November 30, 2015
Many fiction writers have difficulty developing real-to-life characters in their work. One of the ways to pull this off effectively is with dialogue—something most of us enjoy writing. But, as an editor, I often see short stories that miss the mark. How? With dialogue that doesn’t truly differentiate the characters, much less help define them.
Have you read fiction in which the dialogue has one tone, one voice? Typically this is because the author is writing in his or her own voice instead of getting into the characters’ heads and talking in the ways they would. The dialogue must fit the characters. I’m often guilty of being lazy when developing dialogue myself, and often have to go through my drafts to hone the dialogue.
Let’s consider an example.
I’m currently working on a police procedural novel. Of course, there are a number of detectives and other police officers in the story, and each has a distinct character. My main character, Matthew Marrs, is a by-the-book, straightforward detective with a heart, who is highly intuitive and superb at his job. His partner, Gordon O’Daniel, constantly looks for the humor in situations, is something of a lady’s man, and is quick-witted and street-smart. Anthony D’Oro is an older, gruff detective, something of a curmudgeon. Now, let’s hear them talk.
“Give me a break,” Marrs said.
“Gimme a break,” D’Oro said.
“C’mon!” O’Daniel said.
The detectives react to the same situation and say pretty much the same thing, but with different voices that portray their characters. Even if I didn’t add the attributions, you’d probably know who said what from my earlier descriptions of their characters. (more…)
October 30, 2011
I attended the 2011 Delaware Regional Writers Conference last month, and one of the workshops I attended was "Infusing Rhythm and Music into Writing and Performance." The workshop leader, Holly Bass, is a writer, poet, performer, and director, and was a founding member of the DC Writers Corps. Although the workshop was geared more toward poets, I was fascinated with the aspect of using music and rhythm in fiction writing.
Holly engaged the workshop participants in a number of group activities aimed at "freeing the voice." She introduced us to hip-hip poetry--first having us read written versions of the poetry, and then having us listen to recordings of the writers performing their own work. Of course, our readings of the poems were vastly different from the "real thing."
As an exercise, Holly asked us to write a poem using sound to provide descriptions. I'm not much of a poet, but here's what I came up with:
Slapping sand, water churns
Echoes on the undulating dunes
Cries of gulls, swooping birds
Chatter and squawk and scream and talk
Over a sole french fry in the sand
Lightning to the east, electrifying, diving
Thunder rolling, booming, moving, drumming, drumming
The sea is black, angry, locomotive-chugging
Storming the beach
OK, I'm no Sandburg. But, not bad, right?
Thank you, Holly, for an enlightening workshop!
January 11, 2011
If you know any writers, you’ve probably heard something like the following: “I started to write a scene in my novel, pretty much following my outline. But then one of the characters went into a totally different direction. Before long, the characters ending up writing the scene for me, in a way I never expected. And it’s better because of it!”
Non-writers scratch their heads at this. Is this some form of magic? Is there really a muse that usurps the writer’s brain and writes the story? Is this something like the cobbler’s elves?
I was just working on a chapter in my police procedural novel, tentatively titled Harvester of Sorrow
. In the chapter, the body of a child is discovered in a remote area of a county park, and the murder may be related to similar murders in a nearby city. This brings up a case of jurisdiction (county vs. city police departments) that I hadn’t considered earlier, and this required that I create a new character, a detective from the county PD. The character was originally only a walk-on, but I quickly realized he was a more significant character, and he changed the chapter as I wrote it. He will appear in subsequent chapters.
The January 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest
includes an interview with Harlan Coben, best-selling author of numerous thrillers such as Tell No One
, Just One Look
, Long Lost
, Hold Tight
, and Caught
. During the interview, WD asked, “So do your characters ever surprise you—do they become real to you in that way?” He answered, “Oh, they surprise me all the time. … I don’t like it when people make it seem more magical. It’s not. It’s work. It can be wonderful, and it can be thrilling, but it’s not really magical.”
When I first read this, I honed in on Coben’s claim, “It’s work.” I know what he means. Characters may seem to take on lives of their own, but only after the writer has given great thought to those characters, has worked with them in the story, has fully developed them. Maybe, as a writer, you’ve learned something more about the character as a scene progresses, and the character moves into that new area as your broaden that character’s role in the story. Magic? I don’t think so. It comes from hard work, from the writer being intimate with the characters he/she has created.
Maybe, as the characters have matured in your mind, they no longer fit the outline you originally devised, simply because it forces them to act out of character. This may be a surprise, that a character may go through door B instead of door A as you originally envisioned. But, it’s really no surprise at all—you’re subliminal thoughts were headed in that direction as the character was being developed. No magic. Just hard work.
When characters take over a story, it’s almost always a good and desired turn of events. As a writer, go with the flow. Think of it as a reward for the work you’ve already put into your work-in-progress!
March 27, 2010
The second full day of workshops was just as packed as yesterday! Here are the events I attended, again with some thoughts. (I skipped the readings scheduled 10:00-10:45.)
Want: Character and Motivation (11:00-1:15)
The workshop leader was Jami Attenberg, author of the recently released novel The Melting Season and The Kept Man. I was impressed with Jami, not only because of her advice about characterization techniques, but because she was open about the writing business, how she came into it and how she lives the life. Her insights about writing were illuminating.
