Thursday, February 28, 2019

Drive, he said.

Dialogue tags. Hints. Tips. Gripes

From Jim

A month ago, I posted a piece here on writing advice that floats around the Internet and writers conferences. One of the topics I took issue with was the accepted dictum that writers should only use “said” as a language tag. A spirited debate ensued, and I enjoyed it. Now, just four weeks later, we’re discussing that very topic. So here is what I wrote about it then:

Take, for example, the admonition against using any dialogue tag except “said.” This is so dogmatic and so random. We have dozens of powerful verbs that describe speech, so why not use them when appropriate?

“Go to hell,” he yelled/shouted/screamed.
“Oh, never mind,” he mumbled/grumbled.
“What about Tuesday?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she answered/replied.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“You’re such a selfish so-and-so,” I hissed.
“My leg,” he moaned.
“But I don’t want to,” she whined.
“Good morning,” she sang.
“Get out!” he bellowed.
Some others: quipped, snapped, harrumphed, snorted, mused, offered, chirped...

Okay, you may not like some of these, but where exactly is it written that these are bad style? And who exactly decided that they were bad? What are the criteria being used? It’s not like math. It’s not two plus two. There’s not necessarily a “wrong” answer.

(Photo removed)

This week’s topic got me thinking, and I decided to make a word count of the most used words in my work in progress. I’m over 105,000 words and nearing the end. Of course I’ll edit it down and polish it up before it’s ready for publication, but this exercise gave me great insight into where I might improve.

Take, for example, the most common word in my book: “the”. It appears 5,362 times. I don’t think that’s unusual.

The second most used word in my book is “I”. Since my books are written in the first person, this comes as no surprise either.

Next comes the indefinite article “a” or “an”. 2,831 times.

He, his, my come in next. Everything normal.

But what is the most common verb in my book (besides “was” of course)? By far it’s “said.” Even if you eliminate the occurrences where it appears in narrative, it’s still the most frequently used by a large margin. Seven hundred and seventy-nine times as a dialogue tag. Not bad for a guy who thinks other dialogue tags are okay. The runners-up are: asked, 237; whispered, 12; offered, 6; mumbled, 5; grumbled, 3; replied, 3; moaned, 2; answered, 2; screamed, 2; whined, 2; yelled, 1.

I truly do believe the vast majority of dialogue tags should be “said.” But that doesn’t mean other verbs can’t add spice to the narrative. Paraphrasing my mantra from my years in subtitling, “the best dialogue tag (subtitle) is the one no one remembers.” But at the same time, let’s not forget that there are great, powerful verbs out there. Why is it good writing to use them in narrative but not in dialogue tags? Seems arbitarary to me.

So make sure your reader knows who’s speaking, and then, to identify your speakers, use a verb that doesn’t get in the way. And change it up a little! Don’t chain yourself to someone else’s rules.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

He said, she said.

This week we’re talking about dialogue tags, hints, tips and gripes.

by Dietrich

Dialogue Tags

There’s been a lot written about whether dialogue tags should ever be more than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. 

“While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said, she said’ is divine.” 
— Stephen King

“The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.” 
— Elmore Leonard

Okay, some writers think it’s a sin to use more than said, and I don’t usually use more than that. And sometimes a dialogue tag isn’t needed if it’s obvious who’s speaking. 

I go for economy of words to give the text a flow, so ‘said’ usually does the trick for me. Maybe it just comes down to an individual writer’s style. I wouldn’t put a book down just because a writer used babbled, bawled, begged, bellowed, mused, mumbled, moaned, or muttered after a character’s words.

Hints and tips

The best hint or tip or words of advice I can come up with is don’t take too much of it as gospel. If a bit of advice rings true, take it, or whatever part that makes sense, and make it your own. 

Here are a few tips and pearls that work for me. 

“Read, read, read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”  
— William Faulkner

“Know you’re writing something good even if nobody else does.”
— Dennis Lehane

“Never tell your reader what your story is about. Reading is a participatory sport. People do it because they are intelligent and enjoy figuring things out for themselves.” ― George V. Higgins

“Present the world as it is, rather than the way the reader wants it to be. I don’t care about twists or manufactured surprises.” — George Pelecanos

“My advice is, ‘Live every day as if your rent is due tomorrow.’”
— Carl Hiaasen

“When you're not concerned with succeeding, you can work with complete freedom.” — Larry David

“Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.” – Ezra Pound


I’ve been guilty of it, but really, nobody wants to hear it. Maybe griping is like a release valve to let off some steam, but too much of it and it might cloud your day. So, just don’t do it, and don’t hang around it. It’s better to go look for something that doesn’t tick you off. Sorry if that sounds like another tip.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Art of Dialogue by Brenda Chapman

This week’s question: Dialogue tags. Hints. Tips. Gripes.

