more interesting are the other versions of the song which appear in the hobbit and the novel.

Let’s look at another verse / version.

Roads go ever ever on,

Over rock and under tree,

By caves where never sun has shone,

By streams that never find the sea;

Over snow by winter sown,

And through the merry flowers of June,

Over grass and over stone,

And under mountains in the moon.

 

Roads go ever ever on

Under cloud and under star,

Yet feet that wandering have gone

Turn at last to home afar.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen

And horror in the halls of stone

Look at last on meadows green

And trees and hills they long have known.

 

Now we really start to have a lot to unpack. “By caves where never sun has shone,” is perfect evocative imagery, of an unexplored cave that torchlight has never illuminated. It tells us this is not our world. This is a world that is unexplored with mystery that remains. “By streams that never find the sea,” is equally beautiful because it states the impossible. Almost all rivers find the ocean eventually, which we all intuitively know. The imagery used of a river so long, and a world so large that it can meander forever across the landscape and never find the sea, tells us the scale the person signing it feels about the world. It is large they are small.

This is an example of being able to use more lyrical words than people would usually say, to express something. It is not just a song to be a song in the world it brings about more meaning.

The second verse similarly tells of a person who has seen conflict and true war of “fire and sword,” but wants to go home now.

Songs can be sung by their originators, or can be used to be prophetic, as this was here, as this was sung in the hobbit long before the singer witnessed combat. Interesting in the same book, songs can also evolve. Unlike released and controlled recordings of today, songs were able to be modified on the fly more in past years, in the living traditions of jazz today. Here for example is another verse sung later in the Lord of The Rings after all the protagonists have seen is done, and we are in the denouement portion of the tale’s telling:

Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though I oft have passed them by,

A day will come at last when I

Shall take the hidden paths that run

West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

 

This is sung by Frodo as he is preparing to move on to the reward of his afterlife. It is unlikely this is a common refrain for the song, sung by people just out and about. It is a new version of the same cadence and old verse, sung to himself. It allows the author to use the familiar to tell something new, and say it in a beautiful way at the end of a book that the hero is getting his deserved rest. “West of the Moon, East of the Sun,” is an ancient use of terminology which historically meant somewhere you cannot normally get to.

Tolkien was well known for use of poetry in his stories, and this is one example. What can a poem or a song say in your writing that a character perhaps could not otherwise speak? What kind of world building or backstory could a song put into your prose?


Consider giving them a shot in your own writing. They are hard to do well, but very rewarding when pulled off. Most importantly, never forget, writers write.

Bad Dialogue: Case Study 1

I will never review a bad book on my site, because there is enough negativity in the world, and to be frank, I know how hard it is to write a book and still have it be terrible. I will however fully admit I read bad books. Some of them I like, some of them feel like a hawk raking at my brain with claws.

Today I would like to point out some bad dialogue from books, to see what we can learn from it, and why it is bad. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. (Author) Everything else here is verbatim from a book that is published by a major publishing house, not self-published.

I am picking up at the moment the conversation starts, so that we lose no information.

Bad Dialogue Everywhere

“What do you want?”

Jordan turned to the borderguard who addressed him. He was young and looked at him as though he would steal everything he owned. “Looking for Captain Grinch,” Jordan said ignoring the boy’s rudeness. The entire city was on edge before the inexplicable massacre in the Circle, now, everyone was downright paranoid.

“Who’s asking?”

“Morgot,” Jordan said, using the name the captain had addressed him in the letter. “Tell him Morgot is looking for him.”

“Just Morgot?”

Jordan frowned. “Just Morgot.”

Half an hour later the young man returned, his demeanor markedly different.

The boy bowed. “Come with me, sir…”

 
Okay, so let’s take a moment to talk about why this is not working. Again, nothing comes before it, this is the start of the conversation. Jordan has something he wants. He wants to see the captain. That’s a good thing, we know in conversations people should want something. To convey information, gain a thing, change a mind, learn something. Here we have a clear “I want to see…” In the conversation we also know we need something to stand in the way. Standing in the way means conflict, and that is where this fails for me.

The kid is a wet sheet.

If that was how the character was supposed to be portrayed as wishy washy and easy to get past that is something different, instead we have a non-conflict which takes half a page through which we learn nothing.

Specific issues are here too. “Ignoring the boy’s rudeness…” made no sense. The boy wasn’t rude. Not that we saw. Looking him over is technically his job, and we are given insufficient detail to know how he looked him over. No help there.

The back and forth with the name is not adding information to the scene. It is just a repetition of his false name over and over again. No tension is added, no action beats are there to tell us if tension is rising.

We are told the boys demeanor is markedly different but we never really saw one before.

The scene ultimately adds nothing and moves nothing forward.

Does every scene need to be an interaction masterpiece? Of course, not. Sometimes it just needs to be a brief hello to get by a door guard, but the level of repetition here, and the feeling the author desired this to be more than it was, stuck with me. If the interaction is that inconsequential, you can skip it.

“Jordan was stalled for a moment by a perplexed door guard when he passed off his pseudonym, but was led in short order to the captain… or some such can skip the boring repetition, which didn’t teach us anything.”

That’s a quicker 39 words compared to the original 103.

It is important in reading and writing that you study dialogue you don’t like as much as you study dialogue that you do. Next week we will be back with more excellent dialogue as counterpoint to this week’s disappointment.

Now go write some dialogue! Because writers write.

Get to The Point

Inglourious Basterds

Dialogue must have a point and a purpose. It must teach us something about the world, about the characters, about their emotions, the situation or what will happen next.

Everything about this is bad:

"I can't believe you did that," Mary said angrily.

"What do you mean?" John replied defensively.

"You know exactly what I mean," Mary snapped back.

"I don't understand why you're upset," John said cluelessly.

"Ugh, forget it," Mary muttered, rolling her eyes

John went back to playing with his French fries.

Nothing happens here. The interaction drives no questions, makes no questions, changes no state of being in either character and teaches us as the reader nothing about the players of the story.

 

Let’s compare this to a piece from Winds of Winter. I’m going to intersperse my thoughts in green throughout.

“You could have died,” Arianne told her, when she’d heard the tale. She grabbed Elia by the arm and shook her. “If that torch had gone out you would have been alone in the dark, as good as blind. What did you think that you were doing?”

