Stepping Back

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Before going on, take a look at the photos here. Study the images. Why are they arranged the way they are arranged? Why are some twisted? Can you see any pattern to them?

Sometimes during the writing process, the details can take over. Perhaps our characters have been studied in infinite detail. We know what our heroine eats for breakfast on Sundays, what our hero is secretly wearing underneath that jacket. Or perhaps we’ve crafted the rules and history of our little world into a document larger than the story itself.

Even if we haven’t spent time pre-thinking details, we think a lot about them during the writing. Is that exactly the right word? Do I have too many adverbs in that scene? Does this scene further my character’s development? How can I imply that the antagonist had a horrible childhood without resorting to “As you know, Bob, I had a horrible childhood” dialogue? As we write and rewrite, every scene, every word is carefully considered until each scene accomplishes the purpose we’ve assigned to it.

So. Now it’s time to step back and see what you have.

Remember the collection of photos you looked at? Just like a writer stringing together the scenes of a story, the collage maker selected each photo and placed it where he did for specific reasons. But there’s more to the picture than the individual photos. Step back and take a look at the same collage from a distance here.

Each photo is part of a larger whole. The photos were selected for the impression of color they would give at a distance. All the individual detail boiled down in the end to a blur of color in a larger mosaic. Each individual picture contributes to an overall impression that is, itself, a detailed picture. They didn’t necessarily work as they were taken originally, however. Some needed to be rotated so the colors would flow from one box to another.

Stories, particularly longer ones, should have a similar effect. When all the reading is done, the reader may remember a scene or two in detail, just as you may remember one or two of the individual pictures that caught your eye in the mosaic. However, it is the look from afar that readers will carry away with them. It is the look from afar that you should craft with as much loving care as you crafted the details.

No matter how perfect each scene, each word is, if they do not fit together to make a coherent mosaic you will not be telling the story you wanted to tell. Each scene leaves the reader with a certain impression or feeling. It is how these scenes run together that determines if you have a mosaic, or just a collection of photographs. Some scenes may be just fine on its own, but need special tweaking or twisting to flow within the entire story. When all is said and done, your story needs to work as a story, not as a collection of scenes.

Step back from your story. Let it sit for a while, then read it with a fresh eye toward the bigger picture you are trying to paint. Keep these things in mind as you read:

  • Don’t read for the details. Read it for the big picture. This can be hard when you’ve sweated for so long over the details. If you can’t do it yourself, find someone who can do it for you.
  • Identify the themes of your story. They may not be what you originally intended, but a big picture read should give you a clear idea of what they actually are. Are your main themes consistent throughout, or do you have random themes in random places? While it’s ok to have multiple and minor themes, there should only be one or two main themes that consistently guide the action.
  • A photo out of place will spoil the effect of the mosaic, and create a jarring gap in the image. Do any scenes or chapters do something similar? Or do they run seamlessly together to build the story? A perfect scene or sentence may be entirely out of place when you look at the story as a whole. You may want to look at Murder Your Darlings, by James Patrick Kelly, if you need some help being ruthless.
  • Does your main character grow in a way that is consistent with the overall image you are trying to paint? Character development, like scene development, should fit within the overall picture. Readers will be jarred by characters whose actions aren’t contributing to the overall story.
  • A small imperfection in the details of one image won’t spoil the overall effect of the hidden image. Remember that the details are there to contribute to the final, distant image, not to exist for themselves.
  • The big picture should not be superimposed on the story. Rather, it should be the natural outcome of the choices you made writing the story. Don’t go hitting your reader over the head with your big picture or refer to it outright in the text. Let the readers step back on their own and see it for themselves. They’ll appreciate the discovery of it more if they make it on their own than if you constantly tell them it is there.
  • And most importantly, is the story revealed by the big picture the story you wanted to tell? You may think you’ve gone in one direction, but the image revealed by a big picture read may show you’ve gone in another direction entirely. Many times this is just fine, but sometimes it isn’t. Either way, you should identify what your overall story is actually saying.

Big picture thinking is important for every story, but it is particularly important for book-length stories. It’s the big picture that will keep the reader on track and interested. It also gives the story re-read value. If they love the big picture, they’ll return over and over again to see how each piece fits into it, to find the details they missed to see how those build the image too. The details and the big picture should work together to make a fascinating image that works both close up and from a distance.

Step back. Pull your head out of the details, and view your story as a whole. It may surprise you.

Final Poll Results

Just Call Me Trickster:
Six Ways To Write
What You Don’t Know

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Write what you know. It’s right up there with “show, don’t tell” as one of the adages that writers hear most often. But what exactly does “write what you know” mean?

When I first heard the phrase uttered by my creative writing seminar leader in my first year of university, I took it literally and wrote about, well, what I knew. Unfortunately, “what I knew” was rather limited, and this approach was greeted with polite derision. Perplexed and frustrated—I mean, what did this mean? Was I not supposed to write at all then?—I reacted by writing instead about obviously fictional subjects. This didn’t go over any better, but at least the snippy remarks and glazed eyes didn’t hurt so much. Then one day, bored in English class, I wrote a poem (see sidebar) that was inspired by the smell of fresh cut grass coming in the open window. It was about a death.

exampleNow at this point in my life, I’d been to exactly one funeral, that of a guy in my grad class who was a friend of friends, i.e. not someone I knew well. And while my maternal grandmother had died when I was five, her death didn’t have a strong impact on me, probably because two years prior we’d moved cross-country, and had only been back to visit twice, and so the difference between death and distance was negligible.

So death? What did I know? Not much. And yet, this poem kicked the folks in my seminar out of their ennui. I could tell that for once they were actually listening, and when I finished reading, they had questions. At the top of the list: “Who died?”

I was probably too quick to admit that no one had, and too flippant when I told them the real story of how it had come about. At first they didn’t believe me—or they didn’t want to—and when they finally did, they acted as if I’d tricked them. Maybe this was because a lot of people think of poetry as being non-fiction. Or because people take pride in their ability to spot the fakes. Or because they wanted to believe I had a deep, dark secret I’d eventually share. I can’t know for sure. What I do know is that the fact that they wanted it to be real meant it had worked.

But why? How? I’d written something that had fallen into a gray area: it read “true” and yet was fictional. If one had to write about what one knew in order to have legitimacy, had I somehow written about something I did know and didn’t realize it?

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot in this poem that I did know. The “I” in the poem was on some level, me. The settings and situations—aside from the internment—were ones I was familiar with, and so the sensory awareness was real. The kicker, of course, was the emotional punch. What I had described was a real reaction to a loss, personified by a death. I had used what I knew to write about what I didn’t know. And that, in my opinion, is why it worked, and is what “writing what you know” is really about.

There are three main things to remember when writing what you don’t know:

  • you know more than you think you do,
  • it’s easier than you think to expand your experience-base, and
  • don’t forget your imagination.

Here are six techniques to help you write what you don’t know:

