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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Single Point of View v. Multiple Point of View

If you know me, if you have been with me in panel discussions at conventions, if you have ever received any sort of writing advice from me, or even heard me give such advice to others, I need for you to sit down and prepare yourselves. What I’m about to tell you is shocking. For some of you, it may be more than you can handle. But we’re in this together and we will get through to a better place. I promise.

Ready? Here goes…

It is the last week of May – we are twenty-one weeks, twenty-one Writing-Tip Wednesday posts, into the year – and I have yet to write about point of view.

I know. I can’t believe it either.

Don’t worry, though. I’m going to make it up to you today. Who knows, I might even return to the subject in the weeks and months to come. I’m confident that, by the end of the year, you’ll be as tired of hearing me go on and on about point of view as you usually are. A bit of normality in a topsy-turvy world…

Point of view, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is, essentially, the narrative voice used to tell a story. And the initial choice of point of view for each project we write usually focuses on the relative advantages of writing in first person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “I,” “me,” “my”) versus writing in close third person (action and emotions and descriptions treated with “she/he/they,” “hers/his/theirs”).

(Yes, there are other choices. One can write in what is known as omniscient POV, a challenging voice to use and master, because it demands that the narrator know what all characters are thinking and feeling WITHOUT resorting to what’s referred to as head-hopping. And one can write in second person point of view, in which the author writes the entire narrative in effect addressing the reader – “You walk into a bar and order your drink. Sounds and smells assault you from all sides…” Etc. Both of these are difficult, even risky choices for beginning writers.)

One day last week, though, I had a conversation with a writer friend (let’s call her “Haith Funter”) about the other choice we make when deciding on the narrative voice for our projects, and it is this element of point of view I wish to focus on today. Specifically, our conversation centered on whether Haith should consider using a single point of view character or multiple point of view characters for a future project she’s considering.

And being me, the moment she mentioned that she was grappling with this I launched into a lengthy (and unasked-for) recitation of the relative merits of each approach. A recitation I offer again here.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Let’s start with what I mean when I speak of multiple point of view characters. This is NOT an invitation to jump willy-nilly from character to character, sharing their thoughts, emotions, and sensations. That is called head-hopping, and it is considered poor writing. Rather, writing with multiple point of view characters means telling the story with several different narrators, each given her or his own chapters or chapter-sections in which to “tell” their part of the story. When we are in a given character’s point of view, we are privy only to her thoughts and emotions. In the next chapter, we might be privy to the thoughts of someone else in the story. This is an approach used to great effect by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin goes so far as to use his chapter headings to tell us who the point of view character is for that section of the story. Guy Gavriel Kay uses multiple point of view quite a bit – in Tigana, in his Fionavar Tapestry, in many of his more recent sweeping historical fantasies. I have used it in my epic fantasy series – The LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, Blood of the Southlands, The Islevale Cycle.

DEATH'S RIVAL, by Faith HunterThis is in contrast with single character point of view, in which we have only one point of view character for the entire story (and that point of view can be either first or third person). Think of Haith’s Yane Jellowrock series, or my Thieftaker or Justis Fearsson series, or Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, or Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series, or even (for the most part) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

With both approaches, the point of view of each character is inviolate, meaning that your reader can learn nothing from a given character that the character her- or himself can’t know. The key is that this limitation means vastly different things in single POV on the one hand, and multiple character point of view on the other.

You might notice that the examples I give for each approach are distinctive. Granted, my examples are FAR from comprehensive, but they are instructive.

SPELL BLIND,  by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Alan Pollack)For single character point of view we have essentially two kinds of books: urban fantasies that have a mystery element, and YA novels that concentrate as much on the lead character’s emotional development as on external factors. Single character POV tends to be intimate. Readers form a powerful attachment to the narrators of these books. And, of even greater importance, readers learn things about the narrative at the same time the characters do. Even in books that begin with our narrator looking back on past events, we are soon taken back in time so that this older narrative has a sense of immediacy. This is why single character POV works so well in mysteries. The reader gets information as the “detective” does. Discovery happens in real time, as it were.

My examples of multiple character POV books are almost all grand, sprawling epics of one sort or another. In part, this is because it can be more difficult to tell such stories from the vantage point of only one character. But more than that, the power of multiple POV lies in two simple facts.

First, because we are following several POV characters at once, we are drawn into a number of subplots. All of these are braided together in some way, contributing to the larger story line. And since we can leave one to pick up another, we almost always have several characters in danger, or creating danger, at any one time. Each shift from one POV character to another leaves one story hanging in order to pick up another. The shifts in narrator actually impart momentum to the story.

Second, in multiple POV, our readers always have more information than any one character. We see traps as they’re being laid, we see intrigue from all angles, we can recognize the perils for one character based upon the machinations of another. Rather than discovering things as our narrators do, our readers are almost always one step ahead of them. This knowledge creates anticipation, feeds expectation, some of which we can satisfy, some of which we might thwart, all of which ratchets up the narrative tension.

Different stories lend themselves to different point of view choices. I would never dream of telling anyone (not even Haith) what approach to use for their story. Chances are you’ll know what your story requires as soon as you begin to write it. But my hope is that a clearer understanding of the relative strengths and advantages of each option will make that choice a little easier.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: A Special Post on Narrative and Creativity

This is a somewhat longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll read through it. It is the text of an address I gave a few years ago at our local high school to mark the Day of the Book (April 23) in 2016. My younger daughter, a junior at the time, was in attendance, which made the occasion that much more special. The talk is about far more than books, as you’ll see. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago – I swear this is true – I was being introduced for this talk, and you all just got up and walked out. Even Erin. She saw the rest of you leaving, cast this furtive glance my way, and then hurried to the door. So thank you all for staying. I appreciate it…

I’m delighted to be here to help you mark the Day of the Book. When Ms. R_____ first approached me about giving this talk, she mentioned that this was a particularly significant year for celebrating the written word, in part because this is the Centennial of the Pulitzer Prize. Which is absolutely true. This is the one hundredth year in which the Pulitzer prize has been awarded to some writer who isn’t me. Frankly, it’s not a milestone I’m that eager to celebrate…

As a writer, as someone who makes his living with the written word, I’m drawn to the idea of celebrating the book. But I’m also a musician and a huge fan of music. I’m a dedicated amateur photographer and an admirer of all the visual arts. I’m a fan of the theater, of film, of just about every art form. And so I find the idea of The Day of the Book somewhat odd. We don’t have a day of the song, or the album, a day of the painting or the sculpture. But somehow the Day of the Book is acceptable. It’s strange. And I think it’s worth exploring why this is so.

In a way – and again, I say this as an author – books have always been the peas and carrots of the art world. A long time ago, someone decided that books were good for us. “Someone.” Who am I kidding? It was probably a writer, right? Some young novelist somewhere convinced people that reading books would expand young minds and the next thing you know, parents were haranguing their kids about reading. Instant sales. You never hear parents telling kids they need to spend more time listening to music, or watching movies, or even going to look at paintings. But we hear all that time that we should turn off the TV and read a book.

