Reading and Writing (No ‘Rithmatic)

Looking through the Kindle $3.99 or less offerings for November got me thinking about book reviews, as well as my own writing.  Yes, I realize that “thinking” about writing and the act of writing are not the same thing, but there is some benefit to thinking:  I consciously decide what I want from my writing.

First of all, I’ve learned to not put much stock in book reviews because I know that some authors ask certain readers to only post favorable reviews.  When I buy something, I want to know the good, the bad and the broken – not just how shiny the good stuff is.  I wonder if publishers put the authors up to it, or it the authors just want their ratings to soar to make them look good.  I may never know.

I found a memoir that intrigued me.  Interesting, since I’m not a fan of memoirs.  This book happened to have several two and three star reviews, so I read them and found the same issues noted over and over.  Poor editing, purple prose, good story but bad writing, etc.  One review (which happened to be a four star review) gave two sample descriptions from the book.  My eyes rolled, so I decided I’d better look closer.

By the end of page one, I knew I couldn’t handle the purple prose.  (I like purple, but not when reading.)  I found the flowery details used to describe a person’s real experience distracting.  Descriptions are like salt:  a sprinkling adds flavor.  Here are a few examples from the first couple paragraphs:

“Midmorning heat rippled with fury.”

“Sprinklers scattered wet jewels…”

“…tearing up a dust storm in its steely wake.”

There’s another thing about salt:  some people have a higher tolerance for it.  While I found the above examples to be too strong, someone else may think they are perfect.  At any rate, I will be more conscientious as to how I season my own writing.

What makes you pass on reading a book?  What makes you decide to give it a try?  Do you read online reviews? 

Plot – Character = zzzzz

There are some things in life where inequality is okay, even expected.  For instance, most people favor using one hand over the other for fine motor skills.  In school, many students are classified as either athletic or academic.  It is typical for people to be creative or analytical, less common to be an equal mix of both (but wouldn’t that be great?)  Finally, most writers are either plot-driven or character-driven.

Too bad imbalance isn’t acceptable in writing fiction.  I’m a plot-driven writer, no doubt.  I hear a news story and my mind starts thinking of the twists that could turn it into fiction.  A friend tells me about a funny interaction and I’m thinking of how to mold it into a story.  I’ve got pages of ideas.  Ideas aren’t a problem.  Interesting people to follow my scripts – now, there’s the stumbling block.

The character-driven writer has pages of intriguing people waiting for something to happen.  They create characters so vivid that I’d swear I could feel their heartbeat thumping on the pages.  These fictional people are so real that I miss them as soon as I read the last word.  Character-driven writers possess the part of my brain that lies dormant.

I know that in order to have a memorable story, I need equal parts plot and character.  Neither element is powerful enough to carry the other.  The story is only as strong as its weakest piece.  So, I’m left with a choice:  handle my character-development deficiency like I address my absence of abs (do nothing, while eating chocolate) or dedicate myself to building my character development muscles.

Big fat plot...itty bitty character

I finished my first draft of the character development story of a main character in novel number two.  The good news is that the story does have a beginning, middle and end.  That bad news?  My puny characters have never been more obvious.  Rather ironic considering that my goal in this story was to concentrate on character development. 

On the positive side, I did focus on the main character’s interactions with others, her feelings and her emotions.  I think this helped clue the reader in to her motivations.  But when I read the first draft, I wasn’t moved.  I didn’t bond with her.  I finally realized that my character looked like this:

Who is she?

That’s right – I didn’t include any information as to my main character’s physical appearance, except for one reference that could have been interpreted to mean she was tall.  Here’s another issue where balance is key.  Who wants to read a physical description that’s a run-on sentence covering every attribute?  Or what about, “she looked just like <insert celebrity name>”? 

I’m back to the character drawing board.  This time around, maybe I will give her high cheekbones, an easy smile, lightly tanned skin or espresso colored eyes.  Or I could grab a dark chocolate bar, kick my feet up onto my desk and make her a dead ringer for Carrie Underwood.

You Still Talkin’ To Me? (More Dialogue in Fiction)

Last Monday, I shared what dialogue in a story should accomplish and common problems with dialogue.  This week, I’ve gone through my class notes to compile a short list of what makes dialogue “great.”

