Eh, It’s Not My Style

Comments on Hemmingway

One of my favorite things a high school writing teacher ever told me was that English classes in school are to teach you all the rules of the language so you’ll know which ones to break when you start writing creatively. Now, there are some “rules” you can’t get around using without sounding like you don’t speak English very well, but starting sentences with conjunctions, ending with prepositions, and split infinitives are all “rules” English classes teach that become less than important when writing a poem, short story, or a novel. As an editor, I know the correct use of who and whom, but if an author is writing dialogue for a character who doesn’t, I’m hardly going to force a “whom” into their mouths. In such cases, the overall style of the writing is more important than each and every (sometimes arbitrary) writing rule.

Now, this fact should not be taken as carte blanche to write however you want with the argument that it’s your style and therefore good writing. Style is about making conscious choices about how a character would speak (for example, it might be appropriate to have malapropisms for a character who’s trying to sound smarter than they are) not about excusing poor writing (if you have made an unintended malapropism, it’s probably for the best someone catches that before you start sending your manuscript out).

Note: It is also important to state that even if you have made an intentional style choice, it doesn’t necessarily make that style “good” writing. A stylistic choice is more subjective as to if it’s good or bad, but you can still have “bad” writing when you’ve made a conscious choice.

So, you’ve made it through your manuscript and consciously chosen which writing rules you want to use for each character and which ones you don’t.  Sarah’s character is exceedingly proper and uses every arbitrary grammar rule on the books. Her best friend, Jane, is much more colloquial. Awesome. You have some great characterization starting with just that jumping off point. But what about all those little writing rules you have never quite gotten an answer about? Will adding an extra ‘s’ in James’s look out of place with all of Sarah’s ‘whom’s and ‘am I not’s? Does James’ mean there’s more than one James? Has anyone actually given us an answer on that?

In fact, not really. Unlike being able to mark “he am” as an improper conjugation, all of the following “problems” don’t have one correct answer. So what should you do when it comes to some object belonging to a James? The trick is to simply be consistent. If you use James’ five times, don’t use James’s on the sixth.

Since consistency is the real issue here, groups that deal with a number of different writers/authors (such as newspapers or publishers) tend to follow one of a number of “style guides”. Instead of keeping a record of what is correct and incorrect grammatically, these style guides help writers remain consistent from one person to the next. So while there isn’t really a “right” answer when it comes to any of the following problems, there are some style guides writers can choose to follow in the hope of remaining consistent within their industry. While academic papers often use APA or MLA style guides, and journalists tend to use AP Style, most publishers I’ve come across use Chicago Manual Style (CMS) when combating all of these “style” issues. So, if you’re a creative writer and wish to follow a style guide, CMS is your best bet.

And so, here are some tips on what to do about some of the most common “I’ve heard it both ways” writing issues out there:

1. Serial Comma. Also called the Oxford or Harvard comma, serial commas come into play when you’re listing multiple items.

For example: I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches, and grapes. Now, if you can’t tell, that last comma in the list is bolded. Why? Because people can’t agree if that comma needs to be there or not. Personally, I use the serial comma (which is what CMS suggests, so most novels use them as well) but, grammatically, you don’t have to have a comma there. “I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches and grapes” is still just as grammatically correct.

Of course, serial commas can save you some trouble, as this internet meme shows us. For those not wanting to click off the site, it’s the classic: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example. With the comma, you have a list, without the comma, it possibly sounds like the strippers are JFK and Stalin. Just a little difference. Of course, it would be possible to clear that up with changing the sentence slightly rather than using a serial comma (We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers), but personally I, and CMS, prefer not getting into that mess to start with.

What CMS Says: Use serial commas.

2. Periods in Abbreviations. Most recently, my friends and I got into a debate as to whether Los Angeles should be abbreviated “LA” or “L.A.” As with everything else on this list, both are “correct” (nobody is going to see LA or L.A. and immediately shake their head at what a poor editor your book must have had.

