Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: writing craft

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We writers have a vast array of tools at our disposal to craft stories readers will love. But like any tool, it helps if we know how to use it properly. Theme is wonderful. It can keep us plunging a story’s depths for years when used correctly. Applied incorrectly? It just makes a story annoying and preachy.

Description! Love me some description! But pile on too much and we can render a story unreadable.

The same can be said of prologues. Now, before we get into this, I want to make it clear that certain genres lend themselves to prologues. But even then, we are wise to make sure the prologue is serving the story.

So, to prologue or not to prologue? That is the question.

The problem with the prologue is it has kind of gotten a bad rap over the years, especially with agents. They generally hate them. Why? In my opinion, it is because far too many writers don’t use prologues properly and that, in itself, has created its own problem.

Because of the steady misuse of prologues, many readers skip them. Thus, the question of whether or not the prologue is even considered the beginning of your novel can become a gray area if the reader just thumbs pages until she sees Chapter One.

So without further ado…

The 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues

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Evil Odin.

Sin #1 If your prologue is really just a vehicle for massive information dump…

This is one of the reasons I recommend writing detailed backgrounds of all main characters before we begin (especially when we are new writers). Get all of that precious backstory out of your system.

This is a useful tactic in that first, it can help us see if a) our characters are psychologically consistent, b) can provide us with a feel for the characters’ psychological motivations, which will help later in plotting.

I have a little formula: background–> motivations –>goals–>a plan–>a detailed plan, which = plot and c) can help us as writers honestly see what details are salient to the plot.

This helps us better fold the key details into the plotting process so that this vital information can be blended expertly into the story real-time.

Many new writers bungle the prologue because they lack a system that allows them to discern key details or keep track of key background details. This makes for clumsy writing, namely a giant “fish head” labeled prologue (which we editors will just lop off).

Sin #2 If your prologue really has nothing to do with the main story.

This point ties into the earlier sin. Do this. Cut off the prologue. Now ask, “Has this integrally affected the story?” If it hasn’t? It’s likely a fish head masquerading as a prologue.

Sin #3 If your prologue’s sole purpose is to “hook” the reader…

If readers have a bad tendency to skip past prologues, and the only point of our prologue is to hook the reader, then we have just effectively shot ourselves in the foot. We must have a great hook in a prologue, but then we need to also have a hook in Chapter One. If we can merely move the prologue to Chapter One and it not upset the flow of the story? Then that is a lot of pressure off our shoulders to be “doubly” interesting.

Sin #4 If your prologue is overly long…

Prologues need to be short and sweet and to the point. Get too long and that is a warning flag that this prologue is being used to cover for sloppy writing or really should have just been Chapter One.

Sin #5 If your prologue is written in a totally different style and voice that is never tied back into the main story…

Pretty self-explanatory.

Sin #6 If your prologue is über-condensed world-building…

World-building is generally one of those things, like backstory, that can and should be folded into the narrative. Sometimes it might be necessary to do a little world-building, but think “floating words in Star Wars.” The yellow floating words that drift off into space help the reader get grounded in the larger picture before the story begins. But note the floating words are not super-detailed Tolkien world-building.

They are simple and, above all, brief.

Sin #7 If your prologue is there solely to “set the mood…”

We have to set the mood in Chapter One anyway, so like the hook, why do it twice?

The Prologue Virtues

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Still Evil Odin but with “Cute Face.”

Now that we have discussed the 7 Deadly Sins of Prologues, you might be asking yourself, “So when is it okay to use a prologue?” Glad you asked.

Virtue #1 Prologues can be used to resolve a time gap with information critical to the story.

Genre will have a lot to do with whether one uses a prologue or not. Thrillers generally employ prologues because what our hero is up against may be an old enemy. In James Rollins’s The Doomsday Key the prologue introduces the “adversary” Sigma will face in the book. Two monks come upon a village where every person has literally starved to death when there is more than an abundance of food.

Many centuries pass and the very thing that laid waste to that small village is now once more a threat. But this gives the reader a feel for the fact that this is an old adversary. The prologue also paints a gripping picture of what this “adversary” can do if unleashed once more.

