MYC: Dynamic Dialogue

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on revision with Editing the Big PictureThis week, we’re diving in to crafting dynamic dialogue.

Are your readers complaining of stilted dialogue, too many monologues, or not enough “voice” in your characters’ spoken words? If yes, you might need to take a look at your dialogue technique. Step one of revision is to listen, both to conversations (particularly conversations among people the same age as your characters) and to your own writing by reading aloud.

If you listen closely to virtually any conversation, you’ll notice that it is chock-full of fillers—words that take up space (thus giving the speaker time to think), but don’t mean anything. Although it might be tempting to include these fillers on the page, including words such as “um,” “uh”, and “like” don’t read well.

Another mistake it’s easy to fall into is writing dialogue that is too “on the nose,” which comes across as stilted and unnatural. This will jump off the page to you as you read aloud. But how to fix it? Except on very formal occasions, it’s rare for us to speak in complete and grammatically correct sentences or mention people by name multiple times in a single conversation. Instead, we almost always speak in contractions and fragments instead of complete sentences. Good dialogue should reflect the length and cadence of actual speech, but in tighter, condensed form. So get out the red pen and start chopping.

Furthermore, conversations are often loaded with hidden meaning, or subtext that can be layered on in revision. For example, a friend recently spent a great deal of time sewing my daughter a duvet cover, which made her son feel anxious and jealous.

Wanting to make sure the reader didn’t miss the emotional cues, you might write, “Mother, I feel jealous you are spending so much time on my friend. Will you make me a duvet cover so I know you love me, too?”

Of course this is what the boy means, but when writing dialogue, it’s important to leave plenty of room for the reader to make inferences. For example, the son’s emotions could be shown by depicting him hovering behind his mother at the sewing machine and asking, “Mom, if I wanted a duvet cover, would you make me one?” or even “Why are you spending so much time on that stupid duvet cover?”

Along the same lines is the temptation to use dialogue to convey backstory that the writer needs the reader to have but that the characters would already know (and thus not have a reason to tell each other). For example, a writer might need the reader to know that two sisters have a mother who died of cancer. It would be easy to have one of the sisters say, “Remember when Mom died of cancer after undergoing extensive chemotherapy when we were really little? Boy, do I miss her.”

But of course in real life two sisters wouldn’t need to tell each other about their shared experience. This scene could be revised to layer in subtext and character as follows:

As they walked out the door, Cherise unwrapped a red and white striped mint the server had delivered with their bill.

“How can you eat those things?” Latesha asked.

Cherise popped the mint in her mouth and ran her tongue over the smooth, sugary surface.

“I just can’t,” Latesha said. “Reminds me too much of the hospital.”

“It helps me remember,” Cherise said.

“Watching her go through chemo is one of the things I’d like to forget.”

“Not the chemo,” said Cherise. “Mom. Her breath was always so sweet and minty after.”

Not only does this dialogue reveal important information (Mom died of cancer), it shows us (without telling us) how the girls each feel about this shared experience. And it does so in short, natural bits of dialogue that don’t tend toward monologue. A good rule of thumb is that no character should say more than three “beats” (short phrases) without a gesture, dialogue tag, or another speaker breaking up the dialogue. Read more about the three-beat rule.

Finally, no conversation on dialogue would be complete without mentioning dialogue tags. As tempting as it is to include tags such as whispered, shouted, bellowed, groaned, etc., most of the time it’s better to stick with “said” or “asked.” These words disappear for the readers rather than calling attention to themselves. Similarly, it’s best to leave off qualifiers such as softly, quietly, and loudly unless these are absolutely essential for the reader to experience the scene (99% of the time, they are not).

If you are interested in reading more about writing dialogue, here are a couple links:

And don’t forget to tune in next week for refining world building.

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

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A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

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MYC: Editing the Big Picture

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Writing with EmotionThis week, we’re stepping back and looking at the Big Picture.

One thing this MYC series has taught me over the last few weeks is that there is no one way to write a book. Each of us Pennies has our own individual approach to getting the words on the page and then making those words sing once they’re there.

My revision process consists of several passes through the manuscript, each time looking for different things I need to fix. And one of my first passes involves looking at the Big Picture.

Usually, this involves reading through the entire novel making notes about each chapter, how the tension is building, how the plot unfolds, where it drags, and how the characters’ emotional journeys are playing out — your basic quick-read, impressionist take on the overall story.

I’ve used a few different methods to tackle this pass. Once I printed my manuscript and put it in a three-ring binder, using tabs to mark the chapter breaks (Ooooh, the office supplies I bought!). I made notes right there on the manuscript itself.

Other times, I have read onscreen while taking notes in a special notebook purchased just for that novel. And with my current WIP, I’m saving trees by using the note feature in Scrivener.

Once I’ve got my Big Picture sense of what’s working – and what’s not – about my first draft, the fun starts.

So what are some of the things I look for during the Big Picture editing phase?