What CMS Says: Put a period after every abbreviated word (abbrev., Rev.) unless it is a technical abbreviation (cm for centimeters, etc.) and a period between each letter in an abbreviation that is comprised of multiple words (U.S.A. rather than USA and L.A. instead of LA)

3. Possessives ending with ‘s’. Always the quintessential “What should we do…?” question, the ‘s being singular and s’ being plural doesn’t quite work when you have a name that already ends with ‘s’. Most people tend to go with whichever they find less confusing/sounds better to them. In this case, it’s more important that you’re consistent between words rather than as a whole (you could have James’s and then Atlantis’ if you like, just don’t have James’s and then James’).

What CMS Says: Use ‘s if monosyllabic (James’s, Burns’s) but only an apostrophe if more than one syllable (Artemis’, Jesus’)
[UPDATE (9/13/14): CMS now says all singular possessives should have ‘s, so it would now be James’s and Artemis’s]

4. Writing out numbers. Numbers like making things so difficult. They come in English words (one, two, three…) and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…), and that’s not even mentioning other systems such as Roman numerals (I, II, III…). So are we supposed to write them out, use the Arabic numbers, or do something else entirely. It’s up to you and your style guide. Personally I tend to write numbers out when writing, but I see plenty of people use the Arabic numbers. (I haven’t seen anyone use Roman numerals in their writing [other than chapter headings] but that might just be a difficulty thing).

What CMS Says: Write out numbers 1 – 99 (one through ninety-nine) and then use Arabic numbers for anything larger than two digits (100, 4500, 5,430,458,302). Note: There are special rules for percentages and other special uses of numbers. Refer to your style guide if you aren’t sure one way or the other.


5. British vs. American Spellings. When it comes to picking British or American spellings of words (colour vs color; programme vs. program) it’s generally best to stick to what you’re used to. Did you grow up in a country that taught “British English”? Then stick to that. Are you more comfortable with American spellings? Use those. The more you try to force yourself to use spellings that you aren’t used to, the more likely you are to start flopping between the two. And it’s correct to use either, even if your characters are British when you’re American, or American when you’re British. The main thing  to take away here, as always, is to be consistent. People worked to standardize spellings for a reason. It makes things easier/less distracting to read.

What CMS Says: Being an American-made guide (the “Chicago” in the name isn’t there by random chance) CMS suggests the American spelling of words (behavior, jeweled, etc.) however most publishers have an “in-house” style guide that will take precedence in this case. If they have no problem with whatever spelling you have used, they’ll leave it alone. If they do, their editors will change it. As long as you are consistent one way or the other, it won’t affect your submission chances.

6. Italicizing vs. Underlining. When it comes to emphasizing a word, people tend to either italicize it or underline it. Both obviously are ways of setting one word apart from the others in a sentence. Most style guides (including CMS) prefer italics to underlines when it comes to added emphasis (as they are less intrusive on a page while still adding emphasis when read) but I have met more than one publisher that prefers underlines, at least in manuscripts. Feel free to use whichever you prefer (I personally default to italics per CMS), just be careful if a publisher specifically asks for one over the other in a submission.

What CMS Says: Italicize when going for emphasis, but do so sparingly.

7. Double Spaces After Periods. Oh the flame wars about whether or not you need double spaces after periods. There have been a number of articles about whether or not people should keep doing so. Many older typists had the necessity of hitting the space bar twice after the end of each sentence drilled into them with no mercy. Some teachers still teach this. The fact is, while hitting space twice on a typewriter might have been useful, most word processing systems have an algorithm that makes for a little extra space after an end of a sentence anyway. Hitting the space bar twice only serves to make too large of a gap at the end of each sentence. Is it incorrect to add double spaces at the end of a sentence? Technically no. Is it unnecessary (or possibly hazardous) when typing on anything but a typewriter? It can be.

What CMS Says:  Their official line is, “There is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work.” They further go on to state their reasons as to saying “no” to double spaces: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically [watch for] an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents; and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.


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Less is More

Note: As I’ve had a couple of people asking about it, I’m going to start posting guest blogs whenever people are interested. Please email me at jesskdall(a) if you’re interested in speaking more about it.



