Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dialog 101

Before I get into today's post, I'm offering some distraction to everyone who is social distancing and needs a diversion. Enter the Rafflecopter below for your chance to win one of three audiobooks of COOKIE THERAPY. The redemption codes are offered through and are only available in the US or UK (I apologize for the limited distribution, but it's an Audible thing). Winners will be chosen on Monday, March 29, 2020.

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As part of a writing group I've been working with, one author asked me a question about dialog issues I had in his writing. My editor also recently posted a blog on dialog (Use Dialog to Show, Not Tell), so I thought this would be a good time to share what I told my fellow author along with what my editor shared with the world.

In my editor's blog, she writes about dialog tags. That was a lesson it took me a while to learn. When I was first writing to be published, my first critique group was very "nice" and didn't point those out to me, so when I finally found a critique partner who did, I was stunned. Some useful information on using "said."

In the comments I shared with the author who asked me to expand on dialog, I noted his overuse of characters' names. When in actual conversation with someone, we rarely use the other person’s name unless a) we’re trying to remember it or b) for emphasis. 

“Hi, Mike, how are you?” “Fine, Karla, and you?” I’m good, Mike. Listen, Mike, I was thinking… “ “Thanks for your thoughts, Karla.” “Any time, Mike.” 

Talk to someone else in the room with you and note how often you use each other’s names. And if you intentionally use their name, pay attention to how they respond to that. I think you’ll find they think it unusual. When I address my husband by name (rarely) he always responds with my name, more to point out he’s noted my usage than any other reason.  
As a side note, years ago I dated someone who used my name intentionally, and I think that was to point out he knew “who” he was with. The usage was more because it was a “new” relationship and there were other people involved in the background. His intention was to make me feel special and was limited to those times when it was important to know he was present with me.

Another issue is unnecessary conversation. What does the following say?

"Hi, Joe." "Hi, Bill." "What are you up to today?" "Not much, you?" "Reading." "Yeah, me, too." 

The back and forth doesn't move forward. It can be condensed to convey the same thing in more concise language. Readers don't want to get caught up in an "understood" affirmation or confirmation. They want to get to the point. For instance, one can assume the paragraph prior to this dialog has already put Bill and Joe in the same room, and one can reasonably assume they've already greeted each other.
"I don't know what to do with myself now that social distancing is a requirement. I've stocked up on my reading materials, but how long can this go on?" "The movie stations are streaming classics, and some of the new releases are out early. I figure those will hold me over when my eyes get tired."
You get a whole lot more out of this exchange than the previous. Another thing to note is action beats. Sometimes words can be left out if their actions demonstrate their response. An example of this might be if someone insults someone else and the response is flipping them the bird.

I'd also pointed out a place in the story where the police force shows up to the scene of the crime. When they arrive, they stop to introduce themselves and their position. "I'm Officer Joe Keebles and I'm with the County Police Department." Point #1 is that the uniform identifies them. The people they're introducing themselves to called for the police, so they're expecting the police, so when two police officers arrive, those officers don't need to identify themselves as police. I'm also not sure they would stop to introduce themselves right away (and I could be wrong about that), but they'd be more focused on stemming the crime which is still happening. Introducing themselves stops the action and takes the reader out of the tension in the scene.

One last thought on dialog. While you want it to mimic natural conversation as closely as possible, because it’s written, it should be more condensed, leaving out the “you know” fillers people often throw in (unless it’s a character trait) or other “filler” type words. Not every comment needs a reply, and yet you don’t want to skip a reply when one is warranted. Sometimes actions speak louder than words. What makes a bigger impact? Words or actions?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Overcoming Writers' Fatigue

While I'm finishing up my second in the Hillendale series - UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES, I'm struggling with where to go with Book 3. This is not officially writers' block, probably more like writers' fatigue.

Several years ago, while I was writing the Mist Trilogy, my editor recommended The Writer's Brainstorming Kit, a book she referred to as "tarot for authors." It's a handy book that gives you the option to choose your plots, goals, motivations, conflicts, or to "flip a card" and be inspired. If you order the physical book, it comes with a deck of GMC cards. If you order the e-book, it cross-references to a deck of cards. At the time, I was struggling with my villain and why he did the things he did. I found the book surprisingly helpful.

Which brings me to "now." I have a vague concept of the plots and subplots for Hillendale #3, but this book needs to push the envelope a little farther, so I've been struggling with what haven't I already done in books one and two. Writers' fatigue.

I'm a pantser more often than not - I write by the seat of my pants. I start with my characters or some "thing/place/event" that sparked my imagination and let them tell me the story. When I get stuck, I sit down and plot (does that make me a "plot-ser?") I know stories need to move forward, and there has been more than one occasion where the story was wandering around aimlessly when I had to stop and call my characters together for a little planning meeting. What are the goals? What's standing in their way? What's the point of this story?? I'm not sure I've ever run into this before I've ever started the story though.