  • Use metaphorical exaggeration (ex.: “mosquito bigger than my dog”)
  • Use lists for dramatic effect to show character frustration (ex.: “I changed my hairstyle, lost ten pounds, bought a new dress, and dropped half my paycheck at the Clinique counter, but he still doesn’t notice me.”)
  • Push-button dialogue that causes an emotional reaction (a famous example: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”)
  • Reversals (ex.: “I don’t think they’ll notice it’s missing.  Do you?”                “Yes.”    “I think you’re right.”)
  • Understatement (ex.: Noah looked down from the ark and said, “Looks like we got a little rain.”)
  • Yes/No alternatives (ex.: “Did you go to the party last night?”     “I never pass up free food.”)
image via Google Images

Of course, this is easier said than done.  An essential part of the dialogue rests in the narrative voice.  A suggestion provided in class to capture the voice of the author and character was to write fast.  This means write the story and resist the editing process until the story has been told.  Editing as you go can edit the voice right out of the story, making it just a bunch of words on the page that don’t make the reader feel the story.

For my previous post, I wrote a sample scene to illustrate dialogue problems.  Unfortunately, I cannot write a passage to display “great” dialogue.  I know my limitations :)

I still felt like this post needed something, so I chose a portion of what I thought was half-way decent dialogue near the end of Kharma’s Way (a serial story that I posted last year) to share:

“She had a purse?  And you remember what it looked like?  Women are strange,” Rodney said, shaking his head.

“I think you were distracted by other parts of her body.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I turned back to the mesquite tree and gasped.  “It’s gone!”

“What’s gone?”

“The coyote.  It was behind that mesquite tree.”  I pointed to the tree.  Where I observed the cluster of cacti before, mounds of lantana grew, spreading a leafy yellow carpet across the ground.

“I never saw a coyote,” Rodney said.

“I think I’m going crazy.”

“I didn’t want to be the one to tell you.”

“It’s not funny!”  The fear and frustration broke free like a flash flood in a dry creek bed – without warning and torrential.

Rodney patted my shoulder.  “I don’t know why the coyote is a big deal, but it’ll be okay.”

For a minute, maybe longer, my emotions flowed.  Then they tapered to a trickle, down my drenched face.  I didn’t have a tissue, so I stretched my T-shirt to erase the tears from my cheeks.

“You wouldn’t understand.  Sarena warned me I was going to die today.”

“That’s ridiculous.  How would she know?”

So, there you have it; everything I’ve got about writing dialogue.  Do you have any other tips for writing “GREAT” dialogue?  If so, please share!

You Talkin’ To Me? (Dialogue in Fiction)

To me, dialogue is the best part of writing a fiction story because it can be fun – especially when there is an emotional exchange or disagreement.  But it can also be the most challenging because it has to be interesting and believable.  If dialogue isn’t done well, the reader may decide not to read on.

The tricky thing about dialogue is that it has so many other jobs to do in the story.  It must also:

  • Advance the plot
  • Reveal character
  • Reflect mood or emotions
  • Carry information or exposition
  • Foreshadow what’s to come
  • Have an emotional impact

While doing all of this, the writer must avoid the following problems when crafting dialogue:

  • Being too stilted or formal – or always grammatically correct (I don’t believe I should have to expound further to convey the potential pitfalls of this problem)
  • A dialect written in such a way that it’s hard to read (I’ve read that dialects from the Southern U.S. (Louisiana or Mississippi, for instance) are particularly difficult)
  • Allowing a character to talk too much (if a character’s response is a paragraph or reads like a speech, it’s too long.  In real life, someone like this would be interrupted long before they finished)
  • Every character talking the same (the idea is that if you removed the dialogue tags, you could still tell who said what by how the dialogue is written)
  • Predictable dialogue (unless they are psychics, the readers shouldn’t be able to anticipate the exact exchange between characters)
  • Dialogue that is flat or bland (if the dialogue bores you, it will definitely bore the reader)
  • Dialogue that is too expository (save heavy exposition for research papers or essays)

And the most common problem?

