Sunday, February 26, 2012

Gaining Confidence as a Writer

I have begun the highly anticipated process of revising my novel. After two years of drafting, being to this point is super exciting...and daunting for me. The truth is, I revised my novel...a lot...before I finished it. I threw out the first six months of work and started over again. I also nitpicked the NEW first third to death (like a year) before moving onto the last two-thirds of my novel, which I wrote in two months. Suffice it to say, it took me a long time to get where I'm at now.

I used to think things like, "Huh, my chapter turned out so much better than I thought it would. Lucky me. If I hadn't decided to write when I did on this particular day and time, and under these exact circumstances, this unique chapter couldn't have been written." In retrospect, I see I was crediting each success along the way to things beyond me. Because things like, I don't know, hard work and determination couldn't possibly have produced a good chapter. I did work hard. I busted my butt. But that couldn't be the reason why my chapters magically came together.

I remember reading interviews of published authors who said they threw out their WHOLE novels and started over again...sometimes more than once. That idea terrified me. I mean, I was fortunate in the first place to have produced a decent chapter, right? How could I toss it out, hoping luck would find me again? The odds weren't good.

I've been under the silly notion that cutting down my lengthy novel to the appropriate size would be a simple matter of hitting the delete key 40,000 times.


I just wrote a new chapter one. At least half of it was new material (that was the part I'd been dreading, but was actually fun); the other half was a maddening puzzle-piecing together of stuff I'd already written. When I finished, I'd reduced three long chapters to ten pages. And guess what? The new chapter is SO MUCH BETTER than what I'd written before.

I realized something: maybe, just maybe, this could do with a little person called me. Maybe I was a talented enough to make something shiny and new all over again--every time I determined to. It didn't have to be during a magical time of day or because the planets had aligned.

Now I'm not trying to diss that inspiration plays a big part in writing. We all have our muses and tricks to help set the mood. And I do credit my crit partners, my husband, and other readers for feedback that's helped me shape my story. But I finally realized I can rewrite something well...and take a little credit.

Mary Kole said on her website a few weeks ago, "Words are a renewable resource." That resonated with me, but also had me shaking in my boots. Was I capable of writing better than I had in the first place?

Yes I was. Yes I am.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Love Triangle Agony

So most my crit partners have now read The Rowaness of Shalott. I read it myself after two months' distance (and before reading their critiques). Most of their comments were in line with things I also saw when I read, but the biggest shocker came from one of my best friends (also a crit partner).

She hates Lancelot.

WHAT?!!! How could she hate Lancelot? Impossible!

The feedback I've gotten from other readers/crit partners so far is that they love both Lancelot and Arthur, which is what I wanted. I love them equally, though I know who Guinevere will end up with at the end of my trilogy. I've written both men very differently. Arthur is perfect (which ends up being a flaw) and Lancelot isn't (which compels me to him). I naively thought that every reader would follow Guinevere's story and fall in love with each man when she did.

I was very, very wrong.

This is the joy of love triangles, and after a weekend of being very hurt and angry, I've realized a few things, talked to several people, and come away with some insights.

Guess what? When you write a love triangle, you inadvertently ask your readers to love one interest more than the other. To what degree they love the one, they often hate the other in an equal measure.

Let's take Twilight, for example. I hate Jacob. Hate him. But I suddenly like him during the second half of Breaking Dawn. I realized this was because he was no longer a threat to Bella and Edward's relationship. I could give you paragraphs of valid reasons why I hated Jacob before, but fundamentally, it came down to fact that he was not Edward and was standing in the way of him.

There are some books, however, that I like both love interests (though I still have a favorite). Unearthly and Matched come to mind. But anytime I truly, madly, deeply fall in love with a love interest, I HATE the rival.

Cassandra Clare says your readers should be split down the middle with which love interest they prefer in a love triangle. The stronger they hate and love the other is a GOOD SIGN your story is working.