“I caught two fish,” said Elia Sand.

We learn these characters are in a bad situation, we learn they are willing to take risks, or are not bright enough to see danger. They care about one another or at least have intertwined fates without Arianne having to say “I care about you.” The idea of “what were you thinking,” while its own kind of cliché works here and conveys the same idea.

 

“You could have died,” said Arianne again. Her words echoed off the cavern walls. “…died… died … died…”

Later, when they had made their back to the surface and her anger had cooled, the princess took the girl aside and sat her down. “Elia, this must end,” she told her. “We are not in Dorne now. You are not with your sisters, and this is not a game. I want your word that you will play the maidservant until we are safely back at Sunspear. I want you meek and mild and obedient. You need to hold your tongue. I’ll hear no more talk of Lady Lance or jousting, no mention of your father or your sisters. The men that I must treat with are sellswords. Today they serve this man who calls himself Jon Connington, but come the morrow they could just as easily serve the Lannisters. All it takes to win a sellsword’s heart is gold, and casterly Rock does not lack for that. If the wrong man should learn who you are, you could be seized and held for ransom–“

“No,” Elia broke in. “You’re the one they’ll want to ransom. You’re the heir to Dorne, I’m just a bastard girl. Your father would give a chest of gold for you. My father’s dead.”

“Dead, but not forgotten,” said Arianne, who had spent half her life wishing Prince Oberyn had been her father. “You are a Sand Snake, and Prince Doran would pay any price to keep you and your sisters safe from harm.” That made the child smile at least.

 

“Do I have your sworn word? Or must I send you back?”

“I swear.” Elia did not sound happy.

“On your father’s bones.”

“On my father’s bones.”

This is a fantastic brief back and forth. It tells us about the world. We learn the Lannisters will use mercenaries that the group is not trustworthy beyond pay, that the Elia doesn’t want to pretend but will. The tones used are harsh with talk of death handled as a serious but throw away manner. Making her effectively promise multiple times in different ways shows the distrust between them. There is no wasted content.

 

Dialogue must not waste content or time. I have heard two schools of thought, one of which thinks dialogue should sound natural and another which believes dialogue needs to be a kind of distilled version of reality. In real speech we waste time, say nothing have no meaning and often talk to hear ourselves speak. I lean in the direction that our characters unless we are of course painting that character as the type to waste people’s time to begin with, should have focus.

Every time someone speaks are they defending a point? Giving information? Asking for information? Teaching the reader something indirectly? If the answer to these are no, then the dialogue fails to serve a purpose. It does not get to the point.

Our real world is filled with speech.

 

Go write some of your own. Record (don’t be creepy) the speech of people around you. Study it, see how people interact, and when they go back and forth, when they interrupt and how. See what meaning is transferred when we talk, and then distill it down.

Talk About Talking... Redux

We have talked about dialogue on this channel before, but as it turns out i have mor to say. For our first bluff check out this page. Now... On to the current monologue about dialogue! 

Writing good dialogue can be very, very challenging, but some aspects tend to pose particular difficulties for us as writers. Here are some of the eight (IMO) hardest parts of crafting effective dialogue:

 

Make it natural: Ensuring that dialogue sounds authentic and natural is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects. Dialogue should reflect how people in your world actually speak, including pauses, interruptions, slang, and colloquialisms. Striking a balance between realism and readability can be tricky. This is doubly so if you are deep into world building where the dialogue is building up the world for you with new phrases and hidden meanings.

 

Unique character voice: Each character should have a distinct voice that reflects their personality, background, and motivations. Maintaining consistency in character voices throughout the dialogue while still allowing for growth and development can be difficult, especially in stories with multiple characters. What comes out of the mouth of one person should not be replaceable with another person, most of the time. The unique wants observations and viewpoints should be unique to each character.

Subtext: Good dialogue often contains layers of meaning beyond the literal words spoken. Subtext can convey character relationships, conflicts, hidden agendas, and emotions. Balancing subtlety with clarity, so readers can pick up on these underlying elements without feeling spoon-fed, requires skill and usually an architectural unpinning that the author knows exactly what they wanted the dialogue to express.

 

Pacing and Flow: Dialogue should contribute to the overall rhythm and pacing of the story. It should move the plot forward, reveal character traits, and maintain reader interest. It can be put between action beats, or action beats can be place between it, but the reality of most worlds is that we are surrounded by conversations. Finding the right balance between exposition, action, and conversation can be challenging, especially in scenes with heavy dialogue.

 

Exposition: Delivering necessary information through dialogue without it feeling forced or unnatural is a common challenge. Writers must find creative ways to weave exposition seamlessly into conversation, avoiding "info-dumps" or awkward dialogue solely intended for conveying information to the reader. Perhaps one of the most important lessons we will delve into is order of conversation. Don’t tell readers information before they need it.

 

Conflict and Tension: Engaging dialogue often involves some level of conflict or tension between characters. Creating believable arguments, disagreements, or power struggles that propel the story forward while remaining true to each character's motivations can be difficult to achieve consistently. In all dialogue there should be a back and forth, with each person wanting something from the conversation. If you don’t know what it is they want, ask yourself why they are speaking about it?

 

Showing Emotion: Dialogue is an essential tool for revealing characters' emotions, but conveying these feelings effectively through words alone can be challenging. Writers must use dialogue tags, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice to show emotional states without relying too heavily on adverbs or explicit descriptions. This is very hard and relies on all the interactions and dialogue which came before the emotional moment to make it emotional instead of melodramatic.

 

Avoiding Clichés: Steering clear of clichéd or overused expressions, tropes, and dialogue patterns is crucial for maintaining originality and keeping readers engaged. Finding fresh and inventive ways for characters to express themselves requires creativity and careful attention to language. Unless of course you find those tropes useful!

 

Mastering dialogue writing takes practice, feedback, and a keen ear for language. Experimenting with different techniques, studying well-written dialogue in literature and film, and soliciting input from beta readers or writing groups can all help improve dialogue skills over time. In this series we will explore the items above, how to do dialogue well, with examples of good and bad dialogue form books and movies.

