May 27, 2011

On Creativity ...

“Sometimes you've got to let everything go - purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything . . . whatever is bringing you down, get rid of it. Because you'll find that when you're free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.” ~ Tina Turner
This one seems especially appropriate for me today. Are you the kind of writer who writes to escape what's going on in the real world? Or does everyday life interfere with your creative efforts? Try purging every morning, whether through prayer or morning pages or meditation. Take a few minutes to let go of what's worrying you before you sit down to write and see if that makes a difference. 




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Dancing on Coals Online Workshops
http://www.dancingoncoals.com

Mar 28, 2011

Mar 25, 2011

Persistence


"Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out."
-- Robert Collier




art courtesy Florida Center for Instructional Technology

Mar 24, 2011

Attitude is Everything

I'm nose-to-the-grindstone on my book due next week, so blogging has to fall by the wayside until it's off my desk and onto my editor's. In the meantime, I'll be posting a few of my favorite quotes....

art by Jeff Bucchino, "The Wizard of Draws"


"Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude." 
 
Thomas Jefferson----------

Mar 10, 2011

Pacing the Page

Let’s talk now about pacing the page.

The biggest culprits that slow down the pacing on a page are unnecessary wordiness and repetition. Avoid repetition of information already provided to the reader unless it’s absolutely necessary for clarity.

For example:
She crossed to the table and sat. She linked her hands together on the table and met his gaze. His hands rested on the table, so close to hers they could have touched easily, but he made no move toward her.
feels slower to the reader than:
She crossed to the table and sat, linking her hands together and meeting his gaze steadily. His hands were so close to hers they could have touched easily, but he made no move toward her.
or
She crossed the room and sat, linking her hands together on the table and meeting his gaze steadily. His hands rested just inches from hers, so close they could have easily touched if only he’d made a move toward her.
Can you feel the difference between the first example and the second? The first and third? The first example is okay, but when you compare it to the third you begin to recognize a kind of “sludgy” feeling that comes from using the word repeatedly. Using it once enhances the picture while keeping the pacing tight.
She tucked her notebook under one arm and slung her purse over the other arm.
Now remove just one word:
She tucked her notebook under one arm and slung her purse over the other.
Can you feel the difference there?

Using too many adverbs and adjectives can leave your work feeling cluttered:
Slowly, she descended the steps. Her hands trembled violently, and her breathing was ragged. She watched, scarcely breathing, as shadows of the two men danced on the wall. Suddenly, a shot rang out. She screamed shrilly and realized that she’d given herself away. She turned back as quickly as she could and raced rapidly up the stairs, praying that neither of the men had seen her.
That’s okay, right? Okay, but not great. In fact, -ly words can often be a signal that you’re telling more than showing. Check out this substitute:
One by one, she crept down the steps. Her hands trembled and her breath caught in her throat. She watched in horror as shadows of the two men danced on the wall in front of her. Just as she reached the landing, a shot rang out. A shrill scream tore from her throat before she could stop it and she knew she’d given herself away. Frantic now, she turned back and raced up the stairs two at a time, praying the whole time that neither of the men had seen her.
It’s rare to find any sentence in a first draft that can’t be restructured and made tighter.

The mood you want to evoke will have a lot to do with which words you choose and the pacing you use on a particular page, or paragraph. 

Action scenes, scenes filled with suspense, will often need shorter words and sentences to create the right mood.

Romantic scenes might need longer words and more fluid sentences to create the right mood.

Movie makers can use various senses for invoking mood and atmosphere. They have script, they have visual action on the screen, and they have a sound track. When we write, we’re creating both the movie and the soundtrack for our stories, but the only tools available to us are words.

Use them wisely. Be lavish when that’s called for to create the right mood and tone. Be sparing when necessary. Remember that it’s the journey you create for your readers that matters.

Listen to the whispers of instinct that warn you when you’ve become repetitive or tell you that you’re moving too fast. Your own fiction instinct will be your most valuable tool when it comes to pacing if you’ll just pay attention to it. It’s the paying attention part that creates problems for most of us. We tend to shrug off those nearly silent whispers and talk ourselves out of our instinctive responses.

Learning not to do that just because you’re reading your own work is a vital step in learning to control the pace of your stories.

Mar 9, 2011

Thanks to Mary Martinez for bringing this one to my attention. I liked it so much I had to add it to my favorites.



"There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed." --John Kenneth Galbraith

Mar 7, 2011

Pacing: What to Include. What to Cut.

Weak turning points mean for weak scene goals and languid pacing.

Smooth pacing, with turning points and major events staggered evenly throughout the book, is far more likely to keep readers turning pages than stop-and-go pacing, in which very little happens for many pages and then, 100 pages from the end, everything gets tied up in a bow as the author rushes to meet her page quota.

Whether you’re a plotter or an organic writer, it may be difficult to pace your story smoothly without keeping these things in mind as you write.

One of the most common mistakes writers make in the early stages of their careers is to include “scenes” that serve no useful purpose within the story. The writing may be fine, the descriptions vivid, the use of imagery artful, but there is no compelling reason for the scene to exist.

The author may have conceived the idea and is now unable to let it go. She thought it would be so great to show the hero and heroine having lunch together in the piazza she visited during her recent trip to Europe. She took photographs and conducted research, and now she's dying to set a scene there. But if nothing new happens, no new information is shared with the reader, the relationship between the characters doesn’t change in any meaningful way, the scene may not belong in your story.

Whenever we include something in the story merely to indulge ourselves, we’re in danger of negatively impacting the story. A scene without purpose will bring your pacing to a grinding halt.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it may be helpful to think in terms of firsts. The first meeting, the first real conversation, the first time the teacher calls our YA protagonist to task. The first awkward moment at soccer practice, the first meeting between neighbors. Whenever you begin to repeat information, you risk slowing down the pacing of your story and losing the reader’s attention.

It’s a matter of choosing what to show and what to tell.

Always show the scenes with the greatest emotional impact. (e.g., show the scene where the character learns her father has died, not the scene where she’s thinking about how she found out that he died or the scene where she's telling her best friend how awful it was.)

Beginning writers have a tendency to skip the scenes with real emotional impact and tell us about them later in scenes that have little or no emotional impact. It’s a natural tendency for most of us because writing strong emotion is difficult. Being honest to an emotionally brutal moment isn’t easy. If we’re uncomfortable with the emotion, we may decide it’s more comfortable to just tell about it later. We may not even make the decision to avoid the emotion consciously. But remember that when you write this way, you slow the pacing of your story almost beyond salvation.