Jami had us do two writing exercises. I never write well in those situations (“Take 15 minutes to write about this scenario about this character”); I need time to think about the angles on an idea before it gels enough for me to write anything worthwhile. But I was amazed at the quality of work the other participants were able to create in short time!
A couple of things she said rings true to me. When talking about characterization, she said that “thought” (getting into a character’s head) “is where fiction shines, more than any other art form.” I’d never really considered this, but she’s right. Even film can’t go that deep into a character’s psyche. The writer wields great power in this regard.
Another piece of advice I found worth remembering concerned how to get “unstuck” when you’re not sure how a character should handle a plot situation. Jami suggested writing the scene in as many ways as you can think of, every alternative available, and see what works best. Another option is to simply ask people what they would do in a similar situation. Why not?
Lunch on Your Own (1:15-3:00)
The Story of You: Developing a Brand and Web Presence (3:00-5:15)
This was a great workshop, the one I participated in the most during this conference. Franklin Parrish, Creative Director of M19 Media, was the workshop leader. His focus was on defining branding for the freelance writer, and how to translate this branding to a strong Web site. I agreed with Franklin on virtually everything he said today. He’s a sharp guy.
My problem, when it comes to branding my Web site, is that my writing is all over the place (gardening, travel, educational management, suspense and horror fiction, a children’s book) and it’s tough for me to develop a singular brand. Franklin suggested branding myself as “multi-talented” on the umbrella site, and then focusing on branding the other elements separately, all under the umbrella of “me.” I’m still not sure how to pull this off. I think if the main site reveals my personality and style, the rest will fall into place. But, I still need to determine marketing strategies.
Keynote Dinner (6:30-8:15)
A wonderful dinner in the Swan Ballroom tonight. The keynote speaker was Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie’s Ghost.
Just one more day! One more workshop! Then back home, looking forward to next year’s conference!
March 26, 2010
Today was the first day of workshops for the conference. Quite a packed day! Here are the events I attended, with some thoughts.
Building Dramatic Scenes That Work (10:30-12:30)
The workshop leader was Khris Baxter, a screenwriter. Using scenes from film (The Silence of the Lambs, Doubt, When Harry Met Sally, Good Will Hunting), he explained the different ways dramatic scenes are structured for maximum impact, and how fiction writers can use screenwriting techniques to improve their stories. “Dramatic scenes are the true engines of story.”
Another insight I found interesting involved dialogue. Consider point of view in each scene, and use the POV of the character who best drives the scene. Dialogue must (1) reveal character, (2) provide information (exposition), and (3) advance the plot. On the subject of exposition, Khris used a scene from a John Sayles’ film to illustrate the major rule for flashbacks—the scene you flash to must be inherently more dramatic than the originating scene.
Khris said, “We’re in the emotion business, folks.” Write what you feel uncomfortable writing; those things you naturally avoid writing; the hard, visceral stuff you’d rather keep hidden. These are usually the emotions that truly involve the reader, and are the essential content of the strongest dramatic scenes. Dig deep!
Lunch, Opening Remarks, Readings (12:45-2:15)
During lunch, I sat with Joanne Reinbold, founder of the Written Remains Writers Group in Wilmington. I'd like to join such a group, for feedback, networking, and just working with other writers as they hone their craft. I'm seriously considering joining the group. Depends on the time requirements involved. We'll see ...
A Solid Stable Business (2:30-3:45)
This was a roundtable discussion of alternative publishing options (self-publishing, small press, POD, etc.), moderated by Fay Jacobs, a small publisher here in Rehoboth. It became clear during the discussion that writing a book is only a fraction of the work involved if you go it alone with publishing, or even go with a small publisher. Marketing and distribution are major considerations, and should be well planned and orchestrated for any hope for success.
I’m considering self-publishing a gardening book, but I still need to give this idea far more serious thought.
A Conversation With Doug Stewart, Carolyn Parkhurst, and Jami Attenberg (4:00-5:15)
This was another roundtable discussion, this one about agents and their relationships with writers. Doug is the agent for both Carolyn and Jami. Nothing really new here that I didn’t already know, but many others in attendance found this enlightening. All three reiterated time and again that persistence is key to finding an agent. And they all advised finding an agent who loved your work—a fan of your writing—rather than an agent who takes you on just for the $$.
“Meet the Author” Cocktail Party (6:00-7:30)
This took place at Browseabout Books on the main strip in Rehoboth. I grabbed some food, bought two books (that I hope to get signed tomorrow), shared a few conversations, then split. I didn’t stay for the readings. I wanted to get back to my room to write this blog entry and work on a few story ideas I developed during the day.
Looking forward to more learning and networking tomorrow!
February 5, 2010
Many editors will tell you that, when plowing through a slush pile of freelance submissions, they often never get past the first sentence of a story, much less the first paragraph. Writers may think this unfair, but an editor's instinct about a story is usually dead on -- if the first few lines of a story don't snare your attention, you're not likely to read further.
First lines are important.
Consider the following examples of first lines from best-selling authors.
July 27, 2009
If I have any advice to offer someone who is serious about freelance writing, it would be this: Get a job as an editor. Even if it’s a part-time gig for a small local publication, do it! I’m convinced there is no better way to learn the business of writing than to sit on the other side of the desk. Working with other writers, helping them to produce stronger writing that is tailored for the publication you edit, forces you to view your own writing in a less myopic way. (more…)