  1. Extrapolate your own experience. All of us have a wealth of experiences. The problem is, most of them seem so ordinary that we don’t think of them as “experiences” at all, and thus we dismiss them or don’t even consider them. But everything is an experience, and no matter how seemingly ordinary, it probably can be used in some way: a person who likes to cook on an amateur level could easily stretch and write about a character who’s a chef. When you’ve decided what you want to write about, take an inventory. Go back as far as you can in your memory and make a list of all the experiences that may assist you. For example, if you’re writing about a character who has to deal with the death of someone close to them, your list might start out something like:
    • death of beloved dog, Spike
    • favorite aunt moving to Timbuktu
    • boyfriend of 5 years breaking up with “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse
  2. Simulate the experience. There may come a time when you want to write about something that you haven’t had an experience even approximating. Say your character immigrates to the New World on a ship and you’ve never been on a boat of any size. In some cases, like this one, it may be difficult or even impossible for you to experience exactly what your character does. You’re unlikely to be traveling across the Atlantic by boat these days, either in first class or as a stowaway in the hold. However, you can get out on the water, even if you’re not near an ocean. A lake or river will do just fine. There are lots of options: hop on a ferry, ask a friend for a ride in their ski boat, go on a cruise. Feel the wind and water spray on your face and get your sea legs. Then write about it.
  3. Do it yourself. While killing someone near and dear to you to “see how it feels” is not an option (no, it’s really not), there are lots of things you can do, you just haven’t. A writing friend once asked what beer tasted like. Why’d she want to know? Because she’d never had one and her character was drinking beer. In a situation like this, the best option is to just do it. Go out to a pub and have a pint, or buy yourself a six-pack to sip while you write. Not all situations will be so easy to rectify, but if skydiving plays a big role in your story, then you should probably skydive, at least once. You don’t have to get serious about the activity; a tandem jump with an instructor will do the trick.
  4. Interview. Non-fiction writers use this technique all the time, but fiction writers often forget to consider it, even though we often get ideas from things that happen around us, things that happen to friends or family, or that we read about in the newspaper or see on TV. If you have a idea for a story based on a real-life event of which you were not a participant, ask someone who’s experienced what you’re writing about to share with you what the experience was like. For example, if one of your characters is pregnant, have a chat with someone who’s actually been pregnant. Not only can a personal interview back up or verify any research you do, it’ll help authenticate your voice, because you’ll pick up on the little quirks that each person has that make their experience unique.
  5. Research. Some things aren’t possible to experience or simulate—and there won’t always be someone around to ask. The further in time or distance your subject is from your personal experience, the more likely it is that you’ll have to do research. Anyone writing historical fiction, unless possessed with the ability to time travel, will need to do some research to get the period details right. Research is all about incorporating just enough recognizable truth so that the fictional elements you introduce seem just as real, and aren’t questioned by your readers: if you’re writing science fiction, your fantastic ideas will become believable if you ground them in legitimate science.
  6. Use your imagination. Sometimes your only option—or your best one—is to break the rules. Start with what you do know and play “what if?” What if that time you car slipped on a patch of black ice, you hadn’t managed to control the spin? What if you hadn’t married your spouse? What if you wrote 500 words a day instead reading blogs? What if you said what you wanted to your boss instead of biting your tongue? What if humans had tails? Scary? Unlikely? Outrageous? Maybe. But characters who lead boring, safe, ordinary lives aren’t very interesting. We want to read about the harried assistant who lashes out at her boss, thereby setting in motion a wacky chain of events, not the one who quietly hates her job for 40 years but never says or does anything about it (yawn!).

So you see, you can write about what you don’t know— and if you use one or more of these techniques, you can “trick” readers into believing you know what you don’t.

Final Poll Results

Making Smiles: Writing sex scenes outside the erotica and romance genres

Absolute Blank

By Trina Talma (Banker)

“One thing you can be sure of: antiques and sex are scary,” muses Jonathan Gash’s womanizing antiques dealer, Lovejoy. “Which one’s more frightening than the other, I don’t really know, but they run it close.”

For many writers, of course, the answer is easy: sex is scarier. At least, writing about it is. For romance and erotica writers, the sex scene is usually a requirement for the story. Sex can be an important part of stories in other genres as well, and learning to write about it can be an important part of your writing education. But before your characters start “making smiles” (my favorite Lovejoy euphemism), there are a few things to consider.

Making Smiles


As George Michael once put it, “Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” But this doesn’t always hold true for your characters. The most important thing to ask yourself when you consider writing a sex scene is, “Is this necessary for my story?” Does it advance the plot? Does it help develop the characters? If your answer to these questions is “no,” skip it. Don’t throw sex into the plot out of a desire to make the story “more interesting” to your readers, or in an attempt to make the story more saleable. Discerning readers will recognize gratuitous sex for what it is, and will be less likely to respect your work.

Think about sex scenes in your favorite books or movies. Can you as reader or viewer recognize the reason(s) why they were included? When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know whether they should “get together”—or why they shouldn’t. Although we’re concentrating mainly on writing novels or short stories here, it can be instructive to look at movies as an example. A lot of beginning writers these days unfortunately seem to get their ideas about storytelling from movies and TV rather than from books. For example, you can hardly watch an action movie these days without being presented with at least one gratuitous sex scene. Some of them are well done, certainly (though I’m having a hard time bringing one to mind), but do they need to be there? Except in the sense that they give us a little breather from flying bullets and car chases, the answer is usually no.

Fortunately there are fewer examples of gratuitous sex scenes in literature, probably thanks mainly to editors who can spot the problem and get rid of it. It’s too bad Clive Cussler didn’t have one when he wrote about the encounter between his manly action hero, Dirk Pitt, and lovely scientist Dana Seagram in his book Raise the Titanic! The scene mainly seems there to prove that every married woman (represented by Dana) secretly longs to have an affair with another man; true or not, that has little to do with the rest of the book. Cussler should be especially ashamed of the way he begins the scene: “‘Dirk, Dirk!’ she whispered urgently. ‘Nothing makes any sense any more. I want you. I want you now, and I don’t really know why.'” The movie version of the book is even worse: Dana simply says, “Take me now!” While that sort of dialogue may be appropriate for a romance novel, it doesn’t belong in the action-adventure genre. And as the sex itself has little impact on either character (see the section “Did the Earth Move?” below), the scene comes off as pointless.

In the Mood

The most memorable sex scenes are those that create a suitable mood for the scene. In the movies this can be done with lighting and music, but in writing you don’t have those options. You can set the tone for a sex scene the same way you can for any other scene: the characters’ surroundings, the weather, the time of day, etc. All of these contribute to the mood, whether it be serious, comic, or somewhere in between. Setting the right mood can help define your characters and their relationships to one another, serve as symbolism, and even foreshadow future events.

We’re all familiar, from movies and TV, with the “angry sex” scenes: the hero and heroine have utterly loathed each other through the entire story, then suddenly, in the middle of a heated argument, they start tearing each others’ clothes off and rolling around on the floor. Events taking place before the sex can be as important in setting the mood as those taking place during it. Again, this will depend largely on the characters’ relationship with each other. If they’ve never seen eye to eye, having them argue before sex is just part of the whole experience. They may argue afterward too, which would probably be more realistic than having them suddenly agree on everything because they’ve had sex. I’ve never written an “angry sex” scene myself, simply because I find them clichéd and unrealistic in movies and TV shows, but that’s not to say they can’t work given the right combination of characters and circumstances.

In The Doomfarers of Coramonde, author Brian Daley sets a mood of love in wartime, in a scene between Vietnam veteran Gil MacDonald, who has been transported from our world to another, and the Lady Duskwind. In her bedroom they are interrupted by an alarm announcing a sighting of the evil sorcerer Yardiff Bey and Gil, ever the soldier, forgets seduction to deal with the threat:

“I have to go,” he said. “This changes things. We’ll be awfully busy before long.” His thoughts were already on how they might counteract this disadvantage, make it work for them.

He moved to the door, and she felt a chill breeze that didn’t come of night airs …She didn’t want him to go out just now, to order the affairs of battle and let warm possibilities become cool.

Duskwind quickly changes Gil’s mind:

…Her skin was amazingly warm and the scents of her, the perfume at her throat and the exotic, unnameable aroma of her hair, made blood beat at his temples.

He kissed her harshly even as her fingers found the buckle at his waist. But she pulled her head back.

“Softly, my friend,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m no rough soldier’s woman. The night stretches ahead; shall we squander it in impatience and haste?”

The two find not only love, but also a respite from the terrors and exhaustion of war.

The fun part about setting a mood is that the details can vary as much as characters themselves do. In Jonathan Gash’s book, The Grace In Older Women, from which the quote at the beginning of this article is taken, we first discover our hero Lovejoy in the middle of a hurried sexual encounter in the woods, with a woman he’s hoping to seduce out of some valuable antiques. Readers familiar with the character will recognize this as typical behavior. Later in the book, Lovejoy is summoned to the bedroom of a wealthy client, where he watches her eating pastries in her bed. The always-starving Lovejoy can’t decide which is more seductive: the lady or the food:

God, but the grub was tantalizing. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Roberta cut herself a slice of some chocolate-covered thing …I heard myself moan with lust. Roberta, I noticed, as she started on the new slice, was slowly shedding her nightdress …Her breast appeared. She ate on, baring her shoulders …Her eyes closed, ecstatic at the taste. Her tongue flicked her lips …It was marvelous to watch her eat, except the word eat sounds too indelicate for the way which the morsels were chosen, inspected, and elegantly assimilated into that beautiful mouth. To think it actually became part of her, a total act of union. Like watching osmosis to music …It was beautiful to watch the selfish bitch eat while I starved to frigging death. Then the covers parted slowly to admit me.

There wasn’t a single crumb in the bed!

At last, he chooses the lady: “I abandoned all other appetites in appeasement of the great human hunger.”

The Not-So-Dirty Details

When it comes to the sex scene itself, you have two choices: close the (literal or figurative) door and let the characters have their privacy, or stay and find out what happens. If you’re writing a short work with a word limit, you’ll probably want to skip to the aftermath to save some literary time. If your sex scene is part of a novel, you may want to take the time to explore things more fully.

