As of today, I still have two or three slots available in my upcoming UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, which has the unwieldy name of: Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way. The course description can be found here, and this is the syllabus, subject to last-minute tweaks.
The weekly discussion questions in the syllabus should give you a good idea of how we’ll go about the workshop: I want to put your book under a microscope in a directed fashion, so each week we focus on a specific aspect of your storytelling: the setting, the prose, the characters, the plotting. The idea is to ensure that all the likely points of writing success or failure get looked at, with each book.
The other important thing to consider about me as an instructor is that I am friendly to all genres. Put in the simplest of terms: I don’t consider science fiction to be either superior to or inferior to something like literary fiction, or paranormal romance, or splatterpunk. I will read each book with care and respect, whether or not it’s something I’d buy for pleasure reading. I expect my students to learn to separate what they prefer–the stuff they like to read, in other words–from the issue of bad or good writing. This is more easily said than done. It takes practice… but I also think it’s important.
Someone always asks, so I’ll say up front: It is totally okay to register for Novel II without taking Novel I as long as you already have a good idea of what you’ll be writing. Novel I is essentially a book development class that takes you through the process of building the groundwork for a book: figuring out setting, choosing a protagonist, working through a basic outline of their journey. If you’ve done that and are ready to write fifty pages, or if you’ve written that much already and are ready to write fifty more, you can take this class.
I’m teaching Novel III next quarter… for that, you do need Novel II.
Needless to say, I’m not the only game in town at UCLA–there are dozens of great courses, dealing with the long form and the short, in prose, poetry and in screenwriting. If you’re looking for a course this winter, you can probably find something delightful and challenging in our catalog.
Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll be happy to answer them.
There are those who would have you believe that great fiction is written, primarily, by tormented, half-starved, garret-living addicts who weep out their epics, word by word, in random fits of Muse-fired productivity that alternate with binges, orgies, getting dumped, going through withdrawal, and embarking on the occasional sordid, scorched-boudoir battle with head lice, bedbugs, and despair.
I don’t really buy into this idea, myself. I’m far too invested in my comfortable, three squares a day plus Internet lifestyle. But I will say that there are things about writing that can make you absolutely bonkers. And by bonkers I mean a little obsessive, a lot frustrated, and plenty convinced that everyone’s writing more, selling more, and having an easier time of it.
My problem with this is that while you’re doing all that, you’re probably not writing fiction. You’re probably not being happy about the fact that you have the opportunity to do so. Having the leisure to make art is a privilege, a kind of wealth, and like all such things it’s not allocated equally to all the people of this world.
I should say up front I don’t think writers are especially different from other people in this regard. Most of us have some ability to ignore our lives’ myriad blessings, while whipping ourselves into all-consuming frenzies over car repairs or our love lives or stuff about work or our favorite TV show. But with writers, there are some standard things we chase around the mouse-wheels of our minds:
–I didn’t write 2000 words today, and Joe Scribe does twice that daily!
–I just realized my plot is a direct lift from Much Ado about Nothing!
–I checked my Amazon Sales Ranking forty times today and it was five, then nine, then seven, then four. . . how did it fall to nine?
A lot of the time, the things we obsess over have to do with publishing.
Writing and publishing are two different activities. Yes, they’re inextricably bound, unless you’re filing your manuscripts in an online archive for an audience of you and you alone. As writers, we’re looking to communicate. To tell stories, evoke emotions, to create memories of people and places that exist only in the minds of ourselves and our audiences.
When we’re writing, those stories and the people in them belong to us. When we finish a piece and do the publishing thing to it, we’re offering our work up to editors and audiences. Publishing your work is sharing it, basically, and that makes it less than 100% your own. And somehow this sharing process involves entangling creativity–the making of art–with the business of getting that finished creation to other people.
There’s collaboration involved, and money. The success you achieve in the sharing of your work is often seen as a measure of how well you’ve written it… even though we all know about great books that have been commercial failures, and bad ones that had roof-busting sales. (This is another thing you can make yourself bonkers over, if you choose.)