Make sure to show the scenes which identify the characters’ patterns for us. Once you’ve shown the characters sharing an intimate Sunday morning breakfast after making love on Saturday night, you can tell us they did it again later.

Within the scene itself, don’t rush. If you’re writing a short book, don't skip on the detail that will make the book feel rich and lush. Instead, be more judicious in your choice of scenes to include, and then summarize the others.

Allow time to set the stage through the point of view character’s emotional filter. Don’t skimp on the sensory texture. You will gain nothing by rushing through this process. Don't drag it out, either. Set the stage, but don't waste time on repetition and lengthy introspection.

Allow time to make sure your character’s motivation is strong enough to carry even the most skeptical reader through the scene. Remember, not everyone will automatically react the same way your character does. You may think that any rational, thinking, reasonably intelligent woman would kick her husband to the curb if she caught him cheating on her, but there are a whole lot of women out there who wouldn’t, and for more reasons than you and I can probably imagine.Allow time to convince your reader that this is the only action your character can make--or at least that she believes it is. Skimping on the motivation will make your pacing sputter and jerk.

Allow sufficient time for the conflict play out. Another common mistake I often see is the tendency to rush past conflict. In the planning stages, the scene appears emotionally intense but when it's written, it turns into nothing special, either because the author is afraid of letting the characters face their conflict or, since the author knows what's going to happen in the scene, she lets the character move to the resolution of the scene too quickly.Skipping the conflict not only makes your story's pace suffer, it short-changes the reader. Approach each scene as if you didn’t know what the eventual outcome will be and let your characters react appropriately. If you can do that honestly, you'll begin to feel when you have enough conflict to fuel the scene.


photo credit: PA050153 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Medo via photopin (license)

Feb 28, 2011

Drive your Story Forward

One way to identify your turning points is to watch the story for place where a new question is opened for the characters. They may answer one question, only to find themselves facing a new one. They may resolve one conflict, onto to find that the resolution uncovers a new challenge.

The purpose of the turning point is to drive the story forward, so make sure you let it do its job. The turning point should leave both reader and character wondering what will happen now.

There are some “givens” when we write genre fiction. The readers of a romance novel know the characters will get together in the end before they read the first word of your book. The readers of a mystery know that the murder will be solved and the sleuth will live to sleuth another day. The readers of a western know that justice will prevail. There’s very little question in genre fiction about what is going to happen in the end. That makes how they get there extremely important ...

And “How” translates into turning points.

How are you going to keep the characters apart believably for 300 pages? How are you going to get them past the conflicts that keep them apart at the end of the book? How are you going to keep the reader from guessing who did it—or why they did it—in your mystery novel?

Pacing is also determined by deciding what to include and what to leave out.

Readers are generally interested in the first time anything happens in your book. The first meeting between hero and heroine, their first real conversation, the first time they share their secrets, their first kiss, the first time they make love, the first time they admit their love for one another.

Readers are generally not interested in reading endless repeats of those conversations, kisses, and lovemaking sessions unless they’re also getting new important information with each repetition. When you look at scenes and decide whether or not to include them, consider how much new information you’ll be revealing to the reader. If you’re not giving them enough new information, seriously think about leaving the scene out and summarizing the action at the beginning of the next important scene.

What kind of new information are we talking about? We’re talking about new pieces to the puzzle. A substantial piece of character development. A new secret previously unknown to the reader.

For instance, if you reveal the heroine’s entire past to the reader in chapter one, or let the heroine reveal it to her best friend in chapter two, when she reveals her past to the hero in chapter four, the whole chapter is probably going to feel redundant and slow to the reader. Your pacing will suffer.

If, however, you let the heroine and her best friend discuss her past in general terms in chapter two, build suspense by alluding to her past in chapter four and again in chapter six, by the time the heroine tells the hero everything in chapter eight, the reader will probably be eager to learn all the details.

Sometimes this works best if you decide where you want to reveal the Big Secret, and then work the other details in from there—sort of backward plotting. Whether you calculate it on paper or just think it through in your head, working backward can be a valuable tool for pacing.

Remember also that your characters will have specific goals for each section of your book (the chapters or pages that fall between turning points.) If, for example, your character begins the book with a goal to shut down the horse trainer’s business at the end of his lane, then his specific scene goals will reflect that goal until the first major turning point.

At the first major turning point, the story must dramatically change directions. So perhaps the character learns that the woman who owns the horse training business is a single mother who is struggling to support her children. Now, he feels like a complete jerk. How can he put her and her children on the streets?

His new goal might be to convince her to move back to Cincinnati, near her parents. This would be a win-win situation for him, right? So his specific scene goals for the next section of the book will support his new goal . . . at least until the next turning point when he learns that the heroine has a very good reason for not going back to Cincinnati.

Planning strong turning points which make the story shift direction makes it possible to have strong scene goals. Strong scene goals make for strong disasters. Your scenes begin to have purpose, and your story begins to move at a page-turning rate.

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Dancing on Coals Online Workshops
http://www.dancingoncoals.com

Feb 24, 2011

Keep up the Pace

What is pacing? In the language of storytelling, pacing is the rate at which your story is told. Pacing determines whether your book will be a long, luxurious read or a quick one. Whether it’s a page-turner people say they can’t put down, or whether it’s a book they’ll read slowly and leisurely.

That’s the easy description, but just knowing that isn’t enough for most of us. Just what is the right pacing for our book, and how do we control it?

Of course, we need to be familiar with the type of book we’re writing in order to understand the best pacing for that particular story. Readers of action-adventure books don’t want to be slowed up by paragraphs filled with introspection and description, while readers of most romance novels—even the new breed of romances such as romantic suspense and romantic adventure—expect a certain amount of introspection and description. But those hybrid romances are still better when the pacing is faster than in a traditional romance. Cozy mystery novels fall somewhere in between the two. Mysteries considered hardboiled lean more toward the action/adventure genre.

A writer who doesn’t have a clear feel for the pacing of her genre will not only do herself a disservice, but quite possibly set herself up for failure.

There are many tools we can employ to control the pacing of the fiction we write, whether we’re talking about the pacing of the book as a whole, the pacing of a page, a paragraph, or a sentence. It’s not enough to worry about the pacing of the book. The pacing of the individual scenes, the page, and the paragraph are equally important.

But let’s start with the big picture and then move in for the close-up.

