Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Free Fiction!

I love good fiction. Especially when I can read it for free--I'm just cheap that way. Or frugal. Frugal sounds better.

This week's story on Fifty-two Stories is from an indisputable master of speculative fiction, Neil Gaiman.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Prolific Short Story Writer is a Happy Short Story Writer

This article from Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor at io9, gives not only REASONS why being a prolific short story writer is a good idea, but 12 tips on how to BECOME a prolific short story writer:

12 Secrets to Being a Super-Prolific Short Story Writer

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Believability: Dialogue

Writing believable dialogue is not the same thing as realistic dialogue.

Nothing is 'realistic' in fiction. It shouldn't be. But it SHOULD be believable.

This is particularly true of dialogue.

Take a few minutes and just listen to a conversation. Especially if you're listening to teenagers, or a certain talkative 11-year-old I know, the speech is scattered with 'ums' and 'likes' and 'you knows.' You can find examples of 'realistic' dialogue in radio transcripts, in which voice recognition software records every utterance that comes out of the speakers mouths. Here's an example from a popular radio show:

SPEAKER: "I mean, I think I agree with you morally that she doesn't deserve it and I mean, I don't know if there's a great person in this story but, like, the guy, he's a dirtbag. So I would root against him in every case. But legally, I mean, when you have -- she had the ticket in her possession, it becomes communal property of the marriage. So whether -- I mean, you can't -- that's like she's lying when they get divorced by claiming she doesn't have $28 million. I mean, she really could be charged with that, couldn't she?"

That's REAL, but it's not very pleasant to read. We hear it all the time and process it without thinking, but when we see it on the page, when we process it through our eyes instead of our ears, it seems somewhat odd, unnatural.

Fortunately for us, the convention in writing fiction is not to convey REAL dialogue, but to convey BELIEVABLE dialogue. So, as writers, we clean it up. We remove the stammering, the injected meaningless words, the interrupted sentences. Had this paragraph of dialogue come from a fiction writer, it might look something like this:

"Morally, I agree," he said. "She doesn't deserve it. But who is there to like here? He's a dirtbag, and I'd root against him in any other argument. But what she did--it wasn't legal, was it?"

It's not real. But it conveys the message in a believable way without burdening the reader's thought process with nuances that cannot be heard. Those nuances, when understood perfectly well in heard speech, can make written dialogue confusing, as I think you can see from the transcript example.

Some other tips for writing believable dialogue:

USE CONTRACTIONS: Dialogue that does away with contractions feels stilted and overly formal. There are instances in which you would NOT use contractions, for instance when a speaker is giving a short sentence particular emphasis. But for the most part contract where you can.

BE CAUTIOUS WITH DIALECT: I've already written about using dialect in dialogue, HERE.

DIALOGUE TAGS: It is a great temptation for new writers to use overly descriptive dialogue tags that replace the simple 'said. These are known as 'said bookisms.' You've seen them before. "I love you," he whispered, or yelled, or called, or some such. Some of the worst are those that are impossible to do while speaking, such as "I love you," he laughed, or sneered, or hissed. Those words don't actually describe a type of speech. Hissing, for example, is when you put your teeth together and make an S sound through them. You don't actually speak like that. No one does. Don't believe me? Try it.

You may also be tempted to use Tom Swifties, which are adverbial dialogue description tags such as "I love you," sneered Tom jauntily. These kinds of tags earned their name from a series of juvenile fiction books in which the author badly abused these types of tags, to the point of being laughable.

Avoid these types of tags by giving the characters actions or putting them into situations in which the WAY the dialogue is said is obvious. For instance, if our hero leans in close and his lips brush my ear, all I need to write is, "I love you," he said. We KNOW, by inference, that he's whispering it. With a little more narrative describing the setting (for instance, a bedroom, or maybe he's stroking our heroine's hair), the reader can also infer that he said it seductively, all without ever telling the reader that this is how she should interpret the way he said it.

There will occasionally be instances in which a Tom Swifty or a Said Bookism is warranted, but these instances should be rare.

DIALOGUE AND THE INFO DUMP: Be cautious about using dialogue to give important information to your reader. It's a huge temptation for new writers to have a speaker give the reader a bunch of information that everyone in the fictional universe already knows. Characters can give information, but it should be information that is new to their fictional audience. If your character is capable of saying, "As you know..." before conveying some information, then he shouldn't be conveying that information through dialogue.

