Writing Dialogue (excerpt from my novel included)

It seems that writing dialogue would come naturally to everyone — as naturally as speaking — but writing and speaking are two very different things. The difficulty in writing good dialogue comes with making your dialogue sound like natural speech, but avoiding all of those “uhs” and “you knows” that make up everyday, normal conversation.

There are two types of dialogue: direct and indirect dialogue. Using a balance of both in writing is important in establishing the pace and rhythm of your story. Direct dialogue is when two or more people are speaking in a scene, while indirect dialogue is reported speech (i.e. – Mike told Rachel he would go with her to the movies).

The following excerpt from the short story “Feathers” by Raymond Carver shows how direct and indirect dialogue can be balanced for pacing.

That evening, watching TV, I asked her if we should take anything to Bud’s.

“Like what?” Fran said. “Did he say to bring something?”

You’ll notice the first sentence is an indirect form of dialogue, and the second sentence is direct.

Also notice the tag verb “said” used in this passage. “Said” is always the preferred verb to use when writing dialogue. Avoid all those other tag verbs like “stated, exclaimed, declared” that draw attention away from the dialogue itself. “Asked” is generally an acceptable tag verb to use when a character is posing a question.

Another element to avoid is clarifying adverbs used to describe how something is said. Consider the following passage:

“How did you like the dessert?” Rachel said hopefully.

“I thought it was terrible,” Mike replied grumpily.

The adverb is meant to clarify the statement. In Rachel’s case, she asks the question hoping her husband likes the dessert, but if her statement is made the way the adverb describes it and in the correct context, then the adverb “hopefully” is redundant and not needed.

Observe how Raymond Carver avoids the use of tag verbs and clarifying adverbs.

“Maybe they don’t drink wine,” I said.

“Take some wine anyway,” Fran said. “If they don’t drink it, we’ll drink it.”

“White or red?” I said.

“We’ll take something sweet,” she said, not paying me any attention.

It’s also important when writing dialogue to avoid what is called “naked dialogue.” Naked dialogue is dialogue that ignores characters’ actions as they are talking. Your characters should be active throughout the conversation.

Again from Raymond Carver and “Feathers:”

“He talks about you,” Fran said. She took her hand back. “Bud this, Bud that. You’re about the only person down there he talks about. I feel like I know you.” She was keeping an eye on the peacock. It had moved over near the porch.

“This here’s my friend,” Bud said. “He ought to talk about me.” Bud said this and then he grinned and gave me a little punch on the arm.

The interspersing of these actions with the dialogue gives the scene a natural feel to it and helps with the pacing of the story.

The following is a bit of dialogue from my own novel (still a work in progress).

“We’ve come for supplies,” Guibert said, addressing Nevina.

“And I’ve told you to leave,” she repeated.

“Your father was expecting us.” Guibert said. “Can we see him?”

“He’s not here,” Reynard said. He had a scowl on his face, and then his features softened as he turned to Nevina. “I’ve already told them that, my lady.”

“He’ll be back in a week,” she added. “Come back and see him then.”

“We only need food, a few sheaves of arrows, and some weapons and horses if you can spare them.”

“We can’t spare them,” Nevina said.

“Have the priest here conjure something up,” Reynard said, and the other knights laughed. “Touch a relic, pay him a donation, and I’m sure you’ll get everything you need.”

Guibert’s mouth and jaw line tightened at the insult, but the priest didn’t seem to mind. Mathieu calmly unwrapped a book from a linen cloth and began flipping through the pages.

“You blaspheme.” Guibert pointed at Reynard. “You damn your soul with such remarks.”

“They damn their own souls,” Reynard replied. “A bunch of selfish, good for nothing swine wallowing in their gold. Though I don’t know about this one.” De Montfort pointed at the priest. “My horse is worth more than he is.” The knights laughed, and Mathieu did not look up.

“Worth more than a baseborn knight too,” Guibert said.

The insult, though unfounded, visibly frustrated de Montfort, but nevertheless, he remained composed. “Who’d your father have the pleasure of ploughing? A good mother’s worth ten coins, though your’s came cheap. Only five.”

Guibert was growing hotter with every word. “Watch your tongue.” Caelen put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, but Guibert shook it off.