To a large degree your choice may come down to your comfort level. A fellow writer confesses to having written sex scenes in coffeehouses—although she says she writes “really small.” Other people prefer to be behind closed doors, while still others cringe and blush at the very idea of writing about sex. If you find yourself in the latter category, yet still think your characters should have sex, your best option is probably to leave your characters alone in the bedroom. Time and practice may change your mind; you might try taking a plunge and reading some erotica for a look at how other writers deal with sex scenes.

Before I wrote my first sex scene, I was definitely in the cringe-and-blush category. This was partly due to my own inexperience with writing about sex, and partly due to the question, “What will people think of me when they read this?” But I struggled through, wrote it, and revised it several times until it said what I wanted it to say. Meanwhile I read sex scenes that other authors had written, both in erotica and in other genres. I still prefer privacy when I write about my characters having sex, although I write anything better when I’m left alone. These days, though, I no longer worry about what readers will think of me when they read my sex scenes—unless they’re thinking I’m a bad writer!

Speaking of bad writing, it seems that the area of sex leaves itself wider open for language pitfalls than almost any other subject. Your choice of language will depend on your genre and writing style, and hopefully will continue in the tone that you began to set before the sex scene. It will also depend on your level of comfort with the subject; it’s fairly easy to tell when a writer at any level of expertise is embarrassed to be writing about sex. One writer I know did a very good job of setting up her sex scene, but the act itself was described as “engaging in the exercise of love.” (Unique euphemism, but it sounds like they’re having sex at the gym.) Fortunately there is a wide area to tread between clinical descriptions of genitalia on the one side, and the purple prose of heaving bosoms and throbbing “manly organs” on the other. Many writers outside the erotica and romance genres choose to let their readers know what’s going on by implication rather than direct description, but avoid awkward euphemisms that can spoil the mood. In The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence details the marriage consummation of Tom Brangwen and his bride, Lydia:

…She was soothed by the stress of his embrace, and remained quite still, relaxed against him, mingling in to him. And he let himself go from past and future, was reduced to the moment with her. In which he took her and was with her and there was nothing beyond, they were together in an elemental embrace beyond their superficial foreignness.

Others choose to be more explicit, like V.C. Andrews in Petals on the Wind:

…He was slippery and wet with sweat. My legs were raised and clutched about his waist and I could feel the terrible effort of his restraint …Then he groaned and gave up.

Hot juices spurted forth to warm up my insides pleasantly five or six times, and then it was over, all over, and he was pulling out. And I hadn’t reached any mountain high, or heard bells ringing, or felt myself exploding—not as he had. It was all over his face, relaxed and at peace now …How easy for men, I thought, while I still wanted more.

For your own work, it’s your choice.

Consistency of tone and style with the rest of your story or novel is an important consideration. A thriller, for example, should not suddenly turn into a rapturous exploration of the wonders of love. Your hard-boiled-detective narrator should not start spouting Shakespearean sonnets to his one-night stand (unless he’s not really as hard-boiled as he seems). The better you know your characters and the more you develop your own style, the easier this will become.

Did the Earth Move?

What comes after sex can be more important than what comes before. This is a good place to further explore the relationship between your characters, especially if they’re having sex for the first time. In the movie When Harry Met Sally …, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters rush off soon after sex to share their guilty feelings with their best friends. In the example from V.C. Andrews above, the narrator is clearly left disappointed by the sex. F. Paul Wilson, in The Keep, presents the thoughts of both Magda Cuza and her new love, whom she knows as Glenn, after their first sexual encounter. First we see Glenn’s point of view:

…it was wrong to let her care when he didn’t even know if he would be walking away from here, Perhaps that was why he had been driven to be with her …He couldn’t afford to care now. Caring could distract him …And yet if he did manage to survive, would Magda want anything to do with him when she knew the truth about him? …He did not want to lose her. If there were any way to keep her after all this was over, he would do everything he could to find it.

While Glenn worries about the future, Magda’s emotional response is more immediate:


That’s what it was. Magda had never imagined how wonderful it could be to awaken in the morning and find herself wrapped in the arms of someone she loved. Such a peaceful feeling, a safe feeling. It made the prospect of the coming day so much brighter to know that there would be Glenn to share it with.

In most cases your characters’ lives will have to go on after they have sex, and it is up to you to decide how much of an impact their liaison will have on the rest of the story.

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique opportunity in exploring the impact of sex on their characters. In invented worlds, the characters having sex may not be men and women; they could be elves, ghosts, alien species, even machines. Characters of different species may find themselves in an uphill battle when contemplating—or committing to—having sex with each other. Fans of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will be familiar with Buffy’s travails in her relationships with vampires Angel and Spike. In Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, the life of the narrator, Jane, is changed forever when she falls in love with, and loses her virginity to, a “better-than-human” robot named Silver. Kati, the heroine of James Glass’s Shanji, finds that she can’t overcome the bigotry of a man who discovers her true nature during sex:

…His hands pushed against her shoulders as she reached climax; she lost his mouth at that instant, and what came from her was not a woman’s cry of pleasure, but a deep, rumbling growl that went on and on.

She opened her eyes as the growl subsided, and Lui-Pang was still straddling her, eyes wide and staring …his chin was covered with blood from a wound in his lip.

“What have I done?” he said, looking terrified. “What was I thinking of? I should have known, I should have—oh, I can’t! I just can’t do this! We are not—alike!”

Non-human characters are bound to have different morals and sexual habits than humans. They may even have more than two genders. Exploring what happens when they have sex with each other—or with humans—presents a challenge for fantasy or sci-fi writers, one that they have met in many different ways.

Afterglow— er, —word

Like any other part of your writing education, learning to write about sex is best accomplished in two ways: read what others have written, and keep revising your own writing (with the help of other writers’ critiques) until you feel you’ve done the best you can. Sex scenes provide some interesting challenges for a writer, and they can also bring the rewards of adding depth and dimension to your characters and plot. It’s up to you to decide how far you and your characters will go, but getting there can be fun.

Final Poll Results

So You’ve Finished Your Novel:
Now What?

Absolute Blank

By Dee Ann Ruffel

Recently I completed my third work of novel-length fiction. The senses of relief and pride overwhelmed me as I typed the two most beautiful words in the world, “The End”. But still I did not kid myself; I knew my tale needed honing, major editing. I didn’t mind. I loved the story, and enjoyed the tuning as if my novel were a scuffed Steinway in need only of a little tenderness to be beautiful again. After two overhauls and an exhaustive search for the perfect agent, I was finally ready to unleash my story. So what happened? What did I hear back on it? The two ugliest words in the world, “Slush Pile”.

Think it couldn’t happen to you? Read on, please. Oh, I know what you might assume (just as I once smugly presupposed of unpublished writers), her novel must not be that good. Don’t think that about my work, and don’t think it about yours when you get that first rejection letter. Writers Digest books, Writer’s Market and all of the ‘resources’ for aspiring writers can be dizzying with scarcely veiled promises of that big nugget—cue the bongos—a contract. So we buy the books (are you catching my hint?), read the articles, brush up on copyright laws, overseas rights, film rights, agent percentages, ah yes, and then come the money fantasies. Reading about $50K-plus advances can get even the most hard-boiled of realistic writers dreaming of hot tubs and a spot on the David Letterman show in a jiffy. But unless you’re a cousin of a friend of a publisher who owes your gangster father money, getting your foot in the door of the publishing industry is more like going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson than a happy-footed skip to the post office.

And speaking of snail mail, do not send manuscripts via the expensive priority route. See, while you may be in a giant rush to have your novel read and adored, agents I’ve spoken with (the Donald Maass Agency, to list one), say it doesn’t do a whit of good to overnight, express, return-receipt, or buy into any of Mr. Postmaster’s extra extras. If you want to insure your package, go ahead, but why would you waste your money? Without a contract, that copy of your novel is, well, worthless to anyone but you.

Discouraged yet? Don’t be. If you’re a Writer with a capital W, as Stephanie Lenz (Baker) says, nothing will stop your locomotion. Your itch to burrow into the literary world will drive you onward, deeper, inch by hard-earned inch, until one afternoon you realize that a year ago you would have popped champagne for the penny-a-word magazine sale you just made. And you stop worrying about the golden nugget for a moment and give thanks.