Being an editor can make reading hard. Ever since I had my internship with a press back in college, I’ve done my best to put away the red pen while “off the clock” but that doesn’t stop the fact that I still will mentally try to rewrite sentences when I find one that bothers me. And one thing I can never seem to get past is when I find melodramatic writing.

Now, telling is bad. It’s so common a piece of writing advice that “show, don’t tell” has become nearly cliché when it comes to tips you’re likely to find. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to be on a witch hunt for “to be” verbs (a common symptom of telling), if you can help it “He gritted his teeth” is a much better way of showing anger than “He was upset”

What can be just as bad as telling, however, (at least in my opinion) is melodrama. A bit like “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome, melodrama often comes when authors try too hard to show during emotional scenes.

Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t want to leave an emotional scene with something like “I was really sad” and then move on, but you don’t want it to turn out like this either (1:27 in the video). Angst and melodrama are no more fun to read than “I was sad. I felt like crying.”

So what make something melodramatic rather than showing? Like everything with writing, I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer. Where a line can work well in one situation, it can seem completely out of place in another.

So, how then, do you know if you’re heading towards melodrama? Short answer is, it’s something you learn. Writing is a skill, the more you write, and read, and listen to critiques, the better you get at it. It just takes trial and error.

Honestly, the way I joke you tell if something is melodramatic is if, when you read the line in your head, it sounds completely natural when using an over-theatrical voice (like Calculon in this clip from Futurama)

Let’s do a quick test:

1) “He clenched his fists.” Ok, you can get away with the Calculon voice, but it doesn’t sound like it was written to be said that way. Passes the no-melodrama test.

2) “I found myself caught in a shrieking trance of irrationality.” Hmm, first part of the sentence is ok, but “shrieking trance of irrationality” totally sounds like it’s meant for that voice. Sounds melodramatic.

3) “I was sad.” You could make it over dramatic, but it would really be stretching things (“I was SADDDDDDDDD”) Not melodramatic (but definitely telling).

4) “A dark visitor to her soul had captured her .” On the fence with the Calculon voice, but I’d err on the side of caution unless there’s literally someone in the story capturing souls (I’m sure there are a couple of fantasy/horror stories out there with that happening).

Now, some of you might be scoffing (“shrieking trance of irrationality? I would never write that”) but there are also likely some people out there wincing. Personally, my early writing tended towards “He was sad” more than “shrieking trance” but they are both very common writer growing pains. We all have to work with our styles before we actually come to something that feels like it works. Even after we’ve got that, it’s common to still have some problems (I admit it, my writing isn’t perfect…It’s what editors are for). And, when trying to rein “He was sad” or “shrieking trance” in, it’s really easy to swing from on to the other. They’re on opposite ends of the same spectrum, and finding the perfect balance in the middle can be hard.

So, what can you do to stop melodrama from sneaking into your writing? Here are just a few tips:

1. Gage how much drama is in a scene before you start writing. All right, you’ve been writing for months and months (or days and days if you’re a really quick writer), you’ve carefully plotted your way along, built up your characters, had a couple of struggles, and you’re finally here, the climax of your story. Time to let it all out and make this the most dramatic piece of writing ever, right? Depending on your book, maybe, but interestingly enough, the more dramatic the scene is naturally, the less dramatic you need to make the writing. Again, you don’t want to end up writing something like “He shot the guy and the guy died” but a man dying is powerful itself. If you pile dramatic language on on top of the inherent drama in the scene, you’re going to be pushing dangerously close to being overdramatic. Show the bullet hitting, show the man falling to the ground, don’t detail each drop of blood and how it’s spraying out with copious mounts of adjectives. Try to balance the drama in scene and the drama in your writing accordingly.

