Have You Ever Seen a Story?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

3 Chiming In
Have you?

Have you ever been out and about in the real world (writers can leave said real world at will, you know ;-P ) and seen something that just makes you stop, stare, and think "There has to be a story there" ?

Imagine, if you will, the most stereotypical biker you can. A big guy in leathers with a black motorcycle jacket covered in patches. Long brown hair, tattoos over every piece of skin not covered by his clothes, two days worth of beard and an etched in granite "Don't *** * with me" look on his face.

Got that image? Good.

Now, picture the passenger on the back of his bike... I promise you can't do it on your own.

Think of a little girl. A pink princess, maybe 6 years old with sparkly sandals and a pink dress, complete with a fluffy backpack on her back. She's so small her legs hang barely past the seat, and there she is, hanging onto Mr. Hell's Angels' vest with her little hands and wearing what has to be his helmet on her head. (It's big enough that it covers her head and neck, resting on her shoulders.)

This was the scene I saw as this guy peeled out of the local Elementary school. And I was certain that there was a story there.

Maybe it's because writers are semi-self-trained to be better observers, but the details of something like that stick with you even from only a few seconds notice.

Obviously, this guy hadn't expected to pick up a little girl from school, as evidenced by the borrowed helmet and the dress (no one who has ever ridden a bike would put a kid on the back in shorts or a skirt - take it from someone who was short enough that her leg fell directly on the hottest parts of the bike below the seat..ouch) Yet, Mr. H.A. did it.

Maybe he was her dad or uncle or older brother, he could have been the nicest guy in the world who lived next door and did Mom a favor, or there could have been an emergency and he was the only available to pick the kid up -- who knows -- but that's the sort of "what happened" question that creates the first parts of a forming story.

The point of this seemingly pointless ramble, is that sometimes you don't have to go looking for inspiration. Sometimes it darts out of an alley in a 1954 Lincoln and almost takes off your bumper. And sometimes it's as shocking as a kid with a poodle backpack on the back of a Harley.

Tag! You're It!

Friday, October 15, 2010

3 Chiming In
And as this is freeze tag, and I've caught you, now you have no choice but to stay there and read my blog. Ha! I win!

When did dialogue tags become a "topic of concern" with writers? Aren't they supposed to be somewhat benign in the grand scheme of things?

I always thought so, which is why I'm usually surprised to see (major) questions about the "acceptable" number and types of tags "allowed".

(Before I go off on the bulk of this post, I'm going to point something out here -- you are not in English class. Even if you are a student who still attends class, and one of those classes is English, you're still not in English class when you're writing for professional reasons. Get the "rules" out of your head. There are no grades here and no one with a red pen searching for subtle irony and hidden themes.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled attempt at sounding like I know stuff --

Dialogue tags are those little bits after a line of spoken word that identify the speaker, their mood, or actions. The most common, (and the one many will say should be the only tag utilized) is the standard "he said".

There are those who like copious numbers of tags:

"Tags," he said. "Are necessary to establish who is speaking which words at what time."

"Yes," she agreed. " Without tags, one would not know the conversation's participants without them.

"But it can get annoying when every single line is tagged for no real reason," he said.

"Quite," she said.

"And I mean every line," he said.

"I know," she said.

"Every. Single. One," he explained.

"STOP IT," she ordered. "You're annoying me!"

"Sorry," he apologized. (But he kept right on tagging away...)

And those who prefer their manuscripts to bounce around starkers:

"We are talking."

"Yes, my friend. It's a veritable verbal sparring match."

"I say my words."

"And I say mine."

"I might mention someone with whom I am familiar."

"I think I'll talk about my job."

"Who are you again?"

"I'm not sure, as the writer didn't think it was necessary to tell us who was speaking and in what order."

"But order is important! What if the reader can't follow the conversation without names? And why are we naked?"

"This writer likes the "starkers method" of dialogue tagging. It's supposedly very literary."

"But what are we doing while we're talking?"

"Standing completely still, I guess. And our voices must be monotone. In fact, you're lulling me into a stupor.

"Must leave conversation... too sluggish... "

"No action cues... feet won't move... goodbye cruel world..."

"And crueler writer..."

"All we wanted was a pair of pants..."