 

In the meantime, go write some arguments down, and always remember, writers write.

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Play TTRPGs

TTRPG = Table Top Role-Playing Games.

If you have never heard of them or have never tried one, the most popular one, though not my favorite from a rules or story perspective is a game called Dungeons and Dragons. Now in its fifth edition, moving into its next edition soon, D&D has been running for decades, and has the easiest time finding a table of people to play with.


Though if you are willing to play digitally, roll20, and other similar such platform enable you to find game filled with other players for other systems like Pathfinder, GURPs, or Cthulhu much more easily than ever before.

But back to the topic at hand. Why am I saying that you should play them at all?

Two reasons:

  1. If you read and write fantasy, TTRPGs can help you learn how to problem solve inside of a set of rules, just like authors do when they write themselves into corners. This useful to a degree. Item 2 is WAY more important.

  2. You get to see what the players find to be important. The people who play these kinds of fantasy and science fiction role playing games are often the people who read the books in the same genre. Because of this you can get a very up-close view of what is important to the readers in your genre? What kind of adventures do THEY want to go on.

 

I grant this is a limited scope, and will introduce you to 5-10 people on the outside for a single sitting, but it is still insightful to see what things people think about, how they perceive wizards, thieves, fantasy creatures and why.

 

Is it everything the fantasy and science fiction writer needs to know about writing? Not even close. It is however a very useful took to begin to glean some things from your fellow players, and the adventure just might lead you to new storylines.

 

Give a game a go, and always remember. Writers Write.

Try our series on dialogue, story arcs, and how not to annoy your reader.

How to Write

Garden writers.

Scaffold builders.

Unstructured writers.

Discovery writers.

Plotters.

Pantsers. (Defined below!)

Architects.

Designers.

There are as many words for how we write as there are people who write. The words are trying to express two ends of a spectrum.

Spectrum side one: Architectural Writers. 

There are people who will meticulously plan a book before they write it taking almost as long in the planning as the generation. An idea will take root, and churn around in their head. They will flesh it out a little there, seeing if it has enough content to go with, then they might write a page outline of the idea.

From there they will build chapter outlines to match those writing beats. From each chapter outline they will create character arcs which graph out the way a character will develop in each chapter and what they hope each section accomplishes. They might generate a world builder outline which shows each chapter which portions of the world they will want to showcase in that section. I’ve seen excel sheets, Gantt charts, flow charts, word files, note takers, and specialty software for all of this.

These people would be on the side we call architectural writers, or scaffold builders. They don’t write much when they begin. Once they have all of the outlines set up, they will generally not change it much. The book is “written,” at a medium to large scale. They will then go in and fill out each paragraph and write it in “facts,” sticking to the program they set out for themselves.

Spectrum, side two: Gardener and Discovery writers. 

Ironically, one of the most structured gardens on earth.

There are people who have an idea, and they sit down and start to write.

That’s it. They just go.

Side one and side two both have advantages and disadvantages. Nobody belongs 100 % to either side and neither side is right. There is only what is right for you. I will further stand by the statement that both sides have some right pieces for everyone, and I have never met any writer who is 100 % one, or 100 % the other. The only way you can learn which pieces fit your writing style is to try them all.

Before we go further let me share some of my personal writing experience over the last 20 years. When I started writing, I was close to what people call a garden writer or a discovery writer. I would have an idea, I would think about it for a while, I might write one or two single spaced pages of things I want to have happen. Then… I would just go write. I had no planning, no arcs, no structures, no to do lists beyond the basic story beats and big-ticket items on those first two pages of notes.

Over the first few novels I wrote, I found that I needed to do a lot of rewriting, because there were large plot holes or major changes I wanted to make in earlier portions of the book. In a few cases I threw the book out entirely and started over from scratch.

As years moved on, I put more framework in place to help me not have that happen. I became a LITTLE architectural in my writing habits. I had a plot arc, and then certain story beats that my characters needed throughout, but a bit of latitude on how they achieved it or how exactly things played out. I found that knowing I could trust my own notes about how things needed to go in a section, enabled me to focus on generating good content at the chapter level. Then I started to make notes about how the chapter beats should go, and I was able to focus more on the paragraph level.

To say it a different way, I am not smart enough to hold an entire book in my head at once, and then write the portion I am working on with confidence of doing it justice while making all the moving pieces match. I needed the structural backbone to literally prop me up in my writing.

One of the things that I suspect, though I cannot prove, is that a person can be taught how to be an architectural writer. There is a repeatability to it that I could not easily describe for garden writers or seat of the pants writers. It doesn’t diminish the writing skill, it doesn’t make writing less of an art form but it does enable us as architectural writers to generate pieces in the best way possible.

Over the next sessions here we will go through the processes, tools that are available, and the steps to becoming an architectural writer, followed by some tips for what can be incorporated from garden writing, and vice versa.

I’m looking forward to exploring the steps to writing with you. Here we go. Next up. Step 1… The idea.  

Close what you open, unless you mean not to.

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That’s almost a tautology. Here is what I mean. We open a book, and the book is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We learn about a father figure who lost a son. We learn about a character who is afraid of giant radioactive spiders. We discover the big bad is doing all of this to avenge his lost daughter.

All of these are prompts to questions.

Why did civilization fall?

How did the father lose his son? How has he coped?

Why is she afraid of radioactive spiders? How are there such spiders?

If the big bad isn’t bad why does everyone perceive him that way? How did he lose his daughter? How did that trigger the action in question?

These discoveries are also all questions and each question is a promise to the reader that you will answer the question, to some degree. The promise between a reader and an author is the continued delivery on promises made. They are set up in the beginning of a narrative structure, and used to draw the reader through. It’s the ultimate reality of “What happens next?” The author who fails to deliver on those promises, will lose their reader in the book, or possibly over the course of several books.

Do the answers have to be given quickly? No. you can draw them out for even whole books at a time, but you can’t annoy the reader with the delay. Characters and situations must evolve, but at the core you must be constantly answering a little more of the promise, or delivering new promises as a result.

The Name of the Wind, opens with a promise of learning who killed the main character’s family. By the end of the entire first book, 400,000 + words later, we still don’t really understand the answer but we have SOME form of answer given to us. The promise is partially given with a tantalizing hint of more to come.

