Dialogue–What Your Character Doesn’t Say

V for Vendetta QuoteI’m teaching my workshop on dialogue this September, and so it’s a good time to bring up some tips on dialogue. A story can live or die just on dialogue. Bad dialogue will make a character flat and uninteresting, and may even send the reader running from the story–no amount of great action or terrific plot twists will save a story with weak dialogue. But great dialogue can make a reader forget to look for plot holes or poor pacing. That’s because great dialogue is where you characters can shine.

Now, learning to write great dialogue is no easy task. It takes time to figure out how to make fictional dialogue sound better than how folks talk in real life but still sound possible. All of this starts with your characters.

The workshop will go into detail on dialogue–and exercises to improve dialogue skills–but here are a few tips.

1-Get to know your characters. I don’t mean charts or lists, and I mean beyond a few scenes. How does that character lie? What are the verbal habits? Is this person a talker or not? Spend some time away from the story just getting your character talking.

2. Become a habitual eavesdropper. Listen to how real people talk–and jot down notes. Notice how real conversations usually make for terrible dialogue–there are pauses, jumps, repeated phrases and words. It is still useful to pay attention to all this stuff because this is what fiction mimics. Notice how rarely people stick to one topic. Notice slang, and how words are used as leverage. Notice how one person will speak differently to the different people in that person’s life.

3-Close your eyes in the next movie and just listen to the words. Pay attention to how dialogue–and the pauses–are used to reveal character. Listen for the emotional words. Use just your ears to get a sense of rhythm, and so you won’t be distracted by flashy visuals or the actor.

4-Take apart your favorite writers’ works. Yes, this means getting out some markers and marking up the book–ebooks readers also let you mark up books. Pause over the really great dialogue moments and look at how the words are used. Look at word choice, at sentence structure, at paragraphs and how they link.

5-Write a lot of dialogue. Write pages of the stuff. Write just dialogue–fit in any description later. Nothing helps you learn faster than writing–a lot.

6-Get the technical stuff out of the way. Dialogue can clunk with periods in the wrong places, or commas that are missing, or with quote marks that don’t make sense. All of this can trip up the reader. Buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and nail the punctuation so it becomes invisible.

7-Look to give your characters great lines. Think about your favorite actor playing that role–wouldn’t you want him or her to come up to you and gush about having wonderful lines. Let your characters be more witty and better than anything in real life.

8-See how long you can have a character talk and not mention the real topic. This is the art of subtext. Make what the character doesn’t say important. Make the reader want to know what the character isn’t putting into dialogue.

9-Punch and polish, and then polish some more. Great dialogue often comes with revision, rewrites, edits, and then even more edits. Polish those words. Say them aloud to see how they sound. Fall in love with those words and make them wonderful.

10-Keep learning. Some links to help you with that:

http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Dialogue&Detail.htm

Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

Got Subtext? Writing Better Dialogue

Dialogue: Don’t Let’Em Say What You Mean by Shannon Donnelly

 

OCC Book Buyer’s Best Finalist – Davinia’s Duke

Davinia's DukeI am so behind things–that’s what happens when you spent the summer teaching an EMT-Basic class (you end up reviewing lectures and tests, as if you were taking the class yourself). But that’s done–everyone passed (yeah!). And now I can catch up on new.

Some of the best news is that Davinia’s Duke is a finalist in the OCC RWA chapter’s Book Buyer’s Best contest for novellas. This is delightful not just because OCC was once my home chapter back when I lived in California, but because it’s a contest judged buy booksellers and readers.

So thank you, OCC, and thank you readers and book buyers!

The novella took longer to write than it ought to have–life interfered, and then the story stalled out, and shorter is always harder than longer. It’s also a quiet story–mostly just people on the page talking, which is one of my favorite kinds of stories, but not everyone thinks that in a world where if there’s not an explosion or a big fight scene it’s just not exciting. It is nice to know there are other readers looking for something a little quieter.

