Editing Lessons #3: Character Dialogue (Part 1)

During the current editing process of Vengeance Will Come I have no choice but to admit that my dialogue is so wooden that it is in danger of a termite infestation. There’s significant whittling to be done.

Ben’s guide to character dialogue (and what not to do).:

Dialogue should be comprehensible Easily understood. Even if the character is from an alien race with a different language, culture or technology the readers are still human. Being a linguist or anthropologist shouldn’t be a prerequisite to enjoying the story, so don’t make it overly complex with alien terminology. Recently blogging about inventing words, a comment from reader incbiotic helped me to realise the answer: use new words for new concepts (* mostly).

As a vivacious young reader, I reveled in each and every opportunity to demonstrate my exemplary vernacular by employing sophisticated words.

(The only difficulty was I sometimes accidentally selected the wrong noun; like calling my sister a “faeces”, instead of the intended “fetus”). Sorry, sis.

Though the story is absolutely true, the first paragraph highlights the problem. You may understand what I wrote, but chances are you think I am a pompous fool. The intent of writing is to be understood; so write simply and clearly. The reader wants a story, not a casual walk through a thesaurus. Do not confuse difficult words with wisdom.

(Personally I like having to look the odd-word up in a dictionary – but that is not normal behaviour). I believe this is less of a problem for me now, but it is something I must guard against.

Dialogue should be Natural. This is one of my novel’s problems and why I described the dialogue as ‘wooden’. My characters often speak as though they are staring down the barrel of a news camera with all the accompanying formality and polish.

Even people accustomed to the scrutiny of the public (e.g. rulers, politicians) would speak more naturally when away from the cameras. Humans are lazy; we take shortcuts and use abbreviations and acronyms. Especially if we are in a rush or very comfortable with our audience or subject matter. The language should be natural. We are lazy in speaking and reading, so be kind to your readers.

Dialogue should be Tight. No rambling allowed (* mostly). Don’t make the reader wade through twice the content to tell them something you could have in half. Keep it tight, on message.

An example, pre-edit (30 words):

Menas answered angrily with contempt in his voice,

“You’re a boy whose face has not been touched by a razor!  Look at your arms – no thickness in them at all!”

Post-edit(15 words):

Menas scoffed,

“You have never shaved… Probably never fought. You are puny in every dimension.”

(Taking a slight detour at the end of this post: all text should be tight, not just dialog. Just to show how bad I was, here’s something from June 2013…)

wordy sample

As I wrote back in June 2013,

At the end of the day the job of an author is to write something that the reader can and will read, not reach some syllable-based bonus points per sentence score.

Character Dialogue (part 2) coming as soon…

 

 

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Distracted

I’ve written before about the importance of knowing how you write most effectively.

As I described in more detail, if I’m going to have a good day of writing then I need to get going early and avoid distractions. If I allow myself to become distracted by other activities  then it will ruin my productivity for the whole day. Distraction to me isn’t like a faucet that can be turned on and off;  it’s like a dam breach. Once water starts to come through the crack it’s only going to get worse.

This happened at the start of the week: a lack of discipline turned a free day where I could conceivably produce 3,000 words to a day where I got virtually none. 😦 It’s depressing to know that the free day I just wasted (and didn’t even enjoy) is the equivalent of about two weeks of after-work writing.

Be smarter than me: invest your time wisely, guard your writing disciplines.

Editing Lessons #2

No doubt I will learn many lessons as I revise… so let’s enumerate this as #2.

A Beneficial Replacement

In my novel Vengeance Will Come ‘Abudra’ is both the surname of my protagonist and the region (or country) that he rules.

When I was originally writing it I thought that demonstrated a longevity in the family rule. That however isn’t really true: the reader could just as easily assume the country was renamed when a new ruler took over… as recently as yesterday.

Besides, longevity of rule isn’t really important to the plot line. It does speak a bit to the character of the family, but not enough to make it worthwhile to potentially confuse the reader.

Consequently I am changing the name of the region to ‘Tador’ with a demonym of ‘Tadorians’.

A Mouthful of Humble Pie

Recently I complained about a book with too many exclamation marks.

Imagine my embarrassment when I came across the same thing while editing.

