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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!

Monday Musings: On Being Distracted, As Opposed To Dealing With Distractions

A bit less than two months ago, when our lives still resembled something akin to normal, I wrote a Monday Musings post about getting started at work and overcoming distractions.

Then the coronavirus took over our world and changed the equation, and so today I return to the topic.

First off, I want to draw a distinction between managing distractions and being distracted. [And this is my thinking for the purposes of this post. I am not claiming that this is something inherent in the language.] By “managing distractions,” I mean dealing with the day-to-day chores and intrusions that, not so long ago, were excuses to procrastinate and avoid creative production.

This may seem like semantics, a distinction without meaning, but to my mind, right now, “being distracted” is something else entirely. We are distracted when the world intrudes on our thoughts and routines in ways that deserve and demand our attention, that can’t be put off or ignored. Put another way [and again, this is my distinction for this post] distractions tend toward the trivial, while being distracted is an emotional state.

I am very good at managing distractions. But these days I am distracted. My thoughts are on the virus, the effect it’s having on our society, our economy, our politics. I find it incredibly difficult to concentrate on my work. The second half of last week, I started a new project, and though I am always slow at the beginning of something new, I got a total of 2,600 words written in three days. My usual pace is 2,500 per day.

I am constantly checking my email and social media links for updates, news, word from friends and colleagues. And even when I force myself to stick to the task at hand, my thoughts wander, my creativity flags.

When I wrote about distractions several weeks ago, I had lots of suggestions for how you might hold them at bay. This, though… This is different. I have no answers for myself, much less for others. I can only offer what I am trying to tell myself, day in and day out.

First, this isn’t forever. True, we don’t know how long this crisis will last, but I refuse to accept that somehow this is “the new normal” or some such. (Hate that phrase, by the way: “The new normal.” Yuck. At some point I’m going to do an entire post about all the crappy turns of phrase that make my skin scrawl. Right now, though, that’s just another distraction.) (See what I did there…?) It may take a month, or six, or twelve, but we will get our lives back. I’m convinced of that.

Of course, that doesn’t make me any less distracted right now. So the second thing I’ve tried to do is be accepting of my own limitations. This is an extraordinary time. It’s natural to be distracted, to be fearful or unsettled or even angry at the world. And it follows that we will be less productive, less than our professional best. Which is not to say that all of us are. Some might be reading this thinking, “What the hell is Coe going on about? I’m churning out 5,000 words a day. This is a Godsend. An excuse to stay home and do nothing but write? Love it!” If that’s you, great. I’m happy for you. I’m envious. Because that’s not me right now at all. And, frankly, it’s not really anyone else I know either. But good on you! You go, person!

For the rest of us, it’s all right to be a little less productive, to want to know what the latest is on the current insanity. Give yourself a break and accept that just as the world will adapt and return to even keel, so will you. As with regular, run-of-the-mill distractions, I have tried these past couple of weeks to ration my news-hunting. “500 words, and then I can see what’s trending on Twitter now.” Or something of the sort. I haven’t been all that successful with this so far, but I’m hoping…

But really, my point as I began this post wasn’t to offer advice. Mostly, I’m writing this to say that if you’re struggling right now, you’re not alone. I know many who are. The world has ground to a halt, people are freaked out, and somewhere men and women of, shall we say, odd disposition are doing something bizarre with all those rolls of toilet paper… Be good to yourself and to the people around you. Very few of us are at our best right now. Distractions are easy. Being distracted like this is a struggle.

Wishing you a safe, calm, and, if you want it, productive week.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Handling a Plot-Hole Crisis

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

We writers all know the feeling: We’re well into the writing of a novel or story, when we abruptly realize that we have a plot hole wide enough to accommodate an eighteen-wheeler. Sometimes the realization is our own – we happen to glimpse our narrative in a way we haven’t before, and the issue, which had been invisible to us, is suddenly so clear we wonder how we could have missed it. At other times we need an outside reader to show it to us. I hate when it happens that way; I feel like a moron. “How did I not see this?” I ask myself.

