New Project – the Alec Stover mysteries

Well, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know it’s been about six months since I’ve posted any new articles here. I took some time off for the holidays at the end of last year. Then I started a new project – the Alec Stover mysteries. This is a new series that I’m starting with plans of producing a new book every four months. For more info, visit the site by clicking the link above.

I do intend to get back to posting articles here. So keep an eye out and come back often. In the mean time, I hope you’ll check out the new series.

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Descriptive Writing – Tell me about your characters

In last week’s article I touched on how and to what detail writers describe their characters’ appearances.  Today I want to look at things from a slightly different angle.  If someone were to say to you, “Tell me about your main character,” how would you respond?  Would you immediately give a physical description?  Or would you start with other qualities, such as age, gender, ethnicity, background, etc.?

 Notice that I used the term “about.”  That’s an important distinction.  “About” means a lot more than how your characters look.  Of course it includes their physical appearance.  But it also encompasses their demographics, traits and personality, attitudes, habits, quirks, etc.  When someone says, “Tell me about your wife,” or husband or best friend or whomever, you tell them more than simply what they look like.  In fact, how they look might be one of the last things you mention, if at all.  And yet, when describing characters in our books many of us immediately jump straight to a physical description and do not pay enough attention to the other qualities that make up the character.  There’s nothing wrong with providing a physical description up front.  It offers a snapshot.  But, like a snapshot, it’s one dimensional.  To make our characters more interesting we need to provide the reader with a deeper insight.  We need to tell them about our characters.  Granted, it takes time to develop your characters.  But why not start that process when you introduce them?  Consider the following:

 Nicole glided into the room with the grace of a dancer.  The beige jodhpurs fit her snugly and the black, knee-high boots enhanced the shape of her legs.  The navy jacket had padded shoulders and was tailored at the waist, giving her torso a pronounced V shape.  She held a riding crop in one gloved hand.  With the other she pulled a ribbon from her auburn hair, letting it fall over her shoulders.  She brushed it away from her face as she turned toward me.  It was the first time I’d seen her in almost twenty years.  Outwardly she still had that same youthful exuberance.  But when she looked at me I could see there was now a wariness in her pale blue eyes, a hesitancy that had not been there before.

 With this paragraph we get not only a physical description of Nicole but also a little insight into her personality.  “The grace of a dancer” tells us something about her demeanor.  What if she had strode into the room like a field general?  How would that change our picture of her?  Jodhpurs and a tailored jacket…a riding crop in one gloved hand…  What do her clothes tell us about her?  “Almost twenty years” gives us a point of reference for her age, albeit somewhat vague.  Youthful exuberance…wariness in her eyes…hesitancy…  These are all phrases that tell us about her personality, make her a little more interesting, perhaps even introduce a little intrigue.  What has she experienced that changed her personality from assured and confident to hesitant and wary?

 What about the name?  Nicole.  If she were named Mary or Rosalita or Lakeisha how would that affect your mental picture?  What about Buffy or Mimsy?  Names are important and we should give careful consideration to their selection.  Don’t create a conflict by giving your character the wrong name.  Sometimes you can get away with having a strong, dynamic female character named Mimsy, but typically it doesn’t work.

 As I said in my last article, the point of describing your characters is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” them.  That doesn’t mean that you need to write a page-and-a-half of flowery description when you introduce your characters.  Just don’t limit yourself to a flat picture that only shows the reader what they look like.  A physical description provides a snapshot.  Telling your readers “about” your characters adds dimension and depth.

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Descriptive Writing – Darling, you look marvelous!

When it comes to describing their characters, writers use a lot of little tricks and techniques to tell you what they look like.  They might have someone comment about their looks, or have the character catch a glimpse of him or herself in the mirror and “reflect” on what they see, or simply offer a brief description.  But most authors do take the time to provide a visual description.

The most unusual technique I’ve seen was by a French writer who gave a description as an aside.  For example he might write: “Detective Walker – mid-forties, tall, thin, black hair with a touch of gray, pressed dark suit with his badge clipped to his coat pocket – strode into the room and looked down at the body of the deceased…”  While this is unusual, and a bit distracting at first, it does provide a snapshot of the character – without a lot of wasted effort.  I typically recommend avoiding anything that interrupts the flow of the story.  But I was surprised how quickly I accepted this technique.  After the first few times it really wasn’t a distraction at all.