Now I'll admit love triangles annoy me to no end when they're the typical both-boys-fighting-over-the-girl-and-oh-dear-who-will-she-choose variety. You start hating the girl for being wishy-washy, bouncing back and forth between them. But love triangles can be very effective story tools. Cassandra Clare says if the two boys have a solid friendship, that makes things more interesting (Arthur and Lancelot are best friends, so check). It also makes things more interesting (according to me) if both boys AREN'T fighting for the girl. If they're confused whether they love her or not in the first place. All right, that's all I'm going to spill about my story. The point is, love triangles do have their place in literature AND can be very compelling.

One of the panels I attended at LTUE was on fractured fairy tales. The authors agreed that the reason they fracture a fairy tale is usually because they hated the original or something about it. This is true for me with the Arthurian legends. I dislike how the love triangle is often handled between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot. And so The Rowaness of Shalott was born.

I've realized that as I writer I need to let my book communicate in whatever way it will for my readers. I can write, revise and polish all I want, but in the end, not everyone's going to like my story or all of my characters. This friend who hated Lancelot, loved two other characters who none of my other readers have liked so far. Is she right or wrong? It doesn't matter. She is having her own valid experience with my book, and she should be allowed that. Every reader should be. It breaks my heart that she hates Lancelot because I know I won't change him (and because I wanted this close friend to enjoy him). But for my purposes as a writer, he is everything I want him to be. (But my friend loves Arthur. So that's something to be happy about.)

Little did I know what I was getting myself into with writing this love triangle. But now I've gotten a taste for what to expect, I'm more prepared.

*skips away to make Team Lancelot and Team Arthur t-shirts*

For more thoughts on love triangles, visit my awesome crit partner's blog post. (For the record, Ilima loved both Arthur and Lancelot.)

Also, a shout out goes to another crit partner, Taryn, who just signed with agent Vickie Motter. Taryn is a mad genius and we all live vicariously through her. Congrats, Taryn! (Time will tell if she likes Arthur and Lancelot. I'll send her the second draft of Rowaness...hopefully minus 40,000 words.)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Let's Talk Dialogue

Dialogue is a powerful tool in writing. It effortlessly shows rather than tells, it's more often than not used "in-scene," and it usually improves pacing. BUT writing dialogue and all its mechanics is a tricky business. Agents often skip to dialogue-heavy sections of novels they're considering because dialogue reveals the skills of a writer instantaneously.

The times I'm most engaged as a writer is when I'm writing dialogue.I write slowly by nature, but with dialogue, I can't write fast enough! I usually skip the dialogue tags and action beats between the lines, just trying to stay on top of the words my characters are spewing back and forth to each other. I often know what they say in the middle or at the end of a conversation, and I bounce back and forth trying to capture everything. Once I finally get their words out, I go back and plug in the necessary tags and beats.

While I don't pretend to be the know-it-all master of dialogue, I can tell you some of my tried-and-true tricks.

I'd say good dialogue comes down to two rules: it needs to sound natural and it needs to be compact for the purposes of tight fiction (which is not how people speak in real life). The two rules oppose each other, and it's the writers job to strike the right balance.

Natural Dialogue

When I was little girl, my siblings and I would record our voices onto audio cassette tapes. Then in my early teens my dad bought a video camera. So in some format or another, I was constantly recording improvisational scenes. If you haven't tried improv acting before, I'd highly recommend it. Even if you'd rather be an observer, you can attend local improv comedy troupe shows and LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to the dialogue that comes naturally and on-the-spot from these actors. (Listening to real conversational speech is beneficial as well, but be careful because "real people" don't speak compactly...more on that later.)

In high school I began acting in plays and did so throughout college and beyond. Because plays are 95% dialogue, I was forced to analyze, line by line, scene by scene, what I was required to say and how to make it work. I had to find the objective, motivation and tactics for my character. I had to know what I was really saying between the lines. And there was nothing worse than trying to act well while delivering a badly written line. I constantly considered whether dialogue (especially written by amateur playwrights) was something my character would really say--if it sounded believable, natural.

