Review – How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript

In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript, James Scott Bell promises the reader craft secrets to shape great dialogue. As a writer juggling a full life, the phrase “fastest way to improve” catches my eye and I hit Amazon’s buy now button.

When the book arrives, it’s a slim 135 pages. Was it worth the price? Will it stay on my How To writing shelf or end up in the donate pile? I find my favorite booth at Panera, order an iced tea, and crack it open.

I have my doubts the first few pages. Bell starts with what not to do examples that are so bad my fourth grader would know better. With a sigh, I turn a few pages. Next up is a tip that all characters should bring specific, opposing agendas to a scene. I read an excerpt from Gone With the Wind and jot a note to myself: Identify characters’ opposing agendas at the start of scene to increase conflict and tension. A few fun ideas bubble up.

The next idea sounds crazy, but I try it. Bell’s tip is to take a dialogue heavy section in my story and pick a random line. Then I go to my bookshelf, select a favorite novel, and flip it open. The first line of dialogue on that page will now replace the line of dialogue in my manuscript. Bizarre, but it works! My scene takes a creative twist and the dialogue’s interest shoots up.

Bell’s book includes tips on everything from punctuation to attributions to cursing, but the idea that pulls me in next is bare bones dialogue. I tend to be wordy. So I take a page of my dialogue and snip, snip, snip. My goal is to get each line to five words or less. The page suddenly has more white space and the dialogue more snap.

After applying Bell’s tips, I email my newest scene to my tough love critique partner whose comments tend toward “yawning here” or “this scene matters why?”

Several days later, I’m back at my favorite Panera booth, sipping my iced tea and open my email. My critique partner has responded and I nearly keel over when I read: Engaging and well written scene. Easy, enjoyable read. I wonder if it’s the tea or all the hard work. Nice job!

I write back that it’s not the tea, but the tips from How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way To Improve Any Manuscript.

Worth the cost?

Definitely!

A keeper?

For sure.

How to Break Your Resolutions & Live to Tell About It

It’s still January and everyone’s talking about goals. Making goals, keeping goals, how to write your goals and Blah, Blah, Blah!

Actually, I’m a very goal oriented person. I love goals. I make goals to shatter them, not just reach them. BUT 2016 was a bit of a different story.

Shortly after finalizing the edits for my first book, I hit a huge snag. A snag that ripped right through my writing mojo and into all other aspects of my life.

  • I didn’t achieve my Good Reads goal of 60 books (Holy Crap!!! I was reading 100-200 books a year for the past 5 years! In 2016 I couldn’t even manage 1 a week!!!)
  • I wasted spent 8 months trudging through drafts and scribbles of a second manuscript only to agree with my agent that we needed to put it aside and start on another.
  • I failed my NaNoWriMo attempt. I wasn’t even motivated by the chart this year! Usually that rising bar graph is what gets me out of bed in November.
  • I got 0, zip, zilch writing done from mid-November till my kids started their new year on the 3rd of January.

Sure, I could have forced in some writing, but sometimes you just know it’s going to be crap. So I threw myself into some embroidery projects and my girls got me hooked to Dance Moms (don’t judge because all those episodes actually sparked a thread in my incomplete NaNo project).

As you review the month of January or even all of 2016 in preparation for 2017, it’s really important to remember a few things as you create and/or break your resolutions:

  1. Analyze your situation: Are you lacking the motivation or desire to write? Are you being lazy or in a funk? These are important distinctions to make. Sometimes I’m too scared to sit down and write because I know I set up a bunch of question marks for the next day and I’m avoiding rolling up my sleeves and writing through it. Other times, I’m truly, truly in a funk and everything feels stupid and worthless and hopeless.
  2. Don’t make excuses: It’s okay to give yourself a break and pull back when something isn’t working or go make that 20th cup of coffee or meet that friend you haven’t seen in months for lunch, BUT be sure you’re not just giving yourself any old excuse not to get your butt in the chair.
  3. Take the kind of advice you give: Ask yourself, “What would I tell my friend to do in this situation?” And do that. Don’t give in to the funk!
  4. Find people who motivate you and push you: There are too many downward spiraling moments in anyone’s writing journey not to have people to share it with. Writing people are everywhere! Find them!
  5. Don’t take yourself or your goals too seriously: Part of the creative process is the down time it takes to work problems, plots, themes, etc. out. You need to have an end goal. You need to get your butt in the chair, but also: life happens.

