Sunday, April 24, 2011

5 Common Dialog Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them--Guest Post from @AnnetteLyon

My high-school creative writing teacher taught me a lot of great things, but she was dead wrong about one: dialog.

Miss Winn insisted that the best way to learn how to write realistic-sounding dialog is to record actual conversations and then mimic them in your writing.

Slight problem: real conversation is almost always drier than burnt toast, and it doesn’t accomplish what dialog in fiction needs to.

Even when real conversation is interesting, the speakers often meander from topic to topic. (My sister and I can cover 30 subjects in a 10-minute car ride. Not even almost kidding.)

In addition, most talk isn’t propelled by conflict. It rarely has a tidy, logical progression that advances events. Conversation doesn’t have to make sense. Plus, we often repeat ourselves or loop back to earlier topics. On top of all that, real speech is littered with pauses and non-words like um, so, well, huh, and more.

None of that makes for compelling dialog in fiction. Using actual speech as a template would create mind-numbingly bad fiction.

The truth about great dialog is that it creates the illusion of reality. It resembles what we think real conversations are actually like. Good dialog rings true. It can’t be awkward or stilted or overly formal, or readers balk that it’s not “real.”

Give readers solid dialog, and they’ll be happy—even though it’s not close to the real thing.

Here are five things great dialog does do:

#1—It Doesn’t Meander

Unless you have a compelling reason for making a conversation take side roads (revealing character, setting, planting foreshadowing, or something else), keep the dialog on topic. Meander can include covering irrelevant information, long internal monologues, and those icky filler words (um, yeah, well, etc.) that are a little too real to be believable.

#2—It Has Natural Movement

This means that Johnny’s reply refers to what Jenny just said and that the conversation logically moves from point A to B to C. You as the writer may need you characters to eventually discuss F, but don’t jump there just because the story demands it, and don’t twist the conversation into a convenient pretzel to get it there. Pay attention to what each character says and what the response is—and be sure the progression makes sense.

#3—It Has a Purpose

The most common purpose is usually creating conflict. What’s at stake in this? For whom? Because dialog can serve other purposes, try to have each conversation do more than one thing—reveal character, establish setting, foreshadow, or something else. Beware of scenes with no solid purpose, like the one I read in a manuscript where a bunch of characters sat around discussing what they ate for dinner last night.

#4—It’s True to Each Character’s Voice

To use an example most people are familiar with: think of Hagrid, Dumbledore, Snape, and Hermione. Each has his or her distinct way of speaking, and we’d never mistake Hagrid’s speech for Snape’s or anyone else’s. Keep your characters sounding like themselves—which means they don’t sound like you, the author.

I once read a story where a poor, uneducated, immigrant started spouting off with eloquent English like some Harvard professor. Any illusion of a story world collapsed.

To make your characters unique, take account things like age, gender, geographical background, likes and dislikes, personal quirks, educational level, and more. The way my teenage son asks for a cookie is very different than the way his grandmother does, which is different from how my husband does. They all use different vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone.

#5—It Isn’t for Dumping Information on the Reader

Dialog can be a great way to give reader important information, but too many beginning writers use it as a crutch. Avoid long speeches where a character explains backstory, technology, or—my personal peeve—things the characters already know. I call this the “As you know, Bob” problem.

For example: If two women are best friends, they’d know one another’s family, lifestyle, and so on. So if Betty’s husband gets laid off, she wouldn’t tell her best friend about it like this: “My husband, John, was just laid off from ABC Software.”

Her friend would already know his name and where he works. “John was laid off” is enough. The reader can figure out that John is Betty’s spouse, and if we need to know where he worked, we can fit that into the story or conversation later (in a natural way!).

My favorite example of telling the audience crucial information in a non-info-dumpy way is from an episode of M*A*S*H. Hawkeye looks at a microscope slide with the blood of a wounded soldier. He sits back, visibly upset. BJ comes in and looks at the slide too. Both doctors know the patient’s problem, but the audience doesn’t.

Having either doctor say, “As you know, that slide means he has . . .” would feel utterly fake. How did they tell us about the soldier’s condition without an info dump?

They had BJ look at the microscope again. Then Hawkeye shakes his head and says, “It doesn't matter how many times you look at it. It’s still going to be leukemia.”

Pow. The audience feels the weight of the diagnosis—and we learned about through words Hawkeye really would have said.

Dialog is one of the best tools writers have for creating vivid stories. Avoiding these five pitfalls will help you create powerful writing with character, conflict, and emotion that keeps the reader turning pages.

Blog: The Lyon’s Tale

Web Site:




Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother's typewriter. A cum laude graduate from Brigham Young University with a degree in English, she has had success as a professional editor and doing newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is creating fiction. Band of Sisters, her seventh novel, is about five women who come together during their husbands' deployment to Afghanistan.

Her newest release, a cookbook called Chocolate Never Faileth, is a delicious departure from fiction and the culmination of over five months of test kitchen craziness and fun.