A thing about publishing is there’s a lot within the process that’s outside of author’s control.
–You can’t affect a magazine’s per-word rate for fiction. What they pay is what they pay.
–You can’t affect how fast someone will get back to you on a submission.
–They’re either gonna say yes, no, or perhaps rewrite it and we’ll see.
–Illustration? Design? Cover art? Decided by others.
–You can’t make a reviewer like you.
You see what I mean, right? Here you are, writing a novel, in total control of every aspect of each character’s life: how they look, what they wear, whether they lost their parents in a tragic Yurt fire or crashed a car into the Thames. And then you finish the book and offer it up to the world, and from there… well, it’s easy to feel like a leaf, ripped off a tree and aloft on uncaring winds.
Some of us deal with this well, others less so.
What’s the answer? Some say it’s self-publishing. And, indeed, there’s a lot more in your hands there: you get to say how the finished product looks, when it comes out, set the price point, figure out who handles which of the thousands of tasks within the production process . . .
. . . but who reads your book, what they think of it, whether they’ll shell out for your sequel or devote a few minutes of their precious time to putting up the ever crucial user review?
That’s still out of your hands.
So as you embark on publishing, learn to identify your own personal bonkers-making buttons. As far as you’re able, find genius ways to not push ’em.
Artists get into the creative racket, I hope, out of a deep impulse to experience the joy of creation. For writers it’s love of story, language, wordplay, the thrilling challenge of figuring out how to pull off beginning-middle-end or perfectly sketch out a hero’s journey. We want to thrill, scare, entertain, communicate–we want to reach out with our imaginations and and write new information into strangers’ brains.
And I hope most of us enjoy the hell of out of doing it.
So, in the vast, muddled-seeming mix of wondering what’s hot now, angsting over your daily word count, wondering if an agent will take you, and wishing that short story submission you put out six months ago would come back with an acceptance on it, what can you control?
–You can decide what you want to write.
–You can decide how much time and effort you spend on it.
–As much as possible, you can find ways to enjoy the process of creation, from the first glimmerings of a novel idea, on to the parts where you bounce up against the wall of “Damn! Writing is Hard!” and from there to the point where you get to write “The End.”
–You can push through the tough stuff to the rare, life-changing, purely revelatory moments. (And there are revelations, I promise–searing moments of clarity, about craft and yourself and the nature of human existence–times when you’ll know in your marrow that you couldn’t possibly be doing anything better with your life.)
If there’s no joy, if you’re not having fun, at least most of the time, what are the chances you’re making anything worth reading?
Thus endeth my pitch for not buying yourself a garret and a year’s supply of your favorite addictive substance: write often, try hard, stay healthy and one way or another please yourself. Write things you think are so damned cool you can’t wait to tell someone about them. Invent characters you love, pit them against clever, committed, backbreaking adversaries, beat the hell out them and cheer when they come out on top. Sketch out scenes that work perfectly well, only to decide you need a few lines of candy. . . and then go write in that clever bit of character interaction your writersoul is craving. It can come out in rewrite if it must, but just see what playing gets you.
Art is a pristine and endless beach, covered in multicolored sand. Go make yourself some sparkly pink castles.
I’ll tell you up front: this essay is really just a big pitch for putting some variety of tone in your fiction.
Imagine a smooth downward line, the kind of thing you’d see on an easy ski hill or a kiddie slide. If your main character starts out a little discontented on page one and their situation eases ever so slowly downhill as things get worse–and I do see novels like this–a book can get fairly tiresome to read. No matter how interesting the slide is, four hundred pages of prose can be wearing if they are mostly all the same flavor, if the story moves at the same speed.
(If the kiddie slide analogy doesn’t work for you, put on a favorite movie, close your eyes, and just focus on the soundtrack for a few minutes. Listen to the way the music changes from scene to scene and, when you’re thinking about the tone and pace of your work, imagine imbuing your writing with the same variation. Some writers even listen to soundtracks, or make up soundtracks for their books, just to ensure this.)
