Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Dialog tags. Where would we be without them?

Let’s ask Girl and Boy what they think:

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t you?”

“I just said I didn’t, didn’t I?”

“Did you say it or did I say it?”

“I’m not sure. Which one of us is talking right now?”

And this is why we need them. So the issue at hand for writers isn’t whether or not to use them, but how sparingly and which ones. As writers and readers we know there are essentially two teams:

Team 1 says only use “he said, she said” or “she asked, he asked” (and sometimes the second option is even discouraged).

Team 2 favors the more demonstrative tags, the use of exclaims and snaps and shouts and whispers, etc, etc. etc…(and let’s not forget the often-overused adverbs, wherein we whisper quietly or shout loudly.)

For me, I fall somewhere in the middle of the two (as I suspect a lot of people do.) Some days, I am fearless when I write. I stick to the basics. I use only said and asked, and I strike out adverbs before they can reach the keyboard. But I won’t lie–it’s a battle. My inclination is always to use something else, and to, yes, tack on that dreaded adverb. I did so some  in LITTLE GALE GUMBO and I assume I will do it some more in my next novel. But sparingly.

Because the truth is that the strongest dialog doesn’t need a tag to clarify its intention. As so many writers teach, the words being said should be enough indication.

For example:

Jill folded her arms, her eyes narrowing. “Must be nice being so perfect at everything,” she snapped snarkily.

Now I’m betting you already guessed the tone of that line even before you read the tag, which, frankly, comes a little too late anyway to be of much use to the reader. Now if you didn’t get the gist of the speaker’s tone, well then, the dialog should probably be reworked.

So fellow writers and readers, which team are you?

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We all know that the drill for manuscript formatting for submitting to agents and editors. There is a correct font (Times New Roman) and a correct size (12). We know about reasonable margins, and double-spaced pages.

But what about the more nebulous formatting issues of a novel? When I was writing LITTLE GALE GUMBO, a story that moves between the past and the present, I struggled with how to distinguish the chapters and scenes. Should I number my chapters, or just leave them without headings? Should I divide my book into parts, and if so, should I label them? Or what about the chapters that move from past to present–how should I title them, with dates and place, or neither? I didn’t want my readers to find themselves confused, but I also didn’t want to burden them with too much information–it’s a novel, not a screenplay, right?

Confounded, I thumbed through favorite novels as references, and discovered a variety of solutions, but it seemed there was little consistency in them. Like many things in writing, it seems rules can’t always apply. But there’s no question that these seemingly minor points of a novel are as crucial to the tone and pacing of the book as any other.

So for those of you who found yourselves flummoxed by how to separate and/or label the pieces of your story, what solutions did you come up with? And what did you use as reference/inspiration?

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I find tastings in wine and beer to be a lot like reading the first few lines of a book. When you know you will only be sampling something, you tend to savor the flavor more, tend to really pay attention to the details, perhaps more so than when you are handed a whole glass or a whole book and told to enjoy.

That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the tenth or twentieth sip of a wine any less than the first–or that a book doesn’t become more palatable the further into it you get–but I do find there is a special kind of savoring that goes on with the first. I suspect that’s why we love excerpts–knowing we aren’t settling in for a whole book but just a sampling, a taste of a novel…

My husband and I did a recent tasting of our own of three Maine beers. All good, all in different ways.  As you’ll see, we didn’t have any of those sexy little tasting glasses where we were staying so we had to use full-size glasses and felt obliged to, well, fill them.

Up first,  Atlantic Brewing Company‘s Coal Porter.  Very mellow, even-flavored. Ian said it would make a great session beer.

Next, Sebago Brewing Company‘s Lake Trout Stout.  The smell alone was worth a linger–rich coffee! The stout has a delicious subtle flavor that grows smooth, with a strong, chocolate-malty finish.

Lastly, was Marshall Wharf Brewing Company‘s Wrecking Ball Porter. Full taste up front with a sweet malt finish at the end.

Three yummy beers, with three very distinct tastes.

Now…who’s up for a book tasting? And who wants to pick the samples?

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A few days ago my husband and I were grilling shrimp and scallops and were inspired to make a dipping sauce with the meager contents of our end-of-the-week refrigerator.

So what do you get when you mix avocado, sour cream, dill, lime juice and olive oil? Something quite good, and a very pretty pale green.

But the point of this tale (pun entirely intended) was not to remind my husband of his newest food lust (New Orleanians don’t have scallops–the Gulf’s too warm) but rather to make a point that as writers, we can often do best with what we have in our stockpile of ingredients: our histories, our passions, our voices, our fears, our dreams, our loves.

Too often the trends in popular fiction can get the best of us. We writers scour the blogs and read every tidbit of industry news that might reveal some leveraging hint to the next, or even current, big thing, and we may even feel that fleeting urge to cast our true voices and storylines to the wind in favor of the flavor of the year. We know there’s no use in it–the tail never wags the dog–but still the temptation is there.

Now we all know the adage: write what you know. What about the adage: write with what you have? I’ve read authors of many genres (Chuck Palahniuk, John Irving, Clive Barker, to name a few) whose writing moves me deeply and even sometimes leaves me wanting to try my hand at a similar prose, or themes. But we all come to find what it is that we have in our writer’s toolbox, the voice that is ours, and ours alone. The voice we have, the stories we have.