  • The first thing I usually notice is when scenes or chapters are in the wrong place. As I read through my current WIP, it was clear to me that a conversation that happened midway through the book really needed to come earlier – too much of the later action stemmed from that conversation. And I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I started drafting from the exact right place. This time I found my opening about four chapters in.
  • Reading through after a good break is a great way to see plot holes that I swear were not there when I drafted. For me, since I write short drafts, it’s usually a matter of having skimmed over a key scene or difficult conversation. By coming at it with fresh eyes and reading all at once, I usually catch those spots.
  • I often have spots in a first draft where I make a note to myself: “Fight scene TK” or “Double check this character’s last name”. The Big Picture round of edits is a great time to fill in those blanks and confirm the facts I didn’t want to stop my flow to look up in drafting stage.
  • I also use my Big Picture read to find errors in continuity. That time I accidentally changed a character’s name for a chapter? A scene that started at the coffee shop but ended at the beach with no transportation  or acknowledgement of a change of venue? Or that backstory detail I dropped in chapter one and then never referred to again? These are easy fixes that make a huge difference in readability.
  • The Big Picture edit is a great time to spot pacing problems. Are there a couple of chapters where nothing seems to happen? Maybe it’s time to condense those events into one concise scene. Or does my emotional climax feel rushed? Time to give that pivotal scene all the love it needs. (And if you have more questions on pacing, check out our previous MYC post!)
  • One of the biggest things I look for in my Big Picture Edit is the emotional progression of my characters. Are the main characters changed at the end? Did that change happen in an organic way, or is it forced? Do their feelings evolve in a way that is understandable? I want my characters and their emotional journey to drive the story forward, so I pay close attention to this at every stage of revision. (And if you’re looking for more nitty gritty information on writing emotion, see last week’s MYC post.)

Each of these areas will likely get another pass later in my editing process — there’s always room to refine them! But my Big Picture Edit is essential for me to really understand the story I am trying to tell and how I can best tell it.

However and whenever you take a look at the Big Picture, try to enjoy it! After all, you’ve completed a manuscript! And now you get the fun of shining it until it sparkles!

Now that the Big Picture is taken care of, it’s time for some fine-tuning. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at perfecting dialogue!

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Are There Genres in Picture Books?

We always talk about genres in novels, but what about in picture books? Are there any? Are they the same as for novels? Is it even helpful categorizing picture books into genres? It seems to me that picture books can definitely fall into the adventure, mystery, sci-fi, horror (monster books), and fantasy genres, even though we don’t usually do this. Instead, we think of them falling into either character-driven or concept picture books. Then, of course, there’s nonfiction like biographies, and fairy tales, fables and folktales. Of course, there’s the ever-popular fractured fairy tale, which are fun twists on traditional fairy tales, like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Gliding Hood, and Good Night Baddies.

But there’s also an emergence of other picture book genres that are wowing young readers.

  • The first are what I call Wonder Picture Books. They’re usually beautifully illustrated with rich poetic language, often for a new baby or young child. Adults love them as much as children, maybe even more so! Some examples include: The Wonderful Things You’ll Be, All the World, and On the Night You Were Born.

Mindful Concept Picture Books are similar to wonder books but written for slightly older children. The text is sparse but the feelings are deep and sensory. Books in this category include The Quiet Book, Say Zoop! (which also falls into the meta category below), Water Can Be…, and I Wish You More…

“Meta” Picture Books: They ask the reader to think outside the book and question what a book is. Often readers are pulled into the action with the use of second person and even asked to physically interact with the book like in Press Here and Tap the Magic Tree. This has been the breakthrough picture book category of the past few years. Other books in this category include We are In a Book (Elephant and Piggy Series) and The Book of Mistakes.

The Don’t Books: Maybe, the recent surge in Don’t Books took off with Don’t Let the Pigeons Drive the Bus. Nothing thrills children like a bossy picture book because they’re usually the ones being bossed around. Examples include: You Don’t Want a Unicorn, I am Not Book I am not a Chair, You will not like this Book, The Day the Crayons Quit, and Be Quiet.

The Mash-Up Picture Books combine two popular things and mash them together. Kids love these, too, because they’re unexpected, and they break the rules and that’s pretty exciting stuff. Plus, they are usually packed with a big splat of humor. Examples include: Dragons Love Tacos, Dear Santasaurus, Pirosaurs, and Dinotrux.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know your thoughts on picture book genres!

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

 

 

 

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MYC: How and When to Write Emotion

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Pacing and Tension. This week, we’re looking at emotion.

I don’t know about you, but this topic brings out a lot of emotion because it is so closely tied to the phrase writers love to hate: show don’t tell. But, before we can show emotion, we need to discuss where it is needed.

Have you ever read a scene in a book that made you feel something – terrified, joyful, helpless – but the character didn’t show any emotion? How did that make you feel? Emotionless scenes leave me feeling empty. Cheated. They remind me I’m not really part of the story. I’m just a reader.

That doesn’t mean every scene needs heart-racing, sweaty hands, and lip-quivering. In fact, too much of that can make the story and characters seem unrealistic. What they do need are realistic responses to events.