The Long Earth, by its nature, asks the question, why have human beings been given the ability to jump between realities? It is the promise and question wrapped into the premise. I’m on The Long Cosmos, 4 books later, and while each book moved a little more toward the answer, we still don’t know. But the promise is fulfilled a little each read.

In The Road. The world is destroyed. Will a father and son survive? If you have never read it, I wont spoil how it goes for you. But again, the promise is fulfilled.

As authors we make promises to our readers. Think as you go, about the promises you make in each chapter. Perhaps even write them down to make sure you tie up the lose ends before the conclusion. We want to leave just enough unknown to draw the the reader to come back, but not so much they feel left out of the punch line.

Always remember. Writers write. 

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New Languages, From the Old. 

I enjoy writing science fiction and fantasy, and I enjoy reading it too. Different people like different levels of immersion. Some reader like a world very close to our own, steeped in familiar legends. I lean toward liking a lot of immersion with full worlds built from scratch. Of course, that is not actually possible. The use of the word possible, for example has a source. It’s from the Old French possible and directly from Latin possibilis "that can be done," from posse "be able."

Words have history. But in a fantasy world I like to pretend otherwise.

For example, if in the same story a person has the name Jane, and another character the name Jarhur, and another the name Sarissa, I will assume different origins because these characters names are very different. Now each of these names are fairly familiar, modern or semi-modern names with points of origin. The problem for me lies there. We can know where these names come from.

That is where my recommendation finds its source. When you make up new languages, new words, or phrases, or you need a stack of names for your characters, look to dead or rare languages. First, they sound rare. They SOUND new.

Sas-Banar. This is a word I grabbed translated to modern sounds from a Sanskrit web site. Imagine a whole world of people populating your book with such beautiful extravagant names. The names even have meanings, which you can look up, to match the character profile you want to build. Instead of someone cursing and saying damn, imagine they say “I wish it had been otherwise,” but in the language you have chosen as your new world language.

We can never escape the reality of the words we write with. We will use the language we grew up in with fluency and take along with us the history of our words. But with a little effort to find the things which are important in a world to talk about, we can make new curses and new words about the world linger.

Is wood rare? Maybe some variant of more precious than gold is replaced by wood, but you then write it in a new language. Living in a dessert? Maybe “Splash water on him,” has a special meaning. Now imagine it even more colorful in another language.

Give thought not only to the actual words that your characters will use but the origins. What kind of phrase has meaning in the world? How does the history, magic, legends and lore fit to make a spoken language different? Consider grabbing an old language as your starting point to grant you consistency, and flavor.

As always, go write.

Writing Responsibilities

Where do our responsibilities come from? They are extremely complicated, derived from our relationships, our age, our jobs, our experiences and so many more things. Our responsibilities shape the things we take action on, and many times the things we care about. While certainly people shirk responsibility, and many people will do only the very minimum, today I would like to draw attention to the different responsibilities and situations a character might have, and how they represent that in the dialogue, actions and tone of a scene.

Imagine two characters.

One is a single mother of a young child. Her car has broken down, and she is two miles from daycare, where she narrowly makes the pick-up time each day for picking up her child. She picks up the phone and….

Our second individual is a very well-off mother, who is on her way to pick up her child of the same age from daycare as well. Jeeves is driving the car and she is reading when the car gets a flat from a nail in the road. She picks up the phone and…

“Pick up, pick up, pick up.” Mary’s finger tapped out an aggressive staccato the side of her phone.

“Crap. Who else?”

 She swiped through her short list of contacts up and then back down. “Jerry!” She dialed again. “Yes! Jerry, I need you to go to Tiny Tots. Yeah. Yeah, grab him. Your name is on the list, they’ll let you… What? No! How long? That’s too late. Fine.”

She mashed the red button to hang up the call and willed the car to start as she turned the key again as cars rushed past in the slow lane.

We know which mother this passage is about. When we think about the responsibilities and situation of a character, we have to let them pain the picture for us of how they handle things. A person with fewer resources will be more directly impacted by loss than someone who has many. Now there are many ways to write this scene. Maybe she did plan ahead and has a back up plan for someone to pick up her boy. Maybe she doesn’t live far away, and jogs it out. Maybe she got off work early and the breakdown impacts her life a different way. The reality is that her reactions have to match her situation and her responsibilities.  

In every scene are your characters acting in a manner commensurate with their responsibilities, wants, situations, etc. Or… are they doing what the author needs them to do to drive the story? These things are not mutually exclusive, but the reader won’t notice the later, if you can set up the former.

With every scene, give some consideration to your responsibilities , and backgrounds.

Now. Go write.

Finish What You Started

I don’t know if it is good advice in general for life, but I will say it is good advice for writing. Finish what you start. The short story you can’t find an end to? Write AN end. The novel with a sagging middle that you can’t quite figure out how to bridge the gap from the amazing start to dramatic end? String some ropes and get it done. That outline you said you would do, to see if the story has legs? Get some post-it-notes and a table and outline.                Why?               

I have talked other places about the idea of practice and expertise at 10,000 hours. It’s more complicated but for the sake of argument, lets agree on the number. We have said before that hitting the time mark doesn’t get you all the way. If I spend ten thousand hours working on the same chapter, perhaps a beginning chapter, over and over again, or writing the beginnings of a dozen novels, perhaps, I will get extremely good at beginnings. If I have never written an ending I will still struggle because the ability to transfer the skill of writing a beginning to an ending is finite.               

If I have never written a book, from front to back, I will never be able to have the experience of tying an entire piece together. The same holds for middles, beginnings, or wherever you are weak. I have written into a novel in first draft “Argument here between X and Y about Z. Outcome ABC.” I know what kind of thing I need to happen but I didn’t have the place of mind to write it in that moment, so I wrote around it. But if every day I sit down to write, I skip it, never return to it, finish the work, let it go for a year and still never come back, I am doing only myself a disservice.               

We must finish what we started, to become better at our craft. Any art form has pieces, structure, a flow of work from idea, to outline, to working, beginning, middle and end. Finish what you start to gain that experience of everything in between.               