I recently faced this problem, although in a slightly different way. I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece for months now, and I had someone read it for me, someone I trust completely. He told me that I had one of my facts wrong – a point of family history that I thought I knew and didn’t. This was something central to the story I’m telling, the very lynchpin of my essay. I felt like a bomb had gone off, blowing a giant hole in my narrative.

So I did what all good writers do. I panicked, flew into histrionics, convinced myself that the sky was falling and all my work had been for nothing. That was fun and productive…

Here’s a dirty little secret: This happens to me a lot. I’m pretty sure it happens to all of us a lot. Plotting isn’t easy and it’s rare for any of us to get it right the first time. Plus, storylines tend to evolve in the writing, even for those of us who outline ahead of time. (A subject for another post.) And so, yes, plot holes appear with some regularity. The question is, how do we tackle them and move beyond them?

Let’s start with this: Panicking and freaking out is NOT the answer. Relax. Breathe. It’s going to be all right. Your book/story is not irrevocably doomed. Really.

Read that last paragraph again. I’ll wait.

There. Feeling a little better?

Okay, Step 1: Take a moment to remind yourself of what your story is about. In my case, I went back and revisited the basic themes of my essay. And I realized that while this point I had wrong undermined a small section of my story, it didn’t invalidate all of it. Not even close. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that the stories we tell tend to be bigger and more complex than we think. It’s rare that one element of a story is so crucial that its failure renders the rest of the tale useless.

Step 2: With the fundamentals of your story firmly in mind, ask yourself what you have lost with this recent realization. Chances are, it’s not the narrative apocalypse you think it is. If necessary, chart your narrative on paper or on a white board, and pinpoint the place where your plot thread falters. Visualizing your work in this way can do two things: 1) It can offer some perspective on the relative sizes of your overall story and this specific problem. That’s usually reassuring. And 2) It can help you discover paths around the plot hole.

Step 3: Brainstorm. I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, and I’m not trying to say that these problems are easy to overcome or that somehow they’ll fix themselves. If you’ve spotted an issue big enough to cause you to panic, it’s likely that repairing it will take some work and some time. Don’t expect to find the answer in a matter of minutes or even a couple of hours. It might take several days; it might take a week, or more. That’s all right. No one knows your story as well as you do. The solution to your problem resides in your mind. It might be deep in your hind brain, but it will emerge in time. Be patient, don’t lose hope. You’ll figure this out.

Finally, keep these things in mind: First, writing is hard. The creative process is filled with moments of progress and inspiration, and also with setbacks and even crises. In other words, this is not a breakdown of the process, but rather part of the process. It’s normal. Second, if you have gotten this far with your project it’s because there is a story there. Your creation deserves your faith, your conviction that it is worth saving. Hold on to that. Your belief in your own work will see you through. And finally, remember that it’s okay to walk away from a stubborn narrative for a little while. Don’t give up on it. Never give up on it. But if it’s just not happening at the moment, turn to something else for a time. This piece will still be waiting when you’re ready to face it again.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Monday Musings: More Thoughts on the Pandemic

So, you’re tele-working now. Or you’re home with kids whose schools have closed. Or, like me, you’re just back from driving fifteen hours round trip to pick up your kid from a college that is closed for “two weeks,” but really indefinitely, until this clusterfuck of a pandemic is over.

Our routines seem so solid, so established. We take for granted that they will remain constant, that the foundations of our lives are sound. It’s disorienting to realize how fragile these things truly are. Think about it: On New Year’s Eve, none of us had ever heard of Covid-19; most of us didn’t even know there was a collection of pathogens known as coronavirus. That was the day when health officials in Wuhan Province, China, first reported a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases. The first case has since been dated back to November 17. But even that is only four months ago. And returning to December 31, most of us spent that night with friends and family, celebrating the New Year, unaware that THE dominant news story of 2020 was already underway.

Eleven weeks later, the world is a changed place. Hundreds of thousands ill, thousands dead. Who knows how high those numbers might climb? For many – too many – life will never be the same; for the rest of us, it will eventually return to normal, but the dislocations will be profound and unsettling.