The prologue allows the reader to pass centuries of time without getting a brain cramp. Prologue is set in medieval times. Chapter One is in modern times. Prologue is also pivotal for understanding all that is to follow.

Prologues are used a lot in thrillers and mysteries to see the crime or event that sets off the story. Readers of these genres have been trained to read prologues and generally won’t skip. The serial killer dumping his latest victim is important to the story. It’s a genre thing. Yet, still? Keep it brief. Reveal too much and readers won’t want to turn pages to learn more.

Virtue # 2 Prologues can be used if there is a critical element in the backstory relevant to the plot.

The first Harry Potter book is a good example of a book that could have used a prologue, but didn’t (likely because Rowling knew it would likely get skipped). Therese Walsh in her blog Once Before A Time Part 2 said this:

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is told in a close 3rd person POV (Harry’s), but her first chapter is quite different, told when Harry is a baby and switching between omniscient and 3rd person POVs (Mr. Dursley’s and Dumbledore’s). Rowling may have considered setting this information aside as a prologue because of those different voices and the ten-year lag between it and the next scene, but she didn’t do it. The info contained in those first pages is critical, it helps to set the story up and makes it more easily digested for readers. And it’s 17 pages long.

This battle is vital for the reader to be able to understand the following events and thus would have been an excellent example of a good prologue. But, Rowling, despite the fact this chapter would have made a prime prologue still chose to make it Chapter One so the reader would actually read this essential piece of story information.

Food for thought for sure.

Yes, I had Seven Sins and only Two Virtues. So sue me :P . That should be a huge hint that there are a lot more reasons to NOT use a prologue than there are to employ one (that and I didn’t want this blog to be 10,000 words long).

Prologues, when done properly can be amazing literary devices. Yet, with a clear reader propensity to skip them, then that might at least make us pause before we decide our novel must have one. Make sure you ask yourself honest questions about what purpose these pages are really serving. Are they an essential component of a larger whole? Or are you using Bondo to patch together a weak plot?

But, don’t take my word for it. Over the ages, I’ve collected great blogs regarding prologues to help you guys become stronger in your craft. These are older posts, but timeless:

Once Before a Time: Prologues Part 1 by Therese Walsh

Once Before a Time Part 2 by Therese Walsh

Agent Nathan Bransford offers his opinion as does literary agent Kristin Nelson

Carol Benedict’s blog Story Elements: Using a Prologue

To Prologue or Not To Prologue by Holly Jennings

If after all of this information, you decide you must have a prologue because all the coolest kids have one, then at least do it properly. Here is a great e-how article.

So if you must write a prologue, then write one that will blow a reader away. Take my First Five Pages class (below) and I can give you some expert perspective of whether to keep or ditch or if you want to keep your prologue, then how can you make it WORK?

What are some of the questions, concerns, troubles you guys have had with prologues? Which ones worked? Which ones bombed? What are your solutions or suggestions?

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.
Image courtesy of Randy Heinitz via Flickr Creative Commons.

How do we sell our stories? That is the big question. It is the reason for craft classes and editing and cover design and agents and editors and all the time on social media. And while platforms and covers and algorithms do matter, there is one tried and true way to sell more books.

Write a great story.

And not just any story, but a story that hooks from the very beginning and only continues to hook deeper.

Think of great stories like concertina wire.

The danger of concertina wire is not just in one hook, but hundreds. And it isn’t even in the hundreds of hooks. It is the tension created by the coiled structureIf a person is snagged even a little, every effort to break free (turning a page for resolution) only traps the victim deeper in a web of barbed spines.

Now granted, this is a morbid visual, but y’all are writers and there is a good reason our family doesn’t like us talking at the dinner table.

So I was researching sucking chest wounds today and, hey, pass the spaghetti please?

Moving on…

We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Many new writers finish their first novel and I know as an editor that odds are I am going to chop off the first 50-100 pages. We dream killers editors call this the fish head. What do we do with fish heads? We toss them (unless you are my weird Scandinavian family who makes fish face soup out of them).

Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of David Pursehouse via Flickr Creative Commons

Often, when I go to do this kind of cutting, new writers will protest. “No, but you need this and the story really gets going on page 84.”

My answer? “Then let’s start on page 84.”

