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.

MYC: Two Opinions on Revising While Drafting

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 looked at the saggy middle. Today we’re tackling a somewhat controversial subject: revising while drafting.

Two of our Pennies sat down and discussed their different approaches to revising your manuscript while you’re still drafting it.

Richelle: When I say I revise while drafting, I don’t mean major revisions. Those I save for after I type “THE END”. But in an effort to ease myself back into my story world, I’ll often read over what I wrote before and do minor edits/cleanup on that section. I look for typos first and foremost, but also ways to make it voicier or fix pacing issues. I usually pace too quickly and have to find ways to slow down, which means I’ll sometimes expand setting or beef up emotional arcs. This usually takes up the first 10-15 minutes of my writing time, and after that, I dive into writing new. In essence, it’s like the warm-up song in spin class! Once I get my brain and fingers moving and coordinated, then I can get to the main workout.

I’m not alone in doing this! I’ve seen other writers talk about doing a light edit as a way to ease into their drafting sessions. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially to newer writers. The temptation to polish and perfect is strong and can easily keep you from moving forward, particularly if you’re in a stuck spot. Plus, chances are you’ll end up throwing out at least some of your first draft, and having to throw out a scene you spent hours on hurts a lot more than one you only spent fifteen minutes scouring for typos and inconsistencies.

I do have one major exception to my don’t-make-big-revisions-while-drafting rule. Despite my best efforts to pre-plan and hash things out before I draft, more than once I’ve realized halfway through a manuscript that I’ve gone wrong somewhere. If it doesn’t change the entire plot, I can make a big note for myself (REMEMBER TO FIX FIRST HALF TO SAY HER DAD’S ACTUALLY ALIVE!). But if my wrong turn sends me off a cliff, I may have to go back and do a big revision before I can move on. That actually happened to me recently when I realized 30K into my WIP that I was writing the wrong story…UGH! That was painful! But in that case, I had to go back and work through the first half of the story so I could write the second half.

Julie: Although, like Richelle, I sometimes read over the previous scene as a warm-up for my next writing session, I am fairly militant about not revising while I write. I am a fast-drafter (often drafting during NaNoWriMo and CampNaNo because I love the rigor of the daily word count goal), so it doesn’t take much tinkering with what I’ve already written before I’m way behind on my goal. And my inner editor is brutal, so I need to keep her silent or I might never finish a story. This latest work-in-progress was particularly hard to draft because I’d just finished revising for the first time ever with my agent, so of course my finished manuscript was highly polished after rounds and rounds of beta reads and lots of great agent feedback. That made completing the draft, no matter how rough, an important emotional milestone for me too. Because the doubt demons were hard at work telling me that this piece of junk first draft was never going to measure up to my previous project.

So unlike Richelle, even if I make a major change to the story while I’m drafting, I don’t go back. Here’s an example. I fast-drafted my next project, a middle grade adventure, this past April and realized the last week of the month that I had missed an opportunity for a mystery element to the story that would tie in really well with the main character’s arc. I was 32,000 words in to a 38,000 word draft when I realized this and the change not only required a bunch of tinkering with little things, but a whole series of new really fun mystery/problem-solving scenes that didn’t exist in the draft I had nearly finished. I literally jotted the new mystery subplot down in my Messy Synopsis document and kept writing the final 6,000 words just like I’d already made the change. That allowed me to get to the end of the month/end of the story, and reach my goal without being sidetracked by what will be a lengthy revision. Since I typically spend about six months doing the prewriting exercises for a book, I was surprised that this fun subplot didn’t occur to me until I was writing. But hey, plot twists happen in real life too.

One technique that has worked really well for me as I fast-draft is a revision spreadsheet. My brain is constantly trying to sabotage me brainstorm new totally fabulous plot bunnies, and having a place to jot them down gets them off my mind so that I can focus on the task at hand–writing the draft. The great thing about this is that when I get to the end of the draft, I already know what I’m going to work on for my first pass revision. I group the items on the list by theme and sort them by size so that when I do start revising, I can tackle some easy fixes first until I get into the flow. Does it sound like I play a lot of mind games with myself while I write? Because I totally do.

The Bottom Line: Both Pennies agree that whichever way you choose to move through your first draft, make sure that you keep moving forward. After all, the most polished half a novel in the world is still only half a novel.

Tune in next week when we start to look at the long, exciting process of revising your novel!

Introducing Master Your Craft: A New Series by the Winged Pen

Master Your Craft

The last month has been an exciting time here at The Winged Pen as Pennies have been hard at work behind the scenes coming up with a surprise for you.

Today, to coincide with Camp NaNo – the virtual writer’s retreat that helps you fit writing into your busy life – we’re excited to launch our new blog series: Master Your Craft with the Winged Pen (#WPMYC).

Every Wednesday for the next several months, we will take you through the entire process of writing a novel – everything from getting the Big Idea, all the way to the final, ready-to-query manuscript.

Our Pennies will share with you all of our best techniques and tools, starting with pre-writing tricks, including character development, research and world-building, to make your drafting as painless as possible.

Of course, writing a novel is going to include some pain, so we’ll walk you through the drafting process, too. We’ll help you fight that terrible enemy of the drafting novelist: the fear of the blank page. And we’ve got a host of tips and tricks to help you overcome the stalls, blocks and annoying plot bunnies that threaten to derail every first draft.

And once you’ve got your story down on paper, we’ll give you all of our favorite techniques for making a story shine until it positively gleams.

Each of our Pennies has a slightly different process and does each of our steps in a different order, so don’t feel like you have to follow this formula exactly. Instead, think of it as a compendium of writerly advice designed to help you on your novel-writing journey.

Writing a novel can be a lonely, demoralizing process. But it doesn’t have to be. Let us help you – and help each other – to shape the vibrant and enduring stories that are living so vividly in our heads into the best manuscripts we can possibly make.

We can’t wait to start sharing this treasure trove of posts with you! If you’re not already following us, go ahead and sign up so you won’t miss a single tip. And if you know someone struggling to write a novel, tell them to sign up, too. The fun starts next Wednesday, so don’t miss out!

Finally, if you have questions, comments or just want to cheer us on (sometimes we need cheering, too!), comment away here or on any of our Master Your Craft posts. We love to hear from you!

How To Give Good Critique

We’ve talked before about the need for critique partners to help you create your best work. (Jessica Vitalis had some great suggestions about how to find the right critique partners.)

But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.

So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?

Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.

But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:

  • Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.

EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!

  • Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.

EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument? 

  • Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
  • Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
  • Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
  • Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
  • Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)

Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!