So, as you break into 2017 and possibly break a few resolutions, remember it’s okay to fail. View your setbacks as learning opportunities. Take a break, but don’t make excuses.

Happy 2017!

Kristi Wientge is the author of KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE out 15th August 2017 with Simon & Schuster BFYR.

Craft Intensive: Building Backstory

As a couple of my fellow Pennies can tell you, I love to do a deep dive on characters’ feelings and motivations. In fact, one of my favorite things to do while writing and critiquing is to explore and uncover why the characters act the way they do.

I’m also a firm believer in that old adage that the easiest way to know what someone is going to do in the future is to look at what they’ve done in the past.

But until recently, I never managed to put those two ideas together in my writing! As much as I love the behavior analysis part of penning a novel, I have been leaving a huge chunk of motivation on the table: Backstory.

It’s not that I’ve been ignoring backstory. I actually like it quite a bit and enjoy imagining pre-novel scenes. But I haven’t always written down that backstory or given it much more than a cursory glance. It’s always been an under-developed, well-you-see-this-once-happened explanation available if someone asked.

But after Julie recommended Lisa Cron’s STORY GENIUS to me, I started paying a lot more attention to backstory in my books. And I’ve picked up some great new habits that — I hope! — are making my current WIP a much more emotionally engaging read.

  1. Write that backstory down. I used to be content to dream up a nice, somewhat vague backstory for my character — e.g./ “She’s watched her mom cut people out of their lives for little to no reason and she’s scared of that happening to her.” But with this draft, I’ve written out several scenes from her past that show her mom turning on their friends and family. The details that writing the scenes forced me to conjure up are helping me show my character’s fear so much more vividly, and they serve the dual purpose of propelling actions that are making my story zing.
  2. From STORY GENIUS: Find a moment that made your character believe something about the world that your novel’s story will prove wrong. Think Professor Snape. For almost the entire seven-book series, Harry believes that Professor Snape is evil. He has ample evidence for this belief — much of it circumstantial and misinterpreted — and for him, it is confirmed at nearly every turn. We even get to see memories of Snape’s boyhood that seem to confirm Harry’s suspicions. All of which makes it so deeply moving for us and for Harry when he learns the truth behind Snape’s actions late in the final book.
  3. Real people often take unexpected lessons from life events — so can your characters. A character whose mom died when he was thirteen could vow to remain a bachelor for life because he’s seen how painful it is to lose someone you love…or he could decide to become very religious because he believes his mom might have been saved if she had gone to church…or he could fervently wish to create his own family very young to make up for what he missed out on…or, or, or. Any one of a thousand reactions to that one event — losing his mother — is possible, which means you need to keep digging. What else was happening in his life at that time that shaped how he reacted? What kind of person was his mom, and how did she shape him while she was alive? What did he believe about the world before she died, and how did that death challenge that belief? Try to find the core belief that led your character to choose the specific lesson that makes him behave the way he does — and that belief will do a lot of heavy lifting to move your story forward.

As I’ve started incorporating backstory questions into my writing, I’ve found that not only does it mean I get to do more of what I love — exploring character motivation! — but it is also helping me improve my much weaker area of plot development.

Because if the truest predictor of future behavior is past behavior, then knowing your characters’ backstory backwards and forwards will help you know exactly what they’re going to do next.

8 on Eight: December Feedback

eight on eight 2Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest*.

Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

*Reminder: there is no 8 on Eight next month. Enjoy your holidays!

