When Characters Speak

‘You mean that thing called dialogue?’ Nope! Not this time.

One of the earliest– and most confusing– pieces of advice I was given about writing was, “Listen to your characters.” My view of the craft was at such a meta point that this idea was barely fathomable to me. I could maybe understand it, sure, but it seemed either too figurative to be helpful, or just straight-up counterintuitive.

Worldbuilding and consistency are what give your characters a real voice. You don’t have to go full-tilt Tolkien or even full-tilt Rothfuss to get this voice, but it helps. When you as the author have an idea of geography, technology/magic/religion, some sociocultural quirks, you’re establishing an identity.

This identity, then, gives voice to your characters, and you have to listen to them.

Even when I started writing I didn’t feel like I could “hear” them. I was still in control, guiding the story and directing the plot just how I wanted it. Sure, I was discovering it (as opposed to outlining everything), and that’s a fun creative process. But I was still holding the strings.

So what does it mean? How do you listen to the people you want someone else to care about?

Part of it is realism; addressing all the concerns, being aware of the questions your reader will have.

It’s being aware of when your characters say, “Why can’t we just do X to solve this plot issue?” A firm grasp of the situation, and a solid, realistic portrayal of whatever your conflict is, will lead you to some situations where your characters will straight-up ask you the simplest, most direct questions.

And the only response would be, “Well… you could.” And then there’s no conflict.

But you also listen to them to avoid falling into the trap of over-written dialogue. The biggest examples of this can be found in movies. Characters speak for the sole purpose of setting up a dramatic line (usually in the form of “Then what are these things?”). Christopher Nolan is currently my favorite director, but he’s guilty of this a lot. The character drops out of their three dimensional space and becomes a flat rebounding board for someone else– typically the hero– to say something cool and succinct.

It might work, and it gives the narrative that “punch”, but when you’re really listening to your characters’ needs and concerns, you start to hear different dialogue. You hear something more natural.

We know that real life speak, perfectly transcribed, isn’t real dialogue. There’s fiction dialogue, and it’s its own ballgame. Making it work and making it sound natural is tricky. But, if you can listen to your characters, the benefit is that you get that perfect middle ground between ‘Fiction Dialogue’ and ‘What a real person would actually say’.

But tapping into character– the most important element for making your story interesting in real– will allow you to hear them. And if you listen, the other elements fall into place.

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What’s in a name?

“Someday I am going to publish my book.”   A lot of work happens with that goal.  A story is inside and must escape onto paper, or word processor, or something.  Plot, setting, theme, characters, genre, the list goes on and on.

My fellow contributors on this blog have been giving a lot of good advice on writing.  Today I want to take a moment and look at the business side of writing.  We all enjoy the art side, and talking about books, movies, the stories and what we like and didn’t like.  However the business side of writing is also a large arena full of decisions, and in today’s market a lot of decisions need to be made.

Self publish, large publisher, indie, e-pub, and POD.  However, I want to focus on something even more basic.  Your name.

Why stage and pen names?

John WayneMark Twain, John Wayne are two examples of a pen and stage names.  Mark Twain is the pen name for Samuel Langhorne Clemens.  Marion Mitchell Morrison, better known by his stage name John Wayne, was an American film actor, director, and producer.

There are many reasons writers chose to have a pen name.  It keeps their worlds separate.  As a writer, you want to become famous. However, fame has a price.

No privacy.

Look at many famous people today; the paparazzi follow them everywhere.  Your name is your identity.  Your family and friends know you, professionals know you.  Some people want to keep family and friends separate from the professional side of things.  Now Samuel Clemens doesn’t sound like too bad of a name, but he liked the Mississippi River.  Mark Twain was a depth call used on riverboats.  The Mississippi River was a prominent part of his works.  Those who rode the river were familiar with the river culture would immediately identify a book by Mark Twain as being a part of that life.

Today the publishing world has genres and sub genres that a name will be forever associated with the genre the author writes in.  However, a good writer may want to try a hand at a different genre.  Thus, a pen name would allow the writer the ability to explore a new area of writing.

Your pen name becomes your identity.  If you go to a writer’s conference, sign in as your pen name.  Introduce yourself with you pen name.  You are that persona.  Think of it as your writing business.  Thus in today’s world it would be Mark Twain, LLC.  The LLC is not part of the pen name, but think of it as part of it.  Your writing company so to speak.

