So far I’ve talked about using dialect and using specific words to help improve dialogue in writing. Today, let’s take a look at how you can control the pacing of your story by changing the tempo of your dialogue.

You’ve no doubt encountered this technique time and again as you read, but it may have been so subtle that you didn’t realize what was happening. I encourage you to pay attention to the way dialogue can affect a story’s pacing from now on so you can learn to use it yourself.

Just like you can speed up the pace of your narratives by using shorter sentences, quick-flowing words, and strong verbs instead of adjectives; or slow down the pace by adding more description and longer sentences, you can do the same with dialogue. Think about that last mystery or suspense novel you read. When the author wanted to pull you to the edge of your seat and get your heart racing, what kind of words and sentences were employed? If there was dialogue, what form did it take?

If you’re writing a scene that is showing conflict between characters or if you need them to have a sense of urgency, you don’t want to drag out their dialogue with unnecessary words and elaborate sentences. Every word should be important and should immediately get to the point. Often with fast-paced dialogue, you will also omit the speaking tags (“he said,” “she exclaimed,” etc.) because that only adds to slowing down the pace for the reader. Once you’ve identified in what order the characters are speaking, you can lose the tags and allow the characters to answer each other as quickly as possible. To help speed up the pace, shorten your sentences to the bare minimum needed for clarity, and be sure your characters don’t get hung up with stammering speech or “filler” words. Think of their dialogue as a tennis match  with a fast-paced volley!

Likewise, if you are trying to introduce characters or set a scene, or just slow down your story’s pace for whatever reason, you can adjust your dialogue accordingly to achieve this effect. Now, your sentences can be longer and more embellished, and your characters can have their share of “ums” and “ers” here and there.  And, add your tags back in so the conversation isn’t as rushed.

As a writer you are in complete control of how fast or slow your story flows. If you don’t like the pace–maybe you feel a certain scene is really dragging its heels–change it through dialogue. Sometimes even just the presence of dialogue can serve to speed up or slow down a story. Dialogue may not always be the answer, but it’s definitely an area that should be considered when trying to “fix” scene problems.

I hope that some of my suggestions throughout this three-part post have helped a little in your dialogue creation!

Welcome back to Part 2 of “3 Simple Ways to Improve Dialogue.” In my last post, I talked about the use of dialect to help differentiate characters and make them realistic. Today I’m going to look at how the specific words you choose for your characters can help them come to life.

Think for a minute about books you’ve read whose characters stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. What is it about them that stays in your memory? And, conversely, why do some characters make no impact on you whatsoever? There are possibly many answers for this, but I would argue that one of the biggest reasons is simply how they speak—the words they use that showcase their personalities.

Consider the people you know well—members of your family, co-workers, close friends—and how they speak, to help illustrate my point. More than likely, if you asked each member of your family or several close friends to describe the exact same incident, you would get extremely different descriptions. This is because their unique personalities show through their words.

When developing characters, be sure to use words that precisely fit the personalities you want to present to your reader. This is one of many reasons why developing character sketches of each character before you start writing is so important. You need to know before writing a scene if your character would say “ridonculous” or “utterly absurd.”

Along with specific word choices, also consider the characters’ verbosity in conservations. As a great example of this, I will use my two sons. One, a 16-year-old, acts like he is being charged a fee for every word he uses, and his favorite response to most any question is simply “Good.”

Me: How was school?

Conner: Good.

Me: How did you math test go?

Conner: Good.

Me: Are you hungry?

Conner: I’m good.

You get the idea. Perhaps you have one of those at home yourself! My 8-year-old however, will, as the saying goes, tell you how to build a clock if you ask him the time. If I were to ask him about his math test, he would give me a precise recount of each problem and whether or not he was able to solve it.

If I were to write a scene using my sons as the characters, you could immediately tell one from the other based on the amount of words I had each use and the complexity of their sentences—never mind that the 8-year-old talks circles around his older brother!