INTERRUPTED CONVERSATION: Be cautious about using an excess of descriptive narration within dialogue. Think about conversations in real life, conversations that you enjoy listening to. The banter goes back and forth, sometimes someone makes a gesture, or sits down, or takes a sip of coffee. No narrator steps out of the wings to explain the background behind what is said, interrupting the dialogue to do so. You've seen the gimmick before on some comedic TV show. The action in the scene freezes so someone can step in front of the camera to explain something, then he drops out and the scene continues. It's an unnecessary interruption of the scene and it's annoying--which is why it's parodied. The only thing that should interrupt your dialogue is action--movements the characters might make as they converse. We do this to minutely break up the dialogue (because several pages of nothing but dialogue can be tedious to read), and to give a sense that the speakers are real, that they aren't just standing there like cardboard cutouts with moving lips.

PUNCTUATION: As an editor, I'm acutely aware of errors in punctuation. And errors in dialogue punctuation can be particularly confusing. Know the rules of puncuation and paragraphing dialogue, and utilize those rules correctly. For some basic dialogue punctuation rules, go HERE.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Believability: Characters

As a writer of fiction, you have a job. It's to create worlds, situations, and characters that your readers will buy.

When a reader picks up a story or book, they have a chip on their shoulder. They're daring you make them believe. Orson Scott Card, in his book Character and Viewpoint , calls it the 'Oh, yeah?' factor. Imagine a big former high school football player (you know the type--the ones with more attitude than athletic talent, which is why they didn't go on to play college or pro football) with his beer belly and his unshaven cheeks. He has a remote in one hand and a light beer in the other, because THAT'S going to help get rid of that gut. He's kind of growling and grunting, he's frowning down at you, because even though he's pretty much a failure at life he's still VERY BIG! He says, "Come on, big shot. Take your best shot!"

And if you don't succeed, he's going to punch you in the nose with that meaty fist of his (translate: toss your story/novel in the trash).

With characters it should be fairly simple to gauge whether his/her actions are believable. You simply ask yourself, 'In this situation would I do the same thing?' If not, it might be a good idea to re-evaluate your characters, simply because it's a difficult job to write about things you know nothing of. If your character is faced with a wild-eyed gunman would he run like a chicken down the street? Cower in a corner? Beg for his life? If those are things YOU would do, then that's a character YOU understand well enough to write about. That's a simplistic example. What you would do in such a situation would depend on many things. Different circumstances would prompt different reactions.

Think back. I'm sure you've had situations in which you THOUGHT about doing something that you wouldn't otherwise do. That counts as 'experience.'

But let's go back to our example. If the LAST thing you would ever do in this situation is to put your finger in the barrel of the gun, how can you believably write about that?

Again, this example is simplistic. It's really less about the action and more about the emotion, less about what your character would DO and more about what your character would FEEL.

Character reactions should be logical. They should fit the character. If your suave, daring, handsome hero screams like a girl at the sight of a mouse, that's illogical.

Character reactions should be consistent. If, in once scene, your character cries like a baby from fear at the prospect of taking the elevator, but in a subsequent scene walks onto an elevator without a hitch, that's inconsistent characterization.

The key to creating believable characters is to make them REAL to YOU. You should know your character so well you'll know exactly what the character will do and what he will feel in any given circumstance.

In this article, Character Creation by Jeff Heisler, the author gives some tips on creating believable characters. He suggests actually interviewing your characters. Good idea. I think I'll go do that right now.

And you should, too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting Out of the Slush Pile

How does one do it? Wouldn't we all like to know!

Beyond the obvious--competent writing, correct grammar, usage, and mechanics, a compelling story or subject--there are as many tips available from a simple internet search as there are stars in the sky. Some samples:

Harold Underdown gives us a list specific to children's literature.

A hard-hitting, frank assessment from Rachel Funari at PoeWar Writing Career Center.

Someone calling himself 'I, Brian' at SFF Chronicles, and who berates authors for using pseudonyms when HIS full name is unavailable on this site, gives some frank and cruelly humorous insight into the slush pile at a large publication. He's absolutely correct on many of his points, but one thing he neglects to mention is that authors absolutely MUST read and adhere to submission guidelines for each individual market. "Industry Standards," such as Courier typeface and paper-clipped manuscripts, are only industry standards as far as the market demands them.

For novelists, this article's author, C. Patrick Schulze, explains the importance of a good query letter in rising out of the slush pile.