 While it’s best to work the descriptions into the story as seamlessly as possible, it can become a challenge at times, especially for writers who have recurring characters.  You want to provide enough information about the recurring characters so that if a reader starts out of sequence, on book three for instance, he’s still provided enough description to see your characters.  But you don’t want to bore your dedicated readers who already know the characters because they’ve read the previous books.

 In her “alphabet series” Sue Grafton gives detailed descriptions of her recurring characters and locations so that you can pick up any book in the series and not be at a loss as to what anyone looks like.  Robert Parker, on the other hand, offers virtually no descriptions of his recurring characters in his series.  I guess he figures that if you want to be told what they look like, start at the beginning.  I was actually introduced to his Jesse Stone series by one of the movies starring Tom Selleck.  So now when I read the books I see Tom Selleck, even though the description of Jesse in the books doesn’t match.  You might think that would be a problem, but it really isn’t.  I already have a picture in my mind of how Jesse looks and that’s what I see.

 So that brings up the question – how much physical description should you provide?  As a test I read a section of a book to my wife, then asked her to tell me what the characters looked like.  She was able to do so with very little hesitation even though there were no physical descriptions in what I read.  In the absence of description she simply provided her own.  I think in many cases readers do this regardless.  So I tend to provide sketches of my characters but not a lot of specific detail.  Like a pencil drawing where the lines don’t all connect, but your mind sees the line anyway.

The point of descriptive writing is to provide enough detail for the reader to “see” the character.  That’s all.  This can be accomplished with a few well-placed lines…and you might be surprised by how few.  The next time you’re describing what one of your characters looks like, pare it down and see how well you can describe them in as few words as possible.  I’ll offer a few techniques for doing this in my next article.  In the mean time pay attention to what other writers do.  I think you might be surprised how little actual physical descriptions some of them provide.

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Effective Dialogue – Hey, watch your language!

Not long ago my wife and I were standing in line at the movie theatre and two guys behind us were talking.  After a few minutes of what I considered to be excessive profanity, I turned to them and said, “Hey, would you watch your language?”  They both looked at me like I had suddenly grown a third eye.  They were surprised that I had said that to them and I was surprised that they didn’t realize how offensive their conversation was.  They kind of shrugged and muttered a confused apology and really didn’t talk very much after that.  Then, when I got to my seat and the movie began, I realized that the dialogue in the movie was even more offensive than the conversation I had heard outside on the sidewalk.  Ultimately, it spoiled what could have been an entertaining movie.

So, as a writer what should you do?  You want to “keep it real” and you want your characters to sound “authentic.”  But how much is too much?  I think most would agree that the language in Scarface was over the top.  A lot of people would also say that the language in shows like The Sopranos is offensive.  It may be realistic and authentic but a lot of readers still find it distasteful.  Profanity also loses its emphasis if it’s overdone.  Then it just becomes, as my mother would say, bad manners.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t use profanity at all.  There are times when a well-placed expletive adds a lot of punch.  In some cases it can also be humorous.  But the effect is lost if every other word is profane and every adjective begins with F.

Some authors will tell you that for their tough guys to be convincing they have to use that kind of language.  After all, a street thug who talks like a librarian isn’t very realistic.  But I disagree.  The language a character uses isn’t what makes him tough.  What makes him tough are his actions, his attitudes, and his personality.  For example, I think just about everyone would consider John Wayne to be the epitome of the “tough guy.”  You’d be hard pressed to find a guy tougher than “the Duke.”  But did he ever play characters who talked like Scarface?  I’ll venture to say that if he had it would’ve had just the opposite effect – it would have detracted from the character rather than added to it.  Is Tony Soprano tougher than Vito Corleone?  Granted, he talks tougher, but is he any more believable as a tough guy?  Humphrey Bogart came off as being pretty tough in The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon and several other movies without uttering a single expletive other than perhaps a well-placed “damn.”  And Bogart was a little guy – 5’8” and maybe 135-140 pounds.  A few other notable tough guys: Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen.  Okay, maybe I’m showing my age here, but the fact of the matter is all of these actors were very convincing tough guys without using a lot of profanity.  In fact, most used very little compared to the dialogue we hear today in our movies and read in our books.

The bottom line is that you don’t need to use profanity to make your characters tough or real or authentic.  In fact, if you don’t develop your characters properly overuse of profanity has the opposite effect – it makes them look like punks and wannabe tough guys.  Actions speak louder than words.  What makes your tough guys believable is what they do and what they think as well as what they say.