As with much writing advice, it’s sometimes easy to make a big proclamation: “Put variety in your writing style!” and harder to bring it off. But whether you have an outline or a finished manuscript in front of you, here are some concrete elements of the story you can examine to see if you’ve got a good mix of events, moods, and tones:
Mood: You can think about this, if you wish, in a very mechanical fashion. Look at each scene and jot down the main character’s primary emotional state. Use simple words: angry, happy, content, anxious, tired, confused, heartbroken, afraid, sad, surprised, delighted, blissful, etc.
Once you’ve got this list, go through again and just attach a number from 1-10, indicating the intensity of the emotion. How content are they? How angry? Ten sad? Two blissful?
Once you have this information, whether you’ve got a finished draft or are in the outline stage, it’s easier to assess what kind of balance you’ve achieved. If all the moods are upbeat, maybe there aren’t any big character lows. If the emotional intensity of every proposed scene is 9-10, you may be risking reader burnout.
A chart like this can also be handy for later reference. If something’s not working, you can go back and see: is the scene as intense as you meant for it to be? Are the emotions appropriate for what’s going on in the plot?
Over time, you should develop a sense of your project that will make this kind of charting unnecessary, but if you are inexperienced, overwhelmed or trying to get your book off to a great start, give it a try.
Action: The same principle that applies to character moods–change it up, in other words–can be applied to the ‘what happens?’ of the plot. And you can make a similar chart. This time, instead of mood, use simple verbs to describe what the characters are doing: walking, talking, driving, arguing, fighting, making love, giving birth, mourning, dying etc. Then use the numbers to describe how fast they’re moving, to assess the intensity of the action.
Lots of novels play out on a sort of contained level of intensity: they’re examinations of the human condition or relationships between a small group characters. Not every book has a car chase or a bank heist in every other chapter. But if you find yourself writing “Talking – 2” for every scene, consider how many books of this type you’d be willing to read. By the same token, if your action-adventure scene list boils down to “Fistfight – 10!” “Bomb blast – 10!” “Rescuing Kitty from the Train Tracks – 11.2!” … well, you know you’ve got something on your hands that may overstimulate us all.
Physical setting and sensory detail: Does every scene in your book take place in the same heavily curtained, dimly lit, cobweb-infested room? Give a little thought to how the mood and action of a given scene can be enhanced by the details: time of day, the quality (or lack) of light, interior versus exterior settings, the number of people around as the scene plays out, the degree of physical comfort offered by furnishings or terrain, and even tiny things like temperature.
Voice: do you have more than one point of view or point of view character? Can the sound of their narrative voices vary? Even if the overall narrative voice is consistent, a little nuance here and there within POV can add a lot of texture to a novel. The uneducated intern at your fictional hospital might perceive and relate things just a wee bit differently from the hospital director, the ten-year-old patient in room 3D and the nurse who immigrated to the big city from the West Indies three years ago.
By now you can probably see how all of these elements tie together. The ultimate goal isn’t just to collage a bunch of moods and tones together: it’s to unify your story elements to produce a specific emotional effect in each scene.
Think of all the times you’ve been reading so fast you’re almost breathless, because you have to know what’s going to happen to a given character next. You might have been scared for them, or excited, or hopeful, or upset–the point is, you felt really invested–there was a lot of suspense.
Then whatever immediate conflict you were reading about would have peaked. Ahhhh! I bet the next scene considerably calmer.
We’re in this to give the reader a bit of a ride. Some of us want to take them on a pleasant, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging sail through the undusted corners of the human heart. Some of us want the full-on upside-down rollercoaster ride of emotion. Whatever effect you’re trying to achieve, give us some ups and downs. The result will be a book that’s not only fun to read.
Because, I promise, it’ll be more fun to write too.