Please allow me to pause here, and to be clear: None of what I am about to say is meant to in any way downplay the seriousness of the situation. For those most at risk – the immunocompromised, the older members of our communities, those who already have underlying medical issues – this is a matter of life and death. Others among us face huge economic hardships that most of us can’t even imagine. The most vulnerable among us – in physical terms AND economic terms – need our support, our love, our compassion, and the attention of our policy makers.

That said, placed in perspective, the disruptions the most fortunate among us – myself included – have endured thus far seem pretty minimal. We hope they will remain so. But in talking to my wife and my kids and other family members, in corresponding with friends and colleagues, I see already the toll taken by the sheer uncertainty of it all. That is another cost of the Trump Administration’s bungling response to the crisis. Yes, they have squandered precious time, and this WILL result in more sickness and, ultimately, more deaths. But even for those who will be fortunate enough to remain healthy, the cost in uncertainty and anxiety is significant.

I got really ticked off at myself the other day because I realized half the day was gone and I had accomplished nothing. I’m finding it hard to concentrate, to resist the temptation to check the news for the latest event to be called off or the next celebrity to announce that they Have It. And as I result I’m getting nothing done.

Which probably doesn’t matter right now. Do I really think publishers are immune to the economic dislocations impacting every other industry? Do I really expect them to be contracting new books or sticking to publication schedules for the ones already in production?

And this leads me to the next thought.

Have you read about the environmental impact of Covid-19? Economic activity has ground to a halt in China and Italy, among other places. And as a result carbon emissions are way, way down in those areas. Now, I am NOT celebrating this. We need to curb carbon output, but subjecting the world to a deadly pandemic is NOT the way to combat climate change.

My point is that many of us – even as we’re expected to “tele-work” (an inelegant phrase, by the way – surely we can do better) – are going to have time on our hands. We’re not going out as much. We’re probably not traveling. Professional conferences are on hold. We’re not going to movies or concerts or sporting events. We won’t be watching March Madness or the end of the professional basketball season or the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

So what will we be doing?

Last week, I went on a hike and took a bunch of photographs (if you haven’t already, check out last week’s Photo Friday post). I have a ton of books to read. Lately, I haven’t been playing my guitar nearly enough. It’s almost time for bird migration, which means more hikes. Yes, I’ll probably be watching TV and movies from home. All of us are going to be binging something, I’m sure. Yet, even the most dedicated bingers can’t spend ALL their time in front of the screen. Those of us who lament never having enough time to do all the stuff we’d like to… well, we finally have that time. It’s been imposed from without. It comes with anxiety-inducing social costs. But if ever there was a time to slow down and enjoy the simple things that modern life too often encourages us to ignore, this is it.

And that’s where I’ll leave you today. This is what I’m musing on this odd Monday. We are in a dark time, to be sure. I’m nervous, as I’m sure most of you are, about the economic and social and biological and political implications of the pandemic. There is plenty to fear. As with all things, though, there is also a flip side. I have thought for a long time that I would like to simplify elements of my life, but in my rush to be productive and to keep all of my professional and personal commitments, I have allowed that wish to fall by the wayside. Now, I have no choice in the matter. For good or for ill. As it were…

Wishing you a good week, whatever that means at this moment in history.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Guest Author Tina LeCount Myers on Writing a Series

Today I welcome to the blog my dear friend, Tina LeCount Myers. Tina and I met at a World Fantasy Convention a few years back and immediately fell into an easy friendship. I have since read her work and discovered without surprise that she is, in addition to being smart and funny and kind, a talented and skilled a storyteller. Please welcome her to the blog!


Tina LeCount MyersWhen I finished writing the first draft of The Song of All, I was convinced of two things:

1.) The Song of All was a stand-alone book.

2.) I was not a fantasy writer.

Over dinner, defeated, I confessed these two realizations to my husband. He, in his over-the-years-learned wisdom, asked me some insightful questions but let my definitive pronouncement stand. I was done.