One of the big ways we control the pacing of our books is through the skillful use of turning points. What are turning points? They’re places where the story takes a dramatic and unexpected turn in another direction. When the story literally turns the corner.

From Point A to Point B, your hero may be annoyed by the heroine. At Point B, he is no longer annoyed. He turns the corner. His feelings change, and the story changes with it. From Point A to Point B, our spy hero believes that foreign arms dealers are responsible for the explosion outside the embassy, but at the turning point, he learns something that rules out the arms dealer as a suspect. It’s back to the drawing board for our protagonist, and the story changes as a result.

As a general rule, the more frequently turning points appear, the more rapidly paced your story is.

Notable turning points in a romance novel often include a first kiss. But if your characters are immediately sexually attracted, a first kiss, or even the first time the characters make love, may not be a turning point at all. Remember, turning points are those places where your story changes direction. If the story has been moving one direction because of an instant attraction and the characters move toward a logically anticipated step—such as that first kiss—the story hasn’t changed at all.

Think of turning points as those places that reviewers and readers often refer to as twists and turns. They’re the things that will hopefully keep the reader off-balance and keep her reading to find out what happens. If your story follows a predictable path—characters meet, characters are attracted, characters kiss, characters grow closer, one character discover the other’s hidden secret—and so on, the reader has no real reason to keep reading.

Turning points should bring surprises not just for the characters, but for the readers. Revealing a secret to the Hero that the Heroine has shared with the reader already isn’t really going to be a turning point in your story because even though the hero doesn’t know what’s coming, the reader does and she’s already anticipating the changes.

By skillfully weaving turning points from your main story with those from your secondary plot(s) you can keep even a long book twisting and turning with enough regularity to keep readers interested.

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Dancing on Coals Online Workshops
http://www.dancingoncoals.com

Feb 21, 2011

Punctuating Dialogue

And finally, a word about punctuation within dialogue. In the past few years I've noticed an increase in punctuation done poorly in many of the manuscripts I've critiqued and judged in contests, and the last thing any of us wants to do is appear uneducated when we submit our manuscripts to editors and agents. Many of you may already know these things; some of you may not, but I promise that we'll run through the punctuation rules quickly.

At least in the US, dialogue is always set apart in a manuscript with the use of double quotation marks -- "

A quote within a quote is set apart with single quotation marks -- ' as in this example:

"She's horrible. Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do. Why just yesterday, she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

If you're surrounding dialogue with action or emotion, always use a period at the end of the dialogue:

"She's horrible. Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do." Paulette brushed a lock of hair away from her eyes and sank into the chair. "Why just yesterday she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

unless you're using a dialogue tag and/or a gerund phrase, in which case you'll use a comma:

"She's horrible," Paulette said, brushing a lock of hair away from her eyes and sinking into the chair. "Always nagging at me. Telling me what to do. Why just yesterday she screamed at me. 'You're a worthless little thing.' That's exactly what she said."

Whenever you use a comma to set off dialogue, you're signaling the reader that you're using some kind of tag to modify the dialogue. A cue as to the tone of voice used to say whatever has been said. If you punctuate the dialogue incorrectly, you'll pull readers out of the moment while they try to follow what you're saying. The more often you do that, the more you weaken your story.

And on the subject of tags, if you must use them--and we all do from time to time--keep a few things in mind.

In spite what seems to be an on-going love affair with the tag "hiss," no one can hiss a sentence without at least one S in it. "You're a creep," she hissed is physically impossible, and because it is, it's irritating to many readers.

If you're going to have someone grind out a few words between clenched teeth, keep it to a few words. It's believable that someone might say, "She's horrible!" from between clenched teeth. But it's very difficult to believe that anyone's teeth could remain clenched for two or three sentences at a time.

Writing something like this:

"Oh, Jonathan. You are by far the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met and I adore you," she laughed.

Is very likely to irritate readers. Try saying that much while laughing the entire time. Unless you're made of something I'm not, you just can't do it without sounding ridiculous or your laughter sounding false. Here again, about the most anyone can do is to laugh while saying a word or two. Maybe three. Far better to write it this way:

"Oh Jonathan." She laughed and touched his hand gently. "You are by far the kindest, gentlest man I've ever met and I adore you."

Don't forget to listen to the rhythm of your dialogue. This is another area where reading dialogue aloud can help you. When it's spoken aloud, it's much easier to hear where you need a contraction, where you should remove a word or two, and where you have too many dialogue tags in a row, or you need to add one.

When you're reading the dialogue, you'll probably find yourself making the changes aloud that should be made to the page. Read it with a pen handy so you can mark what needs to be revised. You'll be amazed by the results.

photo credit: The "Library" via photopin (license)

Feb 17, 2011

Dialogue: When to Show and When to Skip

Make sure that the dialogue has purpose and lends strength to the scene. A well-told story is one that's a good blend of strong dialogue and strong narrative. If you’re not sure how strong your dialogue is, strip away everything but the dialogue, then read it and see how it holds up.

If everything of value---all the strength in the scene---is in words the characters don’t say, it's time to rework your dialogue. You know it's strong when removing a line of dialogue or a sentence of narrative has a negative impact on the scene. If you can remove it and the scene doesn't miss it, then you're probably repeating yourself or you're wasting words and space on things that don't matter, so go ahead and leave it out.

If writing dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t lose heart. It’s a skill and it can be learned if you’re willing to practice and put forth the effort you need to learn it.

Orson Scott Card says:

“You don't "include dialogue" because dialogue is "good" or "not good." You write scenes because those are the most entertaining or important events, and you use dialogue because what matters is what the people say to each other. If you included meaningless dialogue -- for instance, conversation with a store clerk as your character buys gum, when that conversation leads exactly nowhere and the gum is never even chewed -- then it only makes your readers impatient for you to get on with the story (i.e., the things that are causally connected with the dilemmas they care about).”

As Card says, you write dialogue because what matters is what the people say to each other in the scenes your readers want to experience. Are you writing a scene in which your romance hero and heroine are learning key facts about one another? That dialogue is probably going to be important and should be included.

Is your heroine going to have to divulge a huge secret to the hero at some point in the book? Then don't have her revealing all the details of that secret to her mother, sister, or best friend before you reach that point. Save that important dialogue for when it's really important -- the scene when the hero is going to be forced to either love her anyway or turn his back on her. If the dialogue we read there is nothing more than a repeat of information we already know, your scene is going to lose most of the impact it could have had -- and that will cost you readers.