The real reason I think books occupy a special place in our culture – and this starts to get at the crux of what I want to talk about today – is that narrative and creativity lie at the very core of what it means to be human. Story forms the backbone of our society, our political culture, our religions, our ceremonies and rites of passage. Story defines family and friendships. Sometimes those stories are tales of relatives doing foolish or funny things, sometimes they’re stories of holiday disasters, or unusual interactions among family members that become the stuff of family legend. At other times they’re movies or TV shows or, yes, books, that take on special meaning for the family unit. When Erin and her sister Alex were younger, in addition to all the stories we told about each other and other folks in the family, the Harry Potter books became central to our family life. We all read them, we watched the movies together, we listened to the audio books on long drives – and we took a lot of long drives.

Other families built relationships around other books. I remember when Erin was in kindergarten, her teacher asked parents to come in and read to the class, telling us to choose a book that was special to our kids. I told the teacher I would be glad to come in and read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. A few days later I mentioned at a gathering that I would be reading to the class, a friend told me that The Lorax was one of her daughter’s favorite books, as well. This little girl’s dad read it to her all the time and did different voices for the characters. So I went to the class and I read the book and all the kids seemed to enjoy it very much. Except for this one poor girl – the daughter of my friend – who, when I was done, looked at me like I had shot her dog. And I understood immediately why: That was her book – hers and her dad’s – and I didn’t read it the way he did; I didn’t read it right, as far as she was concerned. Books – stories – can become very special to us. They can occupy a singular place in our lives.

But it also needs to be said, that not everyone is a book person. We don’t all celebrate the Day of the Book with the same level of enthusiasm. A lot of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t care less about books. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the truth is, we can all still appreciate this day. We don’t all have to be book lovers to find value and inspiration in the notion of creating our own book.

And that’s what I want to talk about today: the ways in which narrative and creativity, the building blocks of story, inform all aspects of life, not just the writing of books, or even the creation of art.

Let me start by telling you in the broadest terms what it is I do for a living. Writing books is like… well, any of number of things. I’ve heard people compare writing a book to building a house, drawing a map, completing a jigsaw puzzle, baking a lasagna, pitching a baseball game, and about a hundred other things. I couldn’t tell you which analogy I think is most apt – I’ve relied on several of them at different times.

When I write a book or a piece of short fiction, I usually start with a storyline, a narrative. I have some idea of where the book is headed; I’ll usually outline what I intend to do. But that outline is always rough. I don’t like to set up my plot in too much detail, because a lot of the creative act happens in the moment. For a 15 page chapter, I might have in my outline two sentences: My lead character meets up with character b. They get into a fight and decide they can no longer work together. That’s it. But when I reach that chapter in the writing process, the fun begins. I don’t know when I begin to write what those characters are going to say to each other. Sometimes I don’t even know what the fight is going to be about. I come up with that as I write, on the spur of the moment. That’s the exciting part, the moment of discovery that makes writing so much fun for me.

I’m telling you this, not to try to convince you to write, but rather to encourage you to look at the things you do in a different light.

My brother is a professional visual artist – a painter, and a very good one. He will often begin a painting with a vision, an outline of what he wants to be in the image. He’ll draw it in an open impressionistic way on a canvas. Just the broadest contours of what he intends to paint. Then, once that’s done, he’ll start to fill it in with color, with shading, with the brush strokes and texture and all the other artistic elements that bring a canvas to life. That should sound familiar. That broadly drawn, bare-bones drawing with which he begins is his narrative. The addition of color and the rest, that’s the creative part. The finished painting is his book.

I mentioned before that I’m a pretty dedicated photographer. And long ago, when I was teaching myself how to do the sort of photography in which I was interested, I read something that has stayed with me ever since, not just because it’s helpful for photography, but also because it’s helpful for writing. Every picture, this book I was reading said, is about something. The longer it takes you to explain what the photo is about, the less successful the photo is going to be. Or put another way, the easier it is to distill a photograph down to its most basic narrative, the better the photo. And, I would say the same is true of books and stories.

But part of what stuck with me, when I got behind the camera again, was the idea of applying narrative to photography. We can pick out something we see that we want to capture with the camera – a sunset, a building, a group of friends, something abstract, for instance the play of light and shadow on the façade of a church. That subject matter is the narrative, the story we’re trying to tell. The creativity comes when we search for the perfect way to compose that image, when we decide what details to highlight and which ones to play down or omit entirely. We make a hundred different choices when we take that photograph. But in the end, we’re blending narrative and creativity. And again, the result is a sort of book.

What about music? As I said before, I’m not only a huge fan of all sorts of music, I’m also a musician. Maybe those of you who write your own music have a chord progression and melody for a piece you’re working on, but haven’t yet come up with the words. That musical structure is your narrative; the creativity might come when you assign lyrics to that structure. Or maybe it works just the opposite way. You have your lyrics, maybe a poem that you want to set to music. In which case THAT’S your narrative, and the creativity comes when you blend it with melody and rhythm. Maybe you’re a drummer or a guitarist, a fiddle player or a saxophonist. You don’t write songs, but you improvise solos when you play with your fellow musicians. Chord progression and beat are your narratives. The solos you play are the essence of creation. Whatever your approach, the finished piece is your book.

Somewhere in this room is Cinderella [the school had done the play Cinderella that spring; the title role was played by one of my daughter’s closest friends]. Somewhere in this room, is her evil, rhymes-with-witch of a step-mom [played by my daughter]. The script and song lyrics provide the narrative for a theatrical production, but each actor brings to the stage her or his own flair for performance, his or her own interpretation of the role or the lines, of the emotion. Narrative and creativity. A book. The same can be said of dance – choreography is your plot, but every dancer is different, and is inspired to move in her or his own way. Another book.

But what if art isn’t your thing. We can apply this model to painting and sculpture, theater and dance, music and photography. But not everyone is an artist at heart. And that’s all right. Because narrative and creativity aren’t exclusive to the artistic world.

Erin’s mom is a biologist. And several of the people in this auditorium who have been Erin’s friends since they were toddlers have scientists or mathematicians for parents as well. This is a little harder for me to discuss intelligently, because I kind of suck at science and math – there’s a reason I write fantasy novels for a living. But I have a Ph.D. in history and I used to think of myself as a professional historian, which isn’t all that different. In fact we share this mountain with a University that is filled with scholars in a whole host of disciplines.

All of them do research. All of them have protocols and formats they have to follow – narratives that guide their work. But all of them also have to think creatively to make their personal mark on their scholarship. Whether it’s finding a new way to work an equation, or designing new experiments to explain scientific phenomena, or developing new theories to explain political or social behavior, the basis of learning and research is intellectual creativity.

And so is the basis of teaching. Teachers are often the most creative people we know, because it’s not easy finding innovative and engaging ways to present material that as a teacher you know backwards and forwards already. The act of creating a lesson plan, of developing a course – that’s a creative act, and yet that’s just the narrative part. Because a hundred times every day, teachers have to supplement that narrative, or stray from it, in order to reach a student who might not yet understand, or to engage an entire class that pulls the material in a direction no teacher could have anticipated. Narrative. Creativity. This time, maybe think of each class meeting as a chapter, the finished course as the book.