Tags are useful for pointing out unusual reactions, like laughter when the words being tagged would usually denote tears.

"He's dead." <--- on it's own, this is a statement that would include images of shock or mourning, and doesn't require qualification. "He's dead," she laughed.

"He's dead," he announced.

"He's dead," she said, trembling.

"He's dead," she asked.

"He's dead." His son fainted as soon as the words were out.

"He's dead," she explained. "Try someone else."

Different tags impart different energy to the scene and speaker. When the action or reaction doesn't follow logical paths, then tag away and make it easy for your reader to understand.

Making it "easy", brings me to the next sore spot:


I'm not quite sure why they're passionate enough about the issue for it to warrant tears, but whatever floats your boat. (Though if you throw them away, then many, many trees will have died in vain and the planet will hate you. Not to mention that there are so few dinosaurs left in the world that the senseless slaughter of the only remaining abundance of "saurus" out there is just wrong. <-- sounded funnier in my head, but I'm not backspacing, so deal with it.) I think it's a fair guideline to say "stick to words you're familiar enough with to have as part of your daily vocabulary" rather than grabbing a thesaurus to find alternatives. "No!" she interjected. "You shall never wrest my shiny word bank from my hands! It makes me sound intelligent and literal."

"I think you mean literary," her opponent elucidated. "And you're wrong. It makes you sound stupid and stilted. Why would I wrestle you for a book? We'd just get dirty. So, unless there's cash involved, I'll pass."

"Ha! I am triumphant," she vociferated.


"You just vociferated in public!"

"So what?" she beseeched in a questioning manner of asking her interrogative.

"So next, you'll be asserting, bleeting, and dare I say ejaculating things into the conversation!"

(seriously, why do people do that? It's hardly mixed company conversation... unless of course you're into that sort of thing... Personally, when I see that one, I think some twelve year old has learned a new word from Daddy's "collection" of "vintage photo art" and thinks it's funny to use it. You know, the way twelve year olds laugh at toilet jokes.)

"Hmmf! You're just envious because you lack the fortitude and lexicon of jargon to do it!" she declared with all the declaration an exclamation point could declare.

"Sure... that's it... yeah..."

The "no thesaurus" advice is usually sound, IMO, but it's not just for dialogue tags. You shouldn't be tossing around words you don't use regularly enough to know their connotations. Words are like musical notes. They have pitch and key and tone, and if you put something sharp where you want a flat, then it's going to sound wrong.

One of the best compliments I've ever gotten from a beta reader was the woman who said my prose was full of "big" words, but it sounded natural as though that was the way I speak, and because of that it made things flow. Well, it is the way I speak. I don't walk around sounding like a Word-a-Day calendar, but I generally try to make wording precise. For me, using more common words will make me stumble.

If you're going to use the less common ways of saying things, make sure they sound natural when you do it, otherwise you'll end up typing page after page of useless lines.

"Oh, my phalanges!" The writer decried the pain in her aching fingers after a twenty hour type-a-thon.

"Your phalanges and my cranium," her poor, beleaguered reader lamented.

"Why are you remonstrating? It was my oculi which had to countenance the strain."

"You sound almost sanguine that you've made me endure this ultra-violent strain of frou-frou flu!" The reader was not at all sympathetic.

"But think of what it will do for your vocabulary!"

"You mean the part where it makes me think the words, while technically correct, mean things they weren't intended to convey?"

"Shut up," she said, remembering this was a post about dialogue tags and quickly adding one. (see, I'm on topic, really.)

The "purple prose" method of tagging isn't nearly as annoying to me as the "Captain Obvious" method. I can only assume that this is some cast-off love child of the "using said" advice and whatever remnants of English Lit are knocking around the writer's brain from High School.

"Somethings don't need explanation," she said. <--- the standard "said" tag. While it's obvious she is saying something, as this is dialogue, these little "saids" can help keep the speakers straight. That is in no way justification for any of the following. "Really?" she questioned, questioning her need to ask when the question mark was right there in plain ink.

"YES!" he exclaimed, using an exclamation point to drive the point home.

"I can explain," he explained, "The explanation is lengthy and very near infodump territory, but I shall explain it none the less."

