Just Use Said: A Writerly Discussion on Dialogue Tags

There are a lot of articles and blog posts on this subject, but I wanted to open a discussion here.

Before I joined a writer’s critique group, my writing was far from publishable. I had adverbs everywhere, along with a lot of ‘said’ synonyms. The more my work was reviewed, the more I realized I had a lot to learn in the writing department.

Like the use of adverbs, I realized that when I began avoiding said-synonyms, I was forced to strengthen the narrative and clarify the action.

I’m not sure about you and your writing, but when I was using said-synonyms, it was as a means to avoid excessive use of ‘said.’ BUT the glorious thing about changing all those tags back to ‘said’ is that you begin to see all the holes in the narrative, giving you the opportunity to strengthen the prose and clarify tone.

Here’s an example:

“And what about you?” I whimpered.

Or.

A shudder rippled through my chest, spilling tears onto my cheeks. I pulled my sleeve over my knuckles and wiped them away. “And what about you?”

The first one is fine, sure. But the second gives a sense of what’s going on outside of the dialogue. As a reader, I start a book for the concept, but stay for the characters. When you take the time to reveal those subtle character traits, like how they interpret what they’re feeling or how they respond to what they’re feeling, the reader is able to get a clearer picture of the character, leading to a better connection between your writing and the reader.

Substituting action for dialogue tags also provides a more cinematic reading experience. Going back to the example, whimpered describes how it is said, but when you add in the details of the character wiping away the tears with her sleeve, you get to see what the character is doing. Again, this gives the reader more insight into the character, making the reader more sympathetic to the character’s cause/goals.

Of course, these are just my thoughts and preferences as a reader and writer. I believe that writing, like most arts, is incredibly subjective, so if you have additional thoughts, please share them in the comments section below.

 

 

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4 Tips in Killing Your Darlings

So last week, I talked about improving your narrative and touched on the idea of killing your darlings. Because this is what I’m currently [painfully] dealing with in my own rewrite, I thought I’d share a little of what’s been working for me.

Tip No. 1 – Identify Your Darlings

Killing your darlings is a little difficult when you don’t realize what they are. Please know I’m not trying to offend your genius, but sometimes your darlings sneak up on you. My most current darling came in the form of a two-sentence moment that had hung on to the MS since draft two.

Now into draft six, I’ve been dredging through Chapter 3 for a bit because I’ve been trying to keep this moment for whatever reason. In the words of YouTuber Grace Helbig, “I don’t know.” Once I realized that it was a darling, it was cut into the graveyard of manuscript outtakes.

Tip No. 2 – Have a Manuscript Outtakes Document

I did not come up with this idea, but it is a concept that I wish I had adopted earlier. The gorgeously talented J.L. Gribble, debut novel Steel Victory comes out this week – order a copy NOW, gave me the idea a few weeks ago during a critique session.

This does a couple of things: 1) You’re still hanging onto your darlings, so killing them from the MS is a little easier, 2) If you do ever have an opportunity to use them, they’re there at the ready, and 3) If by some chance you do get published and acquire a fan-base, you now have outtakes to share with them as easy promotional items.

Tip No. 3 – Follow Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules on Writing

Specifically (and I mentioned this last time) that each sentence should either develop character or advance plot. It took me a while to understand what this really meant because in my little baby writer brain, I looked at my MS and said “but it does develop character; it does advance plot.” In reality, I was focusing on the wrong things, making the beginning narrative slow and boring. It “technically” did what I needed it to – develop the relationships of my two main characters and set the stage for what’s up against them – but I was focusing so much on what made my characters who they were instead of who they are in the moment that the plot was stagnant. This is a hard concept to wrap your head around, but once it clicks, you’ll see the improvements in the writing.

See the full list of Vonnegut’s Rules here.

Tip No. 4 – Have a Trusted Writing Buddy

I think I’ve developed a strange dependency on my uber talented group of writer friends because I know without a doubt that my writing would not be improving without them. Going back to what I was saying before about my headache that is Chapter 3, that darling I didn’t realize was a darling – yeah, my friend and CP Chelsea was kind enough to tell me, “I think that’s going a little far.” Which of course hit a switch in my head, causing an immediate ::face:palm::. I had been struggling with the writing because I was trying to keep something that didn’t belong there. I was trying to save a darling.

Once I transferred said darling over to the graveyard, it opened the way for me to concentrate on the plot movement and figure out how to close out the chapter (which will hopefully happen tonight).

I hope these tips help you as much as they’ve helped me. What about you? Do you have any tips on killing the darlings in your WIP? Share them in the comments below.

Happy Writing!

Transitions: Difficult on and off the page.

Well I made it to Florida and began my new job as a Director of Marketing (I feel super grown-up, guys!). Last week was definitely a culture shock going from fast-paced DC to Destin’s more relaxed way of life. It’s not bad, just different. I promise I’ll get back to actually blogging about the writing craft soon (because I’ve learned SO MANY THINGS in the last couple months – Thank you, Chelsea and Hanna!). But until my feet are firmly planted in this new chapter of my life, my brain is consumed with trying to maintain my writing habits amongst my new schedule/work load.

Which brings me to this week’s topic: transitions.

While I’ve been slaving away on the post-beta rewrite for the WIP, I’ve noticed something curious about my transitions – they’re getting better.