If you had two characters with completely different personalities (one an extreme introvert and the other a boisterous extrovert) burst into a scene, how could your reader immediately tell them apart, simply based on their dialogue? What if both characters were in positions of authority and they had to reprimand an employee for lackluster performance? How would their dialogue be different?

Imagine, for example, an insecure person who must confront a store clerk about overcharging her on her purchase. She would probably use “soft” qualifying phrases, like maybe, I think, or a little bit (in describing the overcharge). Now picture a bold, no-nonsense person in the same situation. Her word choice may include direct phrases, such as you did, refund, and overcharge. Both people may be quite polite, but just by the words they use, the reader can learn something about their personalities.

In order to best write dialogue to match your characters’ personalities, keep these steps in mind:

1) develop thorough character sketches before writing so you can write as if you know your characters intimately;

2) determine the type of words and wordiness your character will use based on personality, and keep it consistent from scene to scene. If you are to deviate from their normal dialogue, make it purposeful, as in demonstrating a change in that character’s behavior; and

3) read your scenes aloud to ensure the characters sound natural. If you need to, think of people you know who have similar personalities as your characters. Then ask yourself what words they would use to respond to the situations or conversations your characters are in.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can use dialogue to help control the pacing of your story.

Have you ever read dialogue that seemed flat, uninteresting, or unbelievable? Or, worse, have you ever written dialogue like this? Dialogue can easily make or break a story by helping to develop characters, control the plot’s pace, and provide readers with necessary information through “showing, not telling.”

Throughout the next 3 posts, I’d like to share some simple ways to improve your dialogue to help make your story the best it can be. Today, let’s talk about the use of dialect.

Dialect is not to be confused with accents, although accents may help to accentuate dialect. Dialect is rather the specific nuances of how people talk and pronounce their words, depending on where they are from. Proper use of dialect can go a long way in making your dialogue believable because it helps create consistency for each character and serves to immediately differentiate your characters from each other.

I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and people there ask “Please?” when they don’t understand what you said—as opposed to “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” I thought this was perfectly normal until I moved out of state. Someone would say something to me that I didn’t hear correctly, I’d response with “Please?” and they’d either look at me like I was from Mars, or they’d respond with “Please, what?”

I soon came to discover that this was a uniquely Cincinnati thing. Others who realized this would ask me—after I said “Please?” to them—“Are you from Cincinnati?” It seems it’s probably the only place in the world where people do this!

That’s an example of dialect. And, if you use it well, it will help your characters come to life.

If an American travels overseas, people may say, “Oh, you’re from America,” based on how that person speaks. But what does an American sound like? In America, we know that being from New Jersey sounds very different than being from Lubbock, Texas, and different still than being from  Minnesota.

Dialect includes pronunciation (Bostonians leaving “r”s off the ends of their words, Southerners adding a drawl to their vowels), unique phrasing or words assimilated into their speech (“Please?” in Cincinnati, “eh?” in Canada), and particular, identifying speech patterns (think “Valley Girl” from the 80’s in California).

When trying to write authentic dialect that captures the intricacies of speech from various areas, it’s best to be around people from that area for a period of time. Don’t always rely on the dialect you hear in the movies. When possible, go to where your character is from and spend time just observing and listening to the natives who live there.

Bring a recorder if possible so you can hear the speech again and again. Also be on the lookout for mannerisms and how people conduct themselves when in conversation. Do you notice in certain geographical areas that people are more boisterous in their conversations, maybe more apt to interrupt each other, or maybe women tend to be more submissive when in conversation with a group of men in certain places.

When I was growing up, I had a friend who was part of a large, Italian family. When they all got together around the dinner table, you’d be lucky to get two words into their conversations. And you’d think they were all mad at each other, the way the volume escalated, accompanied by flailing arms and intense facial expressions. But that wasn’t the case. That was simply their natural method of conversation. That family dinner table held no place for introverts!