2. Don’t feel the need to make your writing “powerful”. This is where melodrama and “Hey look! I’m a writer!” syndrome can match up. While a new writer that has a problem with making scenes melodramatic may not have the same need to make all of their writing flowery and poetic to seem like a better writer, they get to a powerful scene and suddenly worry that by not using overly dramatic language, the scene won’t have any effect. Proper word choice is always important, of course, it’s what being a good writer is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that overly dramatic language is proper for a dramatic scene. As I said above, it often just makes the entire scene overdone. Focus on the scene itself, and write what sounds natural. Trying to force “powerful” language in will make it simply sound, well, forced.

3. Understand the difference between emotion and angst. Melodrama can run rampant in emotional scenes, and once again it’s a balancing act. Emotional writing is good (if it’s a sad scene, and you can actually bring your readers to tears [that aren’t related to having to read the writing] that’s a very good thing) angst, however, is bad, even if just because it gets really annoying to read really quickly. This is another case of taking a step back, and sizing up what is appropriate for a scene. Is the character devastated by the death of their mother? Ok, show that, but first think about how the character would realistically react. Are they the type to literally rip their hair out? Ok, go with that. Most people, however, are likely just going to cry, or want to hit something, or go catatonic. Just because a character is only crying and not cursing the heavens doesn’t make the scene any less powerful, it just makes it more realistic.

Also do your best to refrain from repeatedly coming back to an “emotional” point–especially if you’re going for a ripping-out-hair example. As they say, “Time heals all wounds” As your story goes on, your character should be slowly overcoming things, not sitting around thinking the same thing over and over ad nauseam. When nothing happens, reading becomes boring. When the language is overdone on top of that, it becomes annoying.

3. Remember, less really is more. Sometimes at least. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but then every little in writing is. Most of the time, however, you don’t want to take a page to say what you can say in a sentence. Even in slowly moving stories, there has to be some sense of progress. When you’re filling up page after page of flowery, emotional, or “powerful” langauge over one event, you have just stopped the story from moving whatsoever. By talking about a powerful topic, and then moving on before the reader is sick of it, you tend to leave people with a much stronger image. It also makes sure that your audience will read all of what you have written. When progress stalls, more than a few people will jump to the next thing that seems to move the story along, further weakening a scene (we may not get to the screaming at the heavens part if we’re still stuck at how each tear is falling like a snaking river…)

4. When all else fails, try try again. Is your writing still coming out melodramatic? Is trying to fix it keeping you from writing? Let it go. You can always fix things in editing. The most important thing is to get the thoughts down on paper (no matter how well done it is). You can’t get better if you don’t write. Once the story is done, you can always come back and edit, and rewrite, and edit, and edit, and rewrite again. Good writing takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Related Articles: War on Was , “Hey look! I’m a writer!” Syndrome , All of a sudden, he was suddenly there , The Unneeded Words


Crises of Confidence

Summer is coming up, and that means the release for my novel this summer (The Bleeding Crowd) is coming up fast. It also means that right now I have a giant file of edits from my editor sitting in my inbox to go over that I may or may not be avoiding at the moment…

Now, I’m certainly not saying that I am not appreciative for the edits. Even as an editor myself, I am very aware that there are things in my own writing that slip past me that I would catch on the other side of things (the danger of being too close to your own writing). I am in fact very grateful to have someone going over my stories before they’re out there for the whole world to see.

However, that doesn’t make it much easier to open that file and look at your baby all marked up. I’ve talked before about how to best take a critique, and I’ve been through enough to do pretty well on the not taking edits personally front, but that doesn’t always stop another relatively common writer experience, the crisis of confidence.

Now, getting edits/critiques back are a prime time for them to happen, but crises of confidence can come up at any point in the writing process. Perhaps you’re reading your first edit from an editor, perhaps you’re looking over your first draft, perhaps you’re even still in the middle of writing, I think most writers are at least acquainted with that lingering feeling you get as you’re going along and suddenly think, “Man, I’m really not good at this whole writing thing, am I?”

We all go through it, and in the worst cases, it sometimes stops us from writing a story we otherwise were really excited to tell. Afterall, just look at what you wrote. It sucks. Obviously the entire story would suck if you kept writing. What’s the point? Or if you already finished it, look how awful it is in general. Wouldn’t it just be better to forget it somewhere in your room/on your desk/in your computer’s hard drive forever?