But maybe that’s not your thing either. Maybe you’re an athlete. And yes, people create in sports all the time. Coaches draw up game plans – passing routes and running plays in football, set pieces in soccer, shifts in volleyball, wrestling moves, pitch patterns and defensive alignments in baseball. Those are narratives. They’re patterns of action, preconceived and taught to us until they become second nature. But it’s impossible to anticipate every game situation. Which is where creativity comes in. No two plays in any game in any sport are exactly the same. Circumstances on the field, gridiron, mat, pitch, court are always changing. How you respond, drawing upon the narrative you’ve practiced, and bringing to bear your ability and your imagination – well, that’s a book, too, isn’t it?

I could go on. There are lots of ways in which the book analogy works. It works really well with cooking – recipes are your narrative, but we also bring creative flair in the way we season or add our own secret ingredients. Earlier in this talk I compared writing a book to building a house, but you can flip that around as well. People who work from blueprints and house plans – their narratives – also make creative decisions every day, bringing their personalities and inspirations to the work they do. As I say, I could apply this to pretty much any profession or hobby you can imagine. I won’t, because I’m supposed to end this sometime before lunch.

I will say this once again: the book analogy works so well because narrative and imagination, story and creativity, lie at the heart of who and what we are.

But so what? All that may be true, but why does it matter, except as a rationalization for designating this day as the Day of the Book?

I would argue that it matters for two reasons:

First, it matters because in a world filled with labels, a society that seems too often to look for ways to divide us, to put us in cubbyholes, the notion of identity becomes one more criteria, one more way to split us into our little tribes. We see it in young adult literature all the time. Harry Potter and his cohort are sorted into their houses, each of which has a personality, each of which carries implications for those placed in them. Many of you may be familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a dystopian, futuristic series that begins with young people – people your age – being split into social groups – Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, and Candor – to which they’re supposed to remain loyal for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to tell you that we live in a dystopia, though I know it sometimes feels that way. But I do think that we’re too quick to force ourselves into categories of that sort. We’re science nerds, or we’re literary types; we’re theater people, or we’re artistic; we’re jocks, or maybe we’re fantasy geeks.

Now I’m not trying to say that identity is a bad thing, or that finding a community of like-minded people is a mistake. It can be fun and comfortable and rewarding to form that bond with teammates or the cast of a play or a band.

But I think there’s tremendous value in recognizing that we share important qualities across all those boundaries we set up. When we acknowledge that there’s creativity in science as well as in writing, in sports as well as in acting, we break down those divisions just a little bit. We remember that before we became Gryffindor or Dauntless or geek or artsy, we were people, just like the folks sitting next to us. This common experience, this ability we all share, ties us to one another, and I hope, allows those of us in groups that are seemingly far apart, to recognize a bit of ourselves, in what others are doing.

The second reason the book analogy matters is that there’s one more realm in which it works. And actually, this is the one where it works best, even though it’s also the one in which it might seem least likely to fit: relationships.

I can tell you that the most creative thing I have ever done, the most creative thing I still do, is parent my kids. But the idea of narrative and creativity is also an apt analogy for friendships, for romantic relationships, for the way we deal with siblings and parents. How? Well, think of narrative as the expectations we bring to those interactions. Those expectations are the guideposts, the rules, if you will, that we believe those relationships ought to follow. And I don’t just mean society’s rules for what a parent or sibling should be and should do. I mean our personal expectations, based on what we know about the people with whom we interact. We can anticipate certain things in the ways our friendships and families work.

But we can’t anticipate all. Creativity and imagination come into play all the time, because we’re human, and we don’t always meet expectations, be they our own, or those of the people we love. Sometimes we fall short of them; sometimes we exceed them. But as a Dad, a husband, a son, a brother, and a friend, I can tell you that in every one of my relationships there come times when I have to be creative, when I have to think in the moment and use my imagination. And I would bet everything I have that the same is true for you. Maybe it will be to rescue an awkward moment, or help a friend who’s in trouble, or advise a person you love on some problem you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

In those moments, you’ll find that creativity is the greatest asset you’ve got. And those relationships are the most important books you’ll ever write.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Ideas — Finding Them, Using Them

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

Back at the beginning of this calendar year, when I started the Writing-Tip Wednesday feature, I asked folks in my Facebook Group for ideas about what subjects I should cover. I have written about most, if not all, of the suggestions that came in at that time, so I would like to begin today’s post by renewing my call for suggestions. Please, if there is any topic you want me to cover, let me know and I’ll do my best to turn it into a Wednesday post.

Today, I would like to take on an amorphous topic: ideas. I am asked all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” And whenever I’m asked, I come up with some vague answer that goes something like, “Ideas come from everywhere. Writing, particularly writing speculative fiction, is an exercise in asking ‘What if?’ What if we put magic in this historical period? Or what if we take an island world with kingdoms and early flintlock technology and add time travel? Or what if we blend werewolf dynamics with detective-noir storylines and issues of mental health? “What if” is a powerful question, one that can take us to entirely new worlds.”

Or, in response to “Where do you get your ideas?” I might say, “Different stories come from different places. Sometimes I key in on a specific character and grow a story from there. Sometimes my imagination fixes on an element of a magic system, or some other worldbuilding element, and suddenly I’m plotting out three books. Sometimes I’ll visualize a scene – some key moment in a story I’m still discovering, and that’s the foundation for my next project.”

Both of those answers are true. Both of them reflect realities of my creative process.

But the truth is, in answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” I could just as easily say, “My ideas? Where do they come from? I have no fucking clue.”

Jacket art for Bonds of Vengeance, book III in Winds of the Forelands, by David B. Coe (Jacket art by Romas Kukalis)Ideas, many writers will tell you, are a dime a dozen. When I was just starting out in this business and still working on my very first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, I worried that I would never have an idea for another project. When at last the idea for Winds of the Forelands came to me, I was both ecstatic and profoundly relieved. Today, my worry is not that I won’t have another idea; it’s that I won’t live long enough to write all the ideas I have. I’ve had people – folks who aren’t professional writers and who, frankly, have no sense of what the writing profession involves – say to me in all seriousness, “I have this great idea for a book. You should write it and we can split the royalties.” I usually say, with feigned politeness and more patience than I feel, “I have all the ideas I need, thanks. But it sounds like something you should write.” I WANT to say, “Dude, if you think coming up with some lame idea is half of what I do, you’re nuts.”

You may notice at this point that I have yet to offer any tangible advice on dealing with or coming up with ideas. That’s right: I’m stalling. Writing about ideas is really hard. Giving advice on developing ideas is nearly impossible. But I started down this rabbit hole, so let me give it a shot.

1. Don’t worry about where ideas come from. I won’t say it’s a stupid question, because it’s not. But the vague answers I offered above are about the best I can offer, and really the question is moot. Every idea has its own origin story, and no source of ideas is better or more valid than another.

2. Simple is okay. Been done before is okay. Even derivative can be okay. The other day I was listening to an NPR story about a new retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story. This is a formula that has been done to death, and yet here is a new interpretation of it that sounds fresh and compelling and that is obviously marketable. The idea is a starting point; sometimes it’s a framework as well. Ultimately, though, your characters and voice and style will define the story. Your setting and plot devices will set your work apart. Originality is born in the creative process.