Point of View — The Value of Variety

InkyI finished Dean Koontz’s book Devoted not that long ago (wonderful book by the way–I highly recommend it), and it got me thinking about how omniscient point of view is sometimes a neglected art. The POV, by the way, is expertly handled by Koontz who uses the point of view–changing/shifting and swapping–as only a master can. (How lovely to have the dog’s POV–actually, several dog’s POV–as a main element in the story. The story wouldn’t have worked without that.) And that left me wondering if it really is a matter that omniscient POV can be tough to pull off gracefully.

Now…first person is easier in some respects. One person, one point of view, and that’s that. However, I’ve read really weak first person that gets stuck in too much I…I…I. The best Urban Fantasy pulls off great first person ( Rebecca Roanhorse springs to mind–fabulous books and great writing that pulls you in).

Then there’s third person, most commonly used for romance, since it lets you swap between characters but you can still do deep POV. This is my preferred way to write viewpoint. However, I’ve often dipped into first person for a scene and then switched it over to third person to get that deeper point of view. I find this lets me dig more into my characters’ emotions, which is important with any romance (or almost any novel).

But I’ve heard from young writers that they’ve been bashed when using omniscient, and accused of “head hopping” which is not really a valid critique if you’re using omniscient, which can be a powerful tool.

I think part of this is a stylistic choice. Urban Fantasy–first person. Thrillers or suspense–omniscient. Mystery–pretty much first person, but some will go for third person. And romance–third person, except for those break-out books that dare first person, but rare to find omniscient unless you step back in time. I’ve been enjoying the reissues of Elizabeth Cadell’s books which are a delight, and were written decades ago when a novel was a novel and she’s not shy about mixing up point of view, as well as putting in romance, suspense, mystery, a murder in some, and even paranormal if the story goes that way. A true story teller with a gift.

All of this boils down to what does the story need? What’s the writer’s preference? And how is the story best told. Thankfully, with self-publishing the world seem to be getting back to a good story well told, and “the rules” can be bent to suit the tale. It’s about the writer using their skills to the best purpose. Which is how it should be.

Is a Synopsis Too Old School?

I’m teaching my synopsis workshop at CRW this month (June) and wondering if I’ll actually ever teach it again. Once upon a time, a synopsis was mandatory–you needed one to pitch editors and agents, and you needed one for just about any writing contest. Now the world is more about self publishing, and I’m there, too. But I still actually end up doing a synopsis.

Maybe it’s habit, maybe training, but I find a synopsis actually has a lot of use.

First off, it helps me when I get stuck or lost, which happens every book. I need to have something to remind me that ‘oh, yeah, that’s what I was thinking.’

I generally do the synopsis by hand, not computer. You just think differently with a pen and paper, and ideas can be a little more loose, and I can let my mind wander a bit. I don’t have to worry just yet about putting things together.

Then I need to to clarify my thoughts in general. Until it’s on a page, ideas are like vague mist–they dissolve way too easily. If I write it down, the ideas become solid, and the flaw also show up so I can fix them.

Which brings up the next thing–it is far easier to fix plot holes, and lack of character development, and an unclear theme, and weak motivations, and all the other structural issues in a synopsis. If I fix it there, I avoid massive rewrites. I may have to tweak the structure once I get writing, and it may drift a little, but I know the character arcs are solid, and so is the pacing.Davinia's Duke

I did this with Davina’s Duke, my most recent novella (which was awarded the Indie BRAG Gold Medallion for independently published books. I got stuck, remembered, oh, yeah, I don’t have a synopsis, and went back to figure out what the heck I was doing. Maybe some folks can keep that all in their heads…I certainly can’t. Once I knew where I was going again, I was able to pull the novella back on track and get it done.

And these days, if you are self publishing, you need marketing copy. Yes, you can hire this out, but that is one more expense. I’d rather develop, edit, revise and polish my own copy to make sure it is just what I want and need.