Of course there are going to be some stories you give up on/forget about. I have a good share of half-completed story ideas (ranging anywhere from just started to half a book) that I may never get back to. I have at least two earlier novels that I finished but just don’t find it worth the time to actually do anything with them since the seem so bad to me. It’s ok if you run out of steam every once in a while, or just wrote something for the hell of it and now want to forget about it completely. It only becomes a problem if these crises keep you from writing all together.

In many ways, this is the problem NaNoWriMo was created to battle. By forcing a hard deadline (that includes writing nearly 2,000 words a day) participants are forced to “ignore their inner editors” and get the words down on paper, for better or worse. People tend to have their own opinions on the quantity vs. quality debate there, but it’s not a bad solution, in my opinion, when it comes to trying to fight a crisis of confidence. If it’s possible for you to simply ignore that little voice in your head that’s telling you your book sucks and keep writing one way or another, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately that’s easier said than done sometimes. And so, some tips for getting past the “I’m an awful writer” blues, at all stages of writing:

First things first, you’re your own toughest critic. When you’re having a crisis of confidence, 99 times out of 100, you’re likely going to be harder on yourself than any one else reading your writing. Where you wouldn’t be so hard on someone else you were critiquing (“There’s some telling here, can you try to show?”) you’re probably going to tear into yourself (“what is with all this telling. Your writing is awful. Why do you even try?”) Ignore the urge to give into self-flagellation, and, no matter where you are in the writing/editing process, leave yourself a note and keep working.

While Still Writing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while in the middle of a work-in-progress)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck. Ok, maybe suck is a little harsh, and I’m sure there are some Mozart writers out there (the ones who have stories that come out nearly perfectly first go around) but having problems in your first draft doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer. Maybe the dialogue between your two characters sounds awful right now, but that’s all right, it’s a first draft. As long as you have the basic Point A leads to Point B leads to Point C stuff down, it’s fine. No one is going to be judging your writing skills off of an un-edited first draft. You shouldn’t either.

2. You can always edit later. Here’s the “locking up your inner editor” thing you see so often on the NaNoWriMo forums. The important part when in the writing stages of your Work in Progress (WIP) is to actually write. Maybe you aren’t a quantity over quality person, that’s ok. You don’t have to word vomit (write everything that passes through your head in one go just to get it on the page) as some WriMos are famous for, you just have to give yourself permission to not be perfect. Write as quickly or as slowly as you want, just don’t obsess about one sentence that is giving you problems. Get is good enough for a first draft, and then leave yourself a note to come back to it when you’ve moved on to editing. Don’t rush yourself if you’re not that type of writer, but don’t throw your entire story off the rails just because you’re beating yourself up about one line that just sounds wrong.

3. Jump to a different scene. All right, disclaimer, this one doesn’t always work for everyone. Some people (myself included) write best chronologically. If I don’t write A to B to C, I have a hard time getting everything to line up at the end with the missing scenes. If you have a strong outline, however, or are just fine with writing scenes in varying orders, jumping to some place later in the book can be a good way to get you out of our funk. So what if the entire beginning seems to be a boring info dump? Look at how exciting the climax is. You can always fix things up when you’re feeling better about your writing as a whole.

4. Take a short break. Emphasis on the word short. You don’t want to lose your momentum, but don’t force yourself if you’re in the grandmother of all slumps. Stop trying to force the writing, and perhaps do something more productive than staring at a blank page/computer screen. Do a character drawing, try to plot out how the Main Character’s house looks, or read another book that might inspire you. Just don’t let “not today” turn into “not this week” turn into “not this month” turn into “I once tried writing a novel…”

While self-editing (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while attempting to edit/rewrite a draft)

1. First drafts are supposed to suck, second drafts can too. Again, you don’t have to aim for perfection straight out of the gate. If you aren’t a Mozart writer, and don’t have divinely inspired words on the page, expect for there to be multiple rounds of edits before you have something you’ll even remotely think of showing to other people. Just because something seems badnow doesn’t mean you won’t make it great once you’ve finished edits.