This is not the only reason to say you should finish your piece. Are you going to be happier telling a friend “I’m thinking of writing a book,” or “I am writing a book?” Will you feel greater satisfaction at “I am writing a book,” or “I wrote a book?”               

This applies to editing. We haven’t had time to talk about editing in detail yet, but the editing process is just as important as the initial creation, and it is one I struggle with. It feels like extra, and I want to start writing the next thing. But the first piece is demonstrably unfinished. Editing is a skill, and one that is part of the full picture. I make notes to make myself go do it as action items. Because I know I need to finish what I started.               

 

So do you. Be better at your craft tomorrow than you are today. Find your weak point, the thing you don’t want to finish, and get something down. You can always change it later. Finish what you start.

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Thinking...

Think about your book. Think about your passion, even when you are not doing it. But, specifically if you are a writer, think about your book. Often. Any time you are not intellectually needed for other things.

Don’t ignore friends, children, loved ones, work, etc. Life must go on. The rest of the time, consider considering your book. Here is why.

If I write for an hour, the minutes of that hour are not all created equally. For the first 15-20 minutes, I have a ramp up time. I reread some of what I wrote last time, I remember the mood and tone I am trying to set. I review notes I left for myself. The day of work fades behind me, or perhaps it is blocked out in front of me, looming. I take time to bring myself back to the imaginary world I am creating. I write, perhaps a few words here and there. I get a few good sentences together, then a paragraph spills out easily.

The coasting zone has arrived. Nobody is around, I have a YouTube video on of rushing water, wind or a fireplace for white noise, and I am in the writing zone. I can stay there for about 35-45 minutes. A slow fade falls over my fingers. They move less quickly. The zone is departing in my review mirror… There is always next time.

If I spend a few minutes before I get started thinking about my book or my story during the day, or during the minutes leading up to the writing session, I reduce my buy in time. I am ready to reach that flow zone five to ten minutes faster and that can mean increased quality or increased quantity of what I write today. Connections get made I would not have thought of otherwise, sometimes leading to entire chapters or chapter edits, because I am always working on it, at least a little.

The reality is nobody else can write your book for you, the way you would write it. But to do that the time needs to be put into the task. Time in front of the computer can be very precious though, and hard to come by, so earn more of it by thinking about your work ahead of time, and throughout your day. Your writing self will be thankful you did.

Productively Procrastinate

Writing novels is my dream job, but it’s not my current job. But even though this is the thing I want more than just about anything else, doesn’t mean it is always on the table for the day. Many people work at jobs they enjoy, many people love being parents, or they love their spouse, or their hobby, but that doesn’t correspond to 100 % of the time desire to engage with the activity in question.

AKA. We all need a break.

                I have said in other spaces in this blog that we should develop habits of writing that keep us moving forward no matter what adversity we face. This is the 90 percent rule. It remains absolutely true. No writer will ever finish their work to the level they want or need without habits and determination, but that doesn’t mean we need to be 100 % perfect.

                Enter, productive procrastination.

                Writing is one aspect of being a writer. There are others. From the writing perspective we have brainstorming, character creation, architecting stories, worldbuilding, plot outlines, and many more. Maybe even multiple stories to keep the energy high for the two independent projects. From writing adjacent activities we have reading, building a digital presence, submitting completed work for publication. From writing tertiary activities, we can go exercise, which is excellent and clinical evidence shows it gets creative thoughts going.

                Just because you are not writing, doesn’t mean you can’t be productive toward your writing. When the day comes, which for everyone it inevitably does, that you can not write that great novel today, pick from the list above. If you know how you write or how you engage with your writing you are already primed to productively procrastinate and get things done that need doing, just not the writing you should be doing right now.

                This is not an excuse to do this day after day, but have a little forgiveness for yourself. Nobody can be on point all the time. Life will happen, and you will miss writing sessions in favor of other activities. So long as the habit is not broken, and the day feels strange because you didn’t write, you will be ok. A lot of things need to be done.

Your Own Advocate (May 5, 2023) 

This entry is for everyone who read the previous post, and thought to themselves,
“I want to be a published author,” or “I want to make a living at writing.” For everyone who enjoys this as a hobby but has no greater aspiration, this applies less to you, but perhaps you are the friend in question.

                First a hard truth.

                There is an interesting reality which has occurred to me over the last few years about writing. Unless you are already very famous, and have a very loyal fanbase, the odds are very good nobody deeply cares about your book.

                I don’t mean this to be negative, or pessimistic. It is as far as I can tell just a reality. People have their own lives, with their own hopes, aspirations, dreams, busy activities, demands, work, etc. etc. etc. They care, because they are your friends, your family, your loved ones. However, just as you have this dream, they want their children to turn out right, however they define it. They have mortgages, rent, a tough boss, their own hobbies, and they will listen but they are not your advocate. They wont tell everyone they know about it.

                You are your advocate.

                Nobody will ever believe in your book as much as you do. If you find beta readers, or editors who do, buy them all the chocolates, and give them all the hugs, because that is a rare person.

                What does it mean to be the person who cares most about your project? Just like most entrepreneurs, and most creatives it means there will be a certain level of lonely, and a certain level of “This can’t work because nobody believes,” but “I’m going to push through anyway…” That is why I have spoken before about habits. If your writing does not have a habit to carry you through, when those days of uncertainty come, and you ask people for help, and they honestly say a variant of “I love you, but I am too busy,” then you have the fortitude to carry on until they have the time, however long that may be.

                It means you need to accept your own book, knowing it is not right the first time, it will not be right the tenth time, but maybe it will be right enough. It means you need to finish your book, even when the finish line feels far away. Push through with habit. Count every word you write, give yourself credit for each step. Sometimes you will revisit those things you write and they are better than you had ever dreamed and sometimes they are worse than you could imagine. Keep working. While you are waiting for the world to come around to your belief about your books importance, and while you work to convince them, because they will not come around on their own; keep working.

                Why else would they believe you?

                “I believe in XYZ story more than anything…”

                You say it and say it, and then finally someone has free time, because they DO care, just not quite as much as you do. They turn and say back to you “Can I see what you have?”

                You can either respond “Here you go…” or “I haven’t written it yet…” Which do you want that moment to be? Remember writers write. That means caring about your piece, more than the rest, and acting accordingly.