Too many stories fall flat because they lack the barbs necessary for snagging the modern reader who has the attention span of an ADD hamster with a meth habit. Additionally, a lot of us writers fall into bad habits of assuming readers are stupid, that they need all kinds of brain holding to “get” what we are talking about which means we not only lack barbs…but necessary tension.

I will prove readers are really smarter than we give them credit for 😉 …

Hooking with a Problem

One morning, on my way to take Spawn to school, as I stopped at my stop sign at a major business highway, a VW van passed at 50 mph and another car pulled out in front. BAM! Car parts, exploding glass, tearing metal, right in front of me. One driver screaming because his legs were crushed and he was pinned. All of this in less than 15 seconds.

Do you think I was hooked?

Did I need to know the history of the drivers, where they were going, what had the one driver so distracted that he would pull out into traffic? Did I need a description of the balmy, normal morning and a weather report? A description of the pale azure sky? Nope.

Now this is an extreme example, but it shows how even in life, we stop everything in light of a problem. A scream, a child crying, someone falling over a curb. We immediately halt everything.

Good fiction always begins with a problem because that is ALL fiction really is. Prose and descriptions and symbol and theme are all various delivery mechanisms…for PROBLEMS.

I cannot count the number of new manuscripts I read where the author spends most of her opening playing Literary Barbies. We really don’t care as much about your protagonist’s flaming red hair as much as we care about that warrant for her arrest. This is drama not a doll house.

Go look at books that have launched to legends and you will see this.

Andy Weir’s The Martian:

I am pretty much f**ked.

That is my considered opinion.

F**ked.

Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it has turned into a nightmare.

We don’t start the book on Earth or in the astronaut program at NASA. We don’t even start when they land on Mars and hint that trouble eventually will come. Nope. Weir tosses us face first into a problem.

Hooking With a Question

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I have a mantra that all modern novelists must live and die by.

Resist the urge to explain.

One of the reasons emerging writers get that fish head is they do a lot of flashbacks and explaining and “setting up” the story and they are unwittingly destroying the single strongest propulsion mechanism for their story—curiosity.

If we look at the opening page of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, the opening paragraph has a small character hook but six lines down we read:

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.

When we craft any story, we are wise to harness the power of human nature. Humans are curious. Heck, we are downright nosey. Imagine sitting at a Starbucks and prepping the computer to write. Two women sit nearby chatting and one has obviously been crying (hooking with a problem). We might eavesdrop a little, arrange Post Its, set out our lucky thesaurus but the second one of the women says, “He would kill me if he ever found out.”

There went the writing.

Then we would be doing “research” 😀 .

Hooking with Question and Character

What the HELL, HANNAH?
What the HELL, HANNAH?

Sometimes the problem or question isn’t so obviously stated and there is a lot left between the lines. We humans love to fill in the blanks, so LET US.

We will use an example from my all-time favorite book Luckiest Girl Alive.

I inspected the knife in my hand.

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wustof?”

I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but was quickly going humid in my grip.

First of all, this is a great opening line. It hooks, but then it leads to another hook and another and another. The character is testing the blade. Why? A blade being moisture resistant obviously is a plus if you are planning on stabbing someone because less chance of slippage (Stuff Writers Know).

Who is she planning to stab? How is she planning on using the blade? What has her so nervous her hands are going moist?

And on PAGE ONE we realize the protagonist is out looking at knives with her fiancé. Why? That is unusual. China? Normal. Curtains? Normal. Knives? Not normal.

Especially since in paragraph FOUR, we read:

I look up at him, too: my fiancé. The word didn’t bother me so much as the one that came after it. Husband. That word laced the corset tighter, crushing organs, sending panic into my throat with the bright beat of a distress signal.

Don’t Eat Your Own Bait

There are any number of reasons we as writers are failing to gut hook with our stories and often it is because we are falling prey to the very bait that is going to trap a reader. Problems bother us (because we are human) so we feel a need to “lead up to” something bad. We don’t like questions. We want to know…which is why we feel the urge to explain.

Just know that that clawing feeling inside that is driving you to pad the text is a good sign you are probably doing something right 😉 . For more on how to hook the reader, I am once again holding my First Five Pages class with upgrades available to get me shredding through your pages to help you start strong and stay strong.