Use profanity sparingly and use it to provide emphasis.  A pinch of salt adds flavor to food.  Too much ruins it.  The same is true with profanity.  So, when you’re writing dialogue, watch your language.

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Effective Dialogue – Proper formatting

In this article I’m going to provide four more simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:

  1. Don’t write phonetically
  2. Don’t use italics
  3. Go easy on the exclamation points
  4. Use paragraphs that include actions

Few things are more distracting or more frustrating than trying to read dialogue that is written phonetically.  “Wail, dayud-gum!  I ain’t a gunna let dem young-uns git away wit dat!”  Huh?  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen dialogue this bad in print…and it wasn’t a joke.  This falls back on the most basic premise in writing dialogue: don’t write anything that causes the reader to stop, back up, re-read, or waste time trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.  If you’ve developed your characters well enough, then you don’t need to write their dialogue phonetically.  The reader will hear it as it would be spoken without all the misspelled words, hyphens, apostrophes and other odd characters.

You also want to avoid italics.  About the only times italics are acceptable are when the reader is thinking to himself, having a dialogue in his own head, so to speak.  Sometimes you also see italics used to denote a flashback or departure from the present time.  But even that can be confusing.  Don’t use italics for emphasis.  Simply use the appropriate tag: he shouted, she wailed, etc.  Besides, italicized print is harder to read than regular font.

Too many exclamation points are also a problem.  It’s okay to use a few but too many become annoying.  Use tags and scene settings to provide emphasis, not punctuation.  If you’ve set up the scene properly, the emphasis should be obvious.

The last rule for writing dialogue is to break it up into logical paragraphs.  Each time a new character speaks, start a new paragraph.  This is how to let the reader know who is talking without using a lot of tags.  But if the same character is speaking and doing something at the same time, you don’t have to break that into several paragraphs.  You can use the action to create the scene and reduce the use of tags.  For example:

        Mary glanced around the restaurant, then reached into her purse.  “I’ve got something for you.” She placed a plain, white envelope on the table.  She leaned in and lowered her voice.  “This is what you’ve been looking for.  This letter explains everything.  Everything.”  She drew the last word out, making sure he understood the letter would leave no doubt.

See how the combination of dialogue and action set the tone for the scene, provided emphasis, and kept the action going without a lot of stops and starts?  One paragraph with one person talking, but interspersed with actions and descriptions.  No italics or exclamation points or tags.  But the reader knows Mary is the one talking and hears her speaking in a hushed voice, whispering, making her point and emphasizing her words.  The words and actions set the tone, not the punctuation.

From the viewpoint of an agent or editor, nothing screams novice writer!!! more than using italics and too many exclamation points.  Phonetic writing is also distracting and should be avoided.  If you need punctuation to make your point then you haven’t developed your characters well enough or set the scene properly.  Remember that the reader will provide the emphasis and hear the dialects without a lot of coaching.  Don’t distract them with punctuation or odd phrasing or confusing paragraph construction.

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Effective Dialogue – No expostulating allowed

In this article I’m going to touch on three very simple rules for writing dialogue that anyone can follow:
         1. Avoid too many identifiers
         2. Leave out odd descriptors
         3. Use proper phrasing

A common mistake many novice writers make is to put in too many identifiers, or tags, to let us know who is talking.  When only two people are having a conversation you can almost avoid tags altogether.  The conversation naturally flows back and forth and it is evident who is speaking by the formatting.  But often writers put in too many he saids and she saids or they will do a lot of name calling to “help the reader keep up.”  For example…

         “Carol, can I talk with you for a minute?” Bob asked.
         “Sure, Bob.  What’s on your mind?”
         “Well, Carol, you know I have this big proposal due tomorrow,” Bob said.  “I could sure use your help.”
         “No problem, Bob,” Carol replied, looking at her watch.  “I have a meeting in a few minutes.  Can we get together after that?” she asked.
         “Yeah, I guess so,” Bob responded.
         “Okay” Carol said.  “I’ll come by your office as soon as I get out of this meeting.”

This dialogue can be cleaned up and will read much better by eliminating most of the tags and all the name-calling.