Some things don't need to be tagged. The reason we have punctuation is so that the intent of the statement is carried through without having to add extra words to explain the connotation. Just like you don't have to tag a line with an action that's made clear by the dialogue itself. (If the dialogue says what comes next is an explanation, then you don't need a tag to say it as well.)

The Secret to Writing Success

Saturday, October 2, 2010

6 Chiming In

Since it seems that this is the number one question asked on writing sites, it appears that there exists a large group of unpublished writers out there clinging to the idea that there's a formula for publication. They ask and wheedle and bribe to find out the "real" steps needed to get published, because it can't be as mundane as:

1. Write a good book.
2. Edit it until you realize the ink in your pen has turned to blood.
3. Get a Beta.
4. Edit again (possibly get a transfusion if this step requires massive edits; see #2)
5. Query
6. (hopefully) secure representation.
7. Edit again (you know your blood type by now, yeah?)
8. Go on sub. (if the edits work out)
9. (hopefully) sell.
10. Get advance; do ridiculous dance of joy in your socks.

No, that can't *possibly* be the secret to getting published. It sounds too much like work, and writing is not work. Writing is life and breath and instinct and all those lovely, flowery, drively (<--my word, and no you can't have it!) things people like to dream about. Secrets are supposed to be spectacular and sneaky, and cut you through most, if not all, of the steps at once.

So, since I have officially read past my limit of whingy annoyances who get defensive with those who have experience, rather than thanking them for their time and insight, I'm going to break the cardinal rule of the wannabe writers' silent agreement with the universe and spill.

The Secret to Writing Success (which will guarantee you epic accolades and best-seller/movie fodder status) is....

Time Travel.

No, I don't mean books about Time Travel, I mean actual, Quantum Leap time travel.

Seriously, folks, it's not that hard. You take a bag, fill it with say a decade's worth of best sellers, run around the planet the opposite way (ala Superman) until it spins backward on its axis, and then (assuming you didn't overdo it and end up back in the Carter Administration) you type out "your" masterpieces and preempt their original authors. (Who probably weren't their original authors, as this is a well known and utilized tactic. There are seriously 3 authors in the world; everyone else just takes their stuff and runs really fast in reverse.)

Now, this may require a bit of sacrifice (Ack -- typewriters!), but you have to persevere. Trying to pass off a bound book with copyright information printed at the beginning will not be conducive you making people think you wrote the book ten years before it was published. And it'll all be worth it when you can march into an agent's office and say: "I have Harry Potter for you!" or "I have Twilight for you!" or "I have The Hunger Games for you!"

This is the point things get tricky.

Whoever you speak to at said agent's office will give you a funny look, and say something akin to: "I'm sorry, but we don't do in person solicitation. Please submit a query and sample to our mailing address."

To which you tearfully reply: "But... it's Harry Potter..."

And then (still not having blinked, and now considering calling security) they say: "I'm sure Mr. Potter has a lovely story, and if you'll have him send a query to our mailing address..." All the while, this person is making a note NOT to read anything with the name Harry Potter attached to it because HP is obviously a whacko stalker who can't follow simple instructions.

You see, before he was "Harry Potter!" or before Twilight was *cue sparkles* "TWILIGHT!" They were manuscripts. By writers. Who had never been heard of before. They meant nothing to anyone in the industry, and neither did their authors' names, which means.... *gasp*.... that they had to:

1. write
2. edit
3. beta
4. edit
5. query

etc... etc... etc...

Do you see where I'm going with this?

If there was some super sekrit formulaic formula to writing success, then the people who already have books out there would be using it. They'd use it every time.

The fact is -- NO ONE knows what will sell or what will click with the reading public. Maybe Joe will get a multi-book deal with a major house that never earns out because people took offense at one of his characters. Maybe Jane will self-publish something that gets Tweeted by a celebrity and becomes an international best seller. Maybe Stan will have an ugly cover that turns people away in droves. Maybe vampires will remain the single biggest draw in literature; maybe the majority will shun them for twenty years.

No. One. Knows.

No one.

All you know is that you have a book in you, one you want to share with the world. So write it! Make it shiny! Then work your tail off to make people realize it's just what they've been looking for.

(Though if any of you figure out how to do that Superman running backward thing, I wouldn't mind hearing about it... it might make a good book.)