At least I thought I was done. That very night, I went to bed and dreamed about what would become the next two novels in The Legacy of the Heavens trilogy. Luckily, somewhere around 3 AM, I realized what was happening. For the next 2 hours, I wrote by hand, by candlelight, trying to stay within my dream. By 5 AM, I had a rough plot outline and several key themes. It wasn’t pretty, but clearly this story had more to say.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount MyersOver the next several months, as I edited The Song of All and honed my query letter, I felt confident saying, “The Song of All is a stand-alone epic fantasy novel with series potential.” After all, I had an outline, a roster of characters, and some heartfelt themes. I knew where the story was going and where it would end up. But when the series sold based on the first book and I began to write the second book, I soon realized that, while I had read tons of books in series, I had little or no idea of how to write one. In my giddy state as a writer with a book contract, I didn’t let this fact stop me. I continued to write the story, knowing that I would need to rewrite it many times, confident that I would learn how to write a series.

I did learn how to write a series, it was a long, hard road—one that I wish I’d had more guidance for and one that continues. Overall, my take-away from writing a series is that this is not a place for “pantsing” (going by the seat of your pants). Rather, “plotting” is a de facto reality. That is not to say that your books will be all planned without any spontaneity, but an outline of the series should lean toward filling in as much as possible while leaving some blank places to surprise you as the author. I called The Legacy of Heavens a trilogy but who knows, maybe the series will go on from here, and the Muse and my publisher willing, I’ll have another series to work on in the near future. Until then, I wish you all the best in your writing endeavors be they stand-alone or with series potential.

Here are 5 things I wish I had done when I first started on my series:

Dreams of the Dark Sky, by Tina LeCount Myers1. Fully explore and flesh out the world-building. For some writers of science fiction and fantasy this might be obvious because world-building is their jam, but for other writers, who are more interested in themes or characters or plot, digging deep into world building might not be their first choice. Nevertheless, the better your understanding of how your world works (geography, socio-economic and political structures, cultural and legal norms, clothing, food, relationships, architecture, magic, etc) the easier it will be to see how the plot will unfold, where the themes might manifest, and how the characters will react.

2. Maps. Whether you love them or hate them, create them. This might be considered part of world-building, but it’s also about logistics and plotting. Even if you don’t plan to include maps in the books, make them for yourself and start right from the beginning, even if they’re rough. You will need to know the geography of your world. Where are the mountains, rivers, oceans, volcanoe   s, towns, and cities? What planets, asteroids, and galaxies exist in your world? To keep your characters moving you need to know the paths and the obstacles. Moreover, if you have a number of characters in movement, map it out so that when you are on book 5 of your series, referring to a military campaign that happened in book 2 of your series, you’ll know who’s where and doing what without going back and rereading book 2.

3. Detailed character lists. Sometimes characters come to us fully formed and that’s awesome, take advantage of that gift and make sure you write down all those details (physical traits, psychological quirks, emotional needs, etc) so that you can refer back to them as the plot continues. Sometimes, however, characters take shape or evolve the more you write about them. Here too, keeping detailed notes helps not only with character development but also continuity. Like world-building, the more you know about your characters, the more effectively you can use them.

Breath of Gods, by Tina LeCount Myers4. Upping the stakes without jumping the shark. What keeps someone reading a series? Characters we love (so develop those characters) and the situations they find themselves in. As a reader, I fall in love with characters and want to know what happens to them as they face challenges, but if they face the same challenges over and over it can get boring​. I want them to learn and grow from their obstacles. As a writer, creating new challenges for growth can run the risk of going over the top. Killing off everyone that a character loves over a series definitely ups the stakes. But where does it leave your character? And where does it leave your reader? It is a balance between tension and emotional exhaustion, and something which I am still working on.

5. On a practical note, when working on a series try to set realistic timelines for publication. Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, having a clear understanding of the work involved is important. A 120K word book written in a year works out to 10K words a month, so 333 words a day or 500 words a day with weekends off. Sounds totally doable. And maybe not. Factor in life (work outside of writing, family, vacations, health, etc) and add in revisions, probably a couple, maybe creating and maintaining a website, writing blog posts, and marketing your work through a newsletter or social media. Suddenly, writing a book every 3 months or 6 or 9 or 12 might be too much. When you can, be realistic and kind to yourself when you set your deadlines for a series.