2. You don’t have to keep all of it. Is it really just that first scene that isn’t working for you? You can always rework it, rewrite it, or cut it all together. Just because it ended up on the page in your rough draft doesn’t mean that it has to stay in the story for all eternity. Speaking as someone who can word vomit during NaNoWriMo, an entire character from 2010’s novel found themselves cut before the book was even shown to someone else. She just wasn’t working, and wasn’t important enough to save, sadly.

3. See if someone else can give you some pointers. If you get the general feeling that your story is awful, but have no idea how to fix it (and you’re brave enough to let someone else take a look) it can be very helpful to have someone give you some suggestions to help fix things (that will likely be less harsh than your inner critics suggestions of “you suck” and “why do you even try”). One caveat, however: Try to find someone who is also a writer, and editor, or at least a very avid reader. Writers and editors will probably be better at telling you the exact points you can focus on perfecting where casual readers (friends/family/etc.) are more likely to give you less helpful comments such as “I liked it” or “It was ok”.

#3 Tip: If you’re shy about sharing a rough draft that’s probably in pretty, well, rough shape, try finding an online critique forum (such as the NaNoWriMo one here) rather than talking to someone in person. It’s sometimes easier to send a story (or even just a scene from a story) off to another faceless writer than to go up to someone you know in person.

After a critique/edit (Tips for getting past a crisis of confidence while reading over someone elses edits to your work)

1. Nobody’s perfect. Even if you’ve edited your story thirty times yourself, there are still going to be problems you’ve missed (see the whole being too close to your work comment above). Expect for a sea of red (or at least a lot of comments) to come back on any story. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t a good writer, it means the editor/critic had different thoughts about some scenes. In fact, if your critic/editor is any good, you’ll actually hope for a lot of comments/suggestions. Creative writing, like any art, is subjective. The comments are just ways you’ll be able to see what people with other writing styles prefer, and you can decide if they help make your writing better or if they’re just something to think about. A good editor will market everything they think so you can decide what you think is best, not because they’re telling you you’re a bad writer.

2. It’s just one more chance to make your writing even better. Until the second your book is on the shelves and you can’t get them back, you constantly have chances to make your writing better. Perhaps you’re still beating yourself up about how awful one scene is, especially now that your critic/editor has agreed how awful it is. But you have the story back, you can make it better. And now you have someone to work with to make it better. I promise, not all is lost.

And, for my final general tip: Cut yourself some slack. Some people might naturally seem to be better authors than others, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll never live up to that. Even the best author out there didn’t pop out into the world as a brilliant writer (they at least would have to learn to write first after all), and even then, they had editors, and publishers, and a whole team of people behind them to make their writing sparkle just that much more. You will grow as an author, you will get better with edits, it isn’t fair to yourself to try to measure your WIP against someone else. Give yourself a break, and just write. Enjoy.


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Floating Dialogue

In a previous blog post, I discussed why writers shouldn’t be afraid of using the word “said” too much when writing dialogue. While I did talk about being able to tag dialogue with actions rather than “said” and its replacements (whispered/exclaimed/etc.) I didn’t mention another possible route that will also save dialogue from repetitive tags. Not using a tag at all.

Now, it’s absolutely fine–if not sometimes preferable–to not have tags after dialogue,  especially in a quick exchange. The more words there are to read, the slower action will seem to be passing. So, if Bill and Sam are having an argument, it might be preferable to have an exchange along the lines of:

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill said.
“You’re an idiot.” Sam crossed his arms.
“Who’s the one who tried sailing a bottle to China?”
“I was five, let it go.”

And so on and so forth. Without the tags, more focus is placed on the dialogue, and it, as a whole, reads more quickly. So, all in all, a good thing.

Why I don’t suggest not using tags as a suggestion in my previous “said” article, however, is it’s very, very easy to abuse it. While it’s fine to have some untagged dialogue, what you definitely want to avoid is floating dialogue. That is, untagged dialogue that leaves the reader wondering who the heck is talking.

