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Posts Tagged ‘word usage’

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“He said,” and then “she said,” and then “they said…” The preceding is a good way to lose our readers. How can we, as writers, make our dialogue exciting, compelling and unique to the characters?

Let’s begin by defining the role of dialogue in fiction. There are two main purposes for dialogue:

— to show character development

— to move the plot forward

Dialogue is not an opportunity for the writer to manipulate characters in order to fill in extraneous information. Example: Sherry stared at Bill and said, “You know, of course, that there used to be a well right where we’re standing.

Do not manipulate dialogue to tell the reader about background information, or to repeat things the reader already knows.

This example does not show anything about the character or the plot, only about the author’s inability to properly incorporate necessary (or not) backstory.

Now to the content of dialogue. What do we include and what do we omit? When people speak, they use a lot of filler words that are almost always unnecessary in writing. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” So it is with writing dialogue. We must capture the essence and leave out the dull parts. We must be exact and careful. We must give the reader the benefit of the doubt as far as being able to understand our intent. 

“Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating speech. It’s about giving an impression of it and also of improving upon it.”                                                                                                       http://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-dialogue.html

Each of our characters needs a unique voice. Not necessarily quirky, although sometimes that works, but distinctive. We need to ask ourselves who the character is. What does he do for a living? How much education does she have? What level of society did he grow up in? Does she use certain unique speech patterns?

If the characters are from different language backgrounds, research the juxtaposition of their words. For example, in English we would say, “I can’t speak German very well,” while in German, the order of the words in direct translation would be, “I can’t very well German speak.” We may have to play with the order a bit to make it readable, and not overdo dialect and accent, but if we take all these character details into consideration, each one will speak differently.

Here are a couple of tips: 1. Find a picture of your characters from a magazine or online from a stock photo site and let the person in the photo speak to you. Sounds weird but it works. 2. Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it reads smoothly and easily. 

 Next, let’s look at the technique of writing dialogue.

Just as every scene in a story needs conflict, so every section of dialogue requires conflict to keep the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t have conflict, it should be cut.

It’s important to vary speech patterns in dialogue, but the speeches should always be as brief as possible. If there’s more to say, the character can tell it in bytes, not all at once. Connected to this, there’s the issue of white space. The way the speech is set out on the page will determine how easy it is to read and how appealing it is to the reader. If a speech goes for pages unbroken by paragraphs, many readers won’t bother to read it.

“And then,” she said, “there are speech tags.” We only need enough of them to maintain clarity, and it’s best to stick with said, even though our grade six teachers may have taught us otherwise. The word said becomes invisible and thus easy to read. It doesn’t take us out of the action as would retorted or maligned.

On that same topic, avoid the adverbs. Instead of writing, “…she said sweetly,” let the character show the emotion behind her words: “she said, and winked at him.”

We can often use beats of action to maintain clarity in speech. “Don’t touch that!” Ruby grabbed the doll and held it to her chest.

If we study good dialogue, we can imitate it and will soon be able to write it well ourselves.

Finally, we must learn how to properly use punctuation in dialogue. It’s not difficult, although it feels cumbersome at first. With practice it can become second nature. There are online sites if we’re unsure, as well as lots of good resource books. I’ve recently read a couple e-books that were poorly punctuated, and it’s distracting and frustrating. We want our work to be as polished as possible.

Online dialogue punctuation sites:                           http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue
http://litreactor.com/columns/talk-it-out-how-to-punctuate-dialogue-in-your-prose
http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/punctuate-dialogue.html
Handy resources:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (includes differences between Canadian, British and American usage)
Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor (a wonderfully light-hearted grammar book)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (the famous old standby)

All the best as you practice and perfect your dialogue. See you next time to talk about Setting.

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blog-hop-for-writers imageThe writing tools I use can be divided into several categories:  those that are essential, those that are convenient or beneficial to efficiency, and the extra things that are nice to have.

Essential Tools:

  • My MacBook Pro – my first introduction to computers was to Apple, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
  • Paper and Pen/Pencil – of course a writer needs a scratch pad nearby.
  • The World Wide Webhttp – my connection to the internet is always on (thanks to changing technology that took me from one phone-line and dial-up to designated line and wi-fi).
  • Resource books – my Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus.
  • Words – my love of words is why I write; without them I could not communicate what’s on my mind and heart. I discovered a cool website while researching for this blog which reinforces the importance of our basic word-tools: http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/writing-tools/76067/fifty-writing-tools-quick-list/
  • My Day Planner – I found a lovely, thin, coil bound planner this year with each month day plannerdisplayed on a two-page layout. It’s not for the detailed hour-by-hour details (which I don’t do) but for the daily and weekly and monthly reminders and commitments in my writing world. I’m a visual person, so it helps to see my calendar in larger format than on my iPhone.
  • Quiet – I’ve tried the coffee shop thing but it doesn’t work for me. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I end up staring and get no work done. My small balcony office at home is best for this introvert.
  • Social Media – Not that long ago I would have consigned these to the extras list, but with forced introductions to some of these I have begun to see the important and even essential nature of social media. If we want our writing to be read, we must make it accessible. In this area, I include:

My Website / Blog

Facebook

Twitter

Goodreads

Pinterest

Amazon Author Page

Convenient Tools:

– series of writing books from Writer’s Digest Books:  Plot & Structure by James Scott     Bell, Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham, Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott   Card, and many more.