Well maybe not exactly a question.

To be honest, my dialogue use continues to be a work in progress. Looking back, I believe that I didn't use enough dialogue in my earliest books. Best sellers usually have quite a bit of dialogue, and I enjoy reading books with a lot of conversation among characters, so this is a part of novel-writing that I've worked to get more comfortable using.

So dialogue tags are prompts that tell us which character is speaking.

I've learned some tricks with dialogue, including dialogue tags, that I'll pass along to you in a list. My fellow bloggers this week will likely have more to add, so check in daily!

1.  Get to the pith of the conversation quickly. Do not let your characters chat as we do in real life, or you'll lose the reader.

2.  Following on point one, have a reason for each conversation - moving the plot forward, revealing character, creating conflict ... 

3.  Steer away from using action verbs. The best advice I received is that 'said' and 'asked' disappear into the sentence and do not detract as other verbs can. I might use the odd 'cried' or 'whispered', but these are the exception.

4. Show, don't tell - this is true even in conversation. Adverbs are a telling device rather than a showing one so use them sparingly.

5.  Make sure that you are clear who is speaking. It does bother me when I have to reread to figure out which character said what. I've read that the rule of thumb is five lines of dialogue without a dialogue tag when two two characters are having a conversation. I tend to go fewer.

6. Use description rather than a dialogue to prompt who is speaking. For example, rather than: "I'd like to go with you," she said, try: "I'd like to go with you." She stood and grabbed onto my arm.

7.  As with description, keep each character's lines brief. Don't overwhelm with too much information.

8.  While using local dialect can differentiate characters and help to paint a picture, too much is distracting. Use as sparingly as adverbs.

9.  Use humour in dialogue to make characters come alive. It should sound natural though and not be overused.

10. Sometimes, what characters don't say can be as interesting as what they say.

Twitter: brendaAchapman
Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, February 22, 2019

Take a Negative and Turn it into a Positive

What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

by Paul D. Marks

I can’t think of a book that I didn’t enjoy that motivated me in my own writing. There’s been plenty of books that I haven’t enjoyed over the years and until recently I would plow my way through them to the bitter end. But I’m getting better about not doing that. I recently started a book by a Big-Name Author. Got a few chapters in and put it down. Slow. Way too much backstory. Etc. But did it motivate me? No. If anything it pisses me off that my books don’t get the Big-Name Author Treatment. But that’s another issue.

What has motivated me, more in the past than now, but still somewhat, is rejection. When I was starting out I was never happy when I got a rejection. (Yeah, let’s celebrate that rejection with a pizza and a beer!) But it lit a fire in my gut and made me want to do better – to show “them”! Because of that, I would work and re-work stories. I would read books on writing. Take classes. Figure out what to do and not to do – but maybe still break some rules along the way.

These days rejection doesn’t motivate me as much, though it still does make me want to do better. But what does motivate me is competing with myself to make each story (hopefully) better than the last. Each time I set out on the writing road I learn new things, new ways of doing things, and try to put them to use to make an arc in which my stories continue to improve.

For example, in my novel White Heat , P.I. Duke Rogers finds an old “friend” for a client. The client’s “friend,” an up and coming African-American actress, ends up dead – murdered. Duke knows his client did it. Feeling guilty and wanting to atone for his inadvertent part in her death, he is compelled to find the client/killer. He starts his mission by going to the dead actress’ family in South Central L.A. – and while there finds himself in the middle of the exploding “Rodney King” riots. But there’s also a B story threaded throughout White Heat that deals with a woman being stalked. I intended it to show that Duke had other things going on besides the main case he was working. And it was loosely tied into the main story near the end of the book when, because of learning about stalkers on that case, Duke applies what he learned to help catch the badguy in the main case.

Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat, takes place a couple years later when the infamous, anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 was on the ballot in California. Duke is investigating the murder of an undocumented worker pro-bono for the maid who works for his neighbors and gets embroiled in a political web of intrigue, weaving in and out of the immigration issue. Broken Windows also has a B story – hopefully New and Improved over White Heat’s. This one about a disbarred and broke lawyer who places an ad in the paper saying he’ll do anything for money. And this story winds in and out of the main story until they come together at the end. I think the two stories in Broken Windows integrate better than in White Heat. So I learned something from the first one and was motivated to do better the next time out. And, at the moment I’m working on the third book in the series and you can believe that I’ll put what I’ve learned on the first two to work there.

