Dec 12, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 12: The Dialogue Dilemma

So, now that you've written a few hundred words, chances are that you'll have some dialogue in there already. Bad dialogue can make the reader groan and stop reading, while well-crafted dialogue zips by and manages to convey information, build character, and entertain all at once. But how to manage that? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do all your characters sound the same (like you)? Is there a way to make them sound more individualised? Think pet phrases, accents, slang, and, most importantly, what they say and how they say it. Let their personalities show. If you cover up the dialogue tags, can you tell who's speaking? That's what we're aiming for.
  • Speaking of accents, don't overdue it. Accents and dialects written phonetically are a pain to read, in my opinion. Less is usually more.
  • Is the dialogue too "on the nose"? Is there a way to make it more subtle. Characters don't have to give straight answers to direct questions, in fact it's usually better for the story if they don't.
  • Dialogue is a good way to convey exposition, but you have to be subtle with it. You can have  one character explain how something works to another, but the other character shouldn't know that information beforehand, otherwise you've got an "As you know, Bob" type of situation. (As an aside, I kind of love Jim Butcher for thumbing his nose at the whole AYKB thing by inserting a "talking head" Bob the Skull into his story. Bob is an ancient spirit who knows a lot of stuff that he's always discussing with Dresden, but it never feels like clumsy exposition.)
  • Is the dialogue consistent with your time period? Are you using words that feel too modern, for example? But don't take it too far in the other direction, either. Reading real 1600s dialogue would be really annoying and confusing.
  • Have you taken the character's age into account? Kids are really tricky to write, at least for me.
  • Sometimes what's not being said is the most important part. What can be read between the lines? (Subtext, baby!)
  • Sometimes your characters just want to talk and talk and talk. That's fine, but maybe cut the three pages of discussion about what to have for breakfast before submitting the piece?
  • Writers are always saying that dialogue should sound realistic. Note: realistic doesn't mean real. You can cut all the ohs and umms and get right to the point. For great dialogue, check out Gilmore Girls. Nobody's actually that witty in real life, but the dialogue flows effortlessly, and it's usually doing at least three things at once.

Okay, that's all for today. If you have more tips to share, do post them in the comments, and that goes for all the posts in this series, of course.

Now go do your 350 words (of dialogue)!

Dec 11, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 11: An Awesome Opening

Yay, it's finally time to start writing! As we're aiming for 3,000 - 5,000 words, about 350 words per day should do it. Have trouble getting started? Set an egg timer for thirty minutes and just start writing. You'll probably end up with more words that that, easy, especially if you're writing in English. (Finnish is a lot harder, no articles or prepositions to beef up the word count.)

You can start anywhere in the story, but I tend to start at the beginning. Your opening is maybe the single most important bit of the story, because you need to hook the reader so she'll bother reading the rest of it. Here are a few things to think about before you start writing:

  • Are you starting at the beginning? As in where the story begins, not with what your main character had or breakfast or something like that?
  • Are you opening with action?
  • Is your first line interesting, surprising, and original?
  • Do you introduce your protagonist in the first paragraph, or even better, the first sentence?
  • What about the main conflict, you should probably get to it as soon as possible?
  • Does your first scene contain at least one hook, preferably several?
Okay, that's pretty much it. Ready, set, Write!

Dec 10, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 10: A Matter of Style

Okay, so tomorrow we'll start writing, but first, a few words about style. You have a voice of your own of course, all writers do, but have you thought about the fact that you actually use several writing styles? At least for me, my style changes to accommodate the story I'm writing: prose poem stylings won't do for a sci-fi adventure, and plain but functional prose might be frowned upon in a literary piece. The story should of course still sound like you, but just the version of you that fits this particular story.

So, take a moment to think about your story. Is there something you need to take into account, style-wise? As we discussed yesterday, point of view is a part of this process as well, especially for a first person narrative when you're filtering the story through the mind of a character.

Genre also presents some restrictions. You don't want your Gothic romance to sound too modern or your cutting edge cyberpunk tale to sound twee, and having your teenage protagonist sound like a sixty-year-old curmudgeon probably won't work too well. And who is your target reader? Will he be able to handle all those big words you're throwing his way?