Be careful as you choose which scenes and conversations to show and which to summarize or skip. If you summarize or skip scenes that the readers really want to see, you end up losing them because you aren't satisfying their desire to see these people in action with each other. Resist the urge to let your romance hero and heroine indulge in countless scenes filled with witty banter. You may believe that you're building sexual tension and keeping your readers on the edge of their seats, but if the readers aren't learning new, vital information during each conversation, even the wittiest dialogue is going to fall flat on its face.

With dialogue, it's a common tendency to avoid the scenes our readers want most to read because we feel unequal to the task of writing it well enough. But there are no easy outs if you want to be successful at this. You must tackle the scenes you want to write the least because those are probably the ones you need to write most.

You must write the dialogue you’re most afraid of because it will probably -- if you persevere -- become the most powerful in your book.

Feb 14, 2011

Dialogue: Get the Author Out of There

In modern fiction, the author should remain invisible. This is one reason why dialogue tags should be avoided whenever possible. There are only two tags that are, in essence, invisible: said and asked. But if they're overused, even those flash out at the reader and disrupt the flow of your work.

The only time you really need to modify “said” or “asked” with an adverb is when the dialogue itself doesn’t contain enough information to convey the proper emotion. If you're writing dialogue that's strong enough and clear enough, the dialogue can do its own work.

Take a look at this example:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she said.

With that statement, the author certainly doesn’t need to say, "she said angrily" or "she shouted,” or "she said in disgust." None of those are necessary. On the other hand, you might need to give the reader a little help if you write something like this:

"Keep your filthy mouth shut," she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

Here you need more because you’re actually contradicting the dialogue with the character's actions.

If the character truly hates someone, and you've done a good job of setting up the moment, then "I hate you!" doesn't need a lot of explanation. "I hate you!" she moaned as she wrapped her legs around his waist, is a completely different story.

When you start adding tags and adjectives where you don't need them, you're actually practicing a form of author intrusion. Author intrusion is one of the deadliest things to fiction since each time you use it, you make it difficult for the reader to forget that you’re there. When you become apparent to the reader, she remembers that she's not actually in the scene, in the moment with the characters. When that happens, you weaken your scenes and weaken reader identification with the characters.

Sadly, the overuse of dialogue tags is something many of us learned in school. Teachers without any real writing skills told us we needed to use the cheap and easy method for conveying emotion. It’s something most of us have to un-teach ourselves to become successful fiction writers.

The problem with excessive use of tags -- “I’m afraid the door is locked,” the heiress said alarmingly -- is that they constantly distract the reader from the story.

Consider this weak example:

“Go away,” she shouted angrily. “You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” She added the last sadly.

Is there anything in that example that pulls you into the moment? Chances are, there isn’t. As the author, I am more visible than either of the characters. The character who is speaking is only mildly visible, and we don't even spare the person she's speaking to a thought.

To add depth, surround the dialogue with emotion. Give it the quality of something else going on.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will. I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Surround it with action -- Draw it out. Give your characters props.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! You made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

This paragraph is doing double and even triple duty now. Even better, the author is no longer visible in that paragraph. Now the reader can focus completely on Nancy (who finally has a name) and the man she's talking to.

Can you do anything else with it to make it any stronger? Depending on where it falls in the story....

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression and added, “I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

Let the dialogue help to set the surroundings.

Nancy’s hands trembled and angry tears welled in her eyes. She slammed the book onto the desk and whirled back to face him. “Go away! I should have known better than to trust you. You’re no better than my father was. Well, you made your choice, now live with it. I know I will.” At the devastated look on his face, her anger evaporated and the pity she’d been trying so hard to fight replaced it. She turned away so she wouldn’t have to see his expression. When he made no move to leave, she gestured toward the window. “The storm’s getting worse by the minute. If you don’t get out of here now, you’ll never get through the pass and I don’t want you to stay here tonight.”

If you find yourself using frequent tags and logs of adjectives, then practice writing without them. Practice finding ways to convey emotion without having to tell the reader what the character is feeling. Your dialogue, and your narrative, will be stronger as a result.

Feb 10, 2011

Dialogue: Doing Double Duty

One of the most powerful things dialogue can be used for in our manuscripts is revealing character. The words a person uses and the way she chooses to phrase them says a lot about her as a person. From just a few lines of dialogue we can learn a lot about the person we're talking to.

If you're writing a character who often says things like "by jingo!" then, by jingo, he needs to think that way too. If he speaks in short clipped sentences, his narrative thoughts shouldn't be long and lyrical. And, of course, the reverse is true, too.

Some of us are able to match dialogue to the character's background quite well, but others miss the mark wildly. If you're writing a character who is supposed to be highly educated and polished, make sure you personally have a broad enough vocabulary to create that character believably. There aren't many things more jarring than being told that a character is a doctor, a scientist, a psychotherapist, or some other highly educated person, but when he opens his mouth, he makes glaring grammatical mistakes in his speech.

If a reader is asked to believe two things that are at odds with each other; e.g., this is a highly educated person who speaks poorly, she will almost always believe what you show her, not what you tell she is shown, not what she is told. If the dialogue is what she is shown, then that which you, the author, have told her is going to feel false. And when the reader suspects that you've lied to her, you lose her -- not just for the one book she's reading, but for future books, as well. You lose your credibility, and that's just about the most precious commodity at your disposal.

Even little words can make or break the image you're trying to create. Never, never have your professional character open his briefcase or look down at the desk at the papers there. Do the research so that you know exactly what those papers are. A doctor might look at charts or medical records, an attorney at a complaint, a brief, a deposition, and so on. But letting a character refer to the documents of his trade as "papers" only reveals that you haven't done your research.

Read the following piece of dialogue and then think for a minute about what it tells you about the character.

“She left me. Two little slips, and she walked out the door. Left me on my own, the bitch. Said she’d had enough. Wants somebody who’ll cherish her--whatever the hell that means.”

What do you know about the speaker? He’s probably male. He cheats on his wife or significant other. He’s fairly obnoxious. Has very little respect for women in general, and certainly isn't a romantic. In fact, from this one tiny piece of dialogue, we come away with some very strong idea about his life views, his opinions about women and fidelity, and we'd probably be right if asked to predict whether or not he's a religious person. This is the power of dialogue.

How about this person:

“Because you wouldn’t do that. I know you wouldn’t. We’ve been together too long. Through too much. I don’t care what she says, George. You wouldn’t have betrayed me.”