The tricks we use to hook on page one we should continue to use until the final page. Coil that barbed story all around and no escape until you’re cut free.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked 😉 .

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you! And REMEMBER TO SIGN UP TO HANG OUT AND LEARN FROM HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER JOEL EISENBERG! Details are below. This is EIGHT hours with one of the hottest producers in Hollywood teaching everything from craft to how to SELL what we write! Recordings are included with your purchase for FREE!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

SIGN UP NOW FOR UPCOMING CLASSES!!! 

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! All you need is an internet connection!

NEW CLASS!!!! Hollywood Producer Joel Eisenberg’s Master’s Series: HOW TO MAXIMIZE YOUR EARNING POTENTIAL AS A FULL-TIME AUTHOR (Includes all classes listed below) Normally $400 but at W.A.N.A. ONLY $199 to learn from Joel IN YOUR HOME.

OR, if it works better, purchase Joel’s classes individually…

Potentially Lucrative Multi-Media Rights $65 February 21st, 2107 (AVAILABLE ON DEMAND)

How to Sell to Your Niche Market $65 February 28th, 2017

It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows YOU $65 March 7th, 2017

Making Money Speaking, Teaching, Blogging and Retaining Rights $65 March 14th, 2017

Individual Classes with MOI!

Blogging for Authors $50 March 30th, 2017

Plotting for Dummies $35 February 17th, 2017

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis that SELLS! $45 March 20th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character $35 February 24th, 2017

Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages $40 March 18th, 2017

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on

Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins
Original image via Flikr Commons courtesy of Mark Coggins

There are a lot of hurdles to writing great fiction, which is why it’s always important to keep reading and writing. We only get better by DOING. Today we’re going to talk about some self-editing tips to help you clean up your book before you hire an editor.

When I worked as an editor, I found it frustrating when I couldn’t even GET to the story because I was too distracted by these all too common oopses.

There are many editors who charge by the hour. If they’re spending their time fixing blunders you could’ve easily repaired yourself? You’re burning cash and time. Yet, correct these problems, and editors can more easily get to the MEAT of your novel. This means you will spend less money and get far higher value.

#1 The Brutal Truth about Adverbs, Metaphors and Similes

I have never met an adverb, simile, or metaphor I didn’t LOVE. I totally dig description, but it can present problems.

First of all, adverbs are not ALL evil. Redundant adverbs are evil. If someone shouts loudly? How else are they going to shout? Whispering quietly? Really? O_o Ah, but if they whisper seductively? The adverb seductively gives us a quality to the whisper that isn’t already implied by the verb.

Check your work for adverbs and kill the redundant ones. Kill them. Dead.

Metaphors and similes are awesome, but need to be used sparingly. Yes, in school, our teachers or professors didn’t ding us for using 42 metaphors in 5 pages, but their job was to teach us how to properly use a metaphor or simile, NOT prepare us for commercial publication as professional novelists.

When we use too much of this verbal glitter, we can create what’s called “purple prose.” This glitter, while sparkly, can pull the reader out of the story or even confuse the reader. A while back, I edited a winner’s 20 page entry. The story began on a whitewater river and the rafters were careening toward a “rock coffee table.”

Huh?

Oh, the boulder is squarish shaped!

Thing is, the metaphor made me stop to figure out what image the author was trying to create. If the rafters had merely been careening toward a giant flat rock? Not as pretty but I could have remained in the story without trying to figure out how the hell furniture ended up in the river.

I’ve read some great books, but as an editor, I might have cut some of the metaphors. Why? Because the author might have a metaphor SO GOOD I wanted to highlight it and commit it to memory…but it was bogged down by the other four metaphors and three similes on the same page. The other metaphors/similes added nothing…unless one counts distraction.

Go through your pages and highlight metaphors and similes. Pick THE BEST and CUT THE REST. Look for confusing metaphors, like rock furniture in the middle of a river.

#2 Stage Direction

She reached out her arm to open the door.

Okay, unless she has mind powers and telekinesis, do we need the direction?

He turned to go down the next street.

He picked up the oars and pulled a few more strokes, eager to get to his favorite fishing spot.