*****

Tina LeCount Myers is a writer, surfer, and gluestick artist. Born in Mexico to expat-bohemian parents, she grew up on Southern California tennis courts with a prophecy hanging over her head; her parents hoped she’d one day be an author. Tina is the author of The Song of All, Dreams of the Dark Sky, and Breath of Gods (Books 1-3 of The Legacy of the Heavens series). Her work has also appeared in Literary Hub and Tor.com.

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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Creating Magic Systems

I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot.

For today’s Writing Tip, I would like to offer the first of what I expect will be an intermittent series world building posts. I love world building. Of all the things we speculative fiction writers get to do, it may be the one I think of as the most fun. It can involve a ton of research (which, for many of us, adds to the fun), but it is, at its core, an act of pure creation. It is that stage of writing a book when we get to play “let’s pretend,” sometimes for days, even weeks, at a time. What’s not to love?

There are lots of elements to world building, of course, but for today’s purposes, I want to talk about creating our magic systems.

To many, magic is the defining feature of fantasy stories, the one story element that sets what we do apart from the work of other writers. I’m not entirely sure I believe that (and it could be a topic for a fun bar conversation), but I do agree that for fantasies that include magic, developing a consistent and believable magic system is absolutely essential to the success of our narrative.

So, what are the most important ingredients of a good magic system?

Let me start here: Everything I’m about to say is just my opinion. These are the things that I strive to put into my magic systems. There are other ways to do this, and I would never be so arrogant as to suggest that if you don’t set up your magic with the properties I use in mine, you’re doing it wrong. So with every declarative statement I’m about to make, please insert a silent “In my opinion” or “To my way of thinking.”

I try to make my magic systems limited, costly, ordered, and realistic (to the extent that anything magical can be). I do everything in my power to keep magic from taking over my story, because ultimately, even in the most imaginative fantasy worlds, magic should remain secondary to character and plot. In my opinion.

All of my magic system requirements are interlocked, but the first two in particular are closely related.

By limited, I mean just that. Magic can be powerful, it can be frightening. It can be wondrous. It should NOT be the answer to every problem our magic-wielding characters encounter. It can’t be omnipotent. At least not if I’m to keep to what I said above about not allowing magic to take over my story. So the first thing I like to do with my magic system is figure out specifically what magic can do. In the Thieftaker and Fearsson books, that has meant coming up with a partial list of spells, and giving all of them a similar amount of reach and impact. For the Winds of the Forelands series, it meant coming up with different categories of Qirsi magic – mists and winds, language of beasts, shattering, healing, etc. It’s not that every person’s magic is the same, or even that my list of abilities is necessarily comprehensive. Part of the fun of writing these books is discovering new flavors of magic as each series progresses. But in determining what most magics are like, I begin to define the boundaries of what magic can do and what it can’t.

Magics should be costly because even a relatively limited magic can take over a story if your magic-wielder can draw upon it over and over and over without consequence. By imposing a cost for magic – fatigue, blood loss, the shortening of one’s life (as in Winds of the Forelands) or the loss of years (as with the time travel in my Islevale Cycle) – I force my characters to use their magic strategically and, even more important, to rely on other qualities as they seek to overcome whatever problems I place in their paths. Magic without cost is empty, it’s boring. Any victories achieved with it will wind up feeling cheap and unearned, which we don’t want.

An ordered magic system is internally consistent. Limits that apply in one situation will, generally speaking, apply in all situations. The costs of magic are extracted from all. Sure, a more experienced or more powerful sorcerer/mage/conjurer/weremyste might deal with those costs better than others. There is nothing wrong with hierarchies. The problems arise when there is no rationale for discrepancies in what magic does for one person or another. Now, I will also say that quite often we set up our rules and costs and limits, only to introduce a villain who finds her way around those things. That’s fine, as long as we can explain within the logic of the system exactly what makes her exceptional. The fact that there are rules doesn’t necessarily mean that our hero knows all of those rules. By giving our villain this sort of advantage, we make her that much more dangerous, and we force our hero to find a way, within the rules, to overcome her foe’s powers. Our hero might have to learn something new, or find an innovative way to apply old rules. These are the sorts of conflicts I relish as a writer.