3. Ideas can’t be forced. Except when they can. Yeah, I know – really helpful. But both of those statements are true. Ideas come on their own time, by their own volition. They take us by surprise, inspiring us with their potency and novelty. It’s a great feeling. At the same time, though, we can brainstorm, hastening those ideas, forcing them to the surface. It takes patience, but it can be done. I like to ask myself questions (beyond “what if?”). I will often open a new blank document on my computer and just start typing stream of consciousness. This approach doesn’t always lead to a great story, but it certainly can. Try it.

4. Great ideas keep giving. Some ideas lead to career-defining projects. Some fizzle. It’s not always obvious from the outset which is which. What’s more, we can be blinded by the power of that moment of epiphany when the first inkling comes to us. The test, though, is how the idea builds. I find that the best ideas I’ve had beget new ideas, one after another. The visualization of a scene, say, quickly leads me to a character, or two. And those characters introduce me to a magic system. Which begins to shape my world. Get what I mean? If an idea comes to me, but then just sits there, like an imagined lump, spawning nothing else, chances are it’s not that great an idea after all.

Ideas are slippery. They lack form until we give it to them. They need to be written down, because they will abandon us if we don’t give them our full attention right away. And, of course, there is no guarantee that even the best idea will lead to a bestselling book. But ideas are also the currency of this business, the things for which we quest, and the foundations of all we do.

And so I wish you a never-ending series of wonderful, fruitful ideas. And if I have a really good one, I’ll share it with you and you can write it. We’ll split the earnings…

Keep writing!

Writing Tip-Wednesday: Reevaluating Goals in the Time of Covid-19

Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit.

I believe strongly in setting professional goals for myself. Sometimes that means work goals – “I want to write book X by June 30th and book Y by September 30th, and then I want to write three short stories in October and November…” Sometimes it means what we might call achievement goals – “I want to see this book in print by the end of summer, and this book sold to a publisher by the same time, and this short story placed by the end of the year…”

I find that work goals keep me focused and productive. They are a tool I use to self-motivate. Once I write something down in my work calendar – “Work on new fantasy from January to April” – the end of April becomes, in my mind, a deadline. I treat it as such, even though in a technical sense no one may be waiting for the book at the end of that period.

Professional goals, obviously, are more fungible. They have to be, because we have limited control over the marketplace and our relationship with it. Even those who self-publish can’t fit every circumstance to their needs and desires. But still, having those sorts of goals can help with focus, with productivity, and also with that tendency many of us have to overwork our books and stories and thus delay sending them out. (See last week’s Writing-tip.)

As I have already written in this Wednesday feature, the pandemic, and the economic collapse that has come with it, are bad news for the publishing industry in general and new writers in particular. This is a scary time to be pursuing a career in any of the arts, writing included. This is, in my opinion, not a good time for strict adherence to achievement goals.

Work goals, on the other hand, might just be the secret to making the most of this time of social-distancing and Stay-At-Home orders. Each of us responds in his or her own way to stress and uncertainty and fear – and there is plenty of all three to go around right now. I have one friend who has been unbelievably productive during the past six weeks. And yes, I hate her just a little bit. I have another friend who has been unable to do any creative work at all. I probably fall somewhere in between – I’m too distracted to be as productive as usual, but I’m managing to get work done. I recently completed a 30,000-plus word novella, and I’m already nearly halfway through a second. Given how distracted I’ve been, I’m pleased.

My productivity has actually gone up in recent weeks, and I believe that’s because I have finally adjusted to this new reality, and so I’m no longer beating myself up for not writing as quickly as I usually do. I had considered revising my work goals for the year; instead, I abandoned them entirely in favor of work goals for the next couple of months. We are in uncharted territory at this point. No one really knows what the world is going to look like two weeks from now, much less two months, or six. And so for now my goals are to finish this second novella and then write the third. When that’s done, I’ll edit them and figure out what to do with the trilogy. And after that… Who knows? I’ll make those plans when the time comes.

At the same time, though, I am not ready to give up on goals altogether. True, I don’t quite know how I will market the novellas when they’re ready for distribution, but I still want to get them done, and I still want to feel productive. The truth is, I’m happier when I’m working. I feel better about myself and my career, and I genuinely enjoy creating. I seek a balance: I want to have goals that force me to work, that maybe push me to keep writing, even if not at my usual pace. At the same time, I have to be cognizant of the simple fact that I’m not at my best right now. This is a global crisis – medical, economic, political, social. It’s a frightening world we’re living in, and that has to take a toll.

If you’re one of those people who can work through this at your normal pace or even faster than usual, good for you. I hate you a little bit, too. For the rest of you who feel as I do – that you want to remain productive, but can’t quite work at your usual speed – find that balance I’m talking about. Maybe you usually write 1500 words a day, but currently feel you’re only at 75%. That’s 1100 words a day. That is still a decent pace. That will give you a novella in a month or so, a novel in three months. You’ll feel like you’re accomplishing something while also being realistic about our current situation.

The point is not to write quickly – the goal ought never to be solely about that. Now especially, the goal should be to find a pace and level of achievement that maintains both our standards for the work we produce and a feeling of professional and emotional health.

We really can’t ask for more than that.

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: When is a Manuscript Done?

There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal…”

When is a manuscript done?

There are many ways to answer this question, from “A manuscript is never done; eventually we just stop working on it…” to “It’s done when it’s published,” to “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” To be honest, I find some truth in all three of those, and a host of other answers I haven’t yet mentioned.

Those who follow my social media feeds closely, may have noticed that I post about finishing the same manuscript on two or three or even four different occasions: once when I finish the initial draft, again when I complete my revisions and submit it for consideration or publication, yet again when I complete edits and turn in a production draft, and maybe one more time when the book is in its final form and is ready for release. Each of those is a milestone in the development of a book. Each is worthy of celebration.

Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)But when do I consider the manuscript done? There is some truth to that first answer I gave. I consider all my books works in progress. My very first book, Children of Amarid, published in 1997 and recognized with a Crawford Award two years later, was, to my mind, never really complete. I knew for years that I could make it better. And when we finally got the rights back, I edited the book mercilessly (and did the same to its two sequels) and released the Author’s Edit of the novel. Only then, did I truly feel I had finished that first effort.

There is also an essential truth embedded in the other two answers I gave above: “It’s done when it’s published,” and “It’s done when the author decides it’s done.” Notice, I didn’t say “It’s done when it’s perfect,” or even, “It’s done when it can no longer be made any better.” There is no novel I can think of – not any of mine, not any by my favorite fantasy authors, not any by Faulkner or Steinbeck, Stegner or McCarthy, Morrison or Marquez – that is perfect, or that couldn’t be made better, even if just incrementally so, by one more editorial pass. There is no such thing as a flawless book. So stop trying to write one.

Seriously.

The true significance of the question “When is a manuscript done?” lies in its import for writers in the early stages of their careers. I know so many beginning writers, young and old, who are working on the tenth or twelfth or twentieth iterations of Their Novels. And for them I offer that first answer again: A novel is never done; eventually we just stop working on it. There comes in the revision process a point of diminishing returns. And upon reaching that point, we need to say, “The novel is good enough, as good as I can make it with the feedback and skills and tools at my disposal. It is time I submitted this book to publishers and agents.”