One way to get inspired when fatigue strikes is to read other books. Watch movies or series. So I selected a series (A Discovery of Witches) which turned out to be not at all what I'd expected, and yet it's very good! So while I wait for my editor to finish Book #2, I figured I'd pull out the tarot for writers book and see if I couldn't find a plot to carry Book #3. This, my friends, is when I realize I have writers' fatigue, because as I'm weighing my options, I see I've left myself a perfect roadmap to follow if I'd only been paying attention! Every book in a series should point to the next one, even if they are meant to stand alone, and I've done just that. I knew I was laying the groundwork, but sitting in the recovery phase of Book #2, I couldn't see the forest for the trees (to incorporate a cliché).

What do you do when you have writers' fatigue? You use the tools available to you to give you the extra "oomph" you need. In this case, an outline. Actual plotting. It takes the fatigue out of trying to figure out what comes next. Let me point out that outlining isn't a restrictive tool. It gives you a roadmap. Directions. But if you see a road sign advertising a fun detour, there's no reason you can't divert once you're more "rested."

Am I changing my stripes and embracing outlining my books? I sincerely doubt it. There comes a point in every book where I stop to make sure I'm actually moving the story along. Sometimes I let the plot unfold naturally, but when it doesn't, I will almost always stop to give my characters a map.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Blog - special edition.

Those of you who have read my EPITAPH series know that one of the recurring families is The McCormicks. They're Irish, with Ma and Da coming over from the old country and some of the family still there. In fact, in THE SELKIE, the youngest McCormick (Liam) takes a trip for work.

Why the special edition of the blog? For those who haven't read the series (or for readers who have started but are looking for more), I've bundled the series into two books - the ones featuring The McCormicks and the ones with the Bensons. I thought this would be the perfect time to release them, while we are all practicing social distancing. So put on the Irish and read about the McCormicks, and when you're done, you can read about those "Troglodyte" Benson brothers!

Check them out! (or any of my other books, while you're at it). I know I've been spending more time reading, as well as preparing the next release - Hillendale #2!

Buy it here

Buy it here

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Tools of the Trade

As a follow up to last week's post, I haven’t used Scrivener since November. Why? Because that’s not my process.

When I downloaded the trial, I was dealing with the holidays, and preparing a new release, and a new audiobook. I’m used to managing multiple priorities, so those things, in and of themselves, wouldn’t normally push me over the edge. The final straw was pulled when I lost “my person,” a family member I was closest to.

You’ve probably seen those drug ads on television.  In particular, I’m thinking of one that is used to combat depression, and one of the symptoms is loss of focus. No, I’m not advocating (or using) said drugs, but profound sadness absolutely screws with your focus, and that’s the point I’d reached with my work in process.

Going to take one more side trip before I circle back to the topic at hand…

My editor supplies me with a contract before we start work. She gives me dates, and for all the books she’s done for me, she hits every one of them. Sometimes it’s midnight of the day her edits are due back, but they come back on schedule. I hired a different editor for one of my books, and her process wasn’t quite as “professional.” She quoted approximate dates, in case “life events get in the way.” Now, I get life events. I completely get life events. But can you imagine me going to work and saying I want to build more days into my deadline because “life events?” Missing that deadline because “life events?” While I enjoyed working with that editor, I went back to the editor I knew and was comfortable with, because I want someone who will be held accountable. Does that mean she can’t be a day or three late if the worst should happen? Absolutely not. But that should be an exception rather than something that’s expected. Writing "life events" into a contract feels more like “in case I oversleep one day.”

So, back to the topic at hand. In spite of life events, I still have a job to do, and when life events throw me for a loop, I have to find a way to keep on track. Keep working. That’s where Scrivener came in handy during the “mourning period.” It organized my scattered thoughts. Gave me a way to think when thinking was too difficult.

For writers who struggle, there are tools out there to help. Grammar checkers. SPELL CHECKERS. Redundancy checkers. Programs that can pick up the slack where someone has a weakness. Even if you use the programs as a temporary crutch to get you over the hump, or a safety net, they are available to give you a boost when you need it.

So, back to Scrivener. As I said, it was helpful while I was stuck—when life events were overwhelming—but I have my own processes when I write. If you don’t have processes or systems in place, Scrivener is very helpful. For me, I’m glad to have had it for a crutch when I was struggling, but now that life is on a less bumpy course, I’m comfortable doing things “my way” again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

I wrote this post in November, and then a follow-on (which I'll post next week to let you know "how it went").

Years ago, The Big Guy got me a version of Scrivener to try. I did try it, and I figured I was an organized enough person that it didn’t make much difference, and so I chose not to buy the program. I track everything it does in my own fashion. Fast forward – I have some of the scenes in my current WIP that I know have to happen, but I don’t know how to get there, and my brain is refusing to focus on the problem at hand. I’ve learned from past experience that you can only solve problems by focusing on one at a time. Because my brain isn’t cooperating with the multiple balls in the air, I downloaded a free copy of Scrivener again to give it one more try. I needed to do SOMETHING. Generally, this would be the point I outline to propel myself forward, but I couldn’t even manage to do that.  