I seem to have finally won a long, frustrating, anguish-inducing war against the hackers who kept slipping malware onto my site and trying to infect people with same as they came in to learn about my books. I had to bring in mercenaries: specifically, the fine folks at Sucuri Sitecheck, who run a service that scans your site for you for free, and another service that keeps it uninfested for $90 bucks a year. After weeks of flailing attempts at DIY and instructions from my site host that were so simple they required a computer programming degree to comprehend, and promises from same host that now the site really was clean, honest, when it just friggin’ wasn’t, Sucuri had me squared away within twelve hours.
Now that I’m not dumping my non-existent free time into fighting the malware wars, I have taken the advice of a couple extremely savvy friends (writer Matt Youngmark and artist Racheal Ashe, if you must know) and started a newsletter. The Join button is on my site and my plan is to issue chatty notes that you’ll all enjoy reading–the sort of stuff that goes into the letters I write, all too infrequently, to all the lovely peeps I aspire to keep up with. Plus, also, whatever photo I’ve taken lately that I’m most proud of, exclusive sneak peeks at works in progress, bragging about my UCLA students who’ve sold fiction and links to the latest courses and me stuff. Try out the join button or just let me know if you’re interested.
And when I get an issue out, if you think it’s missing something, let me know that, too.
Let’s start at the top, shall we, with Dialog concept the first: Have people in your fiction. Get them talking.
When people first start writing stories and novels, they sometimes feel a certain reluctance to get their characters together, onstage, to just talk.
There are reasons for this. Dialog gives fiction immediacy, and that can be scary. It feels more like speaking directly to the reader. There’s intimacy there… and a greater chance, too, that if the speeches you write are off, in any way–if they’re wooden, or clunky, or preachy, or melodramatic–that it’ll be obvious. If you don’t have a particularly good grip on your characters, that becomes evident very fast.
Since it is possible to tell a story with only narrative (especially if it’s simple: few characters, a close point of view, a straightforward plot) the temptation to avoidance beckons. It even works sometimes, when the piece is short and well-served by a distanced, once-upon-a-time voice.
Generally, though, hiding from dialog is like walking to the edge of the ocean and refusing to jump into the water. It denies the reader a major component of the fictional experience they are seeking. So wade in; get wet. It’s the only way to learn to swim.
Concept the second: Not everyone has the same voice.
When we’re drafting dialog, it’s easy to just put in the information necessary to the scene, and to forget how wildly we all vary in our way of expression.
What characters say is deeply revealing of character. The only thing more telling is what they do (and of course the two, do and say, overlap.)
Do they lie, for example? Are they good at it?
Age, experience, expertise, a person’s understanding of the situation in any given scene, whether they’re tired or sick. . . a million little influences can change how we express something.
When you’re starting out, just focus on your character’s personality. Who are they, and how do they usually talk? Are they terse? Informal? Longwinded? Preachy? Babbly? Tactless? Given to rants? Snide?
Concept the third: Dialog is situational.
In my day to day life, among my nearest and dearest, I’m a relatively earthy person. But for the most part, I try not to say words like fuck when I’m teaching, or around my four year old niece. In fiction, paying attention to this kind of detail–yes, she’d say this, but would she say it here?–can add nice nuance to a character.
Where we are and who we’re with affect how we say what we say: differences in social class, education. . . even whether we’re speaking our birth language. I sound clever and decently educated in English. In French or my smattering of Italian, I come off as not-so-quick.
Four: Characters are in relationships which are ever-evolving.
It’s not uncommon in a novel for two characters to start out strangers and become close by the end of the book. This will change how they talk to each other. Consider a simple element like formal versus informal address: in an early encounter, you might have two scientists addressing each other as Doctor Jones and Professor Smith. By the time they’ve fought a couple monsters (real or metaphorical) and fallen in love, maybe they’re Rocky and Doris.
Think about this as you bring characters together: where are they at? Where are they going? Can you plan to change the way they relate to each other, verbally, to illuminate the changes in their relationship?
Five: Dialog shouldn’t sound like actual human conversation
Go sit someplace with a laptop or a notebook and eavesdrop on other people. Try writing down what you hear. You’ll find that what you get is full of pauses and ums and physical gestures and sighs and inspeak and facial expressions.