Now, let me be very clear about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that your novel doesn’t need editing and revision. Of course it does. I’m working on book 25 right now. Or maybe 26. Whatever. I still need feedback and editing. I still need to revise every book, and revise again, and then revise some more. I still use Beta readers. I still seek feedback, tweak the book, and then seek more feedback. Rinse, repeat.

But here’s the thing: I can go through all my edits and revisions and then give my manuscript to a hundred new Beta readers, and chances are each of them will offer some new, unique criticism of the book. Where does it stop? How much editing is enough? When is a manuscript ready for submission?

Obviously, this is a decision each of us must make on his or her own. But the pursuit of perfection can be a career-killer. No editor or agent expects your manuscript to be devoid of flaws. As I said, there is no such thing as a perfect novel, and first novels almost always come with their own set of faults and foibles. Do what you can – make sure your plot works, keep your characters consistent and believable, by all means take care of all the typos and grammatical problems you can find. Your manuscript should be clean and professional. It should be as good as you can make it within reason. It should not be the only thing you’ve worked on for years and years. Because you know what? I’ll bet you every dollar in my pocket that the editor who decides to buy it is going to suggest a bunch of changes. That’s just the nature of the craft, the nature of the business.

In this case, “good enough” is not an abdication, it is not indicative of a lack of caring or effort. It is reality. Work on your book. Make it as good as you can. But don’t obsess over it, and don’t overwork it. Most important, don’t retreat into edits and revisions before you finish that first draft. Get the thing done. Then get feedback and revise. And then send it out and get to work on the next project.

When is a manuscript done?

A manuscript is done when you allow it to be. That’s probably the best answer I can offer.

Keep writing.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Making the Most of Our Present Situation

My Writing-Tip Wednesday post for last week was a downer (and also had a rather annoying typo near the end, for which I apologize). No way around it: The publishing business is in a bad place right now, and if I am going to offer writing advice to you every week, you deserve as well an honest assessment of the market.

Today’s post is not intended as a corrective for last week’s, so much as a chance for me to offer a way forward. My career is taking a hit right now, too. Almost everyone’s is. But I’m not giving up. For one thing, I have no other marketable skills. More to the point, I still love what I do, and I have a ton of stories I want to write.

The truth is, much of the advice my colleagues and I offer at conventions and workshops, and in online venues like this one, seems tailor-made to this new world in which we find ourselves. Here are some examples:

“Don’t try to write to the market.” My reasoning with this bit of advice has had two components. First, the market is a moving target, and getting a book out into the world can take a little time, particularly if you’re trying to publish traditionally. By the time you get your book about The New Hot Thing out to the reading public, the Thing might well be neither New nor Hot. Second, we generally write best those things about which we’re passionate. Sure, every now and then our passions and the market’s predilections align perfectly, but those moments are rare. Better you should write the book you are burning to write. It will reflect your enthusiasm, your passion, and that will make it more compelling. In today’s world, “Don’t write to the market” makes even more sense, because the market doesn’t know right now what the hell it wants. Writing the things YOU care about and WANT to write has never been more important.

“Love what you do.” Similar to “Don’t write to the market,” but broader. “Love what you do” is probably the answer I give most often when asked, as I often am, “what advice would you offer to young writers.” And I mean it in three ways. First, as I said above, write the story with which you’ve fallen in love, the one aching to be told. That’s the one that will turn out best. “Love what you do” also has a deeper meaning. At the best of times, writing is a tough profession. So do it for the right reasons. Do it for love of the written word, for devotion to story telling, for fascination with characters. Writing because you think it will be an easy gig, a way to make money – that’s never been a good idea, and it’s never been a worse idea than it is right now. And finally, “Love what you do” means enjoy the process, and commit to doing it well. None of us knows where the project we’re working on right now will wind up. Will we sell it to a publisher? Publish it ourselves? Let it languish in a proverbial trunk? So it’s more important than ever to love the actual writing, to lose ourselves in the act of creativity.

“There is no single right way to do any of this.” Boy, if I had a dime for every time I’ve said this… It applies to the craft and to the business, and I believe it’s vitally important that writers offering advice repeat this often. Those of us who have enjoyed some success in publishing speak with authority, simply by dint of having experience and a publication history. Less experienced writers take our words to heart, and so they have to be reminded that our way is not THE way. Because THE way doesn’t exist. And this is especially true right now. As I said last week, people who claim to know what publishing is going to look like after Covid-19 are fooling themselves and anyone foolish enough to listen to them. No one knows nothin’. And even if they did, there is no single right way to do any of this.

“To the extent you can, make writing part of your daily routine.” Earlier this year, I wrote a post in which I said that those of us proclaiming “Writers must write every day” had oversold the point and done a disservice to writers who can’t write every day, whether because of family obligations, or day jobs, or health issues, or whatever. I also said, though, and will continue to say, that writing often and regularly are good things. The more we write, the better we get and the greater our daily output. In this way, writing is like exercise – it gets easier the more we do it. And so, in this time of stay-at-home orders and social-distancing, why not try to write every day? There’s really no down side, and maybe you’ll finally finish (or start!) that project you’ve been thinking about for months (years?). In other words, tying in another bit of advice my colleagues and I have shared before, “BIC!” Put your Butt In the Chair!

Keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Scary New Realities of Publishing

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts.

I give a lot of writing advice – not only in these Wednesday posts, but also at conventions, writing workshops, and other professional events. I try to offer encouragement along with that advice. The idea and hope, of course, is that those I work with in those settings will eventually find a home for their written work and an outlet for their broader creative ambitions.

And so this is a difficult post for me to write. Difficult, but necessary.

The market sucks right now. I mean it really, really sucks. New York publishers are laying off editors. Authors with whom I share a listserv – and I’m talking about some big names (bigger by far than me) – are sounding the alarm about the industry’s impending collapse, about rapidly shrinking advances and print runs, about the future of their careers.

Yes, this is somewhat anecdotal. There are still opportunities out there for writers who are self-publishing or going the small press route. But even there, economic downturns like this one… Well, there has never been an economic downturn like this one, so we really don’t know what it’s going to mean for our profession. We do know that during times of recession, content creators suffer just like everyone else. Sure, people need entertainment, including reading material and audiobooks. On the other hand, people have less money for luxuries than they did even a few weeks ago. And, in times of crisis, people often become so obsessed with reading about current affairs that their other reading falls by the wayside.

Really, though, this is about more than the immediate economic and health crises. Publishing has been in trouble for some time now – falling profits, fewer opportunities for writers and their books, less support for those writers who do land contracts. Big house traditional publishing has become ever more a haven for the most successful and most famous. The so-called B-list – authors who have decent-but-not-spectacular sales, who have fan bases but not true fame – has been squeezed for the better part of a decade. Recent events have simply accelerated an ongoing process.

So what does this mean? It means that more new writers than ever will be forced to go the self-pub/Indie route, which, in turn, will mean that an already crowded Indie marketplace will be even more difficult to navigate. It means that writers like me – middle-aged, long wedded to the traditional publishing model, moderately well-known and successful, blessed with a small but devoted fan base – will need to turn more and more to unfamiliar and even intimidating technologies and business models. Everything has been disrupted. Everything has changed. We are in a new world.