Who is this speaker? My bet is that it's a female. She’s optimistic -- or at least pathetically hopeful. She’s trusting. Maybe a little too trusting. Whether or not that optimism and trust is justified remains to be learned. As a reader, your opinion of her will be clouded by your own life experiences. If you've ever been taken advantage of by a man and have kicked yourself ever since for trusting so blindly, you may see something different than the woman who has been happily married to the same man for thirty-five years. Remember that the same is true of your readers.

Dialogue is a powerful tool, but it must be combined with narrative to provide the right direction for your readers. It can also be used to create a sense of place, although it can be a pretty clumsy way to create a sense of place if you're not careful. We really don't want to read:

“Ooooh, cobwebs. Icky. And broken glass in the windows.”

“Gosh, yes, Mary. And be careful of that broken board over by the sagging doorway.”

But we might want to read dialogue that does more than provide an inventory:

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass...” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” Kindness filled his voice. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place.”

Dialogue can help to create a sense of time.

“The dirt, the cobwebs, the broken glass...” She shook the web from her fingers and grimaced. “I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again? Believe me, Fran, you don’t want to see this place. Besides, it’s pitch black in here since the sun went down. We’re on equal footing now.”

Check every sentence you write, every paragraph, every piece of dialogue to see how many different things you can accomplish with one set of words.

After you finish each scene, take a look at the dialogue and figure out for yourself what you’ve accomplished with it. Have you used it to accomplish at least two of the following?:

provide information

establish conflict

establish character

establish setting

establish the story’s or scene’s time-frame


As a general rule, the more things you can accomplish at once with the dialogue, the more powerful it is.

Feb 3, 2011

To Thine Own Self be True

One common problem I notice frequently when I’m critiquing and judging contests is that the character’s speaking voice doesn’t match his “thinking” voice. 

His thought patterns may make him sound very American and educated -- probably because that’s what you are as the author. Then he opens his mouth to speak and I’m shocked to discover that he’s a street thug from England. Even worse is when the author who struggles with grammar usage tries to write a character who must be well-educated to achieve the level of professional success I'm told he has. So when that neurosurgeon from the Mayo Clinic says something like, "I seen them yesterday," you've lost me. 

Remember that unless you're writing in omniscient point of view, the narrative in your book is nothing more than silent dialogue in the character's point of view. His thinking voice must match his speaking voice. If he's a street thug when he speaks aloud, he's not likely to think in long, complex sentences when he's noticing his surroundings.

He's not going to think about the obviously inexpensive sedan in the driveway, he's going to think of it as Daniel's cheap-a## ride. Inside the house he's not going to notice body odor, he's going to think it smells like s##t.

Likewise, his dialogue must ring true for who he is. A member of the military on deployment in the middle-east isn't likely to say, "Gee whiz, Castor, the computer's gone!" 

I'm not saying that you have to use language that you personally find offensive, but it's often better to skip the expletive completely than to substitute something a person in that situation wouldn't actually say. 

As I've said before, keep in mind the roles the two characters play in each others’ lives. (This is one reason secondary characters are so vitally important to the success of your book.) The Lord of the Manor is unlikely to have a heart-felt conversation about his dead child with a servant, but I can't even begin to count the number of scenes I've read where he does just that. 

To avoid tons of internal angst that might put the reader off, he needs to have the conversation with someone, but make it someone he would actually share the information with -- or motivate his decision to share it with an unlikely person so well that even your harshest critic won't be able to find fault with his decision.

The hard-nosed detective probably won’t share his true feelings over his divorce with many people -- but he just might occasionally break down to the bartender at his local pub. 

Many characters will seem naturally reticent when you begin to work with them. Three-quarters of my characters (especially the heroes) begin life wanting to protect their privacy, even from me. But again, if you don’t find someone for them to have conversations with, you may lose readers during your characters' long bouts of angst-ridden introspection.

In short, when you're writing dialogue, the most effective thing you can do is to think through the set-up logically using your internal editor -- that skeptical side of yourself. Once she's satisfied, then turn your creative self loose. Just remember to remove yourself and your goals from the scene as you start writing. Scenes often go wrong when we fail to get ourselves out of the way.

Once the dialogue is written, send your creative side away and read the dialogue aloud. Read it to a spouse or a child. Read it to the dog or the cat. Read it to the wall if that's all you've got. But read it out loud and let your internal editor go to work again. If you've written a sentence without contractions, but those contractions feel natural when you read the work aloud, change the work. If you skip words, cross them out. If you add words, put them in.

Using a different sense to edit your work than you used to create it can be an effective way of smoothing out the rough spots.

Jan 31, 2011

Dialogue is also frequently used to establish conflict. One of the common mistakes I've seen as I've judged contests and critiqued pages for people over the years is that writers often establish conflict in internal monologue and then repeat it in dialogue; i.e.,
She couldn’t do this. The memories were too strong and the past too close to ignore. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning away abruptly. “I can’t do this. I just can’t forget.”
Another common dialogue problem is the Why Now? Conversation. These are conversations that in real life would have taken place long ago, but are dropped into the manuscript to feed information to the reader. For example, a conversation like this between two long-time friends the scene before the hero (who just happened to be with the hit-and-run driver that fateful night....)
“I know you were in that accident when we were in college, but I’ve never asked-- Did you ever find out who ran into your car?”

“No. We never did. We looked and looked, even hired a detective, but we never found the guy.”
Unless these two characters haven't seen each other, had access to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook or Twitter for the past few years, they know the answer. This is not a realistic conversation for them to have. If you use unrealistic conversations like this, it's a form of lying to your reader--which is never a good thing to do.

How do you avoid making these mistakes? Simply put, employ some common sense. I think that mistakes like these should be a red flag to you as an author -- an indication that you aren’t seeing your characters as real people. You’re seeing them as cardboard pieces there for you to move around to illustrate a point or tell your story.

  • Ask yourself if two real people in the same circumstances are likely to have this same conversation. 
  • Ask yourself how this conversation would go between you and a friend in the same circumstances. Read your dialogue aloud. Reading your dialogue silently on the page is not going to help you find the problem areas. 
  • Have someone else read your dialogue aloud to you. Another person won’t disguise the problem areas the way you might for yourself. You’ll hear the dialogue exactly as it’s written, which allows you to know where inflection or punctuation may need to be changed or added.
  • Spend time eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations to hear what kinds of things people say to each other. Figure out how much you can assume about those people from the conversation you hear.
Most of all, practice, practice, practice. That's the key to mastering technique, with writing as with any other artistic endeavor. 