In 2007 Annette was awarded Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction. She’s a two-time Whitney Award finalist and has received three publication awards from the League of Utah Writers.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How I Stay Focused--Guest Blog from @GP_Aldrich

How do I stay focused and block time to write?

My motto is “always writing”, because that keeps me focused. But there’s more than just those two words to staying focused and blocking out time to write.

A long time ago I noticed that I was flitting from writing project to writing project to some other project. I lacked focus, I needed something to keep me on point. I found it by looking at the big picture and then cutting it down to those two words.

Let’s start at the time. At the begging of every quarter I decide on two projects. That means on the 1st of January, April, July and October, I pick two projects. Read that again, TWO, is not TWENTY or even three. Just two projects. I don’t waver for that quarter. I am working on one of those two projects.

If I can’t work on the main project, meaning there’s a part of the story I want to think about more, or maybe there’s something that stops me from working on it, then I can branch over to focus on project two. Since there is no project three, I have to work on one of these two.

In my case my two projects this quarter are a murder mystery and promoting my writing. I think this guest blog post is evidence enough that I am working on project two. Project one is coming along fine as well, you just can’t see it.

As most creative people do, I have my doubts, what if I pick the wrong two projects? I don’t let that even enter my thoughts, because I am focused on COMPLETING these projects. The project is not to test to see if this is a good concept, but rather the project is to write the story. I can make the re-writing, or editing, or throwing on the trash heap, of this quarters project, a project for NEXT quarter.

Focus on those two projects, not the doubts or concerns.

OK, now we have two projects. How do we block out time? First of all, I have dirty dishes in my sink. I’m a single guy and as long as they aren’t stinking or making little science experiments, the dishes can wait. They wait because my focus is writing, and I have two projects. But life is busy. We can’t just drop everything to write. My method is to set a mini-project when I know I have another task to accomplish.

When I walk my dog, I am thinking about character background. I could be thinking about work, or family, or the dishes in the sink, but I set a goal for the walk. At the end of the walk I will know more about my main character.

If I am awake, I know I can be writing because I set these mini goals.

Let’s talk about actually sitting down and putting words on paper, or screen as the case may be. I have been setting these mini goals ever since the last time I was in from of my computer, I know what will happen next in the story, what the dialog is, how the setting will change, it’s just a matter of typing it. Think about it, is the act of typing, writing? No. Writing is the creation of the story and therefore doesn’t require paper, only your active imagination. By the time I get to the typing part, the story is flooding out my fingers. That makes those short times I can block out, highly productive.

I don’t believe there is a writer out there who sells his first draft. I think the first draft is a mental dump of everything the writer thinks should be there. I don’t worry about rules, or if my grammar is perfect. I set all of that aside to let the story flow. My project for the quarter is to get it all out, not to get out only the good parts. Open the dam, watch the water flow.

Wrapping it up: “Always writing” means set the big project, the mini goals and set the rules aside as your imagination flows. And it WILL flow because you’re focused on this project for the next 90 days.

G.P. Aldrich lives with his dog Carmen, in San Francisco California.

You can find him on Twitter @GP_Aldrich, that is, when he’s not writing.

His blog can be found at:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Writing Group--If You Don't Have One, Get One

Today's guest blog comes to us from Jo Ann Yhard, @JoAnnYhard. Enjoy!

Do you have trouble fitting in writing time? Don’t feel alone, we all do. But it can be done. After all, this is our passion, right? We need to do it.

How does a writing group help?

I’ve found it to be the key to completing writing projects. I can be the world’s worst procrastinator – even though I love to write. Our group meets weekly and commits to bringing fresh writing. That weekly deadline is a powerful motivator. No one wants to get ribbed for continually not bringing anything. Most of us write YA and middle readers and try to bring a chapter a week. It adds up!

How do I form a writing group?

Our group evolved from a series of children’s writing workshops. We didn’t want to stop when the workshops ended, so naturally formed into a writing group. I know it’s not always that easy. But through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and your local writing community, you can find others who write in similar genres and have common goals. Names are probably coming to you as you read this. If you aren’t able to meet in person, consider forming an online group. Our group shares through email for feedback when we can’t meet.

What is the format of meetings?

A lot will depend at what stage you are in your writing and what the group’s goals are. In our group, we provide hard copies to everyone, read our chapter out loud, then listen to feedback. Many write notes and edit on the hard copy. It can be scary, I know, sharing your work. And reading…OUT LOUD??? But having a regular group builds a trusting and supportive environment. One member used to break out in hives when she read. Not anymore. Hearing your work out loud, you become aware of issues in your stories that were not evident before. And if you can’t meet, read your writing out loud to yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you notice.

But negative feedback will hurt my feelings…

It does sting a little at first. But it’s not negative, it’s constructive. In the beginning, our meetings focused on positive feedback and encouragement. But while praise is a wonderful thing, it alone doesn’t help to improve our craft. So, as we got more comfortable, we still encouraged each other, but used more of the time to concentrate on trouble spots – things like point of view, pacing, plot, dialogue, voice, even brainstorming to stimulate ideas. So toughen up your skin – feedback improves your work! Include guidelines for the group to ensure respectful feedback. And keep in mind that in the end, you’re the boss and feedback is opinion. Be true to your work and try to balance incorporating only the feedback that strengthens your piece.