I will admit to being unnerved by all of this. I love what I do, but the part I like best – the part I have ALWAYS liked best – is the actual writing. The rest, the business stuff, the publicity, the ins and outs of turning my ideas into a physical (or electronic) product, I don’t know as well.

On the other hand, I have projects I want to work on that may have been considered risky in the old marketplace. They may be no less risky now, but I am bound less by those market forces. My audience in this new world may be smaller than I would like ideally, but those readers will, I believe, be receptive to reading the things I want to write. As I said before, there is opportunity here as well.

Those of you who are starting out on this journey, however, are coming into a world that none of us recognizes. Writers like me can continue to offer advice on craft – the fundamentals of good storytelling and sound writing haven’t changed. But take with a grain of salt ANY business advice you get right now. Because none of us has ever seen anything like this before. We don’t know where it will lead. We can’t promise you that doing A, B, and C will invariably carry you to success. That’s sobering, I know. Scary even.

I could offer you platitudes and false assurances, but they won’t help you, and they’ll leave me feeling like crap. It’s a Frightening New World, and all I can promise is that we’ll be exploring it together.

In the meantime, keep writing. That one bit of advice has not and will not lose its value.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, part II — Attribution

Last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post began a two part series on dialogue with some advice on the writing of the actual “spoken” words we put in the mouths of our characters. Today, I follow that up with a discussion of dialogue attribution. This is a very long post, which includes lengthy excerpts from my work that should serve to illustrate the points I’m trying to make. I hope you’ll stick with it to the end.

Identifying the speaker in written conversations is one of the most difficult things we do as writers. It seems so simple, right? All we’re trying to do is tell the reader who said what. And yet it is so easy to do this poorly. Part of the problem is that, as with the dialogue itself, everything we try to do in this regard must strike a balance. Too heavy a hand, and our dialogue tags sound clunky. Too light a hand, and our readers lose track of who is speaking. Take too limited an approach and the tags start to sound boring and repetitive.

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books. Our daughters loved them and Nancy and I wound up enjoying them immensely as well. We have read the entire series multiple times and listened to them on audiobook during many a family roadtrip. I think J.K. Rowling does many things very, very well as both a writer and a storyteller. But in listening to her books on audio and I came to realize that her dialogue attribution is terrible. Why? Because it is unimaginative and repetitious. She resorts to “said Harry,” “said Hermione,” “said Ron,” with almost every line.

So how do we avoid that?

Let’s start by defining some terms. Dialogue tags are words we use as direct attribution – “he said,” “she asked.” Said-bookisms are dialogue tags run amok. They are direct attribution but with more descriptive verbs – “he hissed,” “she growled,” “he averred,” “she opined,” “he remarked,” “she exclaimed,” etc. At times, I will speak of using action, emotion, or mannerism to identify the speaker. By this I mean starting a paragraph with, say, “Kannice brushed a strand of hair from her brow,” before having her speak. And finally unattributed dialogue is simply a line of dialogue that has no other sort of identifier except the spoken words themselves.

In these definitions, we see three broad approaches to identifying the speakers in our written conversations. We can use dialogue tags. We can use action and mannerisms. We can let the spoken words stand alone and unattributed.

When it comes to using these various approaches, there are several schools of thought. I have writer friends who swear that we should NEVER use direct tags of any sort. No “said”s, no “asked”s, and certainly no “hissed”s or “opined”s. And I should add here that said-bookisms are generally frowned upon in all segments of the market these days. They are considered “telling” rather than “showing,” and thus seen as evidence of bad writing. The things said-bookisms might tell us are better conveyed with context, with the spoken dialogue itself, and with other descriptive tools. Some people are VERY strict in their rejection of said-bookisms and the like. I’m not. In addition to “said” and “asked” I will use a few words that convey volume (“whispered,” “called,” “muttered,” “shouted”) and sometimes one or two that supply context and rhythm (“went on” or “added”). I am VERY sparing in my use of these words. Mostly, when I use tags, it’s “said” and “asked.”

There are also benefits and drawbacks to each of these approaches. Dialogue tags offer the most clarity, but, as with the Harry Potter books, they can be boring, even pedestrian. Unattributed dialogue flows most smoothly and can be very dramatic and fast-paced when used well. But after a few lines, readers have to start counting back to figure out who is saying what. (And as mentioned last week, we SHOULD NOT deal with this by having characters call one another by name with any frequency.) Finally, using mannerism, emotion, and action can be an elegant way of identifying the speaker, one that also adds details and emotional cues that tell the reader a lot. But overuse of them makes our characters seem unnaturally twitchy; mannerisms can quickly turn into tics, which we don’t want.

With all of that in mind, it probably won’t surprise any of you to learn that I suggest using a mix of the three techniques of attribution. Some lines, I feel, should be attributed directly. Some should stand on their own without attribution. And in some cases the speaker should be identified in some other way – facial expression, gesture, action, etc. By way of example, here is a passage from Time’s Demon, the second Islevale Cycle book. This is the scene in which the Tirribin, Droë first encounters the Arrokad, Qiyed:

Water ran down his body as he stepped from the surf and halted in front of her.

“There is a price to be paid for summoning my kind, even for one such as you, cousin.”

“I know. What price?”

“We shall decide, you and I. Why have you summoned me?”

She opened her mouth to answer, but no words came. Instead, to her shame, she burst into tears. For some time, too long, she could not speak for her sobbing. The Arrokad regarded her, unmoving and apparently unmoved.

When at last she found her voice, she apologized.

“What is your name, cousin?”

“I am Droënalka. Most call me Droë.” She would have expected a human or another Tirribin to reciprocate, but such conventions did not apply to the Most Ancient Ones. Either he would tell her his name or wouldn’t. His to choose.

“Do you seek a boon, Droë of the Tirribin? Is this why you summoned me?”

She hesitated before nodding.

“I see. That, too, carries a cost.”

“I know that,” she said, wearying of being spoken to as if she knew nothing. “I’m Tirribin. I understand the commerce of summons and boon.”

A canny smile revealed gleaming sharp teeth. “Better. That is the spirit I expect when treating with Tirribin. I had begun to think you simple.”

“That’s rude.” But his teasing made her feel better, more like herself.

“Yes, I suppose it is. I am Qiyed. You showed great restraint in not asking. I know how much your kind care about etiquette.”

Her cheeks warmed.

“Tell me more of this boon you seek.”

“I– I don’t know how.”

“That is intriguing, but I do not wish to remain on this strand for long.” Lightning flashed, and thunder followed, sooner than she had expected. “A storm comes, and I long to swim with it.” Another sly grin. “Have you ever done this?”

“No.”

“Would you care to?”

She reflected with distaste on her swim from the ship. “I don’t think so, no.”

“Very well. Quickly then.”

Where to begin?

“There is a Walker. I’m told I knew him when he trained in the palace at Trevynisle.”

“You have come from the northern isles?” he asked, surprise in the question.

“Yes.”

“And what does that mean: ‘I’m told I knew him’?”

“He traveled back in time, and created this misfuture we’re in now. The humans have fought over Hayncalde in Daerjen. One supremacy has given way to another.”

“I knew nothing of this.”

She canted her head. “Payment for my summons?”

He bared his teeth again. “Clever, cousin.” He considered this. “Done. That part of your debt to me is paid in full. Go on.”

