I am thinking about dialog today. It’s a topic I’ve covered to some extent in my Yakkity Yak essay, but I’m wondering if there couldn’t be a way to construct some bare-bones exercises to teach beginners some of the basics of improving it.
A starting point, I think, would be to actually have dialog as opposed to implying it. So I might preamble with:
Though there aren’t necessarily any right or wrong ways to do anything in fiction-writing, it’s sometimes useful to pretend this isn’t the case. This is because some techniques generally work better than others; some strategies should be employed sparingly, rather than as a matter of habit.
With that in mind, let’s attach the label “Less Effective” to this:
Hans & Greta debated knocking on Mrs. Witch’s front door.
And this one we’ll call “More effective.”
“Should we knock?” Hans asked when they reached Mrs. Witch’s door.
Greta shook her head. “If we warn her, she’ll call the police for sure.”
Part one of the exercise would then be to supply three more less Effective sentences:
Pinnochio lied about breaking curfew, but of course his nose grew and Papa grounded him for a month.
Snow White tried to refuse the apple politely.
Mr. Straw Pig indicated he would very much prefer not to allow Wolf past his threshold, unless of course he had a warrant.
Part two would be for the writer to find and edit some examples from their own work, and part three would be analysis: did this improve your writing? How?
What do you think? Potentially useful?
I have been reading Linda Nagata‘s fiction since her mindblowing novel, The Bohr Maker came out and won the Locus Award for best first novel. She’s written any number of short stories and books since then, and her novella “Goddesses” has the distinction of being the first online publication to receive a Nebula award. Though best known for science fiction, she writes fantasy too, exemplified by her “scoundrel lit” series Stories of the Puzzle Lands.
Her newest science fiction novel, The Red: First LightThe Red: First Light, is a near-future, high-tech military thriller, just released under her own imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. Here’s the back cover blurb:
There Needs To Be A War Going On Somewhere: Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for.
To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)
Today in Off My Lawn! she tackles the idea of ending your writing day before you’re ready, even if you’re on fire. And, in her way, I think she beats a nail into the coffin of all One Size Fits All writing advice. See what you think here, and let her know!
I’ve lived on the island of Maui for many years and I can say with fair confidence that this is not a “bookish” community. There are readers here of course, but compared to literary havens like Portland, Oregon, we don’t have a lot going on, particularly in the speculative fiction.
We do, ironically, have a large and thriving community of visual artists. Go figure. At any rate, around here writers don’t tend to be held in high esteem, and there aren’t a lot of myths about us. We are generally perceived as dreamers who don’t make money—and I have to admit that’s usually a fair assessment.
But myths about writing? Those are universal.
The one that annoys me the most has several variations:
* Stop writing for the day when you still have things left to say.
* Stop writing for the day before you want to.
* Stop in the middle of a sentence and pick it up the next day.
What? That’s insane! This is one of those rules made up by prolific writers who assume that everyone else’s muse operates just like theirs. May I say, “NOT!”
For some of us (many of us?) there exists the elusive “flow,” the “zone,” that place of writing nirvana where the words are simply there, in mind, waiting to be poured into the word processor of choice with only a few corrections along the way. When operating in the flow, the outside world retreats and even the Internet ceases to be a distraction. The page, the story, becomes the focus, and good things happen.
Some of us only occasionally reach this point of writing nirvana. Perhaps you’re not one of us. Perhaps you’re one of those writers able to slip into the zone and produce a thousand words a day, every day. Let me qualify that: a thousand of the right words, every day. (Because a thousand words of useless nonsense don’t really count.) Some of us find the zone elusive. We are faced with many days when cleaning the bathroom sounds like a delightful alternative to writing; when we have no clue what is going to happen next and who cares anyway? It might take us one, two, three days or more of forcing ourselves to write—during which time we produce mostly rubbish—before we find the zone and the words begin to flow.
To cut off that flow early, to reject the gift of it—sacrilege! ingratitude! If life calls us away, that’s one thing—if the kids are starving, or the dog needs to be walked, or we must be at work promptly at eight AM, well fine. But to reject the zone simply on the premise that doing so will help us find it again the next session—no! Because for some of us, it just doesn’t work that way, which is why I ride the flow as far as I can every time I find it.
Don’t hold back. Give everything you’ve got when you’ve got it. That’s my writing advice.
Although of course my advice is only good advice if it works for you.
One of the things I do as part of my teaching practice is keep an eye on links about writing and, when they seem right for a given class, post them in my classroom at UCLA. What I’ve taken to doing as of this quarter is pinning the links on a single board called, not surprisingly, Writing. This way all of my classes can access all of the links, new and old, that I’ve posted.
As I’ve begun to do this, I’ve realized that posts without graphics (the text-heavy stuff we writers naturally tend to favor) don’t pin well. I was always aware that essays with at least a few pictures were more readable–giving the eyes a break, yadda yadda–but there’s this extra element of ‘need a picture’ now that is part of the reason you’re seeing all these little meme-y things and screengrabs popping up on my site.