                Now go write something.

Read What You Write (April 27, 2023) 

Do you ever read what you write? Maybe not on the first draft or even the first revision. But do you ever read what you write when you think it's perfect? If you haven’t you should try it.

I will take a moment here to admit to the log in my own eye while pointing out the mote in yours. The reality is that I didn’t do this until recently, at the great urging of two of my writing partners. (Something else you should have if you don’t already!) When I started to read out loud, I found two things. One, was that the way I was saying the lines out loud did not match the way that they were written on the page. Small filler words disappeared when I spoke and had to be deleted. Verbal ticks that I assumed I had worked in by comma, hyphen, and such, were not on the page and had to be added. I used contractions in places that I didn't write them.

I noticed that sentences, which were grammatically correct, were a pile of marbles in the mouth. They just didn’t work. Too long, too convoluted, too much information and too… rambling? They may have been right, but they were wrong. I couldn’t imagine a person reading my book out loud, like an audiobook, being able to read them correctly. It couldn’t happen, so they needed to be rewritten. I found typographical errors. “Form vs from,” is one I am known to trip over, not notice in a re-read, but I find every time in a speak through.

 

When to start reading out loud?

 

I will always read pieces out loud now from the moment I think the piece is perfect and ready to go. But I think there is an argument to read them out loud from the time you are starting to do a line edit. To clarify, a manuscript edit is when you are still working to be sure the story is what you want. Plot, character, setting beats and big brush strokes are all there. Does the story make sense. Most people merge these two items into one, but I mean after you are fairly sure your story is right, but you will be looking for how are individual sentences put together. That first line edit might be the right time to start.

In addition to reading out loud, if you have someone who will suffer it, read to someone. Why is it any different? You become an orator. You are making it into a performance art where you are trying to convince someone that this is a good story. You will read the most perfect way you can, which will be different yet again than what you might read to yourself.

 

Go forth and read what you right.

Do you Match? (April 20, 2023)

Do you match? Some people may have looked down at their clothes, but I am not talking about fashion. I am asking a deeper question. I'm going to focus on writing, but this is a question you should ask yourself all the time about everything you do. Let's start with an example.

“I want to be the strongest person I can be.” This is a statement which has been said to my friends who are coaches for physical fitness. They have pointed out that the person who said this is almost certainly either lying to themselves, or they are assuming thing they didn’t notice.

“Do you lift?” – Yes.

“Do you smoke?” – No

“Do you eat enough protein?” – Yes

“Do you lift every day?” – uhm…. Every day?

“Do you get enough sleep?” – I mean… I try but…

“Do you get enough cardio in to ensure you have physical bandwidth to lift enough?” – I don’t really like cardio so…

“Are you on steroids?” – No, that’s unhealthy… “You never said anything about health, you said strongest, period.” (They aren't advocating this, just pointing out people dont ACTUALLY mean strongest.)

These are sort of silly examples but they are examples of the idea that we will often say we want a thing, and that we want it more than anything, but our efforts toward that thing do not match our claims. When you sit down to be a writer, or you sit down to achieve anything, do your desires and claims match your efforts?

This is not to say the goals are right or wrong, only that people will experience a great deal of sadness, frustration or confusion when results don’t match the expectation, because effort didn’t match desire.

These are all perfectly valid writing goals:

  • I want to learn to better express myself to others.

  • I want to write because I find writing to be rewarding.

  • I want to be a better writer so I can run better table top role-playing campaigns.

  • I want to be a published author.

  • I want to be well known as a published author in my field.

  • I want to make my living by means of generating creative writing content.

  • I want to be the most famous author alive in my field.

  • I want to outsell J.K. Rowling.

They are not mutually exclusive, but the effort needed to reach each one of these is very different. Do you know why you write? If you know why you write, do you know if your efforts match your goals?

If you write once a week, don’t generally read, have not made any effort toward reading books on your genre or “How to,” books, or seriously assessed your own skill, have no schedules, time frames of specific measurable goals to get you to your master goal… you will not ever outsell J.K. Rowling. (You probably won’t anyway.)

You might very well achieve expressing yourself, or rewarding efforts. But probably not much else. We would never expect to become physically fit for no reason. We wouldn’t expect to suddenly develop talent for mathematics previously undiscovered. Writing is at least as hard as either of those things, and it requires work. Specifically it requires organized work, consistent effort and luck.

So, I ask again, do you match? Do you know what you want to achieve with your writing? Do you know how you plan to achieve it? Do you work toward that goal daily in some fashion? Define what you want. Define your goals, so that when motivation fails, discipline remains, and you get something done.

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Writing Fractal History (April 13, 2023)

This is a fractal.A fractal is a mathematical object that is not dimension 1, 2 or 3, but lies somewhere in between those numbers.

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One of the most common examples is something called the Koch Curve, which could also be made as a tringle. However, in this case let's start with a line.

Go ahead. Draw a line about 2 inches long. I’ll wait....

Now mark one third lengths on that line. On the center third draw another triangle where the original line is its base at one third the size. Like this:

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On each of the new lines you have, divide them in thirds again. A ruler isn’t needed yet. On each of those go ahead and drawn another triangle one third the size... Like this:

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Repeat that again… and again… Maybe even turn it inside out or outside in and make a flake. Here is what they look like if you do this 6 times. 

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Now you have a beginning of the idea of a fractal.

Why are we talking about it on a writing channel? Because the core idea of many fractals is self-repeating system on a smaller scale. That is where I want to shine a light. A lot of people when they write, chose to write a story about massive events. The focus is on the first few turns of that fractal. But the trauma, the impact of things carries down. I started thinking about this when I recent read a book I will review soon, called The Hidden History of Maynard. One of my takeaways from this book had absolutely nothing at all to do with the intended focus of the author.

It was a nonfiction piece about the history of a town not far from where I live. In the history of one town, I saw microcosms of the history of America. How did they handle voting over one hundred and fifty years? How did they handle border disputes with local towns? What happened during prohibition? What happened when famous people arrived? Which industries came and went, and how did they drive the region and how were they driven by external factors?