“Turns out your father, this priest, and I all have something in common,” Reynard said. “We all like our women cheap.” The knights really had a good laugh at that.

When to Properly Use a Dash — or Em Dash — in Grammar

At times, you’ve probably been reading a sentence and come across a set of dashes being used to separate out a phrase or a few words from the main part of the sentence. These dashes — also known as em dashes — are often used incorrectly in writing. Many writers do not know when they should use the em dash; they just throw it in a sentence when it “feels right” or “it looks correct.” But there are guidelines as to when this type of dash should be used.

According to Strunk and White in the Elements of Style, an em dash should be used to “set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.”

Take the following excerpt from William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for the fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant — a combined gardener and cook — had seen in at least ten years.

I bolded the phrase set off by dashes.

Going back to Elements of Style: “a dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than a parenthesis.” Though you should only use a dash “when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.”

I’ll leave you with one more example from Faulkner:

That was two years after her father’s death and a short time after her sweetheart — the one we believed would marry her — had deserted her.

Writing a Battle Sequence (Novel Excerpt Included)

Two armies face off across an open field. You’ve set the scene; the battle is about to begin, but what do you do now? How do you capture the chaos and frenzy of hand-to-hand combat on paper? Do you try to gather a sweeping panorama of the battle from an omniscient narrator’s point-of-view, pulling back and describing every action from cavalry to infantry to archers to artillery, giving the reader the sense that they are viewing the battle from an overhead, aerial view? I believe this is the mistake a lot of writers make when attempting to write such a scene. They remove themselves from the characters in an attempt to describe the battle, or they have the characters describe what they see in too much detail, and as a result, the sequence often comes across too slowly, and the battle loses that sense of chaos.

If your character is on the front lines, and the enemy army is approaching, your character may have time to describe what he sees in a wider perspective, but also in this instance, it’s important to stay inside your character’s head, so readers understand what he is thinking in that moment; he may be taking the entire battlefield in, and it would make sense to put this down on paper, or he may be scared out of his mind, and he can’t think of anything else besides how he is going to die, in which case your approach to writing the scene would be entirely different.

As that enemy army gets closer, and the first wave of troops smashes into the front ranks, your character — at that point — should only be thinking about what is immediately in front of him or beside him or behind him; he should not be able to see what the cavalry is doing on the far flanks; he should not be able to describe the king’s reaction to the battle who is commanding from somewhere behind him; he should not be able know that on the far side of the field, the enemy cavalry is attempting to circle around behind them and attack the line of archers. Stay inside your character’s head. Put yourself in that moment. What does he see: blood and spit and vomit and broken shields. What does he hear: men screaming, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of bones. What does he smell: blood and sweat and urine. Stay in the character, stay in the moment, and you will stay in the chaos.

No one does this better than Bernard Cornwell. The following is a passage from The Last Kingdom, where the Saxons are facing off against the Danes at Cynuit.

I was tired, too. I had not slept. I was soaking wet. I was cold, yet suddenly I felt invincible. It is a wondrous thing, that battle calm. The nerves go, the fear wings off into the void, and all is clear as precious crystal. and the enemy has no chance because he is so slow, and I swept the shield left, taking the scar-faced man’s spear thrust, lunged Wasp-Sting forward, and the Dane ran onto her point. I felt the impact run up my arm as her tip punctured his belly muscles, and I was already twisting her, ripping her up and free, sawing through leather, skin, muscle, and guts, and his blood was warm on my cold hand, and he screamed, ale breath in my face, and I punched him down with the shield’s heavy boss, stamped on his groin, killed him with Wasp-Sting’s tip in his throat, and a second man was on my right, beating at my neighbor’s shield with an ax, and he was easy to kill, point into the throat, and then we were going forward.

I love how Cornwell creates those long run-on sentences; by the time you get to the end of the passage, you’re out of breath from reading, making you feel as though you’re in the battle yourself. Here’s another passage, this one from The Archer’s Tale by Cornwell. This is at the Battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years War, told through the eyes of an English archer.