All of these kinds of nuances help create full, rich, and believable dialogue that helps your reader instantly tell your characters apart.

If you can’t go to an area to listen to dialect, do as much research as possible before you start writing. It will make a huge difference in your dialogue if you can capture the heart of an area’s dialect.

When one of your characters burst into a scene and begins talking, your reader should know immediately who that person is long before you identify him or her. By doing your homework, this will happen.

Next time, I’ll discuss how the words you choose for your characters can enhance their dialogue and make it sound more natural.

I apologize for my posting negligence as of late. I got hit with several projects at once, and for the sake of trying to squeeze in a few hours of sleep, something had to go! But in the midst of all the work, a blog idea came to me that I felt may be useful to my readers: researching!

If you’re like most writers, researching is a necessary evil—much like when you were a high school or college student and the dreaded term paper was upon you. But when you’re researching something you care to write about, it can be fun…or at least interesting.

I’ve had posts in the past where I discussed using primary sources as research (which is always the best if you can find them), as well as how to properly interview subject experts to gather research. So today I’m going down a different path—one I just got off of myself—tips on gathering and organizing research.

My recent research was for two children’s weather books I was commissioned to write. Both books were to contain basic scientific information—one on hurricanes and the other on floods. Here are a few tips I used that can help you start your research process:

1. Don’t ever think you know too much about your subject to research it. This is a trap that writers can be prone to fall into, especially as they write about subjects close to their heart. But, just like your mother used to tell you, “You can always learn something new.” If you already have a solid understanding of your topic, hit the books (or the internet) to gain new depth and to see the subject from multiple sources. You’ll nearly always unearth a precious nugget you can use in your writing.

2. Make sure your sources are excruciatingly credible. Your best bet will always be primary sources. After that, try to locate information from an official organization or governing body for your subject. If that fails, stick with research books or experts’ writings (often found in professional and industry journals or magazines). As you research others’ writings, investigate the sources they used for additional roads to follow.

Dare I say, be very wary of the internet. Use it for finding the official organizations or governing bodies just mentioned or to gather magazine articles from reputable sources. Stay far away from personal blogs (unless the sources are cited), Wikipedia-type articles, and anything for-profit (unless you are researching a product or idea from that company).

For my weather research, I relied heavily on the National Hurricane Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, FEMA, and the likes. I’m assuming they know what they are talking about!

3. Take more notes than you think you need. This is one thing I learned the hard way the first couple of times I had to research. I had acquired some information that I didn’t think was very important, but I ended up adding additional sections to my writing for which the research I “tossed” became critical. This cost me a lot of time and effort in retrieving the original information I should have kept—mostly because I didn’t have the foresight to document where the information came from, so I had to retrace my researching steps.

The lessons learned from this were to always do more research than you think you have to, and take a lot more notes that what you think you will ever use. This is akin to filming 5 hours for a 30-second commercial. You never know what you will end up using and what will work best in your finished product. And, if your story ends up taking an unexpected turn, you won’t have to go back to square one to acquire more research.

Another lesson is to document everything. If it’s worth taking notes on, then it’s worth documenting so that: 1) you have the citation in your finished product; and (2) in the event you need to dig out more information on that particular area, you will know exactly where to go.

4. Good organization early on will save you major headaches later! Everyone has his or her own method for research organization, and what works for one may not work for another. For me, I like to use separate spiral notebooks and folders for each topic of my research. Right now, with my hurricane book, some separate topics include: “preparation,” “how hurricanes are formed,” “where hurricanes are formed,” and “resulting effects,” to name a few. I have organized these both electronically into folders and physically into spiral notebooks for notes that I jot down or documentation I come across.

Some writers use note cards to organize, others may include everything in one electronic document but break that document into categories. The point isn’t so much how you do it, just that you do it. By enlisting some organization to your research, you will easily be able to locate what you need and not waste time trying to find it. Also, you can quickly see which areas of your research are in abundance and which are lacking so you know what to focus on.