GATES ON THE WAY TO THE GREAT UPSTAIRS (Contemporary YA)

My story starts in the same place that it ends: Dad died almost a year ago, and I killed him. I didn’t use a gun – I wasn’t even there when it happened – and I didn’t hire anyone, either. It’s just that I’m responsible, and if I ever explained my role in his death to Mom and Jeffrey, they would never forgive me. So this is my secret, one I’ll carry with me until my last day.

If I’m right, that’s exactly eleven days from now.

I’ve closed my door so I can think in peace, but that doesn’t stop Jeffrey from barging in unannounced wearing his Thor helmet. He’s just gotten home from trick-or-treating, and as usual, he’s the superhero of bad timing.

Richelle: This is a very strong opening! I like the mystery, the shocking nature of her confessions, the details about the narrator’s brother — it’s all really working for me. Although the opening phrase is evocative, I am not sure you need it. I got a little hung up on “My story starts in the same place it ends” trying to figure out what that meant and how that would work. It wouldn’t keep me from reading on at all, but I think the statement about the father is enough of a grabber. I also think you can make the transition from the macro (I have this huge secret) to the micro (I’m sitting in my room when my be-costumed brother bursts in) a little snappier, too. Why is the narrator thinking about all this now? Is this the first chance in a while to be alone? Or is this routine? Is the eleven-days-until-I’m-dead information new? What is it about this particular moment of brooding that makes it special enough to start your story? I don’t have much more to say — you’ve hooked me in just a few lines! Great job — and good luck!

Michelle: Whoa! I’m intrigued and dying to read more. I only have two small suggestions. 1) I agree with Richelle. Kill the first part of the sentence. It makes the opening even stronger! 2) IMO, the third sentence is clunky compared to the rest of what you’ve shared with us: “It’s just that I’m responsible, and if I ever explained my role in his death to Mom and Jeffrey, they would never forgive me.” Play around with it a bit. Maybe two separate sentences. Or maybe (and this is what I truly believe), we don’t need you to tell this. We’ll figure it out soon enough when you show us in the story. Good luck! And keep in touch to let us know how it goes!

Jessica: This is fantastic; I’m definitely hooked! By way of suggestions, I’d agree with Richelle and Michelle; I think you can easily drop that first sentence and it will better capture our attention. Michelle’s suggestion that you might be able to drop the sentence about telling Mom and Jeffrey also resonated with me; I think you could play with the wording such that you could move right from the opening to the secret. Finally, I’d encourage you to double check your use of em dashes; these look to me like en dashes (or even hyphens?) and em dashes don’t typically have spaces before or after. But overall, this is a great opening. Nicely done!

Gabrielle: I think this is a great opening, and you have tension and conflict right where it belongs. I don’t disagree with any of the other Pennies that have commented, but I’ll add that I think you can tighten up the prose a little. Play with using some shorter sentences. They have more inherent tension. So, for example, “I didn’t use a gun. I wasn’t there when it happened. Before you ask, I didn’t hire anyone, either.”  I agree you can lose the “I’m responsible” line. It’s redundant here, and less powerful that what you’ve already said.  I love the introduction of the brother. You could work in a little more setting detail in the last paragraph, I think, so we can see the space she’s in.  Great, compelling beginning.

Kristi: Wowza! I’m jumping on the “I’m hooked” wagon with everyone else. Definitely very compelling. One of the my favorite lines is when you give us the 11 days the MC has to live. This definitely sets off the ticking time bomb right away. There really isn’t anything for me to add except that I totally agree with what has already been said. You can definitely shorten and cut some of the above to tighten the tension. My only suggestion would be to have your MC doing something other than sitting and thinking. Yes, you can probably get away with this because of how you’ve set up your first line, but why waste space. If he was doing chin-ups or bouncing a ball or even just on his computer, anything to give him a bit of action.