As you can see here, I use a lot of dialogue to establish their relationship, and I blend direct attribution with emotion and gesture, while also leaving a few lines to stand for themselves, without any tag or other cue as to who is speaking. And yet, we never lose track of the conversation. Clearly, this becomes more difficult when we introduce a third character (and a fourth or fifth or sixth). The more people in the scene, the more often we need to identify the speaker.

Here is a second scene, this one among three characters, one a woman who has Walked through time and met herself in the past, at the expense of her sanity, and the other two the Tirribin siblings, Maeli and Teelo.

At a stirring of the wind, she caught the fetor of decay and she glanced around again. The smell dissipated as swiftly as it had come.

“I suppose I should be on my way,” she said, after the silence had lengthened uncomfortably.

“I can’t tell what it is,” the girl said in a voice both childlike and knowing. “Can you?”

The boy shook his head. “Not at all. At least not beyond the obvious.”

“Its years are all–”

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why are you talking about me that way?”

“We’re having a conversation,” the girl told her, as haughty as a court noble. “And you’re interrupting. That’s rude.”

She had to smile. “Isn’t it just as rude to talk about someone in their presence, as if they aren’t there?”

The two shared a look, worry in their ghostly eyes.

“Yes, it is,” the girl said, chastened. “Please forgive us.”

“Children shouldn’t be out alone in the streets. You should go home”

The girl hid her mouth with a thin hand, her laughter as clear and musical as the splash of a brook. “We’re not children. You should know that.”

She stared at one and then the other, puzzled now. If not children… Were they creations of her mind, symptoms of her madness? She thought she understood the depths of this Walking induced insanity. What if she was wrong, and it continued to worsen? What if these two marked the beginning of a slide into hallucination?

“You’ve confused it,” the boy said. “Maybe it doesn’t know as much as we hoped.”

She scowled. “Stop referring to me as ‘it.’”

“What else would we call you?”

“‘She,’ of course.”

He shook his head. “You’re not a she, are you? You’re not really anything at all.”

“I don’t–”

“We tasted your years when you were still on the sand,” the girl said. “That’s why we called for you. We sensed the confusion in you, and we wanted to know exactly what you are. But you don’t know yourself.”

We tasted…

“You’re Tirribin,” she said, drawing on a memory from so long ago, it could have been a different life. She took a step back from them. “That’s why…” She stopped herself from mentioning the smell. “Why you could taste my years from so great a distance.”

The girl glowered, appearing to know what Lenna intended to say.

“That’s right,” the boy said. “We’re Tirribin.” To his sister, he said, “Maybe she knows more than we thought.”

Suspicion lingered in the girl’s glare. “I’m not so sure. You don’t need to fear us,” she said, a rasp underlying the words. “Your years are muddied. We wouldn’t feed on you any more than a human would drink sea water. It would do more harm than good.”

“Why? What’s wrong with them?” She feared their answer.

“Don’t you know?”

Of course she did. Tirribin didn’t prey on Walkers because their years were less pure. She remembered a time demon explaining this to her when she was a child in Windhome. Before a boy died and another was sent away. Now she was here, fourteen years out of her time, twelve days out of another, half-mad from having met herself. Whose years could be less pure than hers?

“Yes,” she said. “I know. But that doesn’t make me less than human, and it doesn’t excuse you calling me ‘it.’”

“You’re a creature outside of time,” the girl said with relish. “There are too many of you, and your years are beyond repair.” She made a small gesture, indicating the lane and the houses. “You bear little resemblance to the humans I sense around me.”

“Maeli…”

The girl rounded on the other demon. “Don’t tell me I’m being rude. She was going to say something about the way we smell. Humans do that a lot, and I grow tired of it.”

“What should I do?” Lenna asked, drawing their attention once more.

The girl laughed again, the sound uglier than before. “Do?”

“Don’t you intend to help me? Isn’t that why you called to me?”

“We’re Tirribin. We’re predators, and while your years would be disgusting to us, that doesn’t make you more than prey.”

The boy frowned but held his tongue.

“And even if that weren’t so, there would be no helping you. You are what you are, and can’t be changed or redeemed. You didn’t exist before today. I can tell. Yet you have all these years. Confused, corrupted, but years nevertheless. We didn’t call you here to help. We called to see you. We sensed you, and we wanted to see what sort of being could have such years.” The girl raked her up and down with her gaze. “Honestly, I thought you would be more interesting than you are. You seem no different from other humans.”

“Then maybe you’re wrong about me.”

The Tirribin shook her head. “I’m not.”

The process is trickier here, because of the number of characters, but still I have done my best to use all the techniques at my disposal in a way that keeps the narrative flowing and keeps the speakers clear in the minds of readers.

A few other points and then I will end what is already a very long post: First, punctuating and formatting dialogue is a little complicated. Pay attention to how I have done so in these examples and keep in mind that whenever you change who is speaking or reacting, you need to start a new paragraph. Also remember that things like laughter or sighs are NOT dialogue tags. They are actions/mannerisms. You can’t say, “‘That’s funny,’ he laughed.” But you can say, “‘That’s funny.’ He laughed.” See the difference?

Finally, remember this: Writing dialogue is fun, just as reading it is fun. It’s also hard and takes some time to master. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It took me a while to get to where I feel comfortable using a variety of techniques to attribute my lines of dialogue. You’ll get there as well. For now, your priorities should be remaining true to your characters’ voices and being totally clear about who is speaking. I find that it’s easier to remove tags and other identifiers than it is to put more in, so I always err on the side of clarity, knowing that I can clean things up in revisions.

Best of luck with this, and keep writing!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Dialogue, Part I

I love writing dialogue, in part because I love reading dialogue. I believe that people are natural eavesdroppers. We like to listen in on other people’s conversations. That’s what reading dialogue is all about – it is one of the few times we can be privy to the private conversations of others without violating social mores.

Writing good dialogue is difficult. Attributing that dialogue skillfully and clearly can be incredibly challenging. So this week and next week I am going to focus my Writing Tip Wednesday posts on writing and attributing dialogue.

This week, let’s talk about the “spoken” words themselves. What are some of the tricks to writing good conversations among our characters?

Perhaps more than any other element of writing, constructing effective dialogue is an exercise in finding balance. What do I mean by that?

It should go without saying that our characters’ conversations need to have purpose. Every scene we write should be accomplishing multiple things at once – providing necessary background, deepening character development, furthering our narratives. Conversational scenes are no different. So our conversations need to be directed, they need to accomplish something – in other words there needs to be a point. But, you don’t want the conversations to be so directed that their outcome feels predetermined, nor do you want every encounter among characters to feel agenda-driven. We seek a balance in which the conversations accomplish all that we need them to in a way that feels completely believable.

We want our characters to get their points across without the conversation meandering too much, but we also want the dialogue to sound natural and easy, as opposed to stilted and formal. If you listen to humans conversing in a restaurant or bar, you can’t help but notice that we are remarkably inarticulate beings. We rarely speak in complete sentences, and even less frequently in sentences that are devoid of syntactical errors. We throw in a ton of “uh”s and “ummm”s and “like”s and “you know”s. Generally, we writers leave most of that stuff out of our written conversations, or else we throw in an instance or two, just to make things sound a bit more realistic, or to give a verbal tic to one character. My point is, we don’t necessarily want to make our characters sound like real people when they talk, but we also don’t want them to sound so perfect that they’re unrealistic or unrelatable. The balance here is, in effect, to make our characters talk the way we wish real people would.