You’ve just smuggled one toe in the door of the publishing industry. And what you’ve accomplished, not just by making a tiny sale but having completed a novel of your own mood, characters, scenes, action, dialogue, plot, and conclusion, is a level more than many aspiring writers ever make it to in a lifetime. You say that isn’t enough, and you want more? Good, because with an attitude like that, you’ll eventually get your work published. You will because you can suffer the rejections and keep improving, keep submitting. Your first novel may never leave your hard drive, but neither will it leave your heart. You will build on your experiences and grow into the writer you know you’re destined to become.

In the meantime, there are a couple of facts you should know about the publishing industry—and you can’t take them personally or let them take your money. You just can’t, or they might destroy your will.

The Publishing Industry is about Making Money. That’s right. From agents to magazine editors to the almighty giant publishing houses, the fruit of your labors must sing, “I’ll pay your mortgage, I’ll make you rich, I’ll sell, sell, sell.” Now, how could they possibly turn down your novel when you know it’s better than half the crap you’ve seen on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Because they aren’t clairvoyants, and they know it. They want numbers, a proven track record. They’ve published novels they personally liked, and ended up eating the extra copies the author’s family and friends did not buy. So it comes down to one question, one that has nothing to do with the quality of your prose. Can you prove that your book will make them money? It is no wonder more than ¾ of all publishing houses accept only non-fiction work from the masters of respective fields. Textbooks are guaranteed to sell.

The Publishing Industry Makes TONS of Money from Unpublished Writers. There are books about writing, about publishing, about ‘breaking in’. There are book doctors, agents who charge reading fees, writers’ conferences, and the list goes on. Not to say these practices can’t help, because I’m sure they can. But if you don’t have the wherewithal to become your own Book Doctor, how will you ever make it as a professional writer? These sharks claim the ability to whip your work into bestseller quality, but what I want to know is, where are their bestsellers? Why do they need our work and our money to survive? And any person (agent) who would dare charge a writer to have her work merely considered is not an agent, in my opinion, but a carpetbagger, a parasite who gorges on gullibility. Don’t be that naïve with your money, because if you’re anything like me, you don’t have much to begin with. There are too many resources (Toasted Cheese for one!), that are there to help you and don’t cost a dime. Most of the books for sale can be found at your local library, and the kind of contacts that can be made at conferences can also be made on the Internet. It just takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But you’re a novelist! You should be used to research and hard work by now.

So you’ve completed your novel. Now what? Search the Net and books like Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents for non-fee charging agents and publishers who accept work from unpublished writers. Find out what kind of books they’ve sold, and to whom. Look for fiction similar to yours, then re-read your novel and pretend someone else wrote it. Is it ready? Are you sure? If you were looking for a good book to buy, would you buy yours over everyone else’s? Are you ABSOLUTELY certain? If yes, see if you can get someone to rub your aching neck while you pound out that query letter and synopsis, then double-check your submission for requested guideline adherence and get that sucker in the mail. But if no, you would not buy your novel over the likes of the bestselling authors who reign in your genre, then don’t expect anyone else to either. Keep writing, keep burrowing, and you’ll get there. As will I.

Final Poll Results

Point of View:
Who’s Telling Your Story?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

Recently, I was working on a short romance story. The idea swam around in my head for a few days, and I was excited about writing it down. When I did start writing, though, something didn’t seem right. The character, who was so real and vibrant in my head, just wasn’t coming alive on the page.

This is how my story began:

Andie had never believed in psychics.

But her friend Joanne did, and when Andie asked her what she wanted for her birthday, this was it. A psychic reading.

She’d checked the Internet and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” nearby. She selected one of the names at random and made an appointment. She figured they’d spend the day together, have lunch. But Joanne wouldn’t let Andie get away with just taking her; she’d insisted that Andie have a reading done too.

I wrote about half a page and stopped. It just didn’t feel right. The story wasn’t flowing the way I wanted it to. It felt stilted, forced. After a few more days of mulling it over, it hit me. The point of view was all wrong. The third-person approach I’d chosen was too distant. I wanted the reader to identify with Andie, to feel like they were right there with her. I decided to try shifting to first person. This is what I came up with:

I never believed in psychics.

But my friend Joanne did, and she’d asked for a psychic reading for her birthday. I’d poked around on the Internet, and found out there was a large “spiritualist community” just an hour away from Buffalo on Lake Erie.

So even though I thought it was a waste of money, I told Joanne I’d take her. It was her birthday. I figured we’d make a day of it, have lunch. I randomly chose one of the “registered mediums”, Reverend Gladys Mitchell, and made an appointment. But I couldn’t just pay for Joanne’s reading and be done with it. Oh, no. I had to go too.

The rest of the story flowed almost effortlessly. I had a first draft down in hours.

Somewhere along the way, we all learned the basic rules of point-of-view. Some English teacher or creative writing professor set out the “rules” for us to follow. They explained first person and third person narrators, limited and omniscient points of view. They teach the basics, but most never cover that elusive, more difficult question:

How do you choose?

At some point in every short story or novel, we, as writers, must make a fundamental decision-who is telling this story? Is the narrator inside the story, telling it as it happens? Is she an unnamed, detached observer? Will we keep the reader inside one head, or will we use several point-of-view characters?

Sometimes this decision is easy-the story flows out and we fall into a point-of-view and stick to it. Other times, it isn’t. But before we talk about those choices, let’s review the basics.

In an essay on the subject, author Robin White referred to POV as “the hidden persuader behind any story” which “focuses your narrative, involves your reader, and temporarily suspends all other realities.”

The most common points-of-view are first person and third person. A first person narrative is told from the “I” perspective. The narrator is clearly involved in the story, and is most often the central character. The following example is from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale:

The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet. As long as I don’t move. As long as I lie still. The difference between lie and lay. Lay is always passive. Even men used to say, I’d like to get laid. Though sometimes they said, I’d like to lay her. All this is pure speculation. I don’t really know what men used to say. I had only their words for it.

I lie then, inside the room, under the plaster eye in the ceiling, behind the white curtains, between the sheets, neatly as they, and step sideways out of my own time. Out of time. Though this is time, nor am I out of it.

The narrator tells this story, as it happens. First person narrators can also be mere observers, outside the main story, or detached, as if looking back on past events.

The biggest advantage of first person narration is that it fully involves the reader in the life of the central character; we experience her thoughts, her feelings, and we see what she sees. Certainly, it’s the point of view that best allows us to get completely inside the head of a character. First person can sometimes be limiting, though. Some writers struggle with a first person narrator, because they find themselves wanting to tell the reader what’s going on inside the heads of the other characters. The decision to use first person involves a certain amount of trade-off.

It is also important to remember that the “I” of the story and the writer are not necessarily the same. In fact, first person can actually be too close. I wrote an autobiographical short story when I was in college, using a first person narrator to tell the story. I found I had a problem with separating the narrator from myself. She was me, which made it difficult to write, and even more difficult to accept criticism. My professor made comments about my narrator, which I of course took personally. I now know that I probably would have been better off using a third person narrator, thus distancing myself from the story.

Third person narrative falls into three main categories, limited, objective and omniscient. The third person limited narrator tells the story through the eyes of a single character. The third person objective narrator simply tells the story without allowing the reader to take part in any character’s thoughts or feelings. The omniscient narrator can tell the story from the viewpoint of a number of different characters.

Here’s an example of a third person narrator, from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

Harry lay flat on his back, breathing hard as though he had been running. He had awoken from a vivid dream with his hands pressed over his face. The old scar on his forehead, which was shaped like a bolt of lightning, was burning beneath his fingers as though someone had just pressed a white-hot wire to his skin.

For the most part, the Harry Potter novels are told from Harry’s point of view. Rowling uses a close third person POV, which can sometimes be quite similar to first person. So why not use first person?

Most likely, Rowling chose the close third person POV so that she would have the ability to occasionally change point of view characters. Some chapters and scenes are told from the point of view of other characters, giving the reader access to information that Harry couldn’t possibly have. This POV is known as “episodically limited”. The “who” of the story is determined by the scene. It’s the point of view most commonly used in genre and mainstream novels. In a novel, it is acceptable to have several POV characters, but you should be careful not to use too many. Generally, point of view shouldn’t change during a scene. This practice, known as “head hopping”, can alienate your reader.

In short stories, it is usually best to stick with a single POV.

The third POV, far less commonly used, is second person. A second person narrator addresses the reader directly as “you”. This POV is difficult to use effectively, so very few writers use it.