We “get” he’d have to pick up the oars to row his boat, or that is a seriously cool trick.

Be active. Characters can “brush hair out of their face” “open doors” and even slap people without you telling us they reached out an arm or hand to do this. We are smart. Really.

#3 Painful and Alien Movement of Body Parts…

Her eyes flew to the other end of the restaurant.

 His head followed her across the room.

All I have to say is… “Ouch.”

Make sure your character keeps all body parts attached. Her gaze can follow a person and so can her stare, but if her eyes follow? The carpet gets them fuzzy with dust bunnies and then they don’t slide back in her sockets as easily.

#4 Too much Physiology…

Her heart pounded. Her heart hammered. Her pulse beat in her head. Her breath came in choking sobs.

After a page of this? I need a nap. After two pages? I need a drink. We can only take so much heart pounding, thrumming, hammering before we just get worn out.  That and I read a lot of entries where the character has her heart hammering so much, I am waiting for her to slip into cardiac arrest at any moment. Ease up on the physiology. Less is often more.

Get a copy of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Emotion Thesaurus to help you vary physiology. Also, if someone’s heart is pounding, that’s okay. We assume until they are out of danger it’s still pounding. No need to remind us.

Really.

#5 Backing Into the Sentence/Passive Voice

In an effort to break up and vary sentence structure, many writers will craft sentences like this:

With the months of stress pressing down on her head, Jessie started ironing the restaurant tablecloths with a fury.

Problem? Passive action. When we use the word “down” then “on” is redundant. Either she is ironing or not ironing. “Started” is overused and makes sloppy writing. That actually goes back to the whole “stage direction” thing.

Active:

Jessie ironed the restaurant tablecloths with a fury, months of stress pressing on her shoulders.

The door was kicked in by the police.

Police kicked in the door.

If you go through your pages and see WAS clusters? That’s a HUGE hint that passive voice has infected your story.

#6 Almost ALWAYS Use “Said” as a Tag

“You are such a jerk,” she laughed.

A character can’t “laugh” something. They can’t “snip” “spit” “snarl” “grouse” words. They can SAY and ever so often they can ASK. Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.

“You are such a jerk.” She laughed as she flicked brownie batter onto Fabio’s white shirt.

There you go, SIX easy tips for self-editing. We all make these mistakes and that’s why God invented revision (that and to punish the unfaithful). If you can get rid of these common offenders on your own, then good editors can focus on the deeper aspects of your fiction.

Have you had to ruthlessly slay your favorite metaphors? Are you a recovering adverb-addict? What are some other self-editing guidelines you use to keep your prose clean and effective?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU. If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

Les Edgerton
Les Edgerton

Hey, Guys. You wanted to learn how to write AMAZING, PAGE-TURNING DIALOGUE, so I kidnapped  recruited the best. Les Edgerton has been so generous with his time and talent, and we are SUPER grateful. I promise to release Les back into the wild…eventually :D.

Take it away, Les!

Thanks for having me back on, Kristen! There were several things I neglected to talk about on dialogue in the first two posts, so I wanted to include them here. There are many other elements of good dialogue than posted here, but these are kind of important.

Now, here are the couple of things I neglected to cover in the first two posts.

Format with Tags

One is the format of dialogue with tags. I suspect that this one will draw as many responses from folks who don’t buy it as there were who resisted using “said” as dialogue tag verbs. It’s your choice—I’m just relaying the mindset of many editors.

It’s very simple. The accepted format for dialogue tags these days is “He/she/name said.” Almost always. What is considered archaic and musty is this construction: “Said he/she/name.”

About the only folks still using this latter format are some older journalists, some writers from other cultures (Canada comes to mind), brand names, and writers who haven’t kept up with current usages. Which leads me to make a big point—brand names—those authors with significant followings—can make every mistake in the book and get away with it. They’re beyond such limitations, simply because their readerships are such that publishers will accept just about anything they publish.

Stephen King could probably publish his grocery list and it would hit the bestseller lists… Although, King is such a terrific writer, he wouldn’t (and doesn’t) break very many of these rules and conventions. This is just to make you aware that many times brand name authors aren’t always the folks to go to for writing models. Simply because they can get away with things that unknown writers can’t.