So then the question becomes, how do we strike these balances?

Here are a few things I do. First, when I begin work on a scene in which, say, two characters are speaking, I already (I would hope) have some sense of the characters themselves – who they are, what they usually sound like when they speak, what they bring to their relationship with each other. For instance, if I’m writing a Thieftaker story and have Ethan interacting with Sephira, I already know that Ethan will be defensive and wary of her motives, but also willing to stand up for himself. I know that Sephira will be mocking and rude. She will use sexual innuendo to try to keep him off balance, and she will be driven always by greed and ambition. And they will have their conversation against a backdrop of extended enmity, rivalry, mistrust, but also familiarity and grudging respect. Knowing all that helps me find the right tone. Obviously, if Ethan was interacting with, say Diver, or Sam Adams, the equations would be quite different. The point is, knowing these things up front is incredibly important.

Second, I will have in mind throughout the conversation exactly what each character wants out of this particular encounter. I know that some of you are dedicated pantsers – you don’t like to plan any part of your books. And actually, when it comes to writing dialogue, I do as little outlining as possible, and I never plan ahead of time what actual words the characters will say. But this isn’t about planning or pantsing. This is about understanding our characters’ motives, and we should always be aware of that. Motive is particularly important in scenes with dialogue, because motive allows us to direct the conversation without making any of it sound predetermined. So knowing what every character privy to the conversation wants to get out of the exchange is crucial to the scene’s success.

Finally, as I write, I speak the dialogue. Or, more accurately, I carry on the conversation in my head, and then transcribe it into the manuscript, line by line. I tend to speak as I write anyway – if you were to watch me write, you’d realize that I am constantly sub-vocalizing everything. But I find the practice especially helpful when writing dialogue. If the words come naturally to me in the course of “conversing” on behalf of the characters, chances are it will read well on the page.

A couple of other things to keep in mind. Again, if you listen to people speaking in the course of everyday conversation, you’ll notice that we almost never call each other by name. As an experiment, try ending every other sentence in a real-life conversation with the name of the person you’re talking to. It sounds utterly ridiculous. So resist the urge to use names in your written dialogue. We all do it WAY more than we should. It is one of the first things I get rid of in revisions. I’m not saying don’t do it ever. But once in an entire scene is plenty.

Contractions: If you are writing in a world in which contractions do not exist, or if you have certain characters who never use contractions, do not use them. (See what I did there?) Otherwise, use ‘em. We all speak with contractions, and they help to make our words sound informal and natural. They’ll do the same for your characters.

Remember, you want your dialogue to sound as believable and unforced as possible, and at the same time, you want it to accomplish specific tangible things for your narrative. Yes, that’s a fine balance to strike, but with practice and a bit of forethought you can absolutely do it.

Next week, dialogue attribution!

Keep writing!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Maps, Worldbuilding, and the Creation of Story

So you’re trapped in your home with too much time and too little to do. The world around you has gone to hell, and you’re fed up. Sound familiar?

Yeah, thought so. So why not take the opportunity to create your own world? You’re a writer. You have that power.

Not long ago, I wrote about creating magic systems, and that advice could come in handy in this process. But there is lots, lots more to worldbuilding than just magic. That’s the beauty of it. A created world can be as complex and rich and deep as you want it to be.

I am not going to try to squeeze every element of worldbuilding into this post. I could write ten essays on the subject and not exhaust it, and I promise to return to world building topics in future posts. For today, let’s start with this: I LOVE creating maps. That might sound weird, but it’s true. I’m not particularly skilled as a visual artist – which is to say that I have NO skill at all in that regard. But my maps are pretty darn good, if I do say so myself.

I start with graph paper when I can. (I’m sure you can get some through an online seller if you need it. Unlike other sorts of paper, it doesn’t seem to be a hoard-worthy product…) Why graph paper? Because it allows you to keep track of your scale as you create land features, rivers, oceans, cities, etc.

Map of IslevaleAnd then I just let my imagination run wild. At first I let my hand wander over the page, creating the broad outlines of my world. Sometimes I have to start over a couple of times before I come up with a design I like. But generally, I find that the less I impose pre-conceived notions on my world, the more successful my initial efforts. I draw land masses, taking care to make my shorelines realistically intricate. (Take a look at a map of the real world. Even seemingly “smooth” coastlines are actually filled with inlets, coves, islands, etc.) I put in rivers and lakes. I locate my mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, etc.

And then comes the fun part. I start naming stuff.

Yeah, okay, it takes a certain level of geek to find naming stuff on a map fun. But bear with me. You see, place names and land feature names are stories waiting to happen. Sure, sometimes we call places by names that are stupidly obvious. The Rocky Mountains, for instance. Yeah, very original, not to mention informative. Distinguishes them from the Cheesy Mountains, I guess… On the other hand, each named peak in the Rockies DOES tell a story. So do place names that include a person’s name or that use geographic features to anthropomorphize.

Maybe your world has a hero whose exploits are so renowned that places are simply named for her, randomly, the way seemingly every state in the Union has a “Washington County” or a city named “Lincoln.” We need to learn the story of your hero.

Maybe your mountains are named for one or more of your mythical beings. What is (are) their story (stories)? Maybe you have a river that is named for a warrior who perished on its banks, or a range of hills that are said to be haunted.

My point is not that EVERY name you give has to convey a story. Sometimes a Rocky Mountain is simply a mountain that’s rocky. Sometimes a Whitewater Creek is simply a creek that has lots of rapids. But a fraction of your named features should have names that tell much, much more about your world than just what it looks like. A few of your names should hint at stories, at history or lore. My world maps tend to have three or four or even five separate nations, and each nation (handled in separate maps) tends to have maybe thirty names (cities, mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, harbors, oceans, etc.). Even if only one out of five has a name worthy of a story… Well, you can do the math. That’s a good number of stories.

And then (and this is REALLY the fun part) you need to write those stories. They will give you some of your history for your world. Maybe they will give you some of your religion, or even your economy. They may hint at social customs, at holy days, at rites of passage. Certainly they will help you refine the authorial voice for writing in your world. They may even give you material to sell to short story markets. The first short story I ever published – “Night of Two Moons,” published in  back in 2002 – was a historical tale set in the Forelands. I have since sold short stories set in the Thieftaker world, the Fearsson world, and Islevale. And yes, as I remember it, that Forelands story grew out of something I first named on the original map.

Worldbuilding is tons of fun. Yes, it’s work, but it is well worth the effort. I have heard writers say, “Oh, I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding. I focus on character instead.” And each time I hear that, I think it’s the most ridiculous thing ever said. Writing is not a zero sum game. My worldbuilding doesn’t detract from my character work, thank you very much. But it does enrich my storytelling by making my settings more compelling and more realistic.

So while our real world is going to hell in a handbasket (another really, really odd phrase – I’ve started a list…), you can escape for a while by creating your own world. You’ll enjoy it, and, more important, you’ll get background for your world and material for short fiction.

Keep writing!