         Bob stopped Carol as she came down the hall.
         “Hey, can I talk with you for a minute?” he asked.
         “Sure.  What’s up?”
         “Well I got this big proposal due tomorrow and I could use your help.”
         “Okay.”  She glanced at her watch.  “But I have a meeting in a few minutes.  I’ll come by your office when I’m done with that.”
         Bob nodded and Carol hurried off to her meeting.

Of course, the best approach would be to strike this whole scene and start with them talking in Bob’s office.  As it is you have an unnecessary discussion that ends because Carol has a meeting.  Unless her meeting has something to do with what Bob wants to talk to her about then you should cut it out altogether.

Another problem writers run into is using odd descriptors.  They’re concerned the reader will get bored or distracted by all the saids so they start using descriptors like he exclaimed, she sighed, he intoned, she breathed…  I’m currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.  Her characters do a lot of sighing and breathing words in their conversations.  I find this distracting.  People sigh and they breathe and they speak.  But they rarely do those things at the same time.  But my all-time favorite odd descriptor is something that you used to see a lot in the Saturday Evening Post years ago: he chortled.  I don’t even know what that means.  I’ve never heard anyone chortle in my life.  Thank goodness that descriptor has gone out of style.

The fact of the matter is that readers breeze over all the saids without much thought.  But they get distracted when someone intones or chides or expostulates.  Stick with the same old boring descriptors – he said, she asked, he replied, she shouted…  There are plenty that you can use that will not distract the reader or break up the flow of the conversation.  Just use them sparingly.

The third rule is to use the proper phrasing.  Robert Parker tends to follow a question with the tag he said.  I found this very distracting when I first started reading his books.  Then I noticed that I was mentally reading he asked even though he said was printed on the page.  But you don’t want to distract the reader.  If someone asks a question and you follow it with a descriptor, simply say he asked.  That’s no more effort than he said, and it’s the correct phrasing.  No distraction.  You read right over it and keep going.

In review, when writing dialogue avoid using too many identifiers.  When only two people are talking you can leave out most of the tags.  When three or more people are involved in a conversation then you have to use more tags.  But you still want to keep them to a minimum.  Don’t use odd descriptors.  People say things, they ask questions, they may argue with each other from time to time, but don’t let them expostulate.  And be careful to use the proper phrasing.  Improper phrasing distracts the reader and breaks up the flow.  You want your dialogue to flow and sound natural.

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Effective Dialogue – Get to the point

One problem a lot of novice writers make with their dialogue is they put in too much extraneous conversation.  It’s important to understand what to leave out.  An easy way to do this is to ask yourself, why is this conversation important?  If your characters are meeting over lunch, skip over all the discussion about the menu, what to order, hold the mayo, pickle on the side, blah, blah, blah.  Get to the point. Unless it’s important to the plot or helps with character development, who cares if your character tells the waiter to put the salad dressing on the side?  Most of the time it’s not important at all.  So begin the scene where the important discussion begins.

Another thing to watch for is anything that breaks up the flow of the conversation.  Anything that makes the reader stop and say “Huh?” needs to be fixed.  This generally happens when someone says something they wouldn’t say or does something that doesn’t make sense.  Dialogue should flow and not be interrupted by a lot of stops and starts.  I’m not talking about pauses while the characters react to something or do something that is important to the story.  I’m talking about breaking up the dialogue with unnecessary descriptions.  If the dialogue is too fragmented, then you may be putting in a lot of extra words that aren’t needed.  Go back and read for content.  Does it advance the plot or provide insight into the characters?  If not then you should cut it.

Pacing is also important.  If your characters are talking over lunch, don’t have the food arrive then be gone after only a few comments.  Think about how it would happen in real time and write it that way.  If it only takes a few minutes for the conversation to take place, then don’t have the waiter take away their empty plates when they finish talking.  Let them talk, then take a bite of their “untouched” sandwiches.  Dialogue over food can be a real gotcha if you’re not careful.  If the reader stops and says, “Wait a minute, when did they eat all that food?” then you have a problem.

One last point – avoid the soapbox.  Rambling discourses become boring very quickly.  Get the point across and move on.  If you’re at a party and some blowhard is going on and on about something, you generally tune him out or move on to a more stimulating conversation.  Your readers will do the same thing.  Don’t bore them with speeches.  Remember, you’re writing scenes in a novel, not producing a transcript.

There are only two things you want to accomplish with dialogue – advance the plot and develop your characters.  Anything else is fluff.  Unless you’re getting paid by the word, get to the point.

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