The reality is, King can do things we can’t. Same goes for any brand name author. That doesn’t mean their work is valueless for instruction—it has immense value. There’s a reason they’re popular and it’s almost always the writing. But, always look at it with a grain of salt and become thoroughly familiar with the direction fiction is taking because there are popular authors who haven’t kept up and whose books, if modeled for your own efforts, may work against you.

Whenever I have a student point out an example in a published book that goes contrary to the advice I’ve given them, my first question is: “Is this from a brand-name author?” If it is, then I ask them to consider the source. And to gently let them know that while it may not be fair, it’s the reality that we (unknowns) have to be better in many ways that established writers with significant followings don’t have to be.

If anyone’s parents told them the world was fair, they did them a disservice…

Conflict

The second thing I neglected to touch on is conflict. We all know that there has to be conflict on every single page of a novel for it to work, and this is especially true in dialogue. That’s why Q&A dialogue doesn’t work. There’s virtually no conflict in it.

I advise my novel writing students and clients constantly that the protagonist should never, ever gain anything easily, no matter how seemingly trivial the exchange is.

An example I give often is to tell them that if they have their protagonist stop a bum on the street to ask directions to a bar she’s pretty sure is a block or two away but isn’t sure in what direction, she should have the bum say something to the effect of: “Whadda I look like, Sweetpea? The frickin’ Chamber of Commerce?” And, then, either give up the info grudgingly or walk off and let her find her own way. The point being, never let the protagonist gain things easily. Never.

In dialogue, when the protagonist is trying to gain information, it should be like pulling teeth. Now, that doesn’t mean there should be a war created to gain a simple piece of information. The writer needs to tailor the conflict proportionally to the value of what she’s after.

In the example above, this is plenty. What she’s after is just a simple direction. It doesn’t rise to the level of WWIII. But… there should be at least a bit of conflict and resistance to gain her answer. When the information is valuable, the conflict needs to be ratcheted up in proportion.

This is one of the primary keys to creating tension and tension is the lifeblood of a successful novel. Nothing should be gained easily and the opposition to her gaining it should be proportional to the value it holds. The other primary key to a quality read is to keep posing story questions, one after another after another after another… ad nauseum.

I’ve barely touched on the subject, but hope there’s some food for thought here for most readers.

The main thing is—keep up on what passes for contemporary usages these days and keep those red flags to a minimum. And, remember, no one has ever written a perfect novel. Every single novel ever published has flaws. Perfection is an impossible goal. Can’t be done. Just get it as good as you possibly can and send it out. And begin on a new work and try to make it even “gooder.”

Remember: When you’re green, you’re growing. And, when you’re ripe, you’re rotten. Writing has changed greatly in the past ten-twenty years and it’s going to keep on changing. What I said here—at least some of it—will eventually be outdated. It’s one reason to keep reading voraciously and to keep reading craft books.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,

Les

Les, THANK YOU SO MUCH. For my readers, Les will be back tomorrow with some final advice about your writing and your careers as authors, so I hope you’ll join us.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.

Les Edgerton
Les Edgerton

I hope you guys enjoyed Les’s guest post yesterday. Today, Les is offering a bonus…an EXERCISE to help you develop your skills for writing killer dialogue.

Take it away, Les!

Exercise on Subtext

This exercise is primarily for the teacher teaching basic writing principles, although perhaps even more advanced writers may get something out of it. It’s an exercise I use in my “on-ground” classes when I’m teaching at a college.

It represents a very basic example of dialogue that’s not “on-the-nose” or a Q&A exchange, to show students a very easy to understand example of how off-the-nose dialogue works and how subtext informs the dialogue more than the actual dialogue.

I usually have two students come to the front of the room and read the following script. Then, I ask the questions that follow. It’s a simple exercise, but I’m happy to report that most of the students really enjoy coming up with their own exchanges, which is part of the assignment.

If anyone uses this in an actual class, I’d love to hear your feedback. (Also, you may want to write your own example—I admit this isn’t deathless prose, but hey! I wrote it in about five minutes. Gimme a break…)

DIALOGUE EXERCISE

She: The Bentley’s baby was cute, wasn’t it?