All of these structural elements are intended to make our magic systems as realistic as possible, but realism goes beyond them. Magic should seem to the reader to be as endemic to the worlds we create as air and water, as the cycle of days and seasons, as the oceans and deserts and forests we describe. It should be elemental, integral to the larger world. Just as gravity applies to all on our planet (until we find some way within the rules of physics to defy gravity), so should magic and its rules apply believably across the board in our worlds. This is why Thieftaker magic looks just like 18th century descriptions of witchcraft – I wanted my magic to blend with my historical world.

I’ll end this by returning to a point I raised early on: Magic is a plot device, something we use to make our work original and intriguing and fun, for us and for our readers. It is no replacement for good plotting and convincing character work. In fact, I’ll take this a step further: in most of my stories, at the end, magic will fail my characters. They will find themselves driven to the very limits of their magical abilities, and these talents will prove insufficient. In order to prevail, they will need to draw upon other qualities: wit, resourcefulness, courage, strength. Only by combining these other, more ordinary, human attributes with their magic, can they emerge triumphant. Because magic is not, cannot be, the most important thing. We are writing about people, first and foremost. And we want their victories to reflect who and what they are. It’s easy to write a magical victory. Writing a human victory – that’s the great challenge.

Keep writing! Hope to see many of you at Saga this weekend!

Monday Musings: The Social Side of Cons

At the end of this week, I will drive to Charlotte for the Saga Professional Development Conference, where I will be speaking over the weekend. It should be a fun event and I hope to see many of you there.

As I prepare for it, though, I realize that I left something out of my recent Monday Musings post on attending conventions. Clearly, we all want to glean from our conventions and conferences all that we can professionally. But there is another reason we attend these gatherings. I am looking forward to my panels and my workshop, but mostly I’m excited to spend time with my friends and colleagues, to reconnect with fellow writers who I don’t get to see nearly enough.

I live in a tiny town in the rural south. It’s a college town – good places to eat, lots of cultural opportunities, and a wonderful community of smart, interesting, socially-aware people. But I’m pretty much the only speculative fiction writer in the area. There are plenty of writers in town – and I spend time with several of them – but our genre is not well represented.

Moreover, writing is a solitary act (if you don’t count the clamor of voices in our heads). It’s easy to feel isolated in this profession, especially early in one’s career, when we haven’t yet had the chance to build a writing community.

And so when we attend conventions, conferences, and the like, of course we want to sell our books and stories, of course we want to connect with agents and editors who can help us further our careers. But we also want to build that community of colleagues and friends. I’ve been in the business for a quarter century, and I still find new friends at nearly every event I attend. I’m not particularly good at small talk, at being “social” on demand. To some degree I have to force myself. There is a part of me – almost always – that wants to retreat to my hotel room and watch TV, or read, or work, or take a nap. Any of those would be easier than making myself into Socialize Guy. And I did make a point in that previous post I mentioned about building in alone time when attending a convention. I believe that’s important.

The danger lies in retreating completely. As I said, writing is a solitary act. Many of us are drawn to it for just that reason. I love my work time, I enjoy being alone with my ideas, my creativity. That element of my job comes naturally to me. It’s the hobnobbing I struggle with.

Yet, I’m fortunate. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I have lots of friends in the business. I already know many of the people I’ll be seeing this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited to catch up with them. Whatever social anxiety I have is helped by those long-standing friendships. I know that what I’m describing here is difficult, and even downright terrifying, for many people. And all I can say is, we’re really a friendly bunch, and we are more like you than you might think. Make the effort to step outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s just to introduce yourself to one person.

Because as much as we all want to connect with an agent or get invited into an anthology, it is every bit as important to start building your community. And the truth is, I wouldn’t trade a single one of my dear friends for all the book contracts and anthology invites in the world.

