Category : The Writing Craft

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    December 20, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 6 (Accents and Dialect)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-and-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time…

     

    The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the African-American servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong Southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong Southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong Southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

     

    Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more

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    December 18, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 5 (Character Voice)

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    brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development” — many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

    One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing… and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

    Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past (even information that may never come to light in the novel) informs the

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    December 15, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 4 (Punctuating Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re new to the blog, you may have missed my previous scintillating posts on writing effective dialogue. Today’s topic is slightly less scintillating but just as important to creating readable dialogue which draws the reader into the story rather than pushing him away.

    I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from authors who say their biggest struggle in writing dialogue is punctuating it correctly, and I’ve read too many manuscripts where the author’s incorrect punctuation and/or indentation distracted me from the actual content of the dialogue.  The good news is that the majority of dialogue punctuation rules are very straightforward and easy to apply, so punctuating your dialogue doesn’t have to feel like some mystical roll of the dice if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules and practice using them. Here are some basic rules to remember when punctuating dialogue:

    • Always put periods and commas INSIDE quotation marks. It doesn’t matter if the quotation marks are single or double, whether the quotation marks are setting off dialogue, quoted material, or the title of a work; periods and commas go inside the quotation marks.
      “I love chimpanzees,” she said. “I’m also afraid of them.”
      Caesar looked around at the trees, and then back at Will. “Caesar is home.”
      “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape,” he said angrily. (I watched “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this weekend, in case you were wondering.)
    • Put colons and semicolons OUTSIDE quotation marks. These aren’t used as frequently in dialogue as other punctuation, but if you have occasion to use them, always put them outside quotation marks.
      Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage”; if that’s the case, we’re in desperate need of a stage manager.
    • Put exclamation points and question marks INSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a line of dialogue and OUTSIDE quotation marks when they apply to a sentence as
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    December 12, 2016

    Thinking about Writing: Effective Dialogue, Part 3 (Realistic vs. Natural Dialogue)

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    brick green no smile b:wToday I’m continuing my ongoing conversation on dialogue and discussing the difference between realistic and natural dialogue, and the way each can strengthen or sabotage a story.

    Realistic dialogue is conversation that occurs exactly the way people talk in real life, complete with hems and haws, boring filler/minutiae, mundane back-and-forth, sound effects,  etc. The small talk and discussions over where to go for dinner that really do populate our everyday conversations usually serve next-to-no purpose in fiction, unless your purpose is to put your reader in “skim” mode for the rest of the book. I read all too many manuscripts where the author seems to have painstakingly transcribed real-life conversations directly onto the page in places where I have no need (or desire) to hear them. The pleasant small-talk at the beginning and end of a phone conversation, the back-and-forth between a husband and wife over breakfast, the dialogue with a waitress at a restaurant– these are all exchanges of dialogue that happen on a daily basis, but who wants to open a rom-com novel, get to the big date, and have to sit through the waitress listing the specials? Those exchanges don’t drive the story, and they usually slow it down. Unless an exchange like this reveals something important about a character– the main character’s date is incredibly rude to the waitress, or he orders four rare steaks and that’s when she first suspects he’s a werewolf, etc.– this sort of dialogue can be culled from a story and will never be missed.

    Also falling into the realistic-dialogue category is dialogue punctuated with sound effects/hems and haws. The only thing more awkward than a character running into an ex while on a date with someone new is having to read their conversation in which every line starts with “uh” or “er.” You can communicate that a character is uncomfortable much more effectively (and cleanly) by telling the reader that

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    December 3, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 2.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin again, just trying to confuse you by posting my picture right under Amanda’s name. Last time, I started to share some of the common mistakes I see in manuscripts and why such seemingly minor usage errors can incur such harsh and swift judgment on my part. (The short version is: agents are cranky. Usually because we’re hungry.) Several readers commented to add their own pet peeves, and as it turns out, agents aren’t the only ones who are judging you for your grammar and punctuation mistakes. Felicia and Rick are judging you for apostrophizing your plurals (here are your menu’s, the Smith’s live in this house, etc.), Ted can’t stand when you use “I” as an objective pronoun (she went to the park with Kim and I), and April, Brian, and Sally judged ME for not proofreading the blog I typed on a touchscreen the size of a postage stamp in the gol’ dang middle of the night after a 16-hour day at Disneyland, and are henceforth banned from this blog. (Okay, fine. This is an equal-opportunity judging zone. Consider yourselves on probation.)

    Several folks commented on it’s/its confusion, your/you’re transposition, and the there/they’re/their problem, and I thought it was worth mentioning that those are probably the three most common mistakes I see, but strangely, they don’t bother me as much as some of the other errors I cited, maybe because I’ve become desensitized to them from overexposure, or because I assume that, nine times out of ten, the offenders really could use each correctly if they were to think about it long enough and are just writing lazy. Laziness doesn’t bother me as much as ignorance, apparently. The mistakes I selected for my list (using a painstaking scientific ranking process in which I wrote down the first eight things that popped into my head) aren’t much more confusing or complicated than the more common problems, but I read

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    December 1, 2016

    8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 1.