Jan 28, 2011

You Talkin' to Me?

We all know that dialogue is often used to provide backfill. Providing that backfill in dialogue between a couple of characters can be a much more interesting way to share that information with your readers than resorting to a lengthy narrative information dump -- but if the dialogue isn't written well, there's very little difference.

This:

She walked into the house and took a deep breath. She'd spent many happy hours here as a child, sitting on the floor while her grandmother and her friends spent endless hours at the quilting frames, playing with the dolls her grandmother had kept just for her, escaping the turmoil her parents' trouble marriage created at home.
Is not much different from this:

She walked into the house and took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm back here again," she said to Bob. "I spent so many happy hours here when I was little . . . I used to sit under the quilting frame while my grandmother and her friends were quilting. And she had the loveliest dolls. She kept them here just for me. It was really my only escape from the ugliness at home." 

Putting quotations around the information doesn't turn it into strong, useful dialogue.

One of the first things you have to consider when you're creating dialogue that will divulge some of the character's backfill is who she's talking to. Obviously, here, she's talking to Bob. But who is Bob? If Bob is a long-time friend, their conversation will be different than if he's a new acquaintance, and different still if he's a family member. If he's only a friend, their conversation will be different than if he's someone she's developing romantic feelings for, and if those feelings are already developed, the conversation will be different still.

The first great key to writing believable dialogue is to remember who's involved and to tailor the dialogue accordingly. Remember that most real people are reluctant to just pour out information in front of people who don't know them very well, and no matter how honest we may pride ourselves on being, we are usually quite anxious to present ourselves in a favorable light.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make with dialogue is writing conversations in which people divulge information they wouldn't really share under the circumstances. Remember that everything in your book must be motivated, not just the character's back stories. Their actions and dialogue in every scene must be well-motivated, too.

Characters that move around on stage without good reason feel stilted and unrealistic, and the same is true for characters that say things without good reason. One of my least favorite things as a reader is to pick up a novel in which the characters are trying to learn some kind of secret. They visit someone who may have some information, but who has a very good reason not to share that information. Suddenly, for no reason except that the author wants to share the information with me, the character begins to share things no real person in those circumstances would share.

Dialogue that's only motivated by the author's need to get the information onto the page will never feel realistic. The characters involved have to be motivated to share the information. Sometimes the hardest work you'll do in a day of writing will be to figure out why a particular character would say the thing you need him to say, and then figure out how he'll say it.


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Jan 24, 2011

Keep it Real ... Or Maybe Not



Writing natural-sounding dialogue is something that comes very naturally to some people, but it's also something that others will struggle with for a long, long time. Whether we're good at it or not so good, dialogue is a very important tool when it comes to story-telling, and it's one we can't afford to overlook.

Dialogue can be used to provide information. We all know this. But chatter just for the sake of providing information can create clutter in your work. Dialogue that exists only to provide information to the reader will almost always sound stilted and unnatural. What you tend to get is one of these conversations -- what many of us call the "As You Know" dialogue
"As you know, John, I’ve been blind since the accident that also left me psychic.”
"Yes, but didn't your mother tell you that psychic abilities also run in your family?"
"Why, yes, John. My great-aunt Freda, whom you met at the family reunion last summer, is also psychic. You remember that she told you about her husband who ran off with his secretary."

…or
“Well, you know I’ve been trying to find someone to clean my house for the past three months.”

"Yes, and the last six people who applied for the job just didn't fit the bill. I don't blame you for turning away the woman you told me about who had the prison record."

Sometimes it's necessary to write conversations between people who already have all the information you're planning to share with the reader, but there’s a skillful way to work the information into a conversation. It takes a little more time, but the end result is worth it. Take the first example I just gave you. Instead, write something like this: 

“I know it’s useless, but I keep wishing . . .”

“What?” His voice was kind. “That you will see again?”
She nodded. “It’s been three years since the accident and I still have trouble accepting that this is how I’ll spend the rest of my life.”
“Try not to think about what you’ve lost,” John urged. “Try to think about what you’ve gained.”

“I do try,” she said. “Some days it helps, but others . . . Tell me, John, would you consider exchanging your eyesight for the limited ability to see the future a fair trade?”

Or for the second example: 
“Any calls today?”

“About the housekeeper’s position?” Marsha shook her head. “It’s been three months already. Wouldn’t you think I’d have found somebody by now?”
        
“You’ve had plenty of applicants,” Trudy said with a grin. “You’re just too picky.”

Marsha laughed. “You can’t seriously think I should have hired the ex-con?”

“Of course not. Just pointing that you’ve had options, that’s all.”

The trick to believable dialogue is to provide information to the readers subtly, so that it sounds natural and interesting at the same time. 

Real dialogue, the kind real people engage in every day, is often almost unreadable and a lot of it is beyond boring. People interrupt one another, leave sentences unfinished, and say a whole lot of nothing, especially when they first come together in a room. As writers, our task is not to repeat real dialogue, but to create a facsimile of real dialogue that is actually worth the reader's time.
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photo credit: Oh Winter, let's get married via photopin (license)

Jan 20, 2011

Just Write

There is a huge difference between spoken and written language but a good writer is expected to bridge the gap as seamlessly as possible. Spoken voice consists of tone, inflection, emotion, body language, and words. Writing is words alone, and we have to express all of the spoken aspects of language by our choice of written words.

Those words convey the message we want to carry to reader, whether it’s anger, happiness, warning, or sarcasm.

So how do we do that? Through tone, for one thing.

What tone does your voice set on the page? Is it upbeat? Casual? Quirky?

RaeAnne Thayne’s The Valentine Two-Step is a great example of voice done right. Not only can you hear RaeAnne in the book, but her characters’ voices never waver. Her hero’s narrative is written in the same patterns and inflections, dips and swells, as his speaking voice. The same thing is true for the heroine.

When a piece of writing sounds cardboard, static and like something that anyone who can form a complete sentence could string together, you can be sure that your voice is absent.

Why does this happen? There are three basic reasons:

1) Your heart isn’t involved in the subject.


If you don’t care about what you’re writing, that will become painfully obvious to anyone who tries to read it.

Time after time, editors refer to that “spark” they’re looking for when they pick up a manuscript. That spark comes from you, from your unique outlook on life, from what you believe, what you find important, what you think is funny.

Think of some of your favorite authors. Think about what they bring to the book that keeps you coming back again and again. It’s more than plot. It’s more than character. It’s more than motivation, goal, and conflict.

What keeps you going back to an author time and again is that something in the author’s style appeals to you. You like the way her mind works, you share her sense of humor, and as you read, you feel almost as if the two of you have a special connection.

I don’t know exactly how to describe the authors whose works appeal to me most, but I do know the feeling I get when I start a book that has whatever the elusive quality is. It’s a sense of shared intimacy that I think can only come when the walls are stripped away and the pretense is gone.

I pick up the book, and I can almost hear the author say, “Let me tell you how it was,” and I say, “Yes, yes! Tell me!” And she has me, right there in the palm of her hand, as long as she remains honest.

Once she closes the door on the honesty, she’ll lose me. If she puts on airs, becomes pretentious, crosses the lines of (to me) acceptable behavior, or suddenly starts trying to instruct me, I’m gone.

Likewise, if she repeatedly insults my intelligence, I’m outta there. She has to respect me enough to tell me the truth -- all of it. Even the truth that hurts.

2) Your knowledge of your subject is too shallow and scattered to come across clearly and engagingly.


If you don’t know what you’re talking about, your references will become vague and shadowy. When that happens, your clear author’s voice is gone.

Of course, there will be some things you can write around, some details you can wait to look up. But if you don’t know, for example, where your story is set you’re going to run into trouble because you can’t be clear about the setting.

Don’t use this as an excuse to stop writing while you research! Use some discretion. But also don’t try to write about things you just don’t understand.

3) You’re trying to write the “right” way so you're bogged down in rules.


The trouble with voice is that it’s impossible to show in a few simple examples. Voice doesn’t become apparent quickly, and it’s not gained easily.

Voice is identified by an author’s entire body of work. Voice is something that becomes stronger with time, and the chances that anyone has a really clear, strong voice in their first book are relatively slim.

Most likely, an editor will find a hint of Strong-Voice-To-Come in your early efforts and will be willing to take a chance on your ability to develop that hint into something more substantial. But in order to do that, you must be honest about how you view the world, what you think is important.

The real story is not in statistics or facts, it’s in the people involved. Peter Jacobi (The Magazine Article: Think It, Plan It, Write It, Writer's Digest Books, 1991) describes it as: "sifting facts through personality, the personality of the people involved in the topic you're covering and your own personality as a writer."

How do you Develop Voice?

Try writing with your eyes closed so you can’t see and edit what you’ve written. (This works better with a keyboard than a pen and paper, and, of course, you want to be sure your fingers are in the right place before you start!) If you can't actually write with your eyes closed, try spending a few minutes with them closed before you write. Closing your eyes helps you focus inward where the story is being created, and what you hear in there is the closest thing to your true voice.

Learn to let the story tell itself and avoid the urge to get your fingers in the pie (at least until the editing and revising stages.)

Be direct and clear. Don’t try to sound like a writer. Don’t try to get fancy with your phrasing, just say what you mean.

Don’t belittle or demean yourself. Allow for the chance that maybe your voice is exactly as it’s meant to be so you can reach the people out there who will respond to your unique voice. Remind yourself every day when you sit down to write that your voice is no accident.

Work with your critique group and ask them to help you know where your voice is shining through and where it disappears and becomes safe or generic.

Don't listen to your critique group if they're trying to rewrite your stuff and force their voices onto your work.

If you just can’t relax when you’re writing something “real” spend time journaling or writing something that “doesn’t matter.” The more time you spend with your real voice, the more comfortable you’ll become with it.

Don McKinney (Writing Magazine Articles That Sell, Writer's Digest Books, 1994) writes:

"The simple, uncomplicated approach to a dramatic situation will have more impact than the kind of souped-up prose that too many writers feel is necessary.

“Your best/first move might be to forget everything you ever learned about the ‘craft of writing’ and get back to the basic approach, the direct, immediate, uncluttered way of telling a story you used when you were a child.

“To put it even more simply: Don't write like a writer--just write.”

When it comes down to it, that’s the only advice anyone can give about voice. Don’t write like a writer, just write.

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photo credit: Oh Winter, let's get married via photopin (license)

Jan 17, 2011

The Dangers of "Perfection"

We’ve all had the experience of a story sounding great in our heads, but then it loses something when we try to put it on paper. That’s because in your head you’re telling the story to yourself in your speaking voice. When you write it down you’re suddenly trying to sound like a writer. You search through the thesaurus for the perfect word--a word you’d never use in normal conversation. (Hint: If you have to look it up, it’s [ahem] probably not part of your natural voice.)

Suddenly in that process of writing down what’s in your head, you’ve lost your voice and you’ve adapted the voice of someone else. Someone you consider to be a writer, perhaps. Or maybe you’ve just started using the voice you think your writing should have.

For many writers, the voice they consider their “real voice” -- the one that shows up when they first start writing -- is the least unique of their voices, and so it’s the one that least reflects who they are.

What we get instead is a generic, homogenized voice of clich├ęs, of advertising, or popular culture. It is a voice without color or tone. Left unattended it becomes interchangeable with the next writer’s voice...

Once, several years ago when I was serving as president of my local Romance Writers of America chapter, I agreed to judge about twenty contests in exchange for getting other published authors to judge our chapter’s contest. I read so many contest entries that year, I swore I’d never judge another one. (A vow I’ve since broken.)

After reading several entries a night for nearly two weeks, something began to concern me. Nearly every entry I picked up was written in almost the same voice as the one before it and the one that came afterward. Sentence structure, word choices, and even plot were nearly identical. The more I read, the more I realized that there was nothing in any of those entries to set it apart from the rest. Unless there’s something to set your work apart from the pack, why would an editor buy it?

Like I said, even the plots were the same. Out of 10 entries I read over the course of a couple of days, eight were about women who got temporary jobs working for the hottest guy they’d ever met. Eight out of 10! Those odds aren't good at all.

The conflicts were all nearly identical, as well. Sometimes the job was working as a nanny for the hero’s children, and sometimes it wasn’t, but the hero was always torn between his lust for his employee and the rule (whether written in a manual somewhere or his own personal rule) against fraternizing with employees.

At the time, I was teaching a class that included weekly critiques, so I decided to try an experiment. Each of us wrote 10 pages and submitted those pages to class for critique. Instead of letting the others know who wrote them, we left all identifying markers off. We mailed the pages to my daughter and let her distribute them to each of us so that nobody involved with the class knew who wrote what. The goal was to see if others could identify our work by voice alone.

Keep in mind that we'd been working together for three or four years at that time, and we’d all read a lot of pages written by the others.

Those early efforts weren’t all that successful. Some of us could tell, and some of us couldn’t. In the years since, we’ve all worked hard at letting our individual voices ring true in our work, and the last time we did “Mystery Pages,” I think we had just two wrong guesses out of 36.

There is no color to the generic voice. There is no attitude. There’s no sense of humor. There is no uniqueness of phrasing. There’s no climate. No sense of place. No hint of background.

Peter Elbow, author of What Do We Mean When We Talk About Voice in Texts? said, “Writing with no voice is dead, mechanical, faceless, without sound. It may be logically organized; it may even be a work of genius. But, it is as though the words came out of a mixer rather than a person.”

He goes on to say, “Because they stop so often in mid-sentence and ponder, worry or change their minds about which word to use or which direction to go in, their writing lacks voice.”

Aspiring writers who haven't yet found their voice write with one purpose, to give someone else what they think that person wants.

Depending on who you’re trying to reach, you may be trying to sound scholarly and profound, witty and exciting, young and fresh, dark and brooding -- whatever you think the editor of the line you’re targeting may be looking for.

Voice is one of the hardest things to critique and judge in a contest because it’s hard to say to someone you don’t know well (or at all) that their voice isn’t ringing true. But it’s the first thing that hits me when I start reading someone’s work. I know immediately if the author is talking to me and telling me a story, or if she’s trying to sound like a writer. There’s an immediate and noticeable difference between generic voice and true voice, even if you’ve never met the author.

When we listen to someone talking, we hear the way their voice rises, where the stress falls, where the pauses are. We also hear inflection, which often indicates attitude.

Years ago, a weatherman on my local TV channel had a specific speech cadence that drove me crazy because his voice always dropped and paused mid-sentence. Then he rushed over the periods at the end of the sentence as if they didn’t exist. His sentences didn’t run from capital to period, they ran from middle to middle.

If I were writing dialogue and trying to make you hear the rhythm of his speech, I’d write something like this:

“Highs today will be in the mid-fifties but lows tomorrow. Will only reach into the twenties that should bring. Some much-needed precipitation to the area. On Sunday we should see. Clear skies and warmer temperatures...” and so on.

The music and rhythm of a person’s speech helps us to follow and remember what they say and who they are. The music of speech is the pattern of pitch changes: down up/down up. Rhythm deals with stress (soft/loud) and length—duration (short/long).

If you don’t hear this already when you listen to people talk, spend some time listening to the speech patterns of strangers so you can hear the music of their speech. I think this is one of the reasons Southern writers are often so popular. The music of their speech patterns often fill their books with rich melody.

When we read, we need similar sound cues—cues that can only be provided by the writer’s sentence patterns and punctuation. But in the generic, homogenized, safe voice, there are no patterns. There is no music or rhythm.

If you want to find your voice, let your words sing on the page.

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Jan 12, 2011

Just One of the Guys

Many years ago--probably close to 20 at the time of this writing--I was an aspiring writer who'd never actually finished a manuscript. I had never submitted a thing. Never entered a contest. Never heard of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, or Novelists, Inc. I’d never even heard of half the publishers out there. I knew nothing about marketing, nothing about publishing, nothing about the production process of a novel. I just knew that I wanted to write.

I became friendly with a man named Joe Walker and his wife. Joe and Anita lived in my neighborhood and attended my church. Joe and I had gone to the same high school many years before, and Joe also happened to be a writer.

At the time, he’d written a number of articles for some magazines published by our church, and he’d ghost-written a few books. Joe and I talked often about writing, and soon our little circle expanded to include a third person. After a while, Joe, Karen, and I decided to meet twice a month to discuss writing. My first critique group. I felt like a writer, but I was terrified to show them my stuff.


Gathering all my courage, I wrote a story and carried it to our first meeting. Joe brought a wonderful piece about something that had happened to him during the week, and Karen brought a thoughtful, articulate, and beautifully written story that left me speechless and filled with envy.  By comparison, my offering was short, clumsy, and juvenile-sounding.

At some point during one of our weeks, Joe complimented Karen on her beautiful writing style. I don’t remember everything he told her because it was just too painful for me and I blocked it all out.  I only remember the part that speared me straight in the heart: when he said, “Sherry and I just write like...one of the guys.”

I was crushed!  Devastated!  I could scarcely breathe!  I was mortified. And I was absolutely certain that I would never write another word as long as I lived. How could I dare?  I wrote like one of the...guys!!!!

Completely distraught, I crawled home and pouted for a while.  I tried everything I knew to put Joe's comment out of my head.  Eventually, I started reading some of the old things I’d written. I remember in particular a passage from my journal written during a time when I was trying really hard to sound like a writer. I’d written it during a trip to Illinois, and in it I described the vast fields of corn and sorghum (I think) in lofty terms that included as many fancy words as I could come up with.

The fact was, they were fields of green corn stalks and squatty sorghum plants, and even I had to admit (in retrospect) that my lofty descriptions sounded utterly ridiculous.  I think I even described the sorghum as majestic.


I read a few other passages—the ones that actually sounded good—and slowly began to realize that I wrote best when I wrote “like one of the guys.” The thing is, I don’t speak in lofty terms. I have a good vocabulary, I think, but the first words that come into my head when I’m speaking aren’t the longest and most difficult ones to pronounce. I talk like one of the guys, too, I guess.

After a long and painful journey through my own psyche, a lot of soul-searching, and a couple of two-by-fours upside the head, I began to accept that my voice was my voice, and that it was exactly what it needed to be in order to tell my stories and reach my audience. There are other people whose task it is to write to other people, and their voices will be different out of necessity. But there is nothing wrong with writing like one of the guys. For me, there’s something very right about it. 

I learned to accept my voice and then to embrace it, and shortly after that I wrote No Place for Secrets, the book that went on to be my first sale and earn me a three-book contract in the bargain. The "blow" that Joe Walker landed that night so many years ago was actually one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given me in my writing journey.

Joe has gone on to write a few books, including the charming Christmas on Mill Street. He also writes a syndicated column called ValueSpeak available in newspapers across the country. If you ever happen to see one, read it. Joe writes just like he speaks. And while you’re reading, say “hey!” to Joe from me :) I owe him a far greater debt than I’ll ever be able to repay.


photo credit: Magnolias via photopin (license)
photo credit: Sharp via photopin (license)