So maybe a synopsis is old school, but so am I. So I think I’ll keep doing them. Which reminds me, I’ve got to get one done for the novella I just started….

It’s About Craft – Showing More, Telling Better

I’m teaching my Show & Tell Workshop for OCC Romance Writers this March. It’s a workshop with a lot of hands-on, because I believe that learning to show more and tell better is a vital part of any writer’s craft.

Now, I know the advice is usually “show, don’t tell”. However, narrative has it’s place in fiction. Writers need to know when to show more, and how to make the telling (or narrative) compelling. Some tips for writers;

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how a character expresses emotion–readers want to see the characters in action.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

8 – Use narrative to slow the pace. Telling will slow the pace of any story, so it can be used to help you transition the reader into a new scene, or to convey passage of time, or it can be used to set a mood.

9 – Revise, revise, revise. Remember that if anything that is first draft (and sometimes even second) may be rough, and will lean on your own habits. Do you habitually overwrite–that means you need to cut. Or do you habitually underwrite–that means you need to flesh out your scenes.

10 – To quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a jar.” This goes back to editing your work, and in particular your narrative passages. Is every word the right word? The right mood? The right meaning? And, yes, even the right spelling. Read your work aloud to catch errors, places where a reader will trip up, and just awkward spots.

More tips and tricks in the workshop, but these ten will help bump up your writing.

Wounds & Warriors Workshop

Early AmbulanceThe idea for a Wounds & Warriors workshop for writers after I became an EMT in New Mexico–because too often our characters get hurt and either recover ridiculously fast or have injuries that are just not plausible. What I realized was that most of us get our ideas from movies and TV–and boy do they get it wrong. Which means if a writer wants more accuracy it helps to know what are the common misconceptions and how do you go about better research.

In the Wounds & Warriors workshop I’m teaching in February for the Hearts Through History writers, we’re going to go over a lot of different information—and you’ll have a chance to ask about specific situations, including how your protagonist might care for himself or herself after something bad happens. But it’s good to know a few basics:

  • A person can bleed out quickly. The average person has about five liters of blood—loosing even one liter (one large soda bottle) of blood is bad. Confusion and weakness sets in. That person the bleeding to stop and fluids to be put back in.
  • Head traumas are dangerous—some of the most dangerous ones are those where the person feels fine but was unconscious. This can mean there is an internal bleed and that could kill within forty-eight hours.
  • Almost everything causes nausea—hit on the head, you wake up throwing up or wanting to throw up. Getting shot—your body tries to dump the stomach so it can focus on other things. This is never pretty and so gets skipped over in most fiction.
  • One issue can hide another—and people aren’t always honest about what is the real problem. As Dr. House said, “Everyone lies.” And not always intentionally. Sometimes folks just forget, and this is particularly true when stressed.
  • Children are not small adults—their bodies can’t compensate as well, so when they use up their physical resources, they’re going to crash fast. A sick kid is often a critical kid.
  • Extreme heat and extreme cold are deadly elements—and any injury makes them even more so. If you want to add more tension to a scene, use the weather.
  • CPR can and does save lives. Even more importantly it can mean the difference between someone coming back fully functional or with permanent damage. But a lot of folks are afraid to dive in and help—it take training to make sure you just do what you’ve trained to do.

Ultimately, you want to know what’s plausible for your situation—even if you’re writing about vampires and werewolves, know the rules so you can know how you can break them. Research your injuries before you write them and never assume. You’ll be able to get away from the cliché of that flesh wound in the shoulder that the protagonist survives or the knife fight that somehow ends up with no one disfigured or with permanent damage.

The other thing to keep in mind is for your own safety. What should YOU know (just in case)?

1-Document your medications and history (and get your loved ones to do this). Paper, phone, whatever—just have it written down (VialofLife.com)

2-Keep your document/medications handy! It is so hard in an emergency to make sure these are not forgotten.