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    brick green no smile b:wErin here again today, while Chip is sunning himself in Hawaii (and I’m still working on getting my own blog credentials so I can stop using Amanda’s.) Okay, listen: I have a superpower. Most agents do, actually. It’s not terribly useful unless you’re trying to decide whether or not to stake a large amount of time and energy on a person’s potential as a writer, but it comes in real handy in that situation. My superpower, which I share with many agents and editors, is this: I can pass judgement on a person’s writing after reading just a few pages. A few paragraphs, in some cases. Heck, I’ve read some opening sentences that have deterred me from reading any further (see Tuesday’s post for the discussion on effective opening lines), and generally, the criteria that make it easiest to say no to a project are recurring errors in how words are used or spelled and a complete “spray and pray” approach to punctuation (in which the author loads a machine gun with commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, sprays the manuscript with them, and prays everything lands in approximately the right place). That doesn’t seem fair, the general public may cry, my writing gets really good in chapter two! Or, my story is so compelling, you won’t even notice the mistakes once you get hooked.
    People, people.
    I got my degree in English. In case you don’t know, English majors basically do two things in college: read and write. This means that we not only become very familiar with the rules of grammar and mechanics that some of the rest of the world forgets after middle school, but we SEE those rules in action in book after assigned book, and the main result of that language-based education is an inability to read anything– books, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, the birth announcement for our best friend’s baby (“Its a boy?” Really?)–

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    November 29, 2016

    Thinking about writing: What makes a great first line?

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    brick green no smile b:wIf you’re not familiar with me from my previous blog posts here (I stopped months ago) or my wildly popular Twitter account (where I’ve tweeted exactly six times in the past two years), my name is Erin Buterbaugh and I was an agent at MacGregor Literary working out of beautiful Denver, Colorado. My favorite piece of the agenting process, apart from the vast cash payouts, of course, was the editing/story development aspect of the job—I loved helping my authors make sure their manuscripts were in the best possible shape for showing, so the craft/mechanics side of writing seemed like the perfect area to focus some of my blog efforts on.

    First lesson—never end a sentence with a preposition, the way I just did. (Second lesson—once you know the rules, do whatever the heck you want, the way I just did!) So with Chip on vacation and taking a bit of time away, I’m going to share a series I did on his blog a while back. I’ll try to split my time pretty evenly between the mechanics side and the story/writing side of things so this doesn’t become “just” a grammar series, but until people stop sending me submissions in which the commas are outside of the quotation marks, I’m going to carry on reminding people of the rules Miss Stinson tried to teach them in 9th grade.

    Since this is the first post of my new blog presence, I thought it would be fitting to look at what makes a great first line of a book. I’m sure you’ve read the same lists I have on Buzzfeed of the “21 Greatest First Lines in Fiction” or “The 100 Best Opening Lines of All Time,” etc., so rather than re-print all of those tired old “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it was the best of times and the clocks were striking thirteen” lines that everybody picks for

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    May 3, 2016

    Ask the Agent: How can I create great memoir?

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    For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”

    Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.

    That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you

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    March 24, 2016

    Thursdays with Amanda: John Steinbeck and the Art of Writing What You Know

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    amanda-squareHis grave site wasn’t even under the Steinbeck name—that’s the first thing I noticed.

    The stone obelisk that loomed over John Steinbeck’s final resting place read Hamilton.

    And rightly so. Hamilton was his mother’s name. A name that, I was told, meant many generations of wealth and affluence in the town of Salinas. And yet to me, a fan of Steinbeck, it felt unfair.

    Below the obelisk was a large concrete slab inlaid with small, flat markers. Most of the markers were for various Hamiltons … one passing as recently as ten years go. But the one on the middle right was for John.

    It held his name. His birth year and death. That’s it.

    I’m one of those people who loves to visit old towns and walk in the footsteps of those long gone. I’ve visited James Dean’s gravesite and walked his family’s farm, and I’ve seen where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, where he lived when he first got word that his book was going to be published, and where his daughter was born.

    And it’s always funny how real it all gets when you see where these famous names came from and how those places and people shaped who they became.

    For Steinbeck, I was blown away by this. In Salinas and in Monterey and in the strawberry farms and cattle ranches in between it was as if I had been transported to a world that I’d always thought of as fake. And yet there it was—real. It had been modernized, no doubt. But the winding coastal streets, the smell of the ocean, the whales in the bay, the ever-pressing presence of the distant ranges surrounding the Salinas Valley were real. And they were just as he had written.

    This is the power of writing what you know. Of taking something that may seem ordinary and plain and boring to you and describing it with such

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    March 23, 2016

    Literary Devices for the Real World: Point of View

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    Continuing my series on using literary devices outside of the literature classroom, I’m talking today about point of view– what it is, how it’s classified, and how to use it effectively.

    In what may be one of the least necessary definitions in this series, point of view can be defined as the perspective from which a story is told, or the set of knowledge out of which the narrator is speaking. Point of view is most commonly expressed in first person or third person narration (see below) and an author may choose to use multiple points of view within the same novel (IF he’s careful– more to follow). In case you need a refresher, here’s a quick overview of several different points of view.

    First Person (singular): The story is told by a single person using first-person pronouns (I, Me) to refer to himself. This person serves as the narrator and relates the events of the story as he experienced them firsthand, complete with inner dialogue/personal opinions/thoughts.

    Pros: A story told in the first person can engage the reader deeply due to the personal, intimate connection created when she hears the story firsthand from someone who was there. The personality of the narrator can influence the tone of the story, and author voice is often displayed nicely by a first-person narrator.

    Cons: It can be difficult to avoid combining the first-person narrator with your own all-knowing author persona– if not handled with finesse, a first-person narrator can turn into a two-dimensional puppet for you, the author, moralizing and manipulating the reader’s experience of the story (not to be confused with situations in which your first-person narrator character is a manipulative sociopath and you WANT him to come across as preachy and controlling).

     

    Third Person Omniscient: The story is told by an all-knowing narrator using third-person pronouns (he, she, him, her, they). The narrator (not usually an actual character involved

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