Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It



Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?


In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life.  I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.

After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed.  We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.

Why soup?  Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake.  You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this.  So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill.  If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better. 

Now my theory may not pass the Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing.  Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters.  Or vice versa.  The story becomes palatable.  But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue.  Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup.  It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.

You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit.  Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings.  It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking.  Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis.  Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!

Dialogue Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Dialogue Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Dialogue Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.

These are just a few of the aspects of strong dialogue.  But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.

Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.


Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue.  Locate a passage that, to you, really sings.  Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above. 


Then go to your own writing.  Choose a stuck scene.  Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post.  See if it makes a difference.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book



Summer is teaching time for me.  I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat.  We formed a perfect community, I thought:  supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.

On Thursday evening, we traditionally have an open reading time, where writers at the retreat can choose to share a small excerpt of their book-in-progress.  I ask them to choose someone else in the class to read it aloud for them--it's a wonderful gift to the writer, who hears new things.  Without exception, the writings were excellent.  We applauded, commented on what we loved and what we wanted more of.  It feels, always, like a celebration and an acknowledgement of what was achieved in just five days.

This week, my two summer online classes are ending.  For the final assignments, each writer shared a revision of a piece posted earlier in the course.  Again, without exception, the writings were top level.  As were the comments from the class.  I gave some next steps to consider for each piece, but really, there was such improvement, my feedback was mostly cheers.

Whether online or in person, writing community is essential for anyone working on a book.  You can't go it alone, not easily. 

Many of the writers in the online classes are already getting together and planning how to keep exchanging work.  Retreatants are emailing me about connections they made in the Madeline Island class.   I'm very pleased--because it's something I believe in, deeply, and foster in my classes, always.


I couldn't have produced the books I've published--or the novel I'm just finishing--without a writing community.  Sometimes it's one or two colleagues to exchange chapters with, sometimes it's a monthly or weekly writers' group that keeps me generating pages.  

Writing community does this for me:

1.  Provides accountability
2.  Gives me feedback
3.  Helps me not feel alone during the long haul of writing a book
4.  Lightens me up when I feel down about a rejection
5.  Keeps me from the edge of crazy (especially when writing fiction or memoir)
6.  Normalizes the writing life
7.  Gets to know my story almost better than I do, and is able to point out my blind spots and give me new inspiration

Maybe you're in a writing group that is slowly falling apart, getting stale, or becoming more social than creative, and you know you need to freshen things but you're not sure just how to do it.  Or perhaps you're newly invested in your book and need more rigorous accountability, soon. 

Writing communities ebb and flow, just like any relationship.  It's important, I've found, to be honest with your partners/groups and let them know if you need more or different.  I just got emails this week from two writing partners, whom I adore and appreciate but who have been derailed from writing with life lately.  They're back, and I'm ecstatic.  But while they were away, I searched and found other avenues to get my feedback.

This week's writing exercise is to assess your writing community.  Do you have one?  Is it serving you well?  If not, what might you do next?



Friday, August 4, 2017

Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

I've always loved August in New England, where I live.   The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days.  We get winter all too soon here.  New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.

When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing.  But laziness settles over me.  And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities.  I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do.  Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?

Other writers also let their books languish in summer.  One colleague has three school-age kids.  Camp gives her small pockets of writing time during the day, but it's hard to keep momentum going on her book. 

Another complains about visiting family, trips to the beach or lake, parties that go on into the wee hours keeping her from writing.

We agree:  it's fine to enjoy summer, to wait for snowbound days.  After all, who really cares in the long run?  There's no rush to finish unless we have a contract--which most don't, in today's publishing world that demands complete manuscripts on submission. 

No deadlines mean we control our own writing time.  We self-propel.  That's good, and not. 

Ever notice the proliferation of summer writing conferences?  It's not just because people have more free time.  It's because we need reasons to write in summer.  We go to a conference, we get juiced.  We may exchange emails and promise to help each other's accountability.  I saw my students do this at a writing retreat I taught last week.  So many of them were re-inspired.  Many set goals.  How many will keep them?

It's an important question, I've found.  After a few days or weeks without writing, it's harder to locate the trail of your story.  Much harder to find a way back into it.
Motivation comes from two sources:  internal and external.  As you get to know yourself creatively, you learn which is your gold mine.  I have internal motivation for a while--quite a while, because I've been doing this writing gig for decades.  But eventually, even I wear out my discipline.  That's when I bring in the external motivation.  I set myself artificial deadlines:  a writers' group who expect pages, a writing partner with whom I exchange a chapter a week, an editor I pay to read my manuscript.

If you know this about yourself, you make it happen.  For me, the paid editor is absolutely the most motivating--because my hard-earned money is behind it.  But I have also found excellent writing partners and value them for accountability, especially if we both are producing regularly.

Some tricks I've learned to keep writing in the summer:

1.  Sign up for a fall class that offers workshopping of pages or chapters.  You'll need to be ready to submit in week 1.  So you take time now to choose a piece and work on it.  Potential embarrassment is also a good motivator, as well as the money you pay for the class.

2.  Don't slack on deadlines with your writing partner or group.  Know the summer excuses--travel, kids home, parties, family visiting--and decide to write anyway.  Find those who feel as serious about it as you do.

3.  Get an app that nags you about word count (google word count for writers and you'll see many), or use a goal setting feature on Scrivener or other writing software.  It may annoy you enough to keep writing.

4.  If you're motivated by closure, read this great article about Jerry Seinfeld's calendar technique.  Writers in my online classes have used it and loved it.

5.   Pay someone to keep you writing--and to help you along the way.  Set up a delivery date three weeks or three months from now, with just enough pressure to force you to work now to get ready.  (That's my method.  It works.)

This week I got an email from a writer I've worked with before.  He is a CEO and super busy, but he's trying to finish his book.  "I'll need you to kick-start me come September," he said.  So we arranged that he'd get back to his book in August, after travel eased.  He'll be working all month, preparing the manuscript to send me for feedback.  He's excited to have the deadline. 
When I scan a summer day's many options, when a friend calls and wants to go to the ocean, when the family is having a cookout, when the garden is a jungle and needs my immediate attention, I can easily put aside my writing.  But then, there's my desire to finish this novel. Backed by a deadline of mid-August to get revised chapters to my paid editor. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to assess your motivation for your writing.  Is internal (self-discipline) motivation enough for you to keep working on your book these next weeks?  Do you need an external motivator?  Scan the options above and see what might click for you.