It was a fractal, because history is very fractal. If you broke the view down even more would individual blocks of houses in a street have their own view that replicated the bigger picture? Would an individual family have those same breaks? We know there are books about brothers fighting on opposite sides in the American Civil War.

We do not need to always concern ourself with the big thing, histories of queens and kings, or the events that shape a world, real or imaginary. The same stress and the same cycles of tension exist at every scale. Consider writing your next book in the scale of a family, or the scale of a neighborhood or a township. Humanity is the driving force of all fiction and it repeats itself at every scale. 

Explore the smallest fractal, down to the last person. 

There is no Writers Block
(April 6, 2023)

Let’s start with a controversial statement. There is no such thing as writers block.

Now let’s talk about what writers block is supposed to be. A psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece. Webster

OK. MAYBE by that definition there is such a thing, but I am going to challenge it. “With a piece,” not writing in general.

Writing is not so precious a thing that we can be blocked. If someone said they were speaking blocked or thinking blocked or generally communication blocked we would usually find this to be a very strange thing. Certainly there are clinical condition that can lend itself to this, but the reality is the writing is just documentation of thought and speech.

If you were asked a question, and forced to answer you would say something. If you had to defend yourself verbally however befuddled you would stammer out some defense of yourself. Writing is the same way. Sit down, and type, or speak, and simply let words come out. They may not be the words you want. They may not be the words you need and may not be related to the piece you intended to write, but you can always write something. In that way I mean, there is no such thing as writers block.

Write about why you can’t write. Write about your day. Write about a different book. Write a letter to a friend. Write a blog. Write an outline to a new book. Write down fun first lines to a story. Write against a prompt from online.

Writing anything is better than nothing, because when we are not writing, we are not improving our craft. Treat your writing as a job. It may be a job you enjoy but a job nonetheless. Most of us work. Imagine if you told your current place of employment “I don’t have XYZ in me today I have engineering block, customer service block, IT block, masonry block, farming block…” We would do it anyway. It may not be your best piece of literature, but maybe it is. Sometimes great things come from positions in which we are forced.

This is not 1920, we can hit delete without killing a tree. What you intended to create will always be there waiting for you.

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Writers... Read. Critically. (March 30, 2023)

We cannot be a successful at writing if we don’t read. I like to think this statement doesn’t need to be defended, but I’m gong to make a small fool of myself to demonstrate the idea.

I had a tickling that it might be fun to write some steampunk content. I had read precisely zero books or short stories. My inspiration was art work, and movies. Both are non-literary inspiration, a wonderful topic we can talk about some other time. In preparation for the activity, I decided I would read one novel and a book of short stories. Thinking I had the basic handle after twenty authors’ takes on the topic, I set out to make some of my own.

I handed the piece to my editor, and the response was… “Interesting.”

“What do you mean interesting?” I asked.

“Interesting. Different. Not … bad… but you certainly don’t understand the genre.”

After only a single effort you say!? Of course, I stood no chance to understand the genre. I hadn’t read it. I enjoy fantasy and science fiction having read hundred and hundreds of each of them. I have engrained the tropes, structures, expectations and how to subvert or use them, because I have experience in the genre. Without knowing it, I had read them critically, and that is what I want to talk about. As writers, we have to read, but there is more than one way to read.

Have you ever finished a book, put it down, and then tried to explain to a loved one why you thought the story was amazing, and find your description falling far short of the feeling of amazing? It might be because you absorbed the feeling but didn’t necessarily notice how the author did what they did, because they were so skilled at it. This is a compliment, but it is one you need to consider pushing past to a deeper understanding.

Recently I have been reading books through much more slowly, once for my enjoyment, and when a chapter comes through that really strike me as impressive, seamless or fantastically written, I reread them, at one third the pace, making notes for how and why they achieved it. What actions did characters take? How were sentences structured? How did the chapter fit into the overall story? How did plot progress? Theme? Character arc?

I wanted to understand how the writer manipulated my emotional state. I wanted to see the forest past the trees, and see the trees that comprised the forest. I needed the details and how they fit. This is the basics of critical reading.

Since I have started doing this, I have gone back and reread several of my favorite novels of all times, and learned a few things. First, authors are mortal. They are amazing mortals, but they remain mortal nonetheless. I could see how they did it! I couldn’t copy it yet, but the gulf between the styles I wanted to emulate and the style in which I wrote suddenly felt smaller. I no longer needed a jet liner to get across it, only a bridge. Reading critically more often has become my bridge to help me build up to a more complex writing style.

Writers write, but writers also read. Critically. Find your favorite book, and challenge the author to a contest of understanding. Figure out how they manipulated you, so you can do it too. Leave no detail unconsidered. Sentence level, paragraph level, character development, and the whole novel. Gather enough reading so that when you sit to write your opus, you don’t make the mistake I did. 😊

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Work Your Weaknesses (March 23, 2023)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes a novel. Words being the sarcastic if true answer.

Vocabulary and grammar build sentences. Sentences build paragraphs and dialogue. We use paragraphs and dialogue to build mood, settings, tone, characters, and we use those to drive a plot forward. Every scene is a dance of characters interacting with each other, the world, themselves, the conflict as we have defined it, etc.

But how do we as authors know what to work on, or what we are good or bad at? How much effort do we need to put forth on each front?

There is a very well-established idea of 10,000 hours to mastery of a topic. That gets you to a concert hall as a pianist, or a professional level strength athlete or a published author level of writing. More or less. It means you are at the beginning, the bottom, of the professional arc, and grow from there. But 10,000 is not enough. Sometimes it is about the count of eaches…

My father, for example was a machinist. He cut and milled and drilled and constructed metal components for airplanes and aerospace for his entire career. He would have hit the proverbial 10,000 hours sometimes around his 5th-6th year of working. But I would like to invite you to imagine a silly world where in those 5 years he had only build 2 parts. Each part meticulously measured, weighed, and checked and umpteenth time checked. Has he become a master? The answer is likely, no. No he hasn’t, because while he has spent his time, he hasn’t done enough individual tasks.

I started thinking about this during a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson. He noted how many of his novels he effectively threw out, before he made it as an author. And I thought of other authors who have said the same. Then I realized, perhaps this is about our number of eaches.