Some of the contributors to this blog are using pen names.  So it isn’t as uncommon as you might think.

Using Your Own Name

 

You can also use your own name.  Just be careful where and how you do things online.  It is you.  For me I want to see my book cover with my own name on it.  However, that choice has pros and cons to it as well.  How do I separate my writing life from my personal life?  It all blends together, but I am comfortable with that.  Other people are not, so a pen name would work better for them.

Now with all that said before here is the take home point.  Before you begin to build a platform, (I’ll blog more about that in the future).  Before you send out query letters, you need to decide on a name.  What will that name be under (or over) the title of that best seller you are working so hard to write?

What do you think?  Is a pen name for you?  Why or why not?

Those Infamous Lines

I love movies. Every now and again, a line from a movie is perfect for a scene in my writing. I can quote The Princess Bride like nobody’s business. And even in my darkest writings, I find the humor of Maverick, Wayne’s World or Robin Hood: Men in Tights to be useful at keeping the reader willing to continue with my ramblings.

Most of us are guilty, using lines to interest the reader, communicate something found universally within various media. Shoot, Laurell K. Hamilton uses The Princess Bride in almost every Anita Blake novel.

An issue came to light recently while editing another author’s work. Throughout the MS were several lines from still copyrighted movies, action scenes from recent blockbuster movies, and even love scenes.

I had to note each one, noting the movie and actors, remind the author copyright laws are still in effect.

The point? When talking to someone, quoting a movie line is fine. When working to be published? You’d best acknowledge the movie to prevent legal issues.

It is argued that all plotlines are the same, it is the creativity bring the plot to light which is unique to each author. The voice, a twist on the characters, a different world – all are unique. But when quoting from others’ work, whether book, movie or speech, keep in mind the copyright.

Most don’t mind if we quote every now and again. Shoot, several authors and actors have said they find it flattering if remembered.

But we all get upset if it’s stolen and passed off as someone else’s.

“If I must, I’ll take you a piece at a time,” he said, pointing the sword, a piece of cloth at the end.

Sound familiar? Yep, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the 1991 movie with Kevin Costner, spoken during the last sword fight with the Sheriff. Makes for a great action line, no denial there. Yet if you try to pass it as your own line during whatever action scene, and someone recognizes it, you could find yourself in hot water.

What about those fairy tale retellings currently so popular? Many of us understand those are not under copyright. The new retellings will be, but the originals aren’t. Not a problem.

Most copyrighted works are recent, but by no means the only ones. Gone With the Wind is still copyrighted by Mitchell’s estate, a book more than eighty years old.

If you are going to use lines and scenes from other works, err on the side of caution, make sure you tell where it came from. When revising and editing your own work, keep a thought in the back of your mind if a scene is straight from a recent movie/book. I admit to finding little things every now and again, but they were caught and revised. Our imagination can work things in without conscious thought.

It’s also a good reason why Critique Partners and Beta Readers are so important, they often catch them if you don’t. Always a good thing.

I’m not saying don’t use them, I’m saying use them carefully.

We Welcome TJ as a new contributor

TJ has been a guest blogger and has come on board as a regular contributor.  She Blogs over at Writing From the Padded Room.

I have recently decided to take all those worlds and characters out of my brain and attempt to publish. Can always be found with caffeine, a dog when creating and a cat when editing, and often wearing a really pretty purple huggy jacket. I have held many jobs from shoveling water to upper management in a Fortune 500. Former correctional officer, a lot of upper education and way too many student loans, I have lived in 14 states, ventured out of the U.S. on occasion and more often than not, can be found allowing my mind to wander into places that may be best left alone.

Looking forward to more from TJ.

Want Your Query Read? Three Things NOT To Do

I’m not an agent. I don’t even have one. But in the years I’ve been reading industry blogs and, particularly, the many, many queries and query questions that come into Agent Query Connect, I’ve learned a few things. (Veterans will know these things, so this is more for those entering the arena and intent to go the traditional route.)

There are more new writers trying to be heard than imaginable.

In an increasingly bottom-line business climate, fewer publishing houses are willing to take a chance on a new author, and fewer agents are taking on new authors’ books unless they promise a highly likely sale. But I’m not going into that aspect.

Before an agent can sell your novel, you have to sell the agent. Of course, you must have a great novel, but before you get through that door, you have one huge sale that comes first:

YOURSELF.