3-Do an DNR if you do NOT want CPR or extreme life-saving measures.

4 –Wear a medical ID bracelet and/or necklace for those REALLY important things (as in allergic to penicillin).+

5-Put “ICE” in your phone—“In Case of Emergency” contact, just in case you are in an accident and cannot talk.

6-Educate yourself! Take a CPR class! Know how to stop a bleed. Keep children’s aspirin around if you’re not allergic. (1 in 20 deaths from stroke, heart attacks are the no 1 cause of death in the US, what do you do for allergic shock?) The life you save may be your own.

7-If you—or a loved one—is allergic to something (anything), keep an EPI pen on hand.

8-Keep a “survival/emergency” kit around and fresh! (www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/checklist_1.pdf and http://www.redcrossstore.org/item/321406)

9-Remember your pets! They have emergencies, too, and in a disaster they’ll need water and food, and possibly first aid.

‘The Past is Prologue’

BoomI usually blog only about writing, but the RWA debacle deserves comment—and it has applications to writing. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on in RWA, there are a dozen or more sources out there, including:

RWA IMPLOSION

HAS RWA LOST ITS WAY

And others, including…

https://nypost.com/2019/12/26/romance-writer-courtney-milan-suspended-over-racist-mess-claims/

https://www.houstonchronicle.com/entertainment/books/article/Houston-based-Romance-Writers-of-America-sees-14935112.php

Other writers have also commented upon events—some to say they are leaving RWA, some to pull out o the RITA awards, some to return their RITA awards, and some to bring up past problems of discrimination, some to say they are simply sick of the whole mess, and some who think this is Twitter-bullying.

Basically, the whole thing started when one writer criticized another’s book. Now, that’s nothing new. It goes on all the time, and certainly readers in general are apt to say if they think a book is good or bad, or racist, or whatever else they think of it. Here’s the thing—this was an opinion expressed about a book. A book depicting Chinese and half-Chinese characters in stereotypical ways, which is a racist thing to do. So, calling the writing racist is a valid opinion, particularly when the person expressing that opinion is half-Chinese.

Instead of the author of that book either sucking it up, (let’s face it, all authors get reviews and criticism) or saying “yeah, I did that, I’ll do better,” or pushing back straight to the person who said this is racist with her own reasons behind what she wrote, the author filed a complaint with RWA, and RWA acted on that complaint. Which brings up the next problem—in acting, RWA violated it’s own policies and procedures (there is nothing in the bylaws about slapping down a member for posting on social media or for expressing an opinion about a book—the writing, mind you, not the author, was called racist).

And that brings us to the next problem, and why this is not just a tempest in a teapot. RWA presents itself as an organization of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” which is the exact quote off the RWA website. This statement is undermined by the actions RWA undertook. The response from RWA of a ban for social media comments on a book has the appearance—if not the actual intent—of trying to silence an author who called out racial insensitivity. Meaning it is the exact opposite of supporting diversity.

On the other side are those now fearing that their writing might be also put to the test of are they, too, portray stereotypes. And how is that a bad thing? Getting called out for writing racial stereotypes is going to make anyone a better writer—if that writer is open to critiques. This applies to getting called out for having characters that come across as one-dimensional, for having poor dialogue, and for setting up situations and scenes in a story that smack of discrimination.

All of this to mean means that it is a very, very good thing to have a little fear when facing the blank page. You may have to think more, dig deeper into creating real characters, and you may even have to pull in readers of greater diversity to make sure you’re getting it right and keep from falling into the pit of wrong assumptions.

It is also far too easy to go for the stereotype and think we’ve got an archetype instead. Or to think we’ve avoided anything because we’ve not gone to the extreme of blackface—racial and slights for others different than us can be so minor we don’t even realize we’ve had so much exposure to them that we now believe that is a truth.