He: I don’t think I saw it. I was in the kitchen with the guys all night.

She: Well, she was a cute little baby.

He: Great. Women think all babies are cute. Ever heard a woman say someone’s kid was ugly? I mean, except for Shrek’s parents’ friends?

She: Brad and Gena seem so happy.

He: They should be. He just got a promotion.

She: Silly! I mean the baby.

He: There goes the promotion. The raise part of it, anyway.

She: I think they’ll manage. Babies are worth a sacrifice or two.

He: If you say so.

She: Look at it practically. Their little girl will probably take care of them in their old age.

He: That’s a great tradeoff. Let’s see… take care of a kid for 22 years—I’m including college—and they stick you in a home for your final three years. Probably use your own money to fund your own old folks’ home. Sounds like a good deal.

She: It’s not like that.

He: Yeah. Whatever.

Silence for a few seconds.

She: Samantha.

He: Huh?

She: Samantha. They named her Samantha. I think that’s cute. I wonder if they’ll call her “Sam.”

He: They ought to call her “Stinky.”

She: What?

He: You heard me. “Stinky.” The kid smells.

She: All kids smell when they make a mess. You smelled. Besides, how would you know if she smelled? You said you stayed in the kitchen.

He: All kids smell.

She: Then you change their diaper.

He: Yeah. There goes the entertainment budget.

She: You mean the beer budget.

He: So?

She: So is if you cut out a few beers, you’d have plenty of diapers… and lose a few pounds…

He: You sayin’ I’m fat?

She: I’m saying diapers don’t cost that much. A six-pack or two.

He: Maybe. But how many six-packs does it cost to send a kid to college?

She (laughing): About what you go through in a week!

He (mutters): Must be a cheap school. All the classes on the Internet? The school’s in the Caribbean?

She: She’ll probably get scholarships anyway.

He: That’s cool. That means she’ll spend all her time partyin’. End up pregnant.

She: She’ll be way too smart for that.

He: Like her mom was?

Who were this man and woman really talking about? What did the woman want? What did the man want? Did either of them come right out and say what they were really talking about?

This is dialogue that isn’t “on the nose.” It’s one way good dialogue is written. What’s important is what isn’t said–the subtext. The subtext is the real message that’s under the surface of the actual dialogue spoken.

This is what I want you to write (in teams). Two people talking about something that is really being expressed in subtext—dialogue that’s not “on the nose.” You can pick any subject you want for them to discuss (within reason!). Whatever they’re really talking about can’t be mentioned. After you deliver your dialogue, the class will attempt to guess what it is you’ve really been talking about.

Time: 2-3 minutes performance time per person. I’d rehearse this so your team falls within the time limit. That’s where I’ll take the most points off, for being short of the minimum.

Notes: You don’t need to memorize the exchange but can read off your script.

Bonus points: Your team can gain bonus points if you use props and/or costumes. (I’ve had some really original costumes and props show up…)

Hope this helps understand better what subtext is and what off-the-nose dialogue is. Write solid subtext dialogue and you’ll draw comparisons to folks like Elmore Leonard!

Bonus tips: Nothing to do with dialogue but just two tips to becoming a better writer.

1. Don’t show a “single tear coursing down the cheek” of a character. It isn’t dramatic; it’s a cliché. It’s a moronic cliché. Plus, it makes the reader wonder if the other tear duct is clogged or if only one tear shows a person with some kind of half-ass control over their emotion where they can control one eye but not both at the same time…

2. Don’t ever write a sentence like: I wonder if he’ll like me, she thought to herself. I mean… who else does a person think to other than themselves? Unless it’s a sci-fi novel and people can think to others…

These two things are my personal bugaboos in writing. I throw up in my mouth whenever I encounter these puppies! Sometimes, I do more than just choke up a bit of bile. At times, I’ve hurled chunks when encountering these in a student’s work… Just sayin’…

Thank you Les for this wonderful exercise. I am trying to twist Les’s arm for a Part Three on Monday, so here’s hoping :D.

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.

At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!

Les Edgerton is the author of HOOKEDTHE RAPISTTHE BITCH and others.

Winner for March is Daniel Occento. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. You can also choose to send a one-page query letter of five-page synopsis (limit 1250 words).