“…Soon it will be time and then I will strike. I will take Danyel’s prized possession… and then he will wither and die! There will be no more Abudra Region! It will collapse as he does, and I will take it!” He roared loudly. The recording ended with the sound of Menas breathing heavily.

Danyel let out a loud burst of laughter, coming deep from within his belly. Trevin smiled widely. There was no telling who had observed Trevin pass Danyel the prompter, and this would introduce doubt as to its contents.

The laughter and smiling subsided with Danyel wiping away tears from his eyes.

“You were right… thank you for that Trevin… …you were wise to let me listen without Jessica, she would not approve of this, but it is very funny… …who would have thought? If only they knew!” Danyel said.

That’s 3 exclamation marks in 143 words. It will be changed dramatically.

In partial defense for myself this is the pre-edit version and was written long before I made my rule of thumb of one exclamation mark per 10k words.

But it’s good to have a piece of humble pie occasionally; it keeps me honest. 🙂

Writer Unblocked

Blank PageAs so often in life, it’s all a matter of perspective.

To the writer, this image can represent an empty canvas upon which wonderful worlds of exploration, discovery and adventure can be created. It is limitless in its possibilities. Conversely, it can represent emptiness, failure, a proverbial brick wall which taunts, mocks and chases you into some form of procrastination.

Lately, to me it has been the latter. Even a page filled with nearly 20,000 words I still felt that way. I had taken the sub-plot excised from Vengeance Will Come with the intent of turning it into a novelette called The Rebel Queen. I had a lot of words, and a part-way-there story, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right, and my partly formed story felt haphazard at best.

My writing-discipline was lacking, and I was confused about whether I should be planning or writing. Though it was probably the time for just getting the story “down”, my brain was still in edit-mode and I couldn’t help myself but be fussing over structure and pacing. (Which is probably way to early to be worrying about at this stage of the project).

After spending a few hours laying out the plot, I now feel that I have a better grasp of the story. I can now make a checklist of scenes and I think my progress (and comfort) in the project will increase. I’ve distorted it so I don’t give away the plot.

The Rebel Queen Plotline
The Rebel Queen Plotline

I’m still learning how to be an Author

I played with the title of this blog a bit… at first it was going to be “I’m still learning how to be a Writer”, but the reality is that anyone with the inclination can write. (Note that I’m always thankful that I have been blessed with education).

But just because you have held a fishing line a few times in your life, does not qualify you to be called a fisherman.

It’s the same with writing; I want to be someone who is continuously writing, developing their craft. For the purposes of this blog post, a writer is someone who can write, an author is someone who must write.

Discipline

I’ve blogged about it before several times and every book I have ever read about writing highlights discipline as a necessary attribute; perhaps the biggest. I have to admit, in the last week or so my writing discipline has been a little lax. I’ve chosen to do other things, which is pretty stupid given the limited time that I have and how that impacts on my writing goals.

This time it was computer games that were my siren song of undoing, and I have put them on notice: If I fall to their melody again I will be purging them entirely (so as to make re-acquisition something that would take hours, not minutes).

Planning vs Free-fall

I’ve blogged about these before too – the two methods of writing a story (and there are numerous synonyms for the terms): outlining the story first or letting the story just happen more organically.

To-date my writing consists of one novel and one novelette which is not a lot of experience.

My first novelette Escape from Hell (available free) was all free-fall. I had a flash of inspiration where I saw the whole story and it virtually wrote itself in a few weeks.

My novel Vengeance Will Come came about largely through ‘free-fall’. I had a vague idea of the plot and could see a rough outline of the characters. I lined them all up along a cliff, and then pushed them off, leaping after them to see what would happen. I was about three quarters of the way through my descent when I realised I was flailing big-time. I had to stop and plan because the end wasn’t making itself seen. Without planning, the project would have died entirely. At this point in my experience arc I thought planning was awesome and I was definitely going to do it that way in the future.

However the opposite happened with my second novelette The Rebel Queen. I did some preparation work, but then found myself getting stuck because the preparation was drying out my enthusiasm for the story. So with enough material to hopefully make a parachute on the way down, I’m leaping off the edge.

So clearly I’m still learning what suits me best and in what ratio I need to plan or free-fall.