So now you’re probably still wondering, “but how do I choose?” Unfortunately, the answer just isn’t simple. Think about what you want to accomplish, and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Beyond that, the best advice I can give is to trust your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it probably won’t feel right to your reader either.

If you’re struggling with the piece you’re working on, try rewriting it from another point of view. Switch from first person to third, or vice-versa. Try telling the story from the point of view of an entirely different character. Keep trying new things until you’ve got something that fits.

When you’ve found the one that fits, you’ll know.

Final Poll Results

Fan Fiction: Working With A Net

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I remember the first fan fiction I wrote. I was about 12, maybe 13. I was lonely and away from home, and had made new friends I wanted to impress. I wrote them into a Nancy Drew-like mystery that was just awful, but they loved it. I was in!

I’ve written a lot of stories based on stories, movies, television and novels that others created. Some were for friends who couldn’t let go of the romance of a character or actor, and some were for me. I can remember entangling Luke Skywalker in romance, or using pretty words to recapture the feeling I had when I first saw two of my soap opera characters kiss.

But it’s stealing!

True enough, it is stealing. But, as Mason Cooley said, “Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation.” The ideas going on paper, the situations, thoughts, style and form are all original to each individual author. It’s the same character, but they’re doing something new and different.

We just can’t let the characters or situation go. We honor and obey the rules of the universe as set down by the original author or screenwriter, we pay homage to the actor who brought it to life or to the writer who sold us the characters so fully. We pay them the biggest compliment we could. We write about it ourselves.

So, why do you do it?

Like most fan fiction writers, I don’t write fan fiction for anyone but myself. I know going in I’m not going to make money from it, that it won’t make me famous, and that it probably won’t leave my little circle of friends. When I write fan fiction, I write for fun, for love, and for the sheer joy of creating. In the process, I’m honing my skills, learning a little something about character and continuity, and bringing my creativity back from the dead.

Fan fiction gives my creativity an energy boost. Like all writers, I sometimes run into a block about plot or about a character’s motivation, or I just can’t seem to write that day. On those days, I can drop my lagging spirits into a world I know intimately and play around. I might take a random comment or idea and follow that path to its end. I might write about a favorite lead character, create a new and interesting character, or bring a background character up into a lead position. No matter what I choose to do, I’m writing again. I’ve defeated that ‘writers block’ monster.

But fan fiction isn’t “REAL” writing!

I couldn’t disagree more. Fan fiction has all of the attributes of “real” writing, even if the framework was done by someone else. I still have to think of characters and situations, formulate plot lines and possibly chapters, consider setting and timelines and historical facts, and keep my work as error free as possible so it’s easy to read. It’s real writing work.

There are also hundreds of novels published every year based on the characters, work, and situations of others. A whole new “Star Wars” universe sprouted from the ground as soon as George Lucas said he was taking a four-year vacation from making those movies. “Nancy Drew” novels have always been written by a variety of authors, and readers who became writers, working under the same pen name, Carolyn Keene. “Star Trek” universes dominate three or four shelves in the library and bookstores. If fan fiction weren’t real writing, it wouldn’t be getting on the shelves.

This is all interesting, but why are you telling me?

One of the things we do at Toasted Cheese is inspire others to write. Three things I hear a lot are: I have writer’s block, writing isn’t fun anymore, and my writing skills are really (behind, out of date, lacking, gone, non-existent). Fan fiction might be able to help you with all those things.

For example, I belong to a “Xena: Warrior Princess” fan group called the “Themiscrya Amazons”. This is a very small band of women who were impressed by the ideals, ideas, language, adventure and fun of one part of the “Xenaverse” and expanded on it. One of the activities we do is write in a role-playing forum.

In this forum, each of the members has a character based on the Amazons from the television show. We write a history, find a niche that needs filled, give ourselves interesting lives, and then write about them. Each one is unique and different, and each writer brings something new and fresh to the story line in the forum. We build and weave around and through each other’s style and ideas, creating complex plots and stories that never seem to end up where I had figured they would go.

To make the forum work, we are allowed to ‘move’ the other characters. I’ve learned how hard it can be to be true to the nature and personality of a character while attempting to push your character where you want it to go. And how frustrating it can be when someone has yours do something against his or her nature. But it’s teaching me how very different characters are motivated.

I’m learning about my own style and voice as well. It’s important to be unique in an online world and hard to have a character not sound like your online self.

I’m also teaching others by doing. I think the members of the forum are learning a lot about mystery and revelation, sensory details and description, dialog and grammar. Like my writing, I’m showing, not telling, and I think it’s making a difference. Our forum is a lot of fun to read and participate in, and it’s one of hundreds on the Internet.

You’ve sold me, now what?

The Internet is full of fan fiction sites. You can write about everything from “Frasier” to “X-Files” to “Young Hercules” and back again. Heck, if you can’t find one you like, start your own. You’ll probably get six other writers not only commenting, but also posting work of their own.

The easiest way to find fan fiction is to type the title or name of your topic of choice into a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, Hot Bot, etc. To narrow your search, try “fan fiction, <name here>”. The rest is up to you.

You should look at the terms of service and disclaimers for all fan-related internet sites. Be sure your work remains your own, of course. Be certain that credit is given to the original authors or creators of the work. Double-check that the site won’t sell or steal your idea or writing. It’s always best to comb the rules and then to lurk for at least a week or two. Make sure the overall tone is one you are comfortable with.

Why not try it? You can start with the exercise that goes along with this article, or you can visit one of the Internet sites listed below. Give yourself permission to “steal” and see where it can lead you.

Personally recommended fan fiction sites:

  • Themiscryan Amazon Nation: Must be female and join the tribe to participate. Should have a working knowledge of Xena: Warrior Princess Amazons.
  • Eunice’s Frasier Fan Fiction Archive: A personal collection that accepts new stories also includes links to other Frasier fan fiction websites.
  • Fan Fiction Net: This site encompasses a variety of fan fictions, including poetry, books, television and movies. Asks for registration, which is free. Offers readers the opportunity to respond to the author and review the work.

Sites from searches:

Final Poll Results

Fiction: Genre vs. Mainstream vs. Literary

Jam & Judicious Advice

So you write fiction. You know it’s fiction because a) it’s written in prose and b) the story is one you made up. Isn’t that enough? Er, no, not really.

Sure, you can write your story without worrying about what category it fits into, but once it’s finished, you need to have a snappy reply when someone—e.g. that agent you’re trying to impress—asks what kind of story it is. Agents—and editors, booksellers, and librarians—need to know where your story fits so they can decide how they’re going to market it and where they’re going to shelve it.

After you’ve determined that the piece of work in question is fiction, you need to decide if it is genre, mainstream, or literary. What follows is a brief explanation of each of these categories. It’s meant to clear up the confusion surrounding these terms, and help you decide where your writing best fits. It is not meant to imply that one category is better than another. As well, it is recognized that there will always be books that break the “rules” of their category and ones that crossover among categories, etc.

Genre Fiction:

Genre fiction is usually written with a particular category in mind (rather than fitting the category to the book after the fact). Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller, and western are examples of genres. These novels tend to concentrate on story (plot), rather than character development or philosophy. The primary plot in a genre novel is always compatible with the genre, e.g. the primary focus of a romance novel will always be the romantic relationship between the two main characters, whereas the primary focus of a mystery will always be the main character solving a crime. Genre fiction is written with the primary goal of entertaining the reader. Stories are told in a straightforward, linear manner, and they meet reader expectations: endings are usually happy, questions are resolved, and loose ends are tied up.

Publishers like genre novels because they have a built-in market, e.g. fantasy readers, western readers, science fiction readers. In bookstores and libraries, each type of genre fiction is usually shelved in its own section.

Examples of successful genre fiction writers: Stephen King (horror), John Grisham (legal thriller), Sue Grafton (mystery), Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (romance), J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy).

Mainstream Fiction:

Mainstream fiction consists of stories that can’t be slotted into a particular genre. It can cover any topic, in any time period, be any length, etc. Like genre fiction, mainstream fiction tends to focus on story, though usually with greater depth of characterization. The primary goal of mainstream fiction is entertaining the reader; secondarily the writer might touch on some philosophical issues. Stories are usually told in a straightforward, linear manner, and meet reader expectations in much the same way as genre fiction does: endings are happy (or at least satisfying), problems are resolved, no loose ends are left dangling. The reader does not have to struggle to “get” the story.