Visuals aside, this board has some great writing essays on it. Go, read, enjoy!
That’s right–I’ve reached S5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here’s my essay on the best Riley episode ever.
In other news, I am building a not-safe-for-work Grammar Cop board on Pinterest. I’m hoping this will use up the energy I spend thinking, “Its, not it’s!”
Finally, author Lynette Aspey has written a lovely essay about my Books of Chantment, Indigo Springs and Blue Magic, as well as the tie-in novelette “Wild Things.”
I am just beginning to know Jaine Fenn because we’re both members of SF Novelists. She is a British SF writer who studied Linguistics and Astronomy and had a career in IT before swapping financial security for the chance to tell tales about how the future might be. Her Hidden Empire series is published by Gollancz. Downside Girls is hot off the presses as of two days ago, and is a set of interlinked stories set in her Hidden Empire universe. Here’s the cover:
Today, on Off My Lawn, Jaine talks about the advice, often give to aspiring writers, to write every day.
One piece of advice commonly found in writing ‘how to’ books is ‘Write Every Day’.
Okay then! Soon as I build my time machine I’ll get right onto that.
Apparently Stephen King writes every day. This grand master has lots of
So if a ‘Write Every Day’ regime is good enough for him then surely it should work for you and me. Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me.
Firstly, there are not enough hours in the day. Most writers have families and/or day-jobs. We like to see our friends, to engage in hobbies and go on holiday. We generally require more than two hours sleep a night. For many of us, if we don’t cook/clean/shop/child-wrangle then we’ll end up starving/drowning in kipple/unwashed
underwear/feral children. Finding a significant amount of keyboard-time in our schedules isn’t always possible.
Ah, you may say, but you have to make time. Fine. I refer you to the second paragraph above. And if you’ve already got a time-machine, I’d like to borrow it please.
Often we end up snatching the odd hour or two, and if writing isn’t our main source of income, even that can be fraught with guilt. But yes, an hour is better than nothing. Of course it is. And even if you don’t make it to a keyboard, you can – and should – still be developing stories in your head.
Which brings me on to the second reason I don’t write every day, the one unrelated to excuses and a chaotic lifestyle. The one that comes down to how creativity works.
The act of creative writing has been likened to drawing water from a well. If you keep taking the words out – if you make yourself produce several thousand words every single day – you may well find that after a while all you’re bringing up is mud.
This isn’t true for everyone, but for those of us not blessed with Mr King’s prodigious talent, the well of creativity isn’t bottomless. It needs time to refill.
When up against a deadline, I can write three thousand words a day. But if I do that for too many days in a row then, deadline or not, those words are not going to end up in the finished story. They’re just noise. For some people, making that noise is a good thing, especially when they first start out. You might subscribe to that school
of thought, and write every day despite the sure knowledge that some days you’ll only dredge up mud. But that doesn’t work for everyone.
For me, it’s frustrating when what turns up on the page is wastage. I might learn some lessons from it, but it won’t earn me a living – nor should it, because no one wants to pay for mud. And I could have used that time to clean the bathroom.
Every few days, even on deadline death-marches, I’ll find myself vacuuming the stairs, or digging the garden, or just going for a walk, but in my case this isn’t just writing avoidance. I’m waiting for the well to refill. Ideas need time to ferment, plots to coalesce.
On a Venn diagram of ‘writers’ and ‘OCD sufferers’ you’ll find a big overlap. Writers are good at setting up, then knocking down, mechanisms allowing them to almost write every day. We reorganise our lives, then find creative reasons not to write, and often punish themselves for not doing so. When I was writing Queen of Nowhere I was in the interesting position of writing about an obsessive while behaving obsessively, and I found a few insights there, I can tell you.
Fortunately, it being my fifth book, I had my coping mechanisms in place. I did not write every day, and I did not punish myself for not doing so. I still made my deadline.
So, if you’re someone who has learnt enough of the craft to get the basics down and has a busy life, instead of “Write every day,” the advice I’d give is to write regularly. It might just be a few hours on Saturday mornings, during your lunch break on days when the job isn’t too crazy, or an hour or two while the kids are at school,
but schedule it in.
If you’re being paid to write to a deadline you’ll be able to justify that time, but even if no one is paying you to write your story put aside some time, regularly, to write. Just not every day.
Thank you, Jaine! What do you think, folks? When and how often do you write?
Here’s a little more about Downside Girls: The floating city of Khesh rests above the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. For the Topsiders life is about luxury and opulence, while for those of the Undertow day to day survival takes precedence. Khesh City is a democracy by assassination, where the Angels – deadly state-sponsored killers – remove those unworthy to hold office. When Vanna Agriet accidentally spills her drink over an Angel it could spell death, but instead it leads to a rather peculiar friendship.