Thomas shot again and again, not thinking now, just looking for a horse, leading it with the steel arrowhead, then releasing. He drew out a white-feathered arrow and saw blood on the quills and knew his bow fingers were bleeding for the first time since he had been a child. He shot again and again until his fingers were raw flesh and he was almost weeping from the pain, but the second charge had lost all its cohesion as the barbed points tortured the horses and the riders encountered the corpses left by the first attack …

… the horses were on top of them, vast and high, lances reaching, the noise of the hooves and the rattle of mail overwhelming. Frenchmen were shouting victory as they leaned into the lunge …

… the lances struck the shields and Thomas was hurled back and a hoof thumped his shoulder, but a man behind pushed him upright so he was forced hard against the enemy horse. He had no room to use the sword and the shield was crushed against his side. There was the stench of horse sweat and blood in his nostrils. Something struck his helmet, making his skull ring and vision darken, then miraculously the pressure was gone and he glimpsed a patch of daylight and staggered into it, swinging the sword to where he thought the enemy was.

I thought I would also include an excerpt from my novel, as I’ve worked tirelessly to perfect the technique of writing a medieval battle sequence, though I’m not yet at the level of Cornwell — though in truth, few writers are at such a level.

The two shield walls collided with a crack of iron and wood, and Cobus held his shield high and felt the impact of a spear point snap against the wooden frame, and he felt the weight of men pushing in from the front as well as at his back, curses and screams and metal raking against wood and the crunching of flesh, and he saw the feet of his enemies digging into the earth, and overhead, he heard the whooshing of spears being thrown into the deeper ranks of the Pagannian lines. He felt the enemy wall falter as the fighting shifted to the left, and he saw a break in the line and lunged forward with his shield, the impact sending a burst of pain up his left arm, but the pain disappeared quickly, and he stabbed to his left with the point of his short sword, and the steel tip ripped into flesh and bone, and a soldier fell to the ground at his feet. He stepped over the fallen body and attacked the next man who tried to fill the gap, and stabbing over his shield, his blade caught the man in the throat, spraying blood, a fine mist, warm and bright red, and the man grabbed at the steel edge stuck in his neck. Cobus ripped the sword free, another gush of blood, the man’s face pale and eyes wide, hands grasping at the wound as he fell to his knees choking and gurgling on his own blood.

Optimize Your Amazon Page to Drive Sales for Your Novel

Amazon.com is the hands-down leader in the online bookselling marketplace. And—although it’s notoriously difficult to speak with a living, breathing human being—Amazon prides itself on meeting its customers’ needs. What’s the easiest way to drive sales for your book on Amazon? Easy: maximize the content on your product page and optimize your chances of coming up in search results via Amazon’s internal search engine.

Optimize exposure for your novel on Amazon through:

  • Tags
  • Listmania! Lists
  • So You’d Like to … Guides
  • Reviews
  • Search Suggestion

Read the rest of the article.

Interview with Noah Lukeman, Literary Agent

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages, The Plot Thickens, literary agent, writing, advice, publishing, fiction, novelNoah Lukeman is the President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd., founded in 1996, and he is the author of the bestselling books The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile and The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life. He has valuable insight into the world of publishing, as he has worked on both the agent and editorial sides of the publishing industry.

Read the interview with Noah Lukeman.

Rules for Effective Writing by George Orwell

effective, writing, rules, tips, george orwellI came across this post on Pick the Brain that discuss George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language written in 1946. In the essay, Orwell focuses on how to communicate more effectively as a writer. His rules are quite simple and logical, much like Strunk’s advice on writing in The Elements of Style.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Who versus Whom

This is one of those tough grammar questions in writing that even I have a tough time remembering. When do I use who and when do I use whom? The following is an easy way to remember this distinction.

Use who when you could replace it with he or she.

Example 1: Who/whom is driving in the car? Answer: He/she is driving the car, so use who.

Example 2: John wished he knew who/whom left the money. Answer: He/she left the money, so again use who.

Use whom when you could replace it with him/her.

Example 1: To who/whom am I listening? Answer: I am listening to him/her, so whom is correct.

Example 2: Mary is the girl who/whom I am seeing. Answer: I am seeing her, so use whom.

Simple Writing Habits to Complete Your First Novel

I came across this article, written by Leo Babuata, that deals with developing good writing habits. A lot of these are logical ideas you’ve probably already heard, but reinforcing those ideas and putting them into practice is another thing. I think his approach is simple and very do-able; it’s just a matter of focus and self-motivation to start writing and stay in the habit of writing everyday. I already follow some of these writing practices myself; and there are others I need to improve on. Leo emphasizes the importance of writing at least 30 minutes a day (preferably 1 to 2 hours), keeping a notebook full of ideas constantly by your side, and the ever critical aspect of revising your work.