How is spending time on others’ writing useful to me?

While we share the meeting time, I’ve found that giving feedback has strengthened my own writing skills. Noticing trouble spots in others’ writing helps you to watch for those same pitfalls in your own. Also, I’ve learned things about writing in general by listening to discussions in the group. You benefit from everyone else’s knowledge.

Are there other benefits to me?

Definitely! And it’s not always when things are going great. Don’t get me wrong, the champagne corks fly for the happy times! But we’re also there to help each other through the disappointment of rejection letters. And there have been plenty of those. It can be heartbreaking and easy to give up. But the support and understanding of your group, the ones who have been in the trenches and experienced it, helps you to survive those tough times and keep writing.

Will it help me get published?

If publication is your goal…

None of us were published when we started approximately seven years ago. Now, various members have three published novels, with three more coming out in 2011/2012, along with assorted writing contest wins and placements. And we’ve all grown as writers, both in our skills and self-confidence. So, if you haven’t been in a writing group, think about it. It’s one of the best things you can do for your writing journey.

About me:

My first middle grade mystery, The Fossil Hunter of Sydney Mines, was released by Nimbus Publishing in April 2010, and is a Canadian bestseller. My new book, Lost on Brier Island, is coming out in May 2011.


Facebook Page!/pages/Jo-Ann-Yhard-Author/161198207246873



The Fossil Hunter of Sydney Mines

Lost on Brier Island

Thanks, Jo Ann, for that very informative post.  If any
of you writers out there are interested in having a guest
post on Carolyn's blog, please feel free to submit your
ideas to writingnodrama (at) aol (dot) com.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"The 7 Deadly Sins of Querying" Guest post from @DorothyDreyer

So, writers... while Carolyn is on hiatus this month,
we are going to
be treated to some wonderful guest
entries from some great writers from
the stream.
Today's post comes to us from @DorothyDreyer. Enjoy!

Bad querying is a sin and can guarantee you a one-way
ticket to Hades. Okay, not really, but it certainly
won't help you get an agent. To help you avoid damnation
on your querying quest, let's go over the seven deadly
sins you must not be tempted by.

GLUTTONY: Do you stuff your query full of more junk than
found in a Vegas buffet? Does your email query address
EVERY agent who ever lived? Is your pitch ten fat pages
long (and still doesn't get the point of the story across)?
We know you want to quadruple your chances by telling as
many agents as possible every single detail about your
BEST NOVEL EVER, but avoid doing this. Keep your pitch
simple and concise with a killer hook, address one agent
at a time, and you shall be saved!

ENVY: Do you use sentences like "My book is ten times
better than the crap found in bookstores nowadays." or
"All the bestsellers I've read suck. I'm a REAL writer!"?
Could it be what you really feel is jealousy that you're
not published? Could it be that you just insulted every
single client your dream agent has? Avoid putting down
other writers, big or small, and you shall be saved!

LUST: Do you slut yourself out in an attempt to land an
agent? Do you send provocative pictures along with your
query letter? Do you offer time-share condos in the
Bahamas or send coffee cups stuffed with your lacey
underwear in hopes to sway an agent's judgement? Do not
try to seduce your way into the hearts of agents, and
you shall be saved!

PRIDE: Do you brag that your mommy says your novel is
the best piece of literature she's ever read? Do you
claim that all your friends think you are the smartest
person alive? Avoid proclaiming how great a writer you
think you are and let your writing speak for itself, and
you shall be saved!

SLOTH: "My fiction novel is attached." Is that your best
attempt at a query letter? Do you address the agent with
To Whom it May Concern? Do you even know if the agency
you're querying represents the genre you write? Don't be
lazy. Do your research, follow submission guidelines,
and take the time to perfect your pitch, and you shall
be saved!

GREED: "My novel is so good I'm certain I'll get six-
figure offers from multiple publishers." "I know the
publishing industry usually takes time, but my novel is
so kick-ass that I'll land an agent, get a publishing
deal, and my book will be in stores IN A MONTH!" We
know this is your dream, and you have every right to
chase it. But don't let your greed make you delusional.
Be sensible, and you shall be saved!

WRATH: "How dare you reject my masterpiece! I'm going to
write a scornful blog post wherein I tell everyone I know
how much you suck! Agents are just jealous because they
can't write!" Have you seen the statistics of how many
query letters an agent gets a week, and the percentage
of those writers who actually get requests for submission,
and the percentage of those writers who actually land an
agent? Do not let rejection make you a monster. Be
professional, and you shall be saved!

Special thanks to Dorothy for that wonderful post! If
any of you
writers out there are interested in having a
guest post on Carolyn's
blog, please feel free to submit
your ideas to writingwithoutthedrama
(at) aol (dot) com.