I’m mostly open to criticism – even rejection – if it’s constructive criticism and makes sense to me. But sometimes I find it captious and ridiculous and that gets my back up. I had a screenplay that I was trying to get an agent for. I got a meeting with an agent at one of the Big Three agencies at that time. He read the script and had problems with it. For example, a character takes the train from Union Station in downtown L.A. Well, that was a turnoff to him “because no one takes trains anymore.” The whole point of the train was to contrast the old with the new, which was a theme of the story. He had other issues with it that were just as picky. That kind of stuff does make me crazy. But I went out and tried harder. And I did eventually get an agent at that agency, though not him, and that’s another crazy story in itself.

Rejection’s still not pleasant, but it’s something we all (or most of us) still deal with on occasion. The best I can do is take a negative and turn it into a positive.

So, no, can’t think of a book I didn’t enjoy that motivated me. But rejections, which I also didn’t and don’t enjoy, do. What about you?

And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:

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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Metaphors in the Attic

READING: What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

by Catriona 

This is timely. In the last month I've given up on a recent hit crime novel  - lauded as "original", "a triumph", "blisteringly real", "utterly compelling", "beautiful"  and "astonishingly good" . . . I made it to page fifty before breaking my "give it a hundred pages" rule over my knee and throwing both bits behind me.

Then I read Flowers in The Attic.  Oy, oy, oy.

Flowers in The Attic was yet another bit of American popular culture I felt I'd missed out on that would be worth catching up with. And enough reliable pals praised it - looking at you, Kristopher Zgorski - for me to give it a go.


The incest - consensual between siblings, not child abuse by an adult - was believable in the context and served as evidence of the mess these kids were in. BUT the lingering over the details was still - here comes a literary theory analysis - icky. And I learned nothing. I already knew that the authorial stance you take in relation to potentially titillating details is crucial.

Then - seriously, SPOILERS - one of the kids died. A little boy with golden curls who'd tamed a mouse and learned to play the banjo . . . died.  Not since I switched off that episode of season one of The Wire and sat staring at the black telly screen, have I been so reluctant to believe what my eyes just told me. "Maybe he's been hidden? They didn't see the body. Keep reading."

But no. He died. I didn't exactly learn anything from that. I already knew it was wrong because Stephen King (curtsy) said, on a discussion about the difference between a short story and a novel - "Misery" or Misery -  that "no one wants to root for a guy over three hundred pages only to discover that between chapter sixteen and chapter seventeen . . ."

Of course, little Cory wasn't the hero of FitA. But still there was something off-kilter about his death and its aftermath. It served as a reminder that if you're going to kill a child in fiction, you need to get it right. I think it can't be tidy, facile, quickly handled, plotty, or convenient. It can't be a lesson. It shouldn't have the look of a fridge-magnet homily.  

I think if you're going to kill a fictional kid it should be like that episode of The Wire. It should be shocking. 

But what I really learned from FitA was the importance of pacing. And that's a lesson I badly need*. The book - after Cory's death - fell off a cliff. The plot start to move faster and faster and the resolution I'd been rooting for for three hundred pages wasn't just rushed. It was cursory. I was left with the suspicion that, sometime towards the end of the writing, Andrews got the idea that it was going to be a series and didn't want to leave herself with nothing to say in book two.

I have no evidence for that. But I took it to heart anyway. Forget the career. When you finish a book you should be completely spent; everything on the page and nothing up the sleeve.

*My editor fixes the results of this habit of mine before anyone else ever sees it, by the way. I close the draft with a bang. She pleads for another chapter or two. I moan and do them. She's right. I'm wrong. The book is better than the draft was.

So, all in all, I'm glad I read Flowers in the Attic. I could have lived a happy life without the image of that amaryllis stalk swelling into a plump bud, mind you. That was worse than Hitchcock's worst.

Should have left it here, Hitch.
And the recent "vivid gem", "tragic and brave", "poignant" and "unputdownable"? It was a debut. And it taught me to stop worrying that I maybe don't have another book in me after twenty five of the things have come out of me. Instead, I'm going to be glad I'll never write a first book again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Glass half full Cathy Ace

READING: What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

I’ll be upfront about this – I am not going to answer today’s question the way it’s been set.

I’ll admit that, over the decades, I’ve read many books that “weren’t my cup of tea”, “didn’t speak to me” or “live up to the hype”…but I cannot believe anyone ever sets out to write a “bad” book, and – just because I didn’t enjoy it – it doesn’t mean others shared my opinion. Quite often I’ll return to a book I once didn’t care for and find it fresh and entertaining/thought-provoking etc., which reinforces my opinion that the reader plays a critical role in the process of “connection” along with the author, and I don’t like to “call out” a book just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to “get it” or “enjoy it” when I first encountered it. 