Mainstream fiction is harder to market than genre fiction, because there’s no built-in audience. It’s generally sold on author name recognition, with new authors marketed on their similarities to established authors. That said, mainstream fiction is still seen as highly marketable by publishers. Books in this category are expected to sell well because of their potential to attract a diverse audience. The majority of books found in the general fiction section of bookstores are mainstream novels.

Examples of successful mainstream fiction writers: Pat Conroy, Maeve Binchy, John Irving, James A. Michener, Amy Tan.

Literary Fiction:

Like mainstream novels, literary novels aren’t confined to a specific genre. The writer of a literary novel can tackle any subject, any theme—though these aren’t necessarily the most important part of the story. In literary fiction, careful use of language, style, and technique are often as important as subject matter. Literary fiction tends to focus on character development over plot, and explore philosophical issues and ideology. In comparison to mainstream fiction, it often contains more introspection and exposition, and less action and dialogue. It is often said to challenge the reader. There may be layers of meaning beyond the surface story. The story may be about something “bigger”—more universal—than the story being explicitly told. Multiple reads are usually necessary to absorb all of the meaning embedded in the story. Literary fiction is most likely to break traditional fiction conventions, e.g. endings may be upsetting or ambiguous, plots may be next to non-existent, the writer may forego punctuation rules such as placing quotation marks around dialogue.

Literary novels generally sell fewer copies than genre and mainstream novels, and writers don’t expect mass readership. Publishers are most reluctant to take on this type of book, as it is least likely to be commercially successful. Writers of literary fiction generally break into the market by publishing short stories in little magazines or placing in contests. Literary fiction is usually shelved with mainstream fiction, but is occasionally set off on its own.

Examples of successful literary fiction writers: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway.

Writer’s Encyclopedia
Fiction Genre Definitions [pdf version]

Something to Talk About

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Coming soon to an author near you…

See… characters seem like real people! Action… advance your plot! Thrill… break up those huge sections of boring narrative? Romance… as your readers fall madly in love with them. How? Dialogue.

Something to talk about – Creating dialogue

The most important element of dialogue is that it should sound like people talking. That’s easier said than written. This is true no matter what time period you’re setting the story in, no matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter how “stuffy” the characters are.

Avoid clunky phrasing, stuffy words, proper names and anything that keeps the dialogue from sounding conversational. Read your dialogue aloud or have someone else read it to you. No matter if it’s a mainstream short story or a fantasy novel, your dialogue should feel natural and sound like people talking.

Some tips to make your dialogue feel more genuine:

  1. Slang: Characters should use slang appropriate to the time period, age, class, geographical area, etc.Try not to write in dialect. For readers, it’s distracting and difficult to comb through. For example, if your characters are in the Deep South they may use phrases like “my stars” or “carry you over” or a simple “y’all.” Peppering your story with phrases like these, combined with the details of your setting should be sufficient.
  2. Swearing: Just as not every person swears, not every character should swear. However, many people do and writers should use this where appropriate. This is a good opportunity to get creative. If your character doesn’t swear, what does she say instead? “Cheese and crackers?” “Geezy creezy?”
  3. Pet phrases: We all have pet phrases we use. Maybe we stick “now” on the end of every sentence. Maybe we stick in “anyway” or “so” when we’re stuck for how to move a conversation along. Maybe we tend to begin sentences with “maybe” too often. In any case, using pet phrases can distinguish a character’s voice. This will decrease your need for constant speech tags.
  4. Exchanges: Very rarely do people actually listen to the person they’re talking with. How often have you been talking with a friend and realized you’re not talking about the same thing? People avoid questions. People try to change the subject. People recall private jokes and earlier conversations out of the blue. Having your characters engage in two separate conversations can add to the reality of the exchange as well as the subtext of your scene.
  5. Chit chat: Yes, people chitchat in real life. But for your story’s purpose, all dialogue should affect the plot, including what would seem to be inane. Otherwise you’ll find yourself stalling the scene, which could result in writer’s block. How to have characters chew the fat (from Pulp Fiction):

“Want a sausage?”
(Jules) “Nah. I don’t eat pork.”
(Vincent) “Are you Jewish?”
“I ain’t Jewish man, I just don’t dig on swine.”
“Why not?”
“They’re filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.”
“Sausages taste good. Pork chops taste good.”
“Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfuckers. Pig sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense to disregard its own feces.”
“How about a dog? Dogs eat their own feces.”
“I don’t eat dog either.”
“Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
“Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, it’d cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?”
“Well we gotta be talkin’ about one charmin’ motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?”

In the scene, Jules is reflecting on a “miracle” that occurred while he and Vincent were working. Vincent is going on about his day, chatting away, eating his sausage. Meanwhile, Jules is nursing his coffee, caught up in his thoughts.

What the seemingly aimless chit chat shows is that Jules is moving beyond Vincent. Vincent could be likened to the “filthy animal.” It also shows us who they are through their language. Both characters have distinct voices, yet their dialect and slang is similar. This shows us that they are in the same “world.” You wouldn’t expect anyone to interrupt and ask them if they’d care for any Grey Poupon.

Sudden impact – Style of Dialogue

  1. Big chunks.

In novel and short story writing, you want to avoid large paragraphs. For screenwriting, large chunks of dialogue are more common and actors love to sink their teeth into a big speech. An example from Chasing Amy:

“I love you. And not in a friendly way, although I think we’re great friends. And not in a misplaced affection, puppy-dog way, although I’m sure that’s what you’ll call it. And it’s not because you’re unattainable. I love you. Very simple. Very truly. You’re the epitome of every attribute and quality I’ve ever looked for in another person. I know you think of me as just a friend and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you’d ever consider. But I can’t do this any longer. I can’t stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can’t look into your eyes without feeling that longing you only read about in trashy romance novels. I can’t talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. I know this will probably queer our friendship – no pun intended – but I had to say it, because I’ve never felt this before, and I like who I am because of it. And if bringing it to light means we can’t hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But I couldn’t allow another day to go by without getting it out there, regardless of the outcome, which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shoot-down. And I’ll accept that. But I know some part of you is hesitating for a moment. And if there is a moment of hesitation, that means you feel something too. All I ask is that you not suppress that – at least for ten minutes – and try to dwell in it before you dismiss it. There isn’t another soul on this fucking planet who’s ever made me the person I am when I’m with you, and I would risk this friendship for the chance to take it to the next plateau. Because it’s there between you and me. You can’t deny that. And even if we never speak again after tonight, please know that I’m forever changed because of you and what you’ve meant to me, which – while I do appreciate it – I’d never need a painting of birds bought at a diner to remind me of.”

Whew! Holden has just confessed his love for Alyssa, knowing his romantic chances with her are slim to none. This is what happens when your characters finally stop holding it in (hence his character name, but that’s another article).

If you were writing this speech in a novel or short story form, you could break it up into smaller sections of dialogue. Between each paragraph, show Alyssa’s physical reaction. Is she happy? Stunned? Angry? Crying? None of these? Is she looking at Holden? Out the window? At the painting? What is Holden doing? In fiction, showing physicality (reactions, business, etc.) is a good way of breaking up what would be a soliloquy in drama.

Note that, even in this long speech, Holden’s voice remains natural. It has the improvisational feel essential to effective dialogue. He stumbles over words, repeats himself, swears, uses contractions, etc.

  1. Brief exchanges

Using brief exchanges is the more popular method of writing dialogue for fiction. One of the first novels to use choppy, natural dialogue was The Sun Also Rises:

“It’s cold.”
“Want to walk back?”
“Through the park.”
We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.
“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”
“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”
“You ought to stop it.”
“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”
Her hand was trembling.
“I’m like that all through.”
“You oughtn’t to do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

Jake, always the responsible one in their circle of friends, is trying to talk Brett out of having an affair with a nineteen-year-old bullfighter. From this small exchange, we can gather that Brett will do exactly as she pleases, despite her former lover’s advice. She is looking for justification of her decision, using the excuse “I can’t help it” over and over again.

The dialogue is natural, conversational and the kind of thing you might overhear people say as they walk through the park. However there is a heavy subtext to these light sentences. Think of what your characters are saying by what they’re not saying.

Both characters have distinctive voices. When writing dialogue, make sure that your characters sound different from one another. People of the same class, location and so forth will sound the same up to a point. But you should be able to have two or three characters have a conversation, without speech tags, wherein your readers know who’s saying what.

The last detail – Basic Mechanics

  1. Speech tags

You can’t go wrong with “said.” It’s an “invisible” speech tag. Ever notice that nearly every speech tag in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is “said?” That’s because it serves its purpose quietly and moves the story along.