The Danger of Visual Cues in Drafting

Author’s note: (Finally I am back online after some network trouble caused by a small and seemingly inconsequential ADSL filter). You may notice my progress bar hasn’t moved on Vengeance Will Come, but that’s because I am in the midst of writing the final 3 chapters!!! Yes, that is entirely deserving of no less than 3 exclamation marks.


In the blog post for today I am going to discuss a possible trap when drafting a story using a visual cue for scene changes.. Hopefully my mistake – shared – will help you avoid it.

Firstly, a home-baked definition:

Scene change: Where the perspective of a story shifts to an alternate character’s viewpoint, location and/or signifies the passing of time.

In the past I have used two different ways of visually showing a scene change.

Option 1

The first is this nice little image (taken from Windings or Webdings and then mirrored). To my artistically challenged self, it was an aesthetically pleasing caligraphy-like symbol.

The downside of this particular approach was I had to centre it each time I added it, and embedding the image repeatedly increased the size of the document. (Not drastically, but still…)

Scene-line2
Option 2

The second method which I have now adopted is to alter a header style in a Word document. This provides 4 benefits:

  1. It provides the visual break (but is on the subtle-side using a lighter grey),
  2. I can also navigate around the chapter by using the navigation pane,
  3. It automatically numbers my scenes which is helpful and saves a lot of time re-numbering all the time when scenes move, and
  4. It allows me to name the scene which I comes in handy for navigation, and I suspect when it’s ready for reviewers to give me feedback.

I think a visual cue to the reader that there has been a scene change is very important, whether it is something this fancy or just a few dashes or additional carriage returns on the page.

Not having ever published before, this is something I am guessing at but who is to say that either of these options is a valid option for publication? I assume that they would be stripped out and at least replaced by something else.

However, visual scene changes are not all innocent and good; there is also a hidden danger in them.

With the visual cue not only does the reader know it’s a scene change, but so to does the author.

Because of that visible scene change, my eyes tend to gloss over the scene change. I know it’s a scene change so I haven’t put as much effort into making it clear with the words than I might otherwise have done. The reader should be able to tell there has been a scene change without the visual cue being so clearly defined.

There are a couple of approaches that I have done to try and make scene changes clearer:

  1. The character actually leave the room at the end of the scene. (I think there is also a danger in over-doing this).
  2. The character has a final thought which points toward a scene-conclusion.
  3. In the first sentence (or two) of a new scene I try to make it clear their has been a change in location, time and whose head the reader ‘in in’.

Do you have any thoughts on scene changes?

Writing Progress

Update: Apologies for the errors in this post originally; new blogging rule #1: Never rush a post out at the expense of error checking.

For months now my progress bar (on the right) has been moving incrementally ever closer to 100% on the writing project Vengeance Will Come. This indicator has been labeled as “Reviewing 2nd draft”, but this has been a bit of a lie to you, dear reader, and to myself. It is a lie born of inexperience and a touch of desperation, not malice.

You see I have written the story over a span of many years; up to a point… but not the all important end point. I then discovered the Writing Excuses podcast and realised the number of mistakes I had made… so I began reviewing it. Part way through the review I noticed just how horrendous some of the prose was, so I began the review again. All before I had actually completed the story. As my old manager would say it was “a trap for young players.”

When I created the progress bar and entitled it “Reviewing 2nd draft” it was because I needed to believe the end was in sight. In reality it has only been a week or two ago when after surgery on my story I finalised how the plot would finish. Now the end is truly in sight.

My first novel is going to be far from perfect. I am under no illusion that I made mistakes in both the writing method and execution. The first time I played the piano it wasn’t perfect, the first time I drove it wasn’t perfect – writing is going to be no different. It is a craft that takes time, effort and much practice to improve in.

I don’t want to get trapped in an endless loop of rewrites in an effort to perfect my first book (as some new writers apparently can). However I also feel that another complete pass-through could improve it significantly (after I have finished it, of course). So my plan at this stage is to release the less-than-perfect story to some suckers… oops, I mean alpha readers, and then do only one more review cycle. Then I will close this chapter of my life; every pun intended. Other stories await and I cannot spend much longer on this one…

So in the clear vision of hindsight this is what I intend to do in the future:

  1. Plan out the plot and characters before beginning writing
  2. Write the entire story
  3. First review is for finding plot holes. I will try to turn off the internal editor (this will be a challenge)
  4. Second draft is to tighten up the prose