It’s also too easy to skip lightly over the research and think you’re okay with what you know. Write what you know applies not just to your personal experience, but also to where you’ve gone looking to find out what it is you don’t know. That is the bigger problem—very often, we don’t know that we don’t know something. We’ve not been made sensitive. Which means getting slapped down can be a great wake-up call.

I love the stories of others pulling in more experience into their writing by pulling in readers who better know that world and that experience. Even more, I love it when writers dig deep into their own lives to bring the truth of what they know to the world. I love it when writers do not go for the common assumption but look for the deeper truth.

I’m also of the opinion that writers need to be a little uncomfortable in general. It’s a good spur to make us want to write about either a better world, or to make us want to write to know what it is we really believe. And if we’re in this for more than a paycheck, our art should make others a little uncomfortable.

Which brings us back to RWA and its problems—it is now a very uncomfortable place for many. Personally, I think this is a good thing. Comfort can breed complacency—as in just let us go on doing what we’ve always done, as in it’s good enough. Well, it’s not good enough, and this is an opportunity to do better. This is a chance to stop smoothing things over. RWA had controversy over the RITAs and the stench of discrimination in the judging and seemed to be making strides to correct that. But this blows the lid off the appearance of doing better and shows there is even more that must be done.

That decision won’t be one I’m making—at least not on my own. But I am hoping the RWA membership demands better. I am an RWA member—have been for many a year—and I am hanging on in the hope of better, so that I can be there to vote for better, and to demand better. (Yes, I signed the recall petition, too.) RWA has put forward brave words. Now it is time to live up to them.

This event has created a split in RWA—but it has also pulled out into the open much that has been wrong in RWA, and to say otherwise is to be aligned with that wrong. This is not about personalities. It is not about Courtney Milan’s personality—it’s not about whether you like her or loath her. It is not about the other personalities involved, and taking sides because you happen to like someone. This is about RWA living up to the principals it has said it upholds, including that the organization is one of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is about RWA saying policy and procedure was not followed, here’s why, and here’s how it is being fixed. And it is about removing those from leadership who are tainted by the actions undertaken that damaged RWA.

There now must be actions to support that diversity, equity, and inclusion. Words are a great place to start, but as every writer knows, it is in action that character is revealed. So what actions are next?

For me, one of the actions is joining the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America—CIMRWA.org. This chapter has been leading the petition to have president-elect Damon Suede recalled from office. He put himself in the middle of this mess. For RWA to even begin making a start to clean things up, they’re going to have to start following procedures for this recall. CIMRWA is also following up with a letter to RWA to confirm the petition has been received and is being handled according to RWA procedures.

The other action I’ll be taking is to stay abreast of developments. Things may happen slowly or fast—but one thing must be made clear. This is not going to be forgotten. This is not a minor problem. This is about RWA’s future and if RWA does indeed live up to its brave words.

But can RWA recover from this series of blunders? The organization has lost members, and relationships with other organization. It’s recived more than a little bad press with just about every major new organization covering this story. As RWA has noted, trust has been damaged. Can RWA rebuild and rework it’s future? Is the past but a prologue to even more issues? I would like to think that the more apt quote is, ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’

The indieBRAG Medallion

Davinia's DukeDavinia’s Duke–my most recent Regency romance novella–has been awarded the indieBRAG Gold Medallion. I’m delighted by this–it is my second independently published book to earn the medallion, which is awarded based on ten categories. This award is a boost for authors who publish independently–promotion is always hard to come by.

The other thing that is wonderful is the award encourages independent writers to make sure they have good editing, and good copy editing. Again, both those things can be difficult to come by. A good editor will improve the work without messing up the writer’s voice. A really good editor can also point out glaring problems that really do need to be fixed–pacing problems, plot holes, or just stuff that doesn’t make sense. Let’s face it, we all get lost in the woods at some point and need someone else to point out a better path.