“You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

Don’t rely on your tags to convey the tone of the dialogue. Avoid “shouted” “cried” “whispered” “purred” etc. as much as possible. Let your dialogue and the situation tell your reader how the sentence sounds. In a longer work like a novel, you can get away with it more than a short story.

  1. Punctuating dialogue

Use a comma instead of a period when the dialogue is preceded/followed by a speech tag.

She said, “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Use a period when the preceding/following sentence is an action tag.

She lit her cigar. “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

For beats (the speaker pauses), use commas if the sentence continues around the beat. Otherwise use periods.

“You know,” she said, “that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve heard enough.” She lit her cigar. “That’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Dialogue punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks. No exceptions. Ever. Period. End quote.

For more on the mechanics and formatting of dialogue, refer to The Elements of Style (Strunk & White). Ask your questions about punctuation at Merely Conventional Signs.

The Importance of Being Ernest Ernie Ernesto Jack

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When I was growing up, I loved reading the dictionary. Not the cheesy large print all-the-big-and-bad-words-removed dictionaries in the classrooms at school, but the old Webster’s dictionary we had at home with its tissue-thin pages that oozed musty old book smell. I’d bounce through the tiny print like I was on a scavenger hunt, each looked-up word always leading to another. But as much as I loved words in general, my favorite part of the book was the section at the back that listed common English names. I re-read this section ad nauseum.

Sparked by this name list, I started “collecting” names. Throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I had a blank book where I kept lists, quotes, clippings and ideas. The first thing in the book was a list of names that I liked.

It didn’t stop there. I still make note of names that intrigue me when I hear them and compile lists of names. In a way, my name obsession fuels my need to write. I have this theory that the names I am most drawn to, the ones I maybe heard or saw once, but can’t forget, belong to potential characters—characters not yet written, but conceived of in some form—and that this is why I noticed the names in the first place. Until I match a character with a name, they rattle around in my head, waiting.

I put substantial thought into naming my characters, probably more than a lot of people put into naming their children. Before I bond a character with a name, I want to know I’ve chosen the right one. I’ll often start a story using only pronouns—he, she or I—until I’m certain that I’ve locked onto the right names for the characters. Taking the time to select the perfect name is worth it. Having to change a name mid-story can shatter your whole concept of the character.

While a single name may be sufficient for characters in a short story, or minor characters in a novel, it’s a good idea to give the main characters in novels full names—First Middle Last—and consider all aspects of that name: birth name, nicknames or diminutives and the name the character prefers to use. If the character is adopted or if they use a pseudonym, there can be further variations. Parts of this name may never be revealed to the reader. What’s important is that you, the writer, know it.

Think of naming a character as the reverse of naming a person. Instead of choosing a name and hoping the person will fit it, you have an image of the character in your mind and now you have to find a name that fits them. But wait. What many people fail to remember when choosing a character name is who chose this name. Unless your character is using a pseudonym, a stage name or has legally changed their name for some reason, their parents will have chosen their name. You need to get inside their parents’ heads and decide what factors would have influenced them when they chose the name. You may decide that the parents would have chosen a name that’s completely unsuitable for the character. That’s okay, it happens. It would be unrealistic if every character had a fabulous birth name. If your character’s birth name conflicts with their personality, they’ll probably go by a nickname or some variation on their name.

When naming characters, realize that most of the common wisdom on naming doesn’t apply. Many parents ignore the advice of experts and choose precisely the names they are counseled to avoid. So instead of trying to sidestep the pitfalls and perils of naming, feel free to throw yourself into them, wholeheartedly.

10 Points to Ponder when Choosing a Character Name:

  1. Do you want your character’s name to be COMMON, TRENDY or UNUSUAL?
    • COMMON names are those that consistently make the most popular name lists, regardless of generation: Michael, Sarah. You might consider a common name if you’re trying to write a story that is “timeless” and don’t want the characters identified with a certain time period. However, a name like John Smith is too ubiquitous, unless you plan on having the name itself be a running joke in the story.
    • TRENDY names are names that are popular for a time. Karen and Susan were extremely popular names for girls born in the 1960s, but these names have disappeared off the popularity radar. Using a trendy name will invoke a certain decade and can be a way of implying your character’s age without actually saying it. If you like the idea of using a trendy name, you’ll need to find out what names were popular for children born in the decade your character was. The flip side of trendy names is that you should avoid using a name that’s indicative of an era other than the one your character was born in, unless there is a special reason for your character having this name. Mildred, which was popular in the early 20th century, would seem out of place on character born in the 1980s. Conversely, it would seem odd for a character in a story about WWI to be named Dakota.
    • UNUSUAL names include the made-up: creating Patriste by combining the names Patrick & Stephanie, the offbeat: September, and the familiar, but uncommon: Rhiannon. Even if you give your character an offbeat name, consider the year they were born and the likelihood of that name being chosen. A character named Rainbow who was born in 1969 is plausible, whereas one born in 1919 is not. Familiar but uncommon names work well for characters. Choose a name that is recognizable enough not to have to be explained, but unique enough that the reader will notice and remember it. By virtue of their low popularity, these names also have the advantage of not being tied to a particular era.
  2. If you do choose a common name, think about the possibility of using an ALTERNATE SPELLING. Consider the difference even a small change such as using Jon instead of John or Mari instead of Mary makes. However, it’s best to avoid spelling names in a way that makes them look misspelled: Kiel, Wakine, Rebacca —unless the peculiar spelling is integral to your story.
  3. Decide whether you want your character to have a UNISEX name: Kim, Tracy, or a GENDER-SPECIFIC name: Felicia, Roger. The femininity/masculinity of the name can have a bearing on how your readers view the character, but remember that it’s possible to modify most names. So even if you’re certain that your character’s mother would have given her a feminine name such as Melissa, you can have her go by Mel if you want her to project a less girly image. Another option is to give the character a gender-specific first name and a neutral middle—then you can choose which one they would use. Consider using last names as firsts and vice versa. A female name used as a last name, particularly with a male character, can be an unusual and interesting twist.
  4. Consider all possible NICKNAMES and DIMINUTIVES of the character’s full name. NICKNAMES include monikers based on physical characteristics or personality: Red, Smiley, pet names: Sweetie, Baby, as well as regular names a person uses in place of their own. In Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord Focker, uses the name Greg. DIMINUTIVES are variations on a given name, which are usually shorter or cuter than the original. Diminutives of James include Jim, Jamie or Jimmy. Nicknames and diminutives can be temporary: a summer camp nickname, or permanent: Deborah might go by Debbie her whole life. They can also change over time: Barbara might be called Barbie as child and Barb as an adult. If you choose a nickname or diminutive for your character, consider who gave it to them, when and why.
  5. Check your character’s INITIALS to make sure they don’t spell out an unflattering word such as BUG or ASS, unless this is a part of your story.
  6. Say your character’s full name out loud. Does the name have a pleasing RHYTHM? Adjacent names that end/begin with the same sound can blur together: Darren Nathaniel. Think about rearranging the names if the combination doesn’t sound right. Think twice about cutesy combinations such as Gary Perry, Candy Kane or Rose Rose. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction. If the PRONUNCIATION of your character’s name is difficult: Siobhan (Shi-VAWN) or unusual: Marcia pronounced Mar-SEE-ah, rather than MAR-sha, do you plan to convey the correct pronunciation to your readers and if so, how?
  7. Consider the MEANINGS of the names you’ve chosen for your character. If you’re waffling between a couple names or spellings, what the names mean may help you finalize your decision. A meaning that fits the character always makes you feel confident that you’ve made the right decision. A neutral meaning is fine, but try to avoid names with meanings that clash with the character’s persona, otherwise you may have readers struggling to figure out why you chose Marvin, meaning “lover of the sea”, for a landlocked farmer character.
  8. Consider your character’s family HERITAGE, especially when choosing a surname. Opening up the phone book and choosing a name at random is often suggested as a method for choosing a last name, and it can work, but it’s important to select a name that’s appropriate: if your character is of Chinese descent, don’t name them Rossillini. If you’re trying to be historically accurate, have a look at census data for the region and years in question. Genealogy sites or your own family tree, maps and atlases are all good sources for names. News articles and magazines such as National Geographic are good sources for names from other countries. If you travel, jot down names for future reference. The character’s family background and ethnicity can also play role in deciding what given names to choose. For example, Catholics often choose saints’ names for their children. Consider whether the character’s family is embracing their heritage or trying to shed it, e.g. an immigrant family that is trying to fit in might choose English names for their children, whereas a family that’s rediscovering their roots may choose precisely the names their parents and grandparents avoided.
  9. Is your character a NAMESAKE? If so, who or what are they named after? Are family names de rigueur? Perhaps it’s tradition that the first son is named after the father or that the mother’s maiden name is passed on to the children. Maybe the parents chose the name to honor a friend, a mentor or someone famous they admire. Think about what other sources may have influenced their decision. A botanist might choose botanical names: Linnaea, Salix. A person who’s traveled a lot—or dreams of it—might choose place names: Paris, Milan. A Trekkie might choose names from the ships’ crews: Data, Scotty.
  10. Consider any STEREOTYPES associated with the name you’ve chosen. Realize that anyone named Elvis will be connected to Mr. Presley. This is fine if that’s a part of your story, but if it’s not, perhaps another name would be a better choice. Also, avoid selecting name combinations that are associated with well-known people: Tom Cruise. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction—readers will keep wondering why you chose it.