This is also a good time to take note of any personal stumbling stones that tend to crop up in any story you write. Do you use too much passive voice? Do you have a tendency to keep the reader at an arm's length with unnecessary sense words (we'll talk about this more when we discuss writing deep point of view)? Are you sensitive to flow, or does your prose get clunky or overly complicated if you're not paying attention? Do you easily slip into clichés instead of coming up with your own metaphors? Are you overly fond of the word "obsidian"? (Yep, most of these are or have been mine at some point.) You can fix all this when editing, but it can save you a bit of work if you keep it in mind while writing and try to avoid going there in the first place.

You're writing the story first and foremost for you, for your own pleasure, but if somebody else reads it, you don't want your style to mess with the reading experience but rather to enhance it. (Unless you're James Joyce. I'm pretty sure he took a perverse pleasure in messing with people's heads.)

So, show us your style!

Dec 9, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 9: Points of View

You're pretty much set to start writing your story now, but there's still an important decision to make: which point of view are you going to pick?

You can't go wrong with third person limited (he/she). It's probably the most popular choice. It gives you the intimacy of getting in the protagonist's head, but still retains a bit of distance. You can get away with a bit more regarding the character's voice with third person than with first person, and the majority of books are written in third person, so it might feel familiar and easy to write. To avoid head-hopping, third person limited is probably a better choice than third person omniscient, though it might feel familiar from a lot of classics and children's books. It's tricky to do well, though. If you have a very strong voice as a writer, the best way to showcase it might be third person omniscient, where you're acting as a kind of narrator to the story.

The other mainstream option would be first person (I), which has the advantage of being easier for some writers, because you're automatically in one person's head and point of view and it's easier to convey that person's thoughts and feelings when you're writing first person. The tricky part is that character voice matters a lot more in first person narratives, and it's easy to slip up if the character voice is very different from your own.

Second person (you) . . . Well, go there at your own peril. Not the easiest sell, and tends to annoy readers and editors alike.

Once you've settled on a point of view, you also need to pick a tense, past or present. Past tense is the more common of the two, but present tense can go well with first person narratives.

Not sure which point of view to pick? Do a practice run. You can always change it later.

Dec 8, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 8: Do Your Research

So, you've got your characters, a rough outline of the character arcs and story structure, and maybe an idea of the story title and theme. It's almost time to start writing, but do you know enough about the subject matter to write the story?

Check your outline. You're doing a short story, so you don't really want to spend weeks and weeks on research. To avoid wasting time, come up with specific questions that you need answered. Do you need to research the protagonist's profession? Maybe she does a specific operation that you need to know more about, or if you're writing science fiction, you might need too brush up on how black holes work, for example. Time to hit Google, or maybe the local library. Or, if you're writing about lion tamers and you happen to know somebody who happens to be a lion tamer, go pick their brain, maybe even ask them to read the finished story later if they're willing. (Be sure to follow this up with cake or pie or maybe some movie tickets unless they're your critique partner and you can pay them in kind.)

Sometimes you can't find the info you need. It might be easier to circumvent the problem by changing the story, if the issue is a minor detail. Think about your options, just don't get stuck. If an issue comes up while writing, just make a note and keep going so you don't lose momentum. Much easier to figure out that detail later.

While doing research, pay attention to interesting details and anecdotes. Those help make your story feel more real and unique.

If you're writing a period piece or setting your story in a foreign country, don't forget to research the language stuff. You don't want your 16th century knight to talk like a modern emo kid, now do you?

Museums are pretty great for research, too. Many have informative websites that you can browse even if you can't manage a visit.

And above all, have fun!

Dec 7, 2017

The Write-A-Story Calendar Day 7: Thinking Thematically

Nope, we're still not starting to write. I know theme is a slippery subject, and many writers prefer to let it develop organically, as in they don't give it conscious thought before writing, but as you now have a rough sort of outline, it might be beneficial to see if something stands out.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • What are you trying to say with your story?
  • Is the story accidentally saying something offensive that you absolutely don't want to say? If so, how to fix it?
  • Are you making an argument with the story? Are some of the characters symbols? Do they represent different sides of the issue? Have you given space for different viewpoints without taking sides, letting the characters speak for themselves?
  • Does the story come across as preachy? (Nobody likes being lectured to.)
  • Why this particular story? Is it saying something important to you or are you figuring out some issue in your own life by writing the story? (You probably are, even if you don't see it right away.)
  • are there multiple themes?
Once you've figured out some of these questions, you might think a bit about your story title. Ideally it will resonate with your theme or be a metaphor for that theme on some level while making sense, story-wise.

Dec 6, 2017

Happy One-hundredth, Finland!

Finland is one hundred years old today! Here are some pics from celebrations here in Turku.