Copy editors are then just as important–not only to catch the typos (the ones that hide from your eyes because your brain insists on making the correction in your head and not on the page), but to also finish untangling things that crept into the story.

I had very good editing from Leigh Kaye, and a great copy edit from Red Adept Editing, and a cover that fit the story from What the Hay Designs, which all goes to show that a book needs a team behind it, and not just a writer.

I also think that it is the writer’s job to first produce as clean a story as possible in the very beginning–and I used some beta readers just to make sure the story worked. My philosophy is that as the writer, I should know where the flaws exist to begin. If the early readers don’t catch them, then the magic act has worked. If they do catch the issues, then it’s time for revisions. And I like to get all those revisions done early. Because, guest what–yes, every new word on the page introduces problems for more plot holes and pacing issues and other mistakes. First draft is always first draft and needs another draft or two for some polish. However, the caution there is that it is possible to polish out the emotion on the page–so that’s where experience helps and some caution.

So…here’s to a nice, shiny gold medallion on the book, and to independent authors who publish their works! May we all strive for great stories with great characters.

First Ten Pages

As a writer, one thing you can depend on–reader attention spans have gotten shorter. This means you have to hook the reader faster–and that means starting the story on page one. What is the story?

The story is where your protagonist is faced with a problem–a big one that’s going to carry the protagonist through a character arc of trial/errors, defeat and then victory (or tragic downfall). You want to establish just who is the protagonist, what is the problem, what’s keeping the protagonist from an easy solution, and you want to set the tone of the story (is it comic, dark, romantic, or something else), and establish the world.

Here’s what I like to keep in mind for those opening pages:

1-Who is the protagonist? In every story, you really one one character who has the main character arc. Yes, even in a romance, you might have a couple who falls in love, but one of them really has the major growth, and that is the protagonist.

2-What’s the big problem? I want this to be on page one if possible, but it must be within the first ten pages. This is part of the big hook–a big problem that will make the reader think, “How is this going to be solved?” I want conflict right away, and that doesn’t have to be a gun fight or a car chase, but it does mean getting the characters talking and doing as soon as possible.

3-How is the reader going to bond with this main character? You don’t have to have the protagonist saving kittens on page one, but it sure helps to get the reader on that character’s side if you give the reader something. The something can be an admirable trait (humor in the face of danger, intelligence, charm, or a mad skill), or it can be an action undertaken that puts the reader on that character’s side, or it can be simply an understanding of the character’s motivations. Understanding helps with sympathy.

4-Where and when are we? This is one I often see skipped over. The where and when are important to establishing both mood and setting. Readers want to be immersed into a world, and this is done by layering details of that world so the reader experiences it. Or, as Chekhov–the writer, not the Star Trek character–once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing takes time to put the reader into the world. What are the smells? The sounds? What time of year is it? Are you showing the heat, or telling the reader about it? What details better build the mood? What details reveal the character to the reader? Details matter–and the right details are vital to making the world vivid. I want the reader to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world right away, and doing so within a character’s viewpoint can help bond the reader to that character (which is why it is so important to start off with the right character as the protagonist). 

5-What’s the overall tone of the story? If I want a light, comic romance, I’m going to go for a setting, a scene, and a situation that gives me the material I can use to set the tone. I am not going to start with a funeral–not unless it’s dark comedy. If the story is action-adventure, then I want that on page one. If the story is paranormal, I want the weird on page one to help hook the reader. Don’t hold back–the reader got a promise from the cover blurb and title, but those first few pages is where a reader will decided to settle down to the story or not. Know what you want to deliver and get it up front. Tone comes from word choices, from the setting, from the viewpoint you use, and from what you have your character doing. Again, it’s all about getting the details right.

6-What are the stakes? This is another one I often see overlooked. For something to matter to the reader, the reader must know the potential cost to the main character. What will the protagonist gain from achieving the big goal? What will he or she loose if failure is the result? If the reader doesn’t have a clue about this, then why should the reader care about the outcome? Let the reader know up front that there are high stakes (and later on, you’ll want to raise those stakes even more).