Hi, how are you?
Okay. Um, how are you?
Good. At work, you know.
Oh yeah, how’s work?
It’s that thing again. Only more so.
I understand completely.
Well, we don’t! Yes, we have little exchanges like this all the time in real life. But transcribed faithfully, they’re not only somewhat incomprehensible, they’re deadly dull to read.
What you’re aiming for when you write a scene is something that sounds, to the reader’s ear, like human speech. What it actually is is a cleaned up, idealized form of that speech. It’s the difference between the mean thing you actually said to the guy who rear-ended you (Which probably came out: “You! You! Oh you potatohead! That’s my caaaarrr!” and the articulate, cutting monologue you rehearsed in your head and then told, first haltingly to the tow-truck guy and then–with increased verve, confidence and hilarity–to your mother, sister, landlady, dog-walker and finally your boss. It has verisimilitude. It sounds like speech, but it’s not exactly what you said; it’s not quite reality.
The above exchange about work, you know, is also flat because of something that relates to…
Concept the sixth: there should be an undercurrent of conflict.
A little hum of electricity that is generated by the characters not quite being on the same page.
Think of any murder-of-the-week cop show. How many times have you seen a scene where primary characters go ask their lieutenant for permission to try something, or they approach a judge for a warrant. Hundreds? How dull would it be if the scene always went this way:
“Hey, boss, we need an protective detail for Eyeballs McWitness.”
“Okay! I’ll give you someone good! And hey, I found a promotion in my cereal box today–you want it?”
Even if this is a scene that’s going to end in Yes, there’s ten or fifteen lines of getting there. Always. Lieutenant complains about the budget, or says Eyeball’s not in danger, or points out that McWitness got his name by collecting human… well, never mind that now, it’s icky. But the point is he doesn’t deserve protection.
The cops, in their turn, argue passionately that Justice cannot be Served! unless Eyeballs gets his bodyguard.
Why do that? Why waste the space? Why does this scene play out again and again, night after night, creating employment for crusty Hollywood authority figures whose mission in life is to serve as a minor adversaries for their fictional cop underlings?
Because going straight for the Yes (or the No, for that matter) is boring and it doesn’t tell you anything about the characters.
We don’t get into fiction to read “Once upon a time Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve a crime, and then he did. The end.” We don’t get into scenes to see characters sail along in sweet accord with each other. Who wants what? Why do the others disagree? Who wins? How do they convince or fail to convince the other person to give it to them? How do they feel about each other afterward? This is the stuff we want.
Concept the seventh: people multitask.
Very occasionally humans sit down facing each other, pay each other their full attention, and just talk. But mostly we yakk while we’re doing other things: eating, drinking, building cribs, driving, shopping, harvesting wheat (okay, probably not that often) playing video games, completing our homework, fishing, making love, attending a wedding, rolling cigarettes… you get the idea.
A little bit of attention to what the characters in a scene are doing will give you options to show some action, spotlight other things about the characters–he’s making a baby crib! What a great dad he’ll make!–and create necessary pauses in the flow of dialog so that you don’t find yourself writing:
“I have to tell you something really important.” She paused. “Really important.”
He looked at her. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“Great. Thank you. This is it.” She took a long breath… “I’m moving to Finland without you.”
And so did we, right? There’s more on this particular aspect of dialog-writing in my essay Eye Bookisms.
Finally: Practice, practice, practice.
Like most aspects of fiction-writing, dialog is something you get better at by writing more and more of it. So do practice, as much as you can. It is said that when a reader gets thrown out of your story–they’re bored by a descriptive passage, or they wonder exactly why a given detail of yours is what it is, or maybe their phone just rings–they will scan ahead to the next set of quotation marks, often without even realizing it, to see what the characters are saying to each other. Keep this in mind, and don’t make them flip through ten pages to find that next speech–they’ll miss so much!
“I believe in you,” she said, wrapping up at last. “Now get out there and make your characters talk!”