Although, if you happen to be a movie agent, you should ignore that last line. Really. Call me!

Have a great week!

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Writers Read

I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

In last week’s Writing-Tip Wednesday post I tried to ease up on the old “truism” that writers have to write every day. This week, I address another truism (Spoiler Alert: notice the lack of quotation marks this time…): Writers have to be readers.

I will admit that I find this one so basic, so integral to all that it means to be a writer, that I’m tempted to leave the post at that and go open a beer. Writers have to be readers. Period. Full stop.

But it’s morning, and I really shouldn’t be drinking beer this early, so allow me to elaborate…

To my mind, trying to be a professional writer without being a serious reader, is like trying to be a professional athlete without exercising. Except golf and NASCAR. Okay, bad analogy… But you get what I mean.

Seriously, though, we make our livings with the written word; we should be consumers of what we produce. And I expect that for most people this is not a burdensome idea. Generally speaking, those of us who care about words and language and storytelling are drawn to reading without need of being prompted.

That said, I have had people ask me what sorts of things I read and, perhaps more to the point, what sorts of things beginning writers ought to be reading.

The answer to the second question, for the most part, is “whatever you want.” Really. If you like epic fantasy and horror, read those. If you like mystery and urban fantasy and space opera, read those. If you like guitar magazines and books about photography (not that there’s anyone here who likes those things…) have at it. Read what you enjoy, what interests you. Just read.

Then again, if you’re serious about being a professional writer, you should be familiar with the genres AND forms in which you write. You should familiarize yourself with some of the classics of whatever sort of story you wish to write, and you should also be reading new work, to see where your chosen genre is headed. At the same time, you don’t have to read EVERYTHING in the field, or even every book or series considered a classic or a current trendsetter. We all have our preferences, we know what we like and what we don’t. There is a HUGE amount of material available to us and life is just too short to read books we don’t enjoy.

So, as a for instance: I have been writing epic fantasy off and on for close to twenty-five years. I started my career writing big fat high fantasies. By that time, I had read extensively in the genre – classics by Tolkien and Lewis and LeGuin, more recent books by Kerr, Donaldson, Kurtz, Brooks, Eddings, McCaffrey (though she considered herself a science fiction writer rather than a fantasist), Mary Stewart, and my favorite, Guy Gavriel Kay. And so I was familiar with the tropes. I knew which I wanted to avoid and which I wanted to build upon. I knew the story structure. I understood what was required in building worlds and magic systems.

When I decided to start working on urban fantasy, I read extensively in THAT genre, learning the tropes and narrative structures and character arcs that one finds in those books.

These are the reasons we read in our genres: because books and stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger conversation. They are, in a sense, contributions to a dialogue that will, we hope, continue long after we are gone. Trying to write without being familiar with the genre is not only an act of supreme arrogance, it is also a great way to wind up inadvertently writing something that is either too similar to someone else’s work or so far outside the realm of what readers expect that the books fall flat.

On the other hand, there are obvious omissions from my list of epic fantasy authors. I didn’t read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I didn’t read past the first book of Terry Goodkind’s series. I actually stopped reading A Song of Ice and Fire because the set-up was too similar in certain ways to my Winds of the Forelands books and I didn’t want to be accused of copying from George R.R. Martin. (A few people accused me of this anyway, but what can you do?)

The point is, we can read to learn our craft without having to treat that reading as a mandatory study list. Read. Read a lot. But choose books that you want to read. If you’re interested in writing short fiction, and are not as sure of yourself in short form work, pick up a couple of collections and/or anthologies. (What’s the difference? Collections are books of one author’s short fiction; anthologies have works by several different authors.) You couldn’t possibly read all the anthologies and collections out there, so choose the ones that sound interesting to you. (And yes, I can recommend a couple of titles…)

But if you want to write, you absolutely have to read. Yes, I’m going there. This is not negotiable. This is not one of those questions for which there are lots of different answers.

Writers read.

Period. Full stop.

Keep writing! (And reading!)