  • Scrivener Scrivener Logo– my favourite writing software (there are inexpensive courses online—see Gwen Hernandez—as well as Gwen’s book, Scrivener for Dummies). Scrivener is a reasonably simple and effective way of keeping all elements of a project in one virtual unit that includes scenes, summaries, organizational tools, research files, picture/internet files, conversion tools, etc.
  • Online photo sites like iStockphoto and Shutterstock where I can look for character images.
  • I came upon a site that includes a lot more software for writing and publishing at http://cooltoolsforschools.wikispaces.com/Writing+Tools
  • Index cards – Once my first (or second) draft is completed, I like to write a very brief summary of the scenes, one scene per card, arrange them on my dining room table (with the extra leaves in) and work with them. Again, it’s a visual thing. Can’t trust my brain anymore so I have to resort to more physical methods.

Extras:  (or maybe these are convenient…or even essential?)

  • Tea – I’d love to drink coffee but it plays havoc with my body, so I opt for tea. I have a handy cup-warmer at the far side of my desk (never keep beverages close to your computer, she said from experience).
  • A comfortable, ergonomic chair and footrest –  it’s hard to stay in the chair if it’s uncomfortable and bad for your back.
  • A moderately sized blanket for times when you get chilly. Mine’s one of those velvety soft things that never moves from my writing chair.
  • Charts and tables – As a visual person, I need to organize my writing so I can see the whole project. Scrivener is good for this, and the index cards are another step, but I still branch out to charts, especially when I’m stymied and need a diversion.

I’m sure these lists will adapt to changes in my world, but these are currently my most cherished writing tools.

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When I present a talk on novel writing, I often ask the audience for their input on the basic elements of fiction, and they come up with several immediately: plot, setting and character.

Plot, according to James Scott Bell in his excellent how-to book Plot & Structure, is:

“1. A small piece of ground, generally used for burying dead people, including writers. 2. A plan, as for designing a building or novel.”

Plot is what happens in our stories:  the beginning, the middle and the end; with a story arc that takes the reader from one part to the next with compelling situations.

Of course, every story happens somewhere, so setting is essential to story. Characters should not interact in empty space without background or props…or reality. Setting takes us from the details of a room to the description of a village, city or fantastic new universe. It’s up to us to choose the setting, as long as we make it believable and stick to the rules we set up.

When something happens (plot) somewhere (setting), there are characters who experience it or tell about it. Perhaps we choose our characters to show various levels of society or to parallel a person we know or have heard about. There are countless reasons for character choice, but a writer must know the characters intimately in order for them to appear realistic and three-dimensional.

These are the three elements most often suggested by readers. Before reading further, see if you can list a few more…

Dialogue goes hand in hand with character. A novel needs dialogue to bring it to life, and a character needs distinctive dialogue in order to be memorable and unique. In brief, dialogue has two main functions: to move the plot forward and to reveal character.

Another element is point of view. Through whose eyes will we be telling the story? Will there be more than one viewpoint? Will it be first person (“I have always loved the colour red”) or third person (“She had always loved the colour red”)? The choice is up to us, but consistency is essential.

Another facet of novel building is voice. What’s the difference between voice and style? Check out the explanation on my blog: https://janicedick.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/its-who-you-are/.

It’s also important to include literary features in our writing. Similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia and other such features give visual quality and richness to our work. We need to delve into the beauty of crafting words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs and scenes that will impact our readers.

Another aspect of crafting a novel is what I call PUG: punctuation, usage and grammar.  Check out English Grammar on Facebook at http://www.englishgrammar.org/or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrammarUpdates. If we want our manuscripts to make it to an editor’s desk, we must make sure we’ve done all the necessary work. If you aren’t a grammar guru, find someone who is.

I write historical novels, so research is the foundation to a credible story, but research is important in any and every story. If our details are accurate, then the reader can trust our content as well.

And don’t forget the polish. Every manuscript must be carefully and conscientiously checked for everything from the flow of the writing to PUG to the correct meaning of words (or their connotations) to the amount of white space on the page.

This is a summary of the various aspects of crafting a novel. In subsequent blogs I will expand on these features. Until then, happy writing.

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All right, folks, here I am with slightly red face, realizing why I hadn’t published yesterday’s post earlier:  it was not finished. As my dear friend, Deb, gently reminded me, there is more to the “lie / lay” issue, and this is probably the cause of much confusion.

The verb “lie” may mean (a) to fib (b) to recline. In the case of the fib, it’s She lies—she lied—she has lied. In the case of reclining: She lies—she lay—she has lain. Note that the past tense of “lie” in terms of reclining is “lay.” It’s kosher to use the word “lay” without an object if it’s being used in the past tense. For example, if  I lie in bed all day today, I will talk about it in the past tense tomorrow:  Yesterday I lay in bed all day. And that will be okay—not the lying in bed all day but the use of the verb.

The verb “lay” means to place:  She lays (something)—she laid (something)—she has laid (something). This is the verb that is followed by an object.

I hope that’s all clear as mud. I’m leaving now so you can double-check with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or Woe is I or Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

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Now I Lay Me Down…

It’s been awhile since I managed to post something on my blog, so I’ll send out this little piece on a whim:

Allow me to vent a grammarphobe’s pet peeve. Let me lay it down before you.

Not only print media but also radio and television announcers and reporters regularly misuse the verb “lay.” Everyday speech is full of it.

“I just want to lay down,” says a friend, and I bite my tongue and try to keep myself from asking what she is going to lay down.

“I’m so tired I could lay here all day.” What will you be laying and will you not become weary with all your laying?

“They found her laying in a ditch full of muddy water.” Bad enough they should find her there, but what was she laying?

The verb “lay” must always have an object. For example, “My chickens lay EGGS every day.”

If you’re tired, then by all means “lie” down, but do not attempt to lay. We’re just not made for it.

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