This might start to sound like a commercial for Scrivener, but please keep in mind that different things work for different folks. As I mentioned previously, I’d discounted this software years ago because I was able to do all that it does on my own using Word (I’m what they call a “Super User”) and an Access database. But this time I needed help. There is a learning curve to the software, but I’m a computer friendly person, so I was able to manage that fairly easily. Then I organized what I had already written, added what I know needs to happen in the story, but it was too soon to write that part. Added a couple other “somewhere down the road” things and suddenly I was filling in the holes. To be honest, those holes were what was scaring me. “What if I put down what I need to happen and end up with empty space in between?” Getting down what I needed to happen provided me with “This has to happen first” moments – the spackle for those holes. The end result is what some authors refer to as storyboarding. Mind mapping. Once I get down the plot points I need to cover “at some point,” I was able to see more clearly the plot points I needed to employ to get to that point, the ones that were eluding me.

Sometimes we all need a little help, and the program helped me to visualize what my brain refused to recognize. Will I continue to use it? Well, that remains to be seen. For this particular time in my life, it serves the purpose of a “style sheet,” something my editor generally does for me when she completes her editing pass. I have to tell you, I love that. The other benefit is that I can save the template to apply to future books in the series. While I do track all the pertinent information, settings, characters, etc., this keeps everything at the click of a mouse rather than the “open the file to refer back to,” or immediately tracking things I might forget to add because I had to open a second file to note them.

Can you achieve the same results without getting a “fancy writing program?” Absolutely. As with most aspects of writing, Your Mileage May Vary.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Sounds of Silence

I am fluent in silence. It's one of the things I learned from my big sisters. With four of us, and me being the youngest, I always had older, more experienced competition.

I remember when we were kids and my grandmother died. We went up for the funeral--I think I was ten years old at the time--and my aunt and uncle were there. Someone, I don't remember who, it might have been one of my sisters, made an observation about the "youngest sibling." My uncle, the "baby of the family," didn't say much. In fact, he rarely spoke in a group setting, but he was very conversant away from the crowd.

Likewise, I'm more likely to have a meaningful conversation with someone one-on-one than I am in a group. Conditioned response. This is something I had to overcome in my professional career. I had a dear friend who would recommend me for committees because I had such good ideas, but when I went to the committee, I didn't speak up. She called me out on that, saying nobody would ever hear me if I didn't say anything. So I fought against years of listening and observing and made a conscious effort to contribute to the group conversation. Guess what? They promoted me. And you know what they told me? Make sure you listen to what other people have to say when you're developing talent. In other words, don't speak. Go figure. Yes, I learned how to balance when to speak and when to stay silent. For the most part. Funny thing about using your voice, once you speak up, sometimes its hard to stop!

There are many days where I don't say much. I don't feel the need to hear my voice in every conversation. It makes some people uneasy, people who don't know me well, but as my daughter once observed, that's just my way. There are days when you can't shut me up, especially if I've been silent for days in a row.

I greatly value the conversations I have with my family and friends, but in the silence, I hear what people say. There is time to reflect. Time to appreciate someone else's point of view.

As the titled song says, I write my books in silence. If I don't share them (according to the song), that makes me a fool. If you read my words, I might teach you. I might reach you. Like my dear friend said, if I don't say anything, nobody will ever hear me, and I speak best "on paper." At the very least, my books give us something to talk about to break the silence once in a while.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Life is frittered away by detail

I remember a Shirley MacLaine movie where every man she married died a tragic death and left her lots of money. She started looking for poor men in hopes they wouldn't die. It's the first time I became acquainted with Walden Pond.

At the beginning of every year, I evaluate what my goals for the year are. It's more of a wish list, but it helps give me direction. What do I hope to accomplish? How do I plan to achieve those goals? What's the end game?

This year, my plan is for simplicity. Do what moves me.

I'm expecting to release Epitaph 2: The Twins as an audiobook this spring. I began a new series with my release of FAMILY ALCHEMY in January, along the lines of Practical Magic, Karla Style. In anticipation of continuing that series, I finished Book 2 this week (or at least the first draft of book 2). Moving on to the hard part now, filling in the blanks, fixing the mistakes, stuff like that. Overall, I'm pleased with the way it looks, and hope to be sharing it with readers late Spring.

And then what?

I'm seldom without a story running around inside my head. At this point of writing a book, I'm usually already looking ahead to the next one, but for right now, I'm taking a breath while I decide if I should move on to Book 3 in the Hillendale series or take a break from the alchemists and write a romance. I'll be honest, I miss my happily ever afters, the sigh-worthy heroes and misguided heroines. As Spring approaches, is love in the air?

Stay tuned.

Feel free to share your opinions. Inspiration often comes in the form of a kind word.