“Complete Your First Book with these 9 Simple Writing Habits” by Leo Babuata
Your first book isn’t going to happen by itself. If writing a novel or non-fiction book is something you’ve dreamed of, the only way to make that dream a reality is by putting it into action — day by day. Read more …

Writing and Historical Research

I was chatting on a forum the other day, and the conversation sparked the idea for this blog post. When writing your novel, what is the best way to incorporate research and historical details into your writing? I’m not sure there is a best practice for doing this; everyone most likely has a method that works best for him or her. Some like to do a lot of research and planning up front, while others choose to research as they are writing their novel. I can only share what my experience has been and what works best for me.

When I began the first draft of my novel, I had a basic knowledge of the medieval period, and I had an idea for a story, and so I just started writing. As I was writing, I went to the library and collected books and read as much as I could about the time and location in medieval history I wanted to cover. I focused on Medieval England and France, around the turn of the 13th century. By the time I finished the first draft, I had learned so much more, and I realized I had a lot of errors, and for the second draft, I spent time correcting these errors with the new knowledge I had gained. But I never stopped researching. Throughout the second draft, I was constantly reading new books, and even after I finished the second draft, there were still new things I had learned that I wanted to incorporate in the third draft.

I’m currently on the fourth draft of my novel, and there are still things about the Middle Ages I’m learning. Just yesterday, I was talking with a knowledgable historical fiction author, and she informed me that the term “chain mail” was actually a term created in the Victorian era and was not used by people in the Middle Ages. Simply the term “mail” would be more accurate. Now, I have to be more conscious of this in my writing, and for the fourth draft correct any misuses of this term. As many medieval historical sources I have read, I have never noticed the distinction between “chain mail” or “mail” before. Either the sources referred to it as both “chain mail” and “mail” interchangeably, or they failed to mention “chain mail” was a term conceived after the medieval period.

The important thing is to never stop learning; you can never know enough about a certain period of history, and there are many areas left open for interpretation and debate that the writer will have to make certain choices about in his or her novel.

Creative Writing Resources

Here are just some of the resources I use for information, references, advice, and tips when writing.

A subscription to Writer’s Digest Magazine (www.writersdigest.com). This always keeps me up-to-date on the latest industry news, and it gives me ideas when it comes to the craft of writing or when thinking about getting published. I recommend subscribing to at least one writing magazine. Writers Digest is one. Writer’s Journal is another.

I also recommend the Writer’s Market guides. A new issue is put out every year, so it is always up to date. The Writer’s Market is a comprehensive source for finding publication information in various areas of the writing industry. There are also more specific guides similar to Writer’s Market. There is Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market (I use this one for findng info on short story contests), Guide to Literary Agents, Poet’s Market, Children Writer’s Illustrators Market, and Christian Writer’s Market Guide. I wouldn’t recommend buying these as they are pretty expensive, and they are updated annually. I would just go to your local bookstore, maybe library, and do your research there. Bring a pen and a notepad, grab a coffee and a Writer’s Market guide, and write down all the information.

Lastly. Read a lot. This cannot be stated enough. If you want to be a good writer, you must study the craft, and the best way to do this is by reading lots of novels, short stories, poetry, movie scripts, memoirs, whatever it is you are interested in writing. My focus is on historical fiction and fantasy novels, so I read as much as I can specifically in these genres. I used to read a lot of various authors and genres, but then I thought it would help me more to study the genres that I also write in, and now I read almost solely historical fiction and fantasy and also medieval history non-fiction for research. I still read other genres and styles besides these when I listen to books on tape or CD in my car. That’s another thing I’d recommend. Always have a book on CD in your car. I travel a lot on weekends, so I can read a lot of books this way. And when you’re reading a novel, I would suggest analyzing the characters and how the author develops them, how they interact with each other through dialogue, observe the particular writing style of an author, how he or she uses rhythm in his or her language to pace the story, things like that. By doing this, it takes me longer to read novels, but I also gain a greater understanding of the craft. I also read out loud, most of the time, because that really helps me to hear the rhythm, and rhythm is so important in writing.

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