Halli: Well you had me at the title! And kept me going the more I read. Unlike the comments above, I don’t mind the first sentence. For me, the sticking point was after “I wasn’t even there when it happened.” A suggestion would be to take out the line of not hiring someone because that is just one of hundreds of possibilities of someone dying outside your presence. And I do agree with tightening up the sentence starting with I’m responsible. Fantastic job! I will be keeping my eye out for this 🙂

Julie: You’ve gotten some great advice (man, it’s always hard to go last!). I agree with Kristi that the “eleven days from now” line is the most evocative for me and if you can rework this a bit to put that in the spotlight, while using some shorter, more tension-filled sentences, I think you’ll have a must-read opener, especially since your premise and title are so intriguing. I’d say spend some time thinking about what makes the story start right in this moment–what triggered her to think about her father’s death while she sat there in her room on Halloween–and that might help you punch up what is already a solid beginning. Best of luck!

Rebecca:  Your topic is compelling. We know from the first sentence that something big is going to happen in this story and that the timeline is tight. That’s great! I also like your YA voice and the “superhero of bad timing.”

But you’re start has a telly feel. No action, dialogue or setting. I would break up the internals. A natural place to do this would be to have the little brother barge into the room with some dialogue. I think that also giving your MC an action, a nervous tick, or movement around his room so we know that’s where he is, would break this up and allow the reader to picture the scene while we’re hearing the heavy concerns on the MC’s mind through the internals.

All the best with your story!

 

Ready… Set… WRITE!

running-498257_640If you read Julie’s post, you know it’s National Novel Writing Month again, which means a whole bunch of us are sweating through each day trying to write 50,000-ish words by the end of November.

While I’m not participating this year, I am still trying to keep up my own momentum on my current WIP.

But time has been so very tight for me this fall, and my normal writing routine wasn’t working for me. Instead of getting frustrated, though, I decided to try something new: sprinting.

Here’s how it works for me: I set my timer (generally for 15 minutes, though you can aim for more time if you have it), shut down the Internet, put my document in “focus mode” and start typing. I do not stop until the timer dings.

When I first started sprinting, I would get 250-400 words down each session. But as I got more used to it, I started hitting well over 500. Two fifteen minute sprints a day gets me back to my old goal of 1,000 words a day – all in a lot less time.

Of course, sprinting can be a little scary. I still sometimes have a moment of panic before I start my timer: what if I can’t find the words? But that fear is offset by the freewheeling joy of writing without second-guessing, without going back to edit, without stopping to ponder this word or that one.

There are a couple of different ways to approach sprinting. I like to keep working from where I left off – I find that sprinting forces me to be more focused about where I’m going with each scene. I have to know what’s going to happen each time I sit down to sprint, which means I have had to plot out each scene – and know what its purpose is in the overall story – beforehand.

If that’s too daunting or you’re worried about getting stuck, you can also plan out sprints for specific scenes. Some writers like to sprint through difficult-to-write scenes, knowing that sometimes getting something down is better than getting it down perfectly. Others sprint through character sketches or other important background writing.

I’ve always done my sprints solo, but there is a whole writing subculture devoted to social sprinting. This month, the NaNoWriMo Word Sprint feed (@NaNoWordSprints) will run periodic group sprints, some of which might include prompts or challenges to help you get unstuck.

There are even apps you can download, like WriteOrDie!, which rewards (or punishes!) you for reaching (or not reaching) your goals.

I think my favorite thing about sprinting is that it doesn’t allow me time to go back. I could easily spend half my writing time re-reading and tinkering with the words I’ve already written instead of writing new ones. With sprinting, I’m saving that word-shining for revisions.

I don’t know that I’d want to write an entire novel in sprints. But I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment I have each day after my sprint is done. And I know that as I race one kid to volleyball practice and my husband shuttles another to soccer while I text instructions to my oldest on how to put the rice on without burning down the house, that even if there’s chaos all around me, my writing is still getting done.

I’d love to hear about your sprinting techniques – please share them in the comments!

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