Call me rebellious if you must, but I’d much rather write about some books which have inspired me, in general terms, to write, so here goes…

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a young girl. I even went to university to study English with the aim of starting on the path toward writing. I packed in that course to study psychology instead, but that’s another story…

Me, aged 16

So, join me back when I was a girl of sixteen, a pupil at Llwyn-y-bryn Senior Comprehensive School (high school) in Swansea, Wales. My school was over a hundred years old and had been where girls (yes, it was girls only) on an academic path had been sent for all those years. It was the school my mother attended. 
By the time I arrived that system had been killed off, and I was the second year of “unfiltered” girls. Constantly berated for running in the halls by teachers who’d only ever had to deal with obedient, well-brought-up young ladies, it was a strange experience; as much like a public school (which means a private school in North America) as it’s possible to get for a state school (which would be a public school in North America)in Wales, there was a constant tension between the staff and pupils, which increased as the girls in the years above us left (graduated) and the school gradually filled up with “us lot”. The teachers hated it – and we hated them. 

Now, this school – built for and inhabited by girls with an academic bent – had two libraries; the “Upper” was ornate, filled with floor-to-ceiling dark-wood bookshelves, reminiscent of the sort of thing one might see in an episode of Morse. The “Lower” was more utilitarian. Both were filled with the classics (by which I mean classic fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry) and academic texts. By the time I’d reached the Lower Sixth Form I had read my way around the shelves and had fallen in love with not only Shakespeare, but also Goethe, Mann, Camus, Zola, Wesker, Blake, Beckett, Brecht, Osborne, Dylan Thomas (of course!), and Austen…I could go on, but will spare you! Here's a photo of just a few of them...

How, you might ask, did I come to own all these books? Yes, they are from that school’s library. Well, I didn’t steal them! I was a volunteer librarian aged seventeen and helped organize the sell-off of many of the books, since the “Upper” library was to be closed, the space being needed for extra pupils. The main way I helped? I sorted the books to be sold. The fact that many of them ended up being the ones I wanted to buy (for 5 pence each, by the way) was a pure coincidence!

I LOVED those years in the library, and I still LOVE those books. I think I have re-read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann every year since 1974. It changes as I do. The mark of brilliant writing. Same thing with Nana, by Emile Zola. It changes every time I read it. More layers of meaning reveal themselves. 

So – without going into an exhaustive list, the works by the greats made me want to write…those who won Nobel prizes, those who informed social and political discussions, those who tackled the role of philosophy in everyday life, those who challenged the status quo, those who painted with words and made the language sing…I’ll just say that I hope you have writers in your life who motivate you too!


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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Books that motivate "backwards"

Terry here:

We were asked about a book we did not enjoy, but motivated us in our own writing.

I can’t think of a specific book, but I do know I’ve started reading too many books that I discarded after  10, 20, 30, or even 50 pages, not because the subject didn’t interest me, the plot wasn’t moving forward, or the writing was mediocre….none of those things. The single biggest reason was that the characters didn’t grab me. I just put one aside that had two alternating characters, and was a well-regarded book when it came out a few years ago. But about halfway through the book, I realized that I was reluctant to pick it up. Why? Because the character who was “on stage” in that part of the book simply didn’t move me. I didn’t care what her motivations were for her choices, I was not interested In her (supposedly) naughty past, nor did I care what happened to her. DNF.

As a contrast, I recently read The Witch Elm. I didn’t much care for it. I thought the plot veered too far into the unbelievable and some of the characters didn’t ring true. But I read the whole thing? Why? Because the main character was fascinating. He was unlikeable and  self-centered, but he was a complete human being, with struggles and triumphs, and the occasional moment of realizing that he was missing something in his relationships with other people.. He was worth reading about. However, I don’t think it motivated me for my own writing. Maybe I’ll find out at some point that it will, but not now.

More often, what motivates me to write with renewed vigor and well-written books that I really enjoyed. I don’t know how I missed reading Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowlings) for so long. I’ve had The Cuckoo’s Calling ever since it came out. I recently read it, and every time I spent an hour reading, I would think about some particular passage that grabbed me and think, “How did she do that?” I read the first paragraph several times as a perfect example of drawing in the reader, and it made me go back and peel away a few words in the beginning of my WIP.

There are writers that I know intellectually are great, but that simply don’t grab. me. I read widely and deeply. I read many subgenres in the crime fiction genre. I can enjoy a well-written cozy as well as a well-written thriller.  Yet there are popular writers I simply cannot get in tune with, no matter how many people rave about their writing. I think it’s a matter of the rhythm of their prose, more than the content. I have to honestly say I don’t think I learn anything from them.