One novel, is a sample size of one, at getting your plot right, getting your main story arcs right, your major themes right. It is a handful of main characters, and it is a handful of settings, and a handful of interpersonal interaction structures. It may well be 10,000 hours of lovingly crafted work, but it might be your first, second or even only fifth time doing it. We do not expect ourselves to be master of mathematics or reading or bike riding or baking, or cooking or anything else with one or two attempts, so why do we assume we can do it with writing?

Am I saying throw out your novel?

No. I am saying the odds we get our skill set aligned the first time we write a novel is nearly zero. We need something else. We need practice at the pieces. Need work at interpersonal relations? Write a piece of a novel where that is your focus. It doesn’t have to be this novel, jump into the story In Medias Res. Practice with just that one piece in mind. Do you struggle with a sense of place, write a piece just trying to set a scene. Trial just setting a mood. Try just writing an argument, or a character description without giving in to exposition.

Practice the pieces.

When we learn to increase the count for the components of a novel, then we will get better at the whole thing. Nobody gets it right the first time. Even if they sink 10,000 hours into it. So break a novel out into what you think are the pieces, figure out what you are not good at, and work on your weaknesses.

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Habit vs motivation (March 16, 2023)

Motivation is a surprisingly small portion of successful creative activity. Motivation gets us moving, but motivation doesn’t keep us going. The science behind motivation is well established, and perhaps the best anecdotes come from the exercise industry. Every year, in the month of January, and petering into February, gyms around America are overwhelmed by new memberships. People have ridden in on the wave of new year resolutions, motivated by posters, adds, friends and low prices to join up, and change how they feel. Within a few months more than ninety percent have returned to their previous habits.

 

Did they lack motivation?

Did they lack desire?

Did they not want it bad enough?

 

Of course not. Instead, we should remember habits are incredibly hard to break. Habits are what happen when we are not thinking about what we are doing. Habits are what pop out when the brain is tired, the willpower drained and the world is confusing and we just need to make a decision. Now.

 

It can take over twenty deliberately engaged moments to create a new habit, and even more to break an old one. That is twenty or more trigger points, plus action, reaction and conscious thought to begin to engrain a new way of going about our world. In small things that happen many times a day, that is not a terrible number, but how many of us get time to write every day? How many of us try to?

 

A massive number of people want to write a novel. In fact, in repeated polls through the decades American’s have said that they believe their life is worthy of a novel, or they want to write a novel at a rate in excess of fifty percent. So where are all the books? On average less than ten percent who set out to write a full-length novel, finish.

 

Did they lack motivation?

Did they lack desire?

Did they not want it bad enough?

Or did they lack habit?

 

I don’t always feel like writing. My writing is not always the quality I want to hold myself to. However, if I only wrote when the quality stayed high, and the mood was 100 % there, I wouldn’t write as much. The reality we should endeavor to embrace is that we are all going to have good days, and bad days, amazing days and terrible days. If you have a habit of writing, in the end, you will be your own average. After all, editing is to bring those bad days up to average or better!

 

Motivation and desire alone will not get you to the finish line in writing a long piece, or writing consistently with small pieces. We have to build habits, and be disciplined in their execution. I have set myself a word count per week. I have set myself a certain number of sessions I have to sit down and write per week, for a fixed length of time. This is my habit. Some people set aside certain hours of the day. Some people set aside portions of their weekend. We will talk on this site about many different kinds of habits, because no one answer works for everyone, other than you have to find the habits that work for you.

 

Do you need silence? Do you need music? Do you write better at night or in the morning? Do you like short sessions and more of them, or longer session’s and fewer? Do you need a day between sessions to recharge or do you need a continuity to your creative process? There are no right answers to these and many other questions about how to write, but it is important as a writer you explore this space, and figure out your answers. Find something that works and play with it to see if you can make it work better, but most importantly build the habit. Don’t write when you feel like it, write because that is what you do now. Waiting for the mood will only get you so far, and it isn’t usually all the way to the end.

 

Remember, writers write.

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When to Stop (March 9, 2023) 

Once you have started writing as a hobby, or even possibly as a hopeful part of your income, how do you know when to stop each day? My advice is very simple. Do not stop when you are done, stop right before that. Here is why, and how I go about it.

Many people write when the mood strikes, or when the muse comes or when they are inspired by something. We will talk a lot on this site that motivation only get you started. The ability to finish a novel, or a longer piece even like a weighty novella, is going to take discipline and habitual consistency. They are not written in one sitting. Unless you are super human. If you are writing today and you plan to write a few more times this week, how do you know when to stop, or when to start for that matter?

If an idea for the next chapter pops into your mind, and you spend a day writing it, it’s perfect shiny and completed and you spend your next session or two polishing it further, that’s great. Then what if you have to wait around to have the muse land on your shoulder again for the next chapter? I have found it better to not quite finish. Leave yourself something to start from the next time you want to keep going.

Every writer has a working in period each time they sit down, where they will struggle to focus, remember where they were, set up their screen just so, get into the mind space of the book, and remember the mood they were trying to set. To circumvent some of this process what if past versions of yourself left present day writing you, a tidbit to go on? A cliff hanger sentence, that you knew EXACTLY what happened next, but you didn’t write it. You left yourself an entire paragraph that you know what goes on next, so you can sit down and start typing it immediately, not having to wait for anything because the inspiration landed last time, and you slip into the writer’s space more comfortably.

 

For example, I leave for myself, usually, a full paragraph yet to come, I leave myself notes on the chapter, sometimes an extremely detailed series of ideas about what I think should happen next, and what the next chapter might be like. I happen to be a very architectural outline driven writer, but you can also leave yourself more unscripted impressions about what you think the characters are feeling. What moods would you like to strike next? What is the next big reveal or basic plot twist do you need? You don’t have to change your writing style to add this helpful tidbit to get you back into the right headspace faster each time you sit down.

 

If you leave yourself a cliffhanger, you are excited to get back in the proverbial writer’s seat and get working again. It’s like leaving cookies and milk for the writing muse to come back and join you again, instead of waiting for it. Every time you sit down to write you don’t need to ask yourself what do I have to write next? You know, and you are looking forward to it. So, remember this simple piece of advice: Don’t stop when you’re done, stop right before that. 

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