So write with what you have, write often and rewrite more often than that. And when you want to take a well-deserved break, feel free to send me any and all scallop recipes you have handy. My husband will thank you.

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We all know that there are rules in writing. Lots and lots of them. Some of which, maybe even most, can be broken IF broken well and purposefully.

So what about the rule of POV in the first chapter? Is it advisable to have the POV belong to a main character? What if it doesn’t? Does the reader feel detoured or distracted?

Here’s why I’m asking: The opening chapter of my WIP introduces a minor character and it is from his POV that the story is introduced, along with the reader’s introduction to the main character. Why would I do this? Mostly because I want the reader to see the major character as the interloper that the rest of the characters will see him as for most of the novel. I am hoping to stage the setting before I introduce the players. Now keep in mind, the main character will take center stage by the end of the first chapter, but is that too late?

I can think of several novels–often thrillers–where the opening POV belongs to a minor, even anonymous character, and somehow we readers understand that the character (especially in a prologue) is merely there to serve as the initial voice of our setting; a narrator, essentially, who may or may not be seen again in the story.

So what say you all, writers and readers. Do you think it’s important to open a novel with a major character’s POV or can you meet him or her later on and still feel connected?

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So you’ve decided on the perfect setting for your next book. The only problem: it’s a place you’ve never been. So off you go to the web and within a few searches, you have an impressive collection of resources. You have photos of neighborhoods and regional architecture, essays on town history and climate trends. You sit down at your computer with your links and your notes, ready to be immersed…but something’s missing.

Say your character is standing in the doorway of his new coastal home and facing the sea…what does he smell? The salt air? Sure, but is the tide in or out, and does one smell different from the other? Maybe he doesn’t smell the sea at all, maybe he smells a spray of rugosa roses? Or maybe a line of spruce trees? Maybe diesel fumes from a passing fishing boat?

What is this flower? I don't know, but my character sure should.

And when he walks down to the water for the first time, what exactly are those hedges that line the coast? Were the rocks wet or dry? Were they covered in seaweed or bare? Did the water drop off gradually or quickly at the edge?

See what I mean? So much for saying “He saw the coast.”

Growing in Maine, I visited many lighthouses, spent a gazillion hours on the coast, and yet, when it came time to stage the setting for my WIP (which, not surprisingly, takes place in a lighthouse on the Maine coast), I realized that for all my experience, there were fundamental elements of my environment that I had missed along the way, elements that would be key to creating an accurate and inviting place for readers to visit and stay on a while, a place I thought I knew like the back of my hand.

So I went back home to Maine and tried to see the coast from the eyes of my character, and I tried to fill in the gaps. I photographed lighthouses and shorelines, fishing villages and seaside cottages. I took broad panoramas of harbors and details of lobster traps. I snapped shots of rooflines and shots of window casings. Shots of weeds and shots of shingles. Because you never know what your character will see or smell or taste or feel.
Now your turn…

Any tricks for researching your settings?
What about the settings you choose? Do you stick with familiar places you’ve lived or visited, or do you like to set your stories in uncharted territories?

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Today, while pumping gas at a small-town gas station, I overheard a pair of friends reuniting in that genuine and fleeting way that neighbors do when they are in the midst of an errand. And while I listened (in my defense, they were speaking loudly so it couldn’t be considered eavesdropping), I thought about a scene I had recently written that included two similar men, passing through a similar errand, and I began to reconsider if I had done justice to their characters. Were they as believable as the two men standing next to me? Was their dialog as natural, their reactions as real?

Which lead to me wondering: What makes a character real? Is it details, physical descriptions, gestures or language or even posture? Or is it something more subtle?

I think of all the characters I’ve read over the years who’ve seemed so genuine to me (a few of many): Tom Wingo from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, Faye Travers from Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum, Agnis Hamm from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Alex from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Jack Torrance from Stephen King’s The Shining, Nora Silk from Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven, among so many others.

Now keep in mind this list isn’t about likeable characters (even though I may like or root for most of them), rather it’s about whether they are believable in their written skin, so much so that they become more than characters, rather seamlessly genuine people. We believe the things that annoy them, truly annoy them. The things that break their hearts, truly break their hearts. The words that come out of their mouths are consistent with how we’ve come to know them. They make choices that, even when unfortunate, follow the truth of their character.

As a writer, it is the goal that every character, however brief in the story, be a genuine part of the fabric of the novel, enhancing believability and not derailing it. We writers hope we can tell (because the reader always can) the difference between a real character and a clichéd one.

So tell me: Which characters have seemed the most real to you all, and why?

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I’ve been told it’s not a good idea to do certain things where you eat, but I’m pretty confident writing isn’t one of them. A few months ago, my husband finished building a gorgeous cherry table, and I couldn’t wait to get my paws–or, in this case, computer–on it.

I’m always interested in where people write. I’ve been told there are websites devoted to the subject of writer’s spaces and I can understand why. Maybe even more so than getting a peek into someone’s bedroom, seeing where a writer creates can be intensely revealing–kind of like seeing inside someone’s purse or pocket.

Myself, I work at our dining room table, which, thanks to the portability and scale of my little laptop, still sees homemade family dinners every night.

So where do you write?

And while we’re on the subject…where do you eat?

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