5. Learn how to walk the balance beam of not plagiarizing yet being precise with the facts. If your writing project is such that you can use direct quotes from your research, then this is an easy way to get around this problem. But sometimes, as in the case of (early reader) children’s books, you can’t do this. So, the dilemma becomes making sure that you have all the facts and details precisely correct, yet rewording the research you gathered so you are nowhere close to copying another’s work.

For me, it helps to rewrite certain excerpts from my research using various phrasing. I’ll keep revising it until it captures all the necessary elements of the details I need, yet looks nothing like the original text. Sometimes this is easier said than done!

When writing for children, a writer should not use another children’s book for research purposes, but he or she should review several children’s books on the same topic that are written for a similar age level. This helps assure the writer that he or she is using an appropriate style, word choice, and sentence structure for the target readers’ age range.

Reviewing similar books, however, sets a trap for plagiarism, as the authors have already done the hard work of assimilating all the research into “kid language” for you. You must be extra careful in this situation to purposely word your research differently so your book doesn’t result in a mimic of another’s.

I hope these 5 tips will help you to gather, organize, and utilize your research. The more you do it and get the hang of it, it can actually be fun. You may even start looking forward to it!

Awhile back I had mentioned the Writer’s Digest annual writing competition. This is just a friendly reminder that the deadline for getting those submissions in is looming on the horizon–June 3 to be exact.

As mentioned in many earlier posts, writing contests are an excellent way to not only exercise your writing skills but gain some industry recognition for your efforts. And some contests, like this one from WD, have a sizable payoff as well: cash prizes from $25 for 6th -10th place to $1000 for first place (for each category), and a whopping $3000 for the overall grand prize winner in addition to editorial consultations and a trip to the WD Conference in New York City.

So for a little bit of time and a nominal entrance fee, you have a chance at some big-time prizes and exposure.

There are 10 different categories for the contest:

* Magazine feature article

* Genre short story

* Inspirational writing (spiritual/religious)

* Mainstream/literary short story

* Memoir/personal essay

* Children’s/young adult fiction

* Stage play

* Television/movie script

*Rhyming poetry

*Non-rhyming poetry

Yes! Finally a place for your poetry! To get more information and guidelines concerning the contest, go to WritersDigest.com. But hurry…you’re running out of time! And..if you do apply and win, let us know! Good luck!

With the major fall and winter holidays still over  six months away, this is the perfect time to work on crafting your seasonal article for submission to magazines. Seasonal articles can, of course, be submitted for any season, but the winter holidays will by far offer some of the greatest opportunities for getting your foot in the door.

Most print magazines will look to purchase seasonal articles at least six months out, so if you have a Thanksgiving or Christmas article in mind, you’ll need to get it polished and sent fairly soon. Smaller magazines, however, may work on shorter time frames. If you’re crunched for time, it’s worth doing some research to see which ones may have deadlines a little further out. The time line for online magazines is much shorter, but it never hurts to get some ideas into the publisher early.

Remember, when writing for magazines, it’s best to find out what the publisher wants first, then write your story to fit the needs of the magazine, instead of writing what you want and then trying to find a magazine that wants to buy it. The best place to start for seasonal needs is the ever-handy magazine market guide book. Search for “seasonal” or “holiday” to find which magazines buy these articles.

Next, determine what exactly they are looking for. Included in this list might be short stories that focus on traditions, a humorous piece about a holiday, or a touching memoir. Or perhaps the magazine is looking for holiday travel tips or celebrating on a budget. You may even find a place for your award-winning fruitcake recipe or Thanksgiving crafts!

Research well and take the necessary time to pour through a few issues of the magazine for writing style, tone, word count, and other necessities.