7-Where is the protagonist going to end up? I want the end to mirror the opening, but to do so in a way that shows the protagonist’s growth (that the protagonist has indeed really changed and come out the other side–the old self is dead). This means I am often thinking of the ending at the same time I’m thinking about the beginning of the story. However, not knowing the ending shouldn’t hold you up from starting a story. It just means you need to keep in mind that you may need revisions to the opening once you get the ending written. Keep it fluid.

I know writers who think, “I’ll hold this back because I want to build anticipation.” Good luck with that–you are just as likely to lose the reader. Or you may think, “But the reader really has to know all this background about the protagonist.” No, the reader doesn’t need to know backstory or setup–the reader needs the story to start. Save your backstory until the reader really, really, really needs it. A good guideline is keep any background to one or two sentences, not one or two paragraphs unless you can make the writing utterly compelling.

Finally, don’t get stuck on editing the opening. Get it down and get going–you can always come back to it later. You may find out, too, that where you really needed to start the story was in chapter three, but those first two chapters at least got you writing.

 

Writing Workshops 2020

UPDATE–2020 is almost full!

February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW

March 16 – April 12, 2020 Show & Tell: An Interactive Workshop, OCCRWA

May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW

June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA

August POV: It’s More Than a Point of View, YRW

September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA

October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW – NEW WORKSHOP!

There also might be a workshop coming for November!

I’m starting to plan writing workshops for 2020. It was nice to take a year off in 2019, but I find I miss the interaction of the workshops–it’s enjoyable to help other writers find their path.

So far, I have scheduled:

  • February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW
  • May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW
  • June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW

I’ll be adding a few more, but in the meantime, for anyone interested in taking a workshop, here are a few tips to get the most from any workshop:

Interact. This may seem obvious-and I’ve lurked in a few workshops, too–but I find that those who ask questions and post exercises get the most from the workshop. You may have to clear the decks to participate. It is hard to juggle too many things all at once, but it can give you better value for your time.

Don’t worry about your ideas. I’ve known many people who are paranoid about ideas being stolen. What I’ve found is that if you give the same idea to two writers, you’re going to have two different books. Don’t sweat the ideas. It is your voice that matters. And if you are still worried, do the exercises with made up stories–it might even spark a new book.

Make mistakes. A workshop is a great place to experiment and learn. I find many people, however, come in with the idea of ‘doing everything right.’ That actually won’t help you learn anything. Use workshops as a place to try new things, to push beyond your comfort zones, and to make mistakes. You’ll get more from the workshop by doing so.

Have fun. Many folks come into workshops with grim determination (this goes along with not making mistakes). Again, workshops are a safe place to let loose, try new things, and be creative. They are places to reconnect with experimentation, which can often get the creative juices flowing.

Use what works for you. In any workshop, if you come out with one great thing learned, that’s a positive. You will find that every writer has a different process–including you. This means what works for one writer may not work for another. This is okay. If something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to shoot down the idea–just don’t use it. Take what does work, and feel okay about abandoning the rest.

Try new things. If you’ve never written first person, try that. If you’ve never written third person, try that instead. Try out new techniques. This goes along with making mistakes. Yes, what you try may not work, but it may lead to new discoveries.

If you don’t post, do the exercises at home. I am a great believer in writing exercises. I’ve used them to discover my own comfort zone for what I want to write. I’ve used them to improve my viewpoint control, to work on dialogue, to do better narrative. Writing exercises to me are like warm-up for a dancer–they’re vital to improve technique. All my writing craft workshops include exercises–and the writers who get the most from the workshops do them and post them for feedback. However, even if you don’t post the exercises, you will learn a lot by doing them.

And that’s it–some tips on how to get more from an online workshop, particularly one that I might teach.