When writing, look at each scene. Imagine you are the character (and by this I  mean all the characters. Even secondary players have feelings). Close your eyes if you want, dress the part if it helps. Put yourself in the specific event you are writing about. What are you feeling? How strong is it? If you felt something, your characters should too. After all, they are people just like us.

Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Now that we have a way to identify where emotion is needed, we can move to the more difficult part of writing: the dreaded show don’t tell. A good place to start is with the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. The book catalogues the physical responses, mental responses, and sensations associated with each of a broad list of emotions. While most people and characters exhibit specific habits when excited, frightened, or anxious, too many “my heart raced as she walked into the room” can be predictable and boring.  Instead of just telling us the character’s palms are sweaty, try showing the character wiping her hands on her skirt or shying away from shaking hands with someone, hiding those sweaty palms behind her back. Show her wiggling an eyebrow because she’s in a cold sweat that’s tickling her as it drips down her face. It’s OK to do some physical cues–face getting hot, skin prickling, electricity running up the back of her legs–but don’t only do that.

There are many ways to write emotion and all are acceptable, within reason. My suggestion is to mix it up.

Here is a great example of using multiple techniques to convey emotion in a single scene, from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star.

“I knew it was a big mistake as soon as I said it. His whole face turned red–cheeks, nose, the tips of his ears–the whole thing. He was practically aglow. His eyes darted sideways to where his new friends were watching us like we were on TV.

Why don’t you get some friends of your own and stop following me around like a baby?” he said instead.

He should’ve just hit me.

He grabbed his bike out of the dirt and puffed himself up with so much angry air I thought he’d burst, and I’d have to tell Mom that her older and more perfect son exploded.

“My name is Charles,” he said to those boys, daring them to say another word. “Are you coming or what?” He didn’t wait for them, didn’t look back to see if they were coming.”

This is such a quick scene, but conveys so much information about the relationship between the main character and his older brother, and conveys character emotion in a gut-punching way.

State the emotion – Yoon names Charles’ anger, but in a fresh way–“puffed himself up with so much angry air.” Remember, the reader wants to feel the excitement, not be told about it.

Show through dialogue – Voicey dialog can make a character come to life, but make sure it’s not the only way you’re showing emotion, and that you’re not telling us (“I’m so excited!”) but showing us. Look at the way Yoon reinforces the anger in this scene with dialog. Charles calls his brother a baby, but also uses short, choppy bits of dialog at the end of the scene, which reinforces his anger–“Are you coming or what?”

Descriptive phrases – for example, similes and metaphors. Here, Yoon uses some great description of Charles’ face to describe his anger. He turns red, which could be cliche, but then she freshens it by adding the tips of his ears, and the phrase “he’s practically aglow.”  Later in the scene, as his anger escalates, he goes from “aglow” to downright explosive. So the imagery builds as the emotion of the scene does.

Hope your toolbox is now filled with more tips for writing emotion. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at big picture fixes!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

 

MYC: Pacing and Tension: The Heartbeat of Your Story

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of letting your manuscript sit. This week, we’re talking about pacing and tension.

Pacing and tension are the drivers that have us flipping through the pages from the first chapter through to the last one.

Pacing is the speed at which our story unfolds, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, allowing us to catch our breath and regroup. Ironically, in a fast action scene, we zoom in and slow down the moment, paying more attention to detail with shorter snappier sentences. In between our action scenes we have reaction and anticipation scenes, and when events slow down, we can zoom out and occasionally tell, instead of show, the passing of time or events.

We are always told to cut out the boring bits, which is true. We don’t need to hear routine details, so it’s important to show the progression of time. Here’s a post from writershelpingwriters.net that shows you some examples of how to show the progression of time from one chapter to the next.

Tension is the anticipation before the action. It’s the suspense of now knowing what’s going to happen. It’s expecting and hoping that something will happen. It occurs before the action. The more we care about the character, the more tension we, the reader, will feel.

Tension relies on the author making it difficult for your character to get what they want or need. Conflict is tension. So your character should have both an external conflict and internal conflict.  If your main character is perfectly content and serene and doesn’t want or need anything, your pacing will feel slow. We turn the page to find out if your character will get what they want.

Outlining your story helps you pace your novel, whether you choose Martha Aldersen’s The Plot Whisper or K M Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel or Larry Brooks Story Engineering. Whichever story structure you choose, it will help you pace your story and build the tension.

Here are some more insights on pacing and tension from other writers and editors:

“Sometimes you’re creeping or walking and enjoying the view and other times running for your life.”—Stephen King

“Pace means change.  If plot circumstances don’t change, something must.  In practical terms that means complications, twists, turns and surprises that aren’t visible but are nevertheless real, changes that happen inside.  These are the steps in an arc.”—Donald Mass (Read his excellent post on the four kinds of pacing here on Writer Unboxed.)

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”― Alfred Hitchcock

“…even though you know what’s going to happen next, your readers shouldn’t. They need to have a sense of excitement and uncertainty as the plot and pacing unfolds because this is where magic lies.”–J.K. Rowling

“Pacing is the manipulation of momentum and time in a piece of writing and how the characters and reader experience it. April Bradley.” Check out more the entire post here.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at writing emotion!

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She grew up in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.