If you miss the cutoff for winter holidays, Valentine’s Day is another popular magazine favorite, along with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Another strategy is to seek out those more obscure holidays and look for niche magazines that might be open to a cultural story of St. Patrick’s Day or some interesting facts about Veteran’s Day, for instance. Sometimes it pays to go down the path less traveled!

Whichever holiday or season you choose, these articles provide an excellent way for new writers to break into the magazine market. If your article gets accepted, after you submit, write back to the editor with an idea for another upcoming holiday article. It never hurts to strike while the iron is hot, as they say, and you may just secure yourself a spot for the next major holiday before other writers beat you to it.

Structure and creativity appear, on the surface, to be mutually exclusive concepts–especially when it comes to an art form like writing. In fact, writers will typically describe their writing process as either being of a structured nature or more free form, where they write based on whatever whim comes to them. I’d like to propose–and in doing so, perhaps arm you with a new writing strategy–that both concepts can happily co-exist in the same writing process.

I tend to be more structured by nature–every T crossed, and every I dotted. Maybe that’s why I prefer nonfiction over fiction and why I like to edit. But I’ve also discovered along the way that structure needs to be infused with writing chaos from time to time. Let me explain…

Take outlines, for example. I love outlines! Many people hate them, and I can easily see why. But for me, especially when it comes to nonfiction–but even for fiction–outlines keep me on track. I like having a road map of sorts to know where my writing is taking me. But, then again, when you’re on a road trip, isn’t it the detours along the way to try some authentic local food or to see the World’s Biggest Ball of Yarn that make the trip fun and adventurous? Of course! And it’s no different in writing.

If you’re too structured, an outline can serve as a prison, never allowing you outside of its walls. I’ve learned to use an outline instead as a launching pad of ideas. I give myself permission to wander outside its framework and take the occasional detour. I’ve learned that by doing so, I may just discover some treasures along the way.

One example of this is when I once wrote an article for a children’s magazine comparing and contrasting a couple of sea creatures. My research took me way off the beaten path of where my outline said I was supposed to go, but the information I gathered was so rich and deep, that I ended up changing the entire angle of my article to incorporate my fascinating discovery!

It’s important, however, to not lose sight of the main road you were on after you take your detours. Just like on a real road trip, you have to eventually get back on course with your writing or you will find yourself completely rewriting your story (Perhaps in some cases, this might be a good thing!). Although I reworked the premise for my article, I still incorporated the majority of my outline points. They just ended up being arranged differently from what I had first purposed.

Another example of structure coexisting with creativity is in the flow of ideas. Even if you don’t write out an outline, chances are you have in your head how your story or nonfiction piece is to be ordered. For fiction, some write from a plot-driven perspective, where they know the order of events that need to take place and then build their characters and scenes around these events. For nonfiction, ordering might mean writing out all your main points, incorporating your subpoints, then adding your introduction and conclusion.

Instead, what if you began your fiction piece with the area(s) of conflict and worked outwardly? You may not even have a story yet, but if you have a great idea for a conflict point, use that to build your story around. And, for nonfiction, try allowing your ordering to be born from your writing itself. Again, follow some of those idea detours. You may end up scrapping some of your points in favor of others.

On the flip side of adding creativity to structure is to add structure and form to creativity. Many writers have the opposite problem that I have, which is that they will write whatever pops into their head, no matter how random or disconnected it may be. My advice to these writers is to take those random thoughts and jot them down, but don’t pursue them immediately. After you gather a collection of them, see if you recognize a pattern or theme that can be attached to these ideas. Corral them under one heading, and the ones that don’t fit, toss them out.

Then, go back through them, identifying those that are worth developing. From these ideas, build a loose framework. Once you have a general sketch of where you’re headed, brainstorm some more and continue the process of writing down, combining, and eliminating ideas. Now, instead of having random thoughts going in several different directions, you have collections of random thoughts all headed down the same road!

So, which are you in your writing process–structured or creative? Hopefully, this article has inspired you to be structurally creative–the best of both!

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