As I have said before, writers tend to have a bias when it comes to dialogue vs. narrative. Some find dialogue difficult to write, some hate narrative, it really just comes down to what each writer’s strengths are. For those who tend towards dialogue, floating dialogue is a common problem I see with new writers.

Now, I can only speak from personal experience, but the reason I tend to write so much dialogue is that, where narrative can seem wordy and forced, the call and response nature of dialogue keeps it coming so quickly that sometimes I have troubles keeping up with where I want the conversation to go. Since I hear the characters talking in my head, it’s easy enough to just write what they’re saying and forget about writing what they’re doing in my head. It’s their words that are important after all, right?

Well, sort of. While, in those situations, you are probably doing the bulk of your story telling in the dialogue, the readers sadly isn’t seeing what you’re seeing your characters doing while reading. And so, while you are writing a powerful, emotional scene between your main characters, filled with brilliant, brilliant dialogue, your reader is being left with something akin to the written version of hearing a movie in the next room without being able to see who’s talking or what they’re doing.

While it’s a fine balance–you never want to talk down to your readers/hit them over the head with something they probably already understand–you don’t want to make it too difficult for them understand what’s happening. If you’re spending every other page flipping around trying to understand who’s talking, you’re more than likely not going to get invested in the story. When you aren’t invested in the story and it’s taking a lot of effort just to understand the basics, it’s pretty likely you aren’t going to enjoy the book/will be putting it down not too far in.

And so, if you are planning on using untagged dialogue, watch out for floating dialogue by:

1. Only use untagged dialogue when there are two people in the conversation. When it comes to floating dialogue, this is probably the biggest problem I’ve found in my editing work. While it’s fine to switch off between two people in an argument without tags, you can’t do that where there are multiple people sitting around. For example:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said.
“How are you?” Karen asked.
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Ok, hands up. Who can tell who’s saying what at the end of the conversation? Since Karen asks Sam a question (How are you?) the “I’m fine” is probably Sam again, but then, is it Karen saying “Awesome”? Or is it Bill? And who says it looks like rain? Bill? Sam? Karen? Depending on who said “Awesome” it could be any of them.

In contrast with just two people:

“Hi,” Sam said.
“Hey,” Bill said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.”
“Awesome. Do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know, it looks like rain.”
“No, I saw the weather report. Just cloudy.”

Perhaps still a little float-y, but at least you can more than likely tell it’s Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill-Sam-Bill.

2. Don’t use untagged dialogue when the characters are doing something. As stated in my “don’t be afraid of ‘said'” article, you can get around using ‘said’ over and over again by making the tags action. For example:

“How are you?” Bill shuffled his papers away.
Sam took a seat across the desk from him. “I’m fine.”

In this case, the dialogue tags are not only telling the reader who’s speaking, but acting as stage directions in a way. Going back to the movie example, with no tags and multiple people, you’re in the other room listening to a bunch of talk from who knows how many people. With no tags and two people, you at least can tell who’s speaking, but that’s all you have, a bunch of lines with no action. If all your characters are doing is standing around having a conversation, you don’t need any tags. If they’re moving around, though, you need to show it–and while it’s happening. Putting on an action tag not only shows the reader what’s happening (what the “actor” is doing on-screen) but it also keep the reader up to date. One thing I perhaps find the most annoying of all floating dialogue problems is something along these lines:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool, have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
While they had been talking, Bill had walked around the corner and pulled out a giant dog that then attacked Sam.

a) Action slows down when the actual exciting part is buried under a mountain of “this is what you missed”

b) For the past five lines I’ve been picturing Bill and Sam standing there talking, now I have to reattach it to the incorrect visual I have in my head, which means I have to backtrack in my mind slightly rather than staying with the action.

Both of these problems can be solved by simply tagging the lines with action:

“How are you?” Bill asked.
“Fine,” Sam said.
“That’s cool.” Bill slowly moved towards one corner of the room. “Have you seen my new pet?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Well, here it is!”