Finally, consider which form of their name the character prefers to use. This is your opportunity to consider the personality of your character, rather than that of their parents. Does your character dislike one or more of their given names and/or nicknames? Is there is conflict between what they prefer to be called and what other people call them? Perhaps Gwendolyn‘s family calls her Wendy despite her repeated requests for them not to. Do they go by different names depending on who they’re with? Robert might be called Bobby by his family, Robert at work and Rob by his friends. If your character is a married woman, does she use her own surname, her husband’s surname or a hyphenated combination?

Try out all the variations of the name you have chosen. A character named Davis Whitby Smith, could be known as D. Whitby Smith, Davis W. Smith, D.W. Smith, Dave Smith, Davey Smith, Whit Smith, Killer Smith, Buddy Smith, etc. Notice how your perception of the character changes depending on which aspect of the name you choose to emphasize. This is the name readers will identify with your character, so take your time and choose the perfect name.

When I chose a name for the main character in my novel, I wanted a first name that was familiar, but not overly common. I’d decided that his name would be his mother’s maiden name, so I wanted a name that would work both as a given and a family name. I settled on Riley, which means “valiant”. For his middle name, I wanted something generic, the kind of name people pick as middle names so often. I also thought it would be good if the name could work as a namesake — something that would’ve been trendy for the time period. Since he was born mid-60s, John works in that respect (Kennedys, Lennon, etc.). His last name proved most difficult. I wanted a name that would sound ethnic without being obviously a particular nationality. I started with Castillou, the name of a street I lived on when I was a kid, played around with that for a while and came up with St. Lucia. Since Lucia is used in a variety of languages and I’d already decided that one of the character’s grandparents had come from the Caribbean, St. Lucia was perfect.

It takes time to choose a name this way, but it’s worth it. In your quest to find the perfect name for your character, you’ll learn a lot about their background: their family, their past and their motivations. You may never reveal all of this information to your readers, but your awareness of it strengthens your story. If you don’t know the reasons behind your character’s name, then you don’t know Jack… er… Ernest.


Character Naming:

Bestselling Naming Books at Amazon:

A Few Name Sites:

Other ideas:

Everyday Inspiration

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I write a lot of unusual stories. For example, “Freedom Dance” is about a married woman desperate to leave a dance bar. Awash in a sea of pick-up lines and staggering drunks, she does everything possible to escape her situation while the crowd, and her friend, does everything to keep her there. The colors and sounds are alive and vivid in the story, the terror real and tangible.

Well, they should be. I was this horrified woman.

A single friend of mine hates to drink alone and wanted to try a “new” place. I’m a fairly game girl and went along for the ride. I ended up in a personal hell, and a writer’s paradise. I sat in a corner with a drink (okay, several) and wrote down every terrified thought, every sarcastic comment, and all the detail I could. Including how everyone stared at me as I wrote in my notebook.

Most stories come from real life inspirations like this. A random comment can become the plot for a murder mystery. An unusual landscape can be used as the setting for a fantasy short. An old man walking his dog might become a background character in a piece of literary fiction.

But where and how can YOU find everyday inspirations?

Write everything down. Have some kind of paper, and something to write with, with you at all times. Consider a pocket diary, a 5×7 notebook, a small amount of loose paper, a bunch of 3×5 note cards, whatever works best for you. Keep them all in the same pocket of your purse or handbag, so you can find them when you need an idea.

I have a blank diary, just big enough for my purse. It has a very permanent and literary feel to it, and it’s a lot harder to lose than a 3×5 card. Besides, it was a lot of fun to pick out one that reflects my personality. I use my pen as a bookmark so I know where the blank pages are, and where the pen is. When something strikes me, I can instantly jot it down.

Have an adventure. This doesn’t mean you should take the first flight to Brazil. Well, if you can fly off to a foreign country, go right ahead. The important thing is to get up from your computer or desk, and get out into the sunshine and the rain and the snow. Experience weather, traffic, crowds, and lines.

Take yourself or a friend out to coffee. Go to the library or your favorite bookstore and sit for a while. Visit friends or relatives at work or at home. Take a sandwich to the park or have a picnic at the zoo.

Don’t use your car. If you need to go across town, try using public transportation. Walk up to the store instead of drive. Ride your bike over to a friend’s house or up to the park.

Ask questions. Look at everything with wonder and curiosity. Ask yourself where people are going, what they will do when they get there, what is inside their bags and boxes, where they started out, and just what is their biggest problem? Try asking the same two questions for every person in the room, on the bus, in the car next to you, or wherever you happen to be.

“Why is this guy alone on the bus with two cans of Dr. Pepper and a coconut?” my notebook asks me. I can see him now, awkwardly juggling those two cans and shifting the single coconut around. From this simple question, I might get a great story, or a novel. I know I have a great joke already, or an anecdote I can somehow put into an article I’m writing.

Listen harder. Really hear what everyone around you is saying. Your friend makes a sarcastic comment. You overhear a pithy saying. A guy at the bar tells you a ribald joke. Put them all in your notebook. You never know when a single statement will spark off a story, but it sure can.

We found a broken and useless gun in a box in our attic when we moved into this house. The police were called and it was taken away for ballistic testing, “Just in case it was used in any unsolved murders.” As he stowed the item in his trunk, the policeman said, “How can anyone lose track of a gun? I know exactly where mine are at all times. It just doesn’t make sense.” He was appalled, but I was inspired. What if someone had MEANT to leave it behind? From his off-hand remark, I had a great story.

Look deeper. The best writing has realistic details and descriptions. Capture a beautiful sunset on the beach or the dirt and grime under a bridge. Describe your house, yard, or neighborhood. Write down what color shoes the woman on the bus wore, or how much makeup she wore.

Take a few trips back and forth into time while you are at it. What did that look like when it was new? How will it look to your children’s children?

“Freedom Dance” is about how a married woman perceived the bar. The neon glare and flashing lights, the too-short skirts and too-tight pants, and the wiggles and swaggers. If I hadn’t written down gems like, “The black pants, the white shirt, the black vest, the black cowboy hat, the red steel heart reflecting gently on his breast. The sheriff of love.” I couldn’t have captured the flavors of that bar and shared it with my readers.

Fear nothing. Don’t be afraid to write down anything you want, anytime you want. If it was funny, if it was cute, if it got your attention, write it down. Worry about how you “look” later.

Your friends will understand if you jump up and take down what they said. Heck, they will usually repeat it if you ask. They like to be noticed and remembered, even if it’s only in your notebook.

People will stare and wonder what you are doing, but they can’t read over your shoulder unless you invite them to. Or unless your best friend shows the notebook to the guys you were just describing. Remind yourself that the fellow with the coconut doesn’t know who you are, and won’t be calling you later.

Don’t worry about libel because by the time you are published, they won’t remember saying or doing anything of the sort. Don’t censor yourself because of a “what if”. It probably won’t happen.

Prepare yourself. An unusual activity, like writing, will generate questions from the crowd. It might be easier on your ego and psyche if you already have some answers ready to the usual questions. “What are you doing?” “Why?” “What have you written?” “Are you published?” “What kind of writing do you do?”

I answer with honesty if I can, and with a lie if I’m annoyed. “Writing a letter to Grandma,” can be less threatening than, “Writing down the fact that you picked your nose,” to a stranger. Especially if he happens to be dubbed, “The Sheriff of Love.”

Be inspired. Story ideas are all around, if you know where to look for them. So get up and get out. Bring a pineapple and treat yourself to a pina colada. Someone else will have the coconut.