You have to sell yourself.

Not your personality or experience. You have to sell your ability to write a novel the agent will be able to sell.

Here’s where reading those many, many queries comes in. I only read a fraction of what an agent gets every day, but what I do read gives me a good taste of their jobs. And here’s the thing:

MOST of the queries I start, I don’t ever finish. If I were an agent, that would be an instant form-or delete/no response. Harsh, I know, but after a while, it doesn’t take much to KNOW.

And why? What are the sure triggers for a fast delete and pass? Here are three that do it for me, and I’m probably more forgiving than most agents could afford to be.

1.  Do NOT do your research

I don’t mean proper Elizabethan undergarments, either.

The most obvious, and, okay, I’ll say it—infuriating—is seeing that the writer has made little, if any, attempt to read up on what goes into a good query.

There are many guidelines, often confusing, and no hard-and-fast rules, but there is consensus, and it’s easily found. Agent Query itself is a good place to start. Query Tracker, Query Shark, Nathan Bransford, Rachelle Gardner, and many other sources.

They may differ as to where to put the title/genre/word count, they may differ as to the number of sentences that should comprise the hook, how many paragraphs the whole thing should be, how many names to include, etc. BUT having read each of them and more, one cannot help but get a strong sense of what should be in a good query and what should NOT.

When I see “How would you feel if you woke up and…” Reject. I don’t need to read on.

If it opens with “TITLE is a story of revenge and justice, dignity and degradation…” Reject.

I’m pretty sure all the sources would agree about opening with a rhetorical question or a telling of theme.

I’m not going into what you SHOULD write. Just know that if you don’t do that most basic research, IT WILL SHOW. Just as it will if you send a horror novel to an agent who represents Romance or an erotic fiction to one who represents MG.

If you can’t take the time to learn the most basic aspects of the business you’re trying to break into, why would the agent take the time to read any more?

2.  Do NOT check your grammar and spelling

Please use your spell-check, but DO NOT stop there. It will not flag “their” when you mean “there,” or “it’s” when it should be “its,” “then” instead of “than.”

No excuses. We all make the occasional mistake, but we should, no, MUST know the differences and catch them in proofing.

The same goes for run-on sentences.

There are many old “rules” of grammar that beg to be broken in creative writing. Fragments can be effective. Infinitives CAN be split.

It’s usually clear, however, when a writer knows her craft and is breaking rules for effect and when one simply isn’t yet ready for prime time.

The best of us make errors, and that’s why it’s important to have other eyes on your work. That’s why AQC is such a great place. But to get the help, you’ve got to show you warrant it. Harsh? Maybe. But it’s how it is.

3.  IGNORE basic guidelines

This harks back to the first. There may not be rules, but there are some guidelines that follow through. Ignore them at your peril.

DON’T begin with a rhetorical question. It begs a snarky answer and quick rejection.

DON’T start by telling what the story is about. SHOW who the protagonist is, something to make the reader care about him/her, what conflict changes his/her world, what s/he must do to set things right, and what stands in the way. Character, conflict, stakes. HOOK. Not a log-line, a good, solid, grab-ya-by-the-throat hook. There are as many ways to accomplish that as there are stories and authors, but every query needs a good one.

DON’T pour out a name soup. Keep the names to the barest minimum, usually only the protagonist. If Romance, the love-interest. Keep it to the minimum number of characters. You’re not synopsizing the whole novel, you’re teasing with its most tantalizing core to induce the reader to NEED to read more.

DON’T tell your novel’s themes in your wrap-up. If you haven’t written the query to show those, you haven’t created a query that does its job.

DO close professionally. Don’t say you look forward to hearing from them soon. That’s a pressure they don’t need, and if they’re a no-response agency, you may never hear from them. Don’t presume. And don’t say you’d be pleased to send the entire manuscript. Of course you would. They know that. Once you’ve written any pertinent bio information (and please, NOT that you’ve been writing since you were six) and shown why you’re querying him or her specifically (again, it’s that research thing,) then just close. Professionally. Thank you for your time and consideration. Nothing more is needed. Don’t kiss ass and don’t grovel.

What are the things that make you hit the “next” button without reading past the first paragraph or even the first few words? What would you advise someone pretty new at this game NOT to do in that oh-so-important query?