Then throughout high school I wrote in volumes upon volumes of journals. My average was ten pages a day, and on really good days, I would write up to fifty pages (and these were large-paged journals, not tiny pocket-sized ones). I wasn't thinking dialogue, dialogue, dialogue as I wrote these entries, but that's what they mostly were comprised of. Somehow I recalled conversations from the day, and I recorded them in my journal, not in a summarizing fashion, but moment for moment, word for word--"in-scene." I would skip to the part of the conversation that got interesting and start there (and I'd stop writing before the conversation got dull again). Which brings us to the next point in writing good dialogue:

Compressed Dialogue

It would sound natural (but would be painstakingly boring) if we wrote dialogue just as it is in real life. It would read like this:

"What's up?"
"Not much."
"Nice day."
"Yeah. Might rain later."

This is small talk. Not much tension or conflict. The best dialogue--even between characters who like each other or are on the same side--must have conflict. So here is where we bend the law of natural dialogue to include only the most interesting parts, which again, must have conflict. I have to now go back to the dialogue I wrote where I let my characters endlessly banter and go off on tangents and trim it down to fit the purpose of the scene. And if my character felt the need to make some big speech (and you can only get away with so many of these), I need to liposuction that as well, and then break it up with beats, interiority, and reactions from the other character(s).

Check Your Dialogue

The most important thing you can do to test the quality of your dialogue is to read it aloud--or even better, have someone else read it aloud to you. Become actors and stage the scene you wrote. As you speak aloud, see where you or your friend stumble on the wording, or where your ears--and not your eyes--tell you something is wrong. Additionally, make sure your characters have different voices, patterns of speech, etc. And make sure the dialogue mechanics are helping, not hindering, the conversation of your characters. Get rid of dialogue tags when you can--but not all, as not to exhaust your reader. If you use beats in place of a dialogue tag, and in where it's otherwise unclear who is speaking, it's best to write the action beat before that character starts talking. For example:

"Are you going to tell me what happened last night?" Jane said.
Michael fiddled with his shoelaces, not meeting her eyes. "What's for dinner?"

The above example also works for misdirecting the conversation, which is another great dialogue tool. Rather than have your characters speak plainly back and forth to each other, it's nice when they try to change subjects, interrupt each other, trail off, beat around the bush, speak in fragmented sentences, and answer a question with a question. All these tactics add tension, conflict and believability to the scene.

Some other quick reminders:

  • Make sure your stick to "said" as much as possible in your dialogue tags.
  • Don't use physical impossibilities for speaker attributions. (A character doesn't "laugh" or "grimace" a line of speech. They SAY it. So none of this: "Let's have a picnic," Teresa smiled.)
  • Paragraph your dialogue (a new paragraph for each person speaking). For the most part, this rule applies for character reactions too. So if one character is speaking and the other character reacts rather than says anything back, place that reaction in a separate paragraph, as if it were a line of dialogue.
  • Don't explain in your interiority or action beats what is apparent by the dialogue alone. Interiority is best used when it's revealing thoughts that are in opposition to the dialogue--or at least a completely different line of thought.
  • Get rid of adverbs in dialogue tags (he said lovingly) unless they actually modify the verb "said" (quietly, softly and clearly are okay, if you really need them).
  • Beware of melodrama in dialogue. Hopefully you can identify this by reading your dialogue aloud. Then make sure your scene isn't all at the same pitch; make sure it builds into a tense moment and there's contrast within the scene. Then compare all your scenes and make sure there is an arc to them--that they're not all at the same emotional intensity.
  • Beware of exposition/back story in dialogue. This is okay, but only if it is something the characters would naturally say to each other, and not just a device for the author to divulge necessary information to the reader.
  • Don't spell out dialects or accents in language. You CAN use language improperly or irregularly, though. (Like, "You don't got no business talking to me" if a character isn't well educated, or "Please to tell me what you mean" if a character is a foreigner.)
So what are your struggles with writing dialogue? (For me, it's in compressing it down. I could let my characters talk all day!) Do you have any tips or thoughts on writing dialogue you'd like to share? I'd love to hear them!