In the previous draft, many of the transitions were jump cuts from one scene to the next, which in truth, is kind of a lazy form of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for jump cut transitions (definition below), but most of the time, they’re wasted opportunities to show the reader how your characters are responding to the world around them.

Now, transitions are difficult to write in general, and for a plotter like me, they’re frustrating bouts of space that keep me from jumping into the next juicy piece of plot. But here’s thing, if you don’t allow your protagonists an opportunity to process what’s happening to them, your readers won’t be able to sympathize with your character’s development.

So take a breath, slow down and let your readers enjoy those quiet moments with your characters.

Happy writing!

Jump Cut Transition: I stole the term “jump cut” from my video-editing peoples, which refers to an edit where the action isn’t continuous from one frame to another. For the print medium, I use it to describe when you leave an extra space in the formatting to show that you’re moving to another location/time in the story.  

Trust me, you want a beta reader.

So last Tuesday I jumped onto Google Hangouts and discussed my current WIP with the four poor saps I convinced to beta read it. I cannot begin to express how eternally grateful I am to these wonderful people for taking the time to review my work. Their notes were everything I needed them to be and so much more. To repeat what I’ve said to two of the four (because this is the only phrase that comes to mind to describe how I feel): I feel like I’ve just won the expansion pack to my favorite card game.

But seriously, if I’m able to pull off what I’m aiming for, I am beyond excited to read the next finished draft. Granted, I may be a walking, talking zombie when it’s finished, BUT [I hope] it will all be worth it.

I know that the concept of having your first novel read from someone other than yourself is a very exciting, stressful, albeit terrifying notion. But I’m here to tell you it’s not as scary as you might think. You just have to go in with a gracious heart and an open mind. Honestly, the scariest part for me was pressing “send” and the minutes leading up to the critique. Once we were in the flow of the conversation, I bounced with excitement and my mind raced with ideas.

Now I’m not saying you should just throw caution to the wind and send your MS to just anybody. You should definitely vet your betas. My four betas covered a wide range of genres/audiences, which provided a really well-rounded review of the piece. All four were also novelists (don’t know how I got so lucky), which helped identify why some things were/weren’t working.

Below is a list of things I need to improve:

  1. World Building. The problem with creating a complex world with it’s own political/social structure is that sometimes you forget to clarify the rules of said world because your focus is on your protagonist. Your fictional world has to come across as vibrantly on the page as it does in your mind.
  2. Round out Secondary Characters. So this is one of those “DUH” moments where I knew the complexities of the characters, but the reader didn’t. As the writer, it is vital to communicate the intricacies of the characters important to the MC’s story. Otherwise, they fall flat against the backdrop, which is no good. Show the reader how awesome your cast of characters are! (Yes, I did scribble that on my notepad during the crit session.)
  3. Making the wrong promises. One of the podcasts I listen to, Writing Excuses, discussed the importance of the beginning narrative making the right promises to the reader. In the beta draft, the beginning narrative focused more on the MC’s trauma than how her current actions are driven by it. Focusing on the trauma set up the story to be a Who-Done-It, which was not what the novel was about.

Here’s the deal, the above list really isn’t that daunting. Sure, it means more work, BUT the MS will be so much better for it. I’m already knee-deep in revisions and I can already say I am loving the changes. Mind you, I’m saying this now at the forefront of the new draft, I could easily turn into a raging revision troll if left to my own devises.

Happy Writing!

Anxiety and Resilience: Waiting on the Critique

At the beginning of April, I took the plunge and submitted my WIP to beta readers. The five people reviewing my MS are all incredibly talented writers with works of their own and I am INDEBTED to them for taking the time tear my first book apart.

BUT . . . waiting for their notes has been . . . well . . . a rollercoaster of anxiety.

Now don’t get me wrong, I live for improvement. I am so excited to hear their thoughts and dig through their notes to make my WIP the best it can possibly be before I start querying it to agents. But no matter how excited I am for the draft that will result from their feedback, I can’t help but fear the potential for having my heart ripped out my chest.

For the majority, I like to maintain a rational, objective viewpoint when receiving critiques. No note is a bad note, regardless of its level of usefulness. I thrive off constructive criticism but this is my first time having my book read cover-to-cover. Safe to say, I’m out of my mind.

Below is an example of my mind this past month:

Right Brain: What if they hate it? They could hate it. It’s YA Urban Fantasy. They could definitely hate it.

Left Brain: Even if they did hate it, they wouldn’t say so. They’d give you criticism on what exactly obstructed their enjoyment.

Right Brain: But what if they hated it so much they just don’t have words?

Left Brain: That’s why there’s a rubric, to prompt feedback.

Right Brain: But what if it was so bad, we have to start all over?

Left Brain: Then we’ll start all over with their notes in mind.

On and on, this conversation went, plaguing my mind with stress and anxiety and doubt. These negative feelings are a part of life, especially in such subjective fields as writing and art. What’s important is how you react to it.

Regardless of what brutal notes I get from my beta readers, I know I’m still going to push forward and work hard until I achieve my goals. I’m just stubborn like that. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my 24 years, it’s that your level of resilience must be equivalent to that of your projected success. Dreams take time and hard work to come to fruition. So when you meet those roadblocks, if success is important to you, you’ll find a way to overcome them.

Here’s to pushing forward!