  • Dialogue that is “on the nose” about what the character thinks or wants (in real-life, people will rarely give up their true intentions or motivations – especially if they have something to hide or are trying to get information from someone else)

This information came from notes that I took during my manuscript writing class that ended last month.  Next week, I will share tips for great dialogue – also taken from my class notes.

So, here’s a sample scene:

“I did not know you would attend the Nineteenth Century Fashion Ball tonight, Sophie,” Angela said.  “I presumed you would rather desire an evening nestling with your malodorous felines.”

“I should have suspected that you would be unable to attend this soiree deprived of your imperious sarcasm.  However, to contribute to the success of the charity banquet, please deposit your broom in the closet, unless you propose to tidy the floors.”

“Why did you make your presence known?” Angela asked.  “I am sure an invitation was not delivered to your plebeian residence.”

“My goal is to assure that you make an oaf of yourself in front of Mr. Joshua Robinson.  He is the most eligible bachelor and it is my intention to reveal my interest in being his future wife.  Of course, he must fathom that I am better suited to the task than you are.  Unless he has established no standards at all, he would not select you as his partner for the first dance, for you have no grace at all.  Not to mention the layers of your dress drape upon your waist in a matronly manner; so much so that you bear an uncanny resemblance to his own great-grandmother.”

Angela planted her hands on her hips.  “I most certainly do not!”

“You most certainly do,” Sophie said.

“Do not!”

“Do to!”

“Not!”

“To!”

“Okey dokey, ya’ll break it up right now, ya hear?  Fight’n like a coon n’ possum in a burlap sack jus’ won’t do!” Gail said as she wormed her way between Sophie and Angela.

I guess I have some work to do, eh?

What do you love (or dislike) about reading (or writing) dialogue?  Feel free to share any other dialogue problems that you’ve encountered :)

Thick Skin Relapse. Enter, Self-Doubt (Round 2)

I’ve posted before about my struggles with lack of confidence in my writing ability, as well as my desire to grow a thick skin so that criticisms don’t hit me so hard.  My logical mind knows that ‘great’ writing is entirely subjective – one person may love it and another wouldn’t even use it to line their bird cage.  But I still retain this illogical desire for everyone to like my writing.  If that isn’t a recipe for disappointment, I don’t know what is :)

The last two weeks have filled me with doubt (again).  I failed on part 10 of Kharma’s Way, and it wasn’t received well by my readers.  Of course I was disappointed, but the feedback did help me identify weaknesses.  Then, in my last manuscript writing class, I got critiques back from the instructor and one person in my peer group on the first half of my story.  Not good.  There wasn’t much about it that they did like.  The comments on the second half were better, but still  not stellar.

After my manuscript writing class last week, I cried.  For days, every time I thought about it, I cried.  This marked the unmistakable fact that my thick-skin development had suffered a major setback.  I think this hit me so hard because over the last few weeks, I had been working on this story for a contest.  I went through five rounds of edits and solicited feedback from a couple friends.  I felt good.  I felt like I had submitted something that wouldn’t be an embarrassment –and a wasted entry fee.

Before I left class, something else happened that has bothered me all week.  In my rush to get out of there before I cried, I was stopped by a man from my last short story review group.  He wanted to email me his story to get my feedback because he liked the input I gave him on the first one.

I’m afraid my response was less-than-enthusiastic because, at that moment, I felt like a failure.  I didn’t think his work was worthy of my opinion.  I mean, how could I justify giving my opinion when I can’t even write a decent story?  I thought my story was good – and I was wrong.  I figured I wouldn’t know good writing if it pinched me on the cheek.  (He may have taken my hesitation as not wanting to read his story, which is not the case.  I’ll have to clear that up next time we meet).

These recent events have filled me with doubt.  I doubt my writing talent/ability.  I doubt my eye for good stories and writing technique.  I doubt whether I can overcome my emotional attachment to my writing – the only way a thick skin can grow.  I fear that doubt will paralyze me.  (To fight off the paralysis, I have continued to write <possibly bad> stories.  I can’t help myself.)

The reason I’m sharing my mini-crisis is so if anyone else is going through this, they will know they’re not alone.  And I’d like to think that I’m not the only one who battles self-doubt on occasion, because the alternative is acknowledging that I’m mentally unstable…I can’t handle that right now :)