Craft


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.

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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!

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!

The other night I helped my son proofread his U.S. History research paper (the teacher required that at least one person proof the paper before turning it in). And a couple of days before that, I was working with my daughter on some plotting issues for a story she’s writing (non-school related). As I worked with them and explained various writing techniques, word choices, usage issues, and so forth, I started thinking about how so many of us writers stray from the fundamentals of writing over time.

There are certain elements that, no matter what, will make or break your writing if omitted or not done properly. And, there are others that will strengthen any writing if done correctly. I think that too often, in trying to make our writing more sophisticated or clever, we instead only make it complicated and confusing to the reader. I’d like to advocate for returning to a more simple writing style. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean you have to lose your creativity or your “voice,” but we also can’t ignore the basic building blocks of good writing in the process.

Here are some of the things I had discussed with my kids that I believe will help all of us write better if we become conscience about putting them into action:

1. Exchange adjectives and adverbs for strong verbs. I’ve discovered that kids love using adjectives and adverbs when they write! But when you replace those modifiers with precise verbs that say just what you mean, you’ll create a much stronger word picture for your readers. Compare: “He walked quickly across the street” with “He scurried across the street.” More precision, less clutter.

2. Don’t lose sight of the big picture you’re creating. Sometimes we can get so bogged down with every little word choice and punctuation mark that we take our eyes off the overall organization and premise of what we’re writing. When working with my son, I kept asking, “How does this sentence relate to your overall theme?” Because if it doesn’t, it needs to be cut. We often like to get fancy with our details and descriptions (for which there is a place), but we must keep asking ourselves throughout our writing, “Is this a necessary part of my story?” or “Am I enhancing my point or theme with what I’m saying here?” Be sure to cut off any rabbit trails that will not take your reader to the ultimate destination of your story.

3. Stick with simplicity. A writing teacher of mine used to say “KISS your paper!” (Keep It Simple Stupid!). When I was working with my daughter, I’d come across these advanced words she used and asked her why she used them. She’d say because they sounded “smart.” Problem was, for the most part she had used them incorrectly because she didn’t completely understand their meaning.

It’s always tempting to use the bigger, more complicated word, but it’s seldom wise. We must remember that our number-one job as writers is to make sure our readers understand what we write. Simplicity and clarity should always be our goal. If there’s a simpler, more-straightforward word you can use, use it! Sometimes you do need the complex word to get your point across, but often we choose these words for the wrong reasons (such as, because they sound “smart”).

4. Eliminate verboseness. Cut the clutter. Write tight. These are all ways of saying don’t use 15 words when you can say what you need to in 5! Kids are also famous for this when they write, especially if they have a minimum page requirement! Things to look for to help tighten your writing include redundancies (usually appears as saying the same thing but in different ways),  unnecessary prepositions or articles, and those ever-so-popular modifiers I discussed earlier.

5. Stay organized. Regardless of how you choose to organize your writing (chronologically, problem/solution, steps for a how-to, etc.) be sure to stick with that organizational style. Resist the urge to add in stray details that are only going to cause confusion if put in the wrong place. Even if you’re writing a story with flashbacks or adding bits of information as you go as to not give too much away at once, your overall story (or nonfiction piece) should flawlessly flow from one idea or section to the next.

This is achieved upfront through the use of outlines (At my kids’ school they are required to write outlines for everything–even fiction–for which I am thrilled!), and throughout your story by using effective transitional sentences. I think that the longer we’ve been writing, the more apt we are to throw the outline out the window. But it is so crucial for keeping us on the right path and making sure our thoughts stay organized.

Don’t stray from these basic building blocks of writing. Many of these things have probably become second nature to you by now, but it’s always good to check from time to time to make sure you haven’t lost sight of them.

I concluded last week’s post by saying that the best way to become a better writer is to learn how to read like a writer. So let’s take a look at that statement and determine how to really do that.

I don’t know about you, but once I started writing regularly I started reading much differently. Whereas I used to simply read for the story or to gather facts, I began reading with the intent of discovering why the writer did what he did, and probably more importantly, how he did it.

While I’m certain everyone has his or her own method of reading to learn more about the craft of writing, here are a few things that have helped me along the way:

1. One of the first things I look for when reading nonfiction is to determine what approach or angle the author used. In other words, what one aspect of the topic was used as the focal point? In training myself to look for this, I’ve learned to become more cognizant of the many creative angles I can use to make a subject more interesting. Some writers have a way of highlighting the obscure or overlooked angles, which can totally bring a topic to life.

2. One of the keys to great nonfiction writing is the masterful use of fiction techniques, such as quotations, setting, description, and story. When reading, I’ll think about which techniques the writer used to bring her nonfiction article or book to life. Instead of simply noticing the various techniques used, though, I try to take it one step further and determine how they were used in balance with one another as well as how the writer wove the facts and information into them. A good writer will do so in such a way that the nonfiction information reads like a story. When I read, I always try to look for new ways of presenting factual material in interesting ways.

2. For works of fiction I love to focus on points of conflict. As we know, without conflict there is no story. Some writers are masterful at creating conflict and drawing the reading in–and keeping her there. How do they do this? As I read, I try to discover the writer’s tricks. With good writing, conflict is not just spelled out. Pieces of information are slowly given up at just the right moment. I like to find out: How does the writer allow this information to be trickled out, and when? Is it during conversations…or narrative? Does the writer leave the reader to connect the dots for himself? If so, what’s his technique for doing that?

Internal conflict, which is even tougher to successfully create, presents new questions for the writer-reader to ask: Does the writer show internal conflict through inner dialogue? Does he use personality traits or quirks to emphasize this conflict? What actions does he use that are effective at showing conflict–and why are they effective?

3. Also for fiction, I always pay attention to how the writer develops his characters. Often, I’ll get half way through a book then go back and read in the beginning when a character was first introduced to pay close attention to how the writer unfolded the bits and pieces about the character. What did the writer not allow the reader to know in the beginning, and why? How might it have changed the story for us if we knew too much about the character all at once? But at the same time, what were the important pieces that we had to know up front?

Also, I look for how a character’s traits are presented. In some cases, it’s more effective to use narrative to describe a character. In other cases, it needs to be done through behavior and actions. I like to take notice of how writers do this and why it works. Character development can make or break a story. As writers, we can learn so much from other writers on how to effectively introduce and unfold a character to the reader.

5. For both fiction and nonfiction, there is the issue of point of view. To me, an effective use of POV is a great way to have a lot of fun with your story (nonfiction as well). One thing I do when reading is to think about the story from a different POV than what the writer used. In fiction, I’ll pick a scene and try to imagine it from the viewpoint of another character. I think this is great training in learning to write creatively. I’ve never done this, but I think it would be very helpful to even re-write a scene from a different POV.

Even with nonfiction, instead of the information being written from the writer’s POV, if the story is about a person, what if it was written from the subject’s POV? I once read a fun nonfiction piece about an animal written from the animal’s POV!

No matter what you read, so much can be learned if you constantly ask yourself why you think the writer did something the way he did it, and how might it have been different if he chose another way. Look closely at word choice–the strong verbs the writer uses to describe (instead of adjectives), how he makes a character jump off the page, how he creates conflict and suspense, and what fiction techniques he uses to make his nonfiction interesting.

It seems like a lot to look for, but once you start training your eye to see these things, it will soon become a natural part of your reading, and you’ll find yourself asking a lot of “how” and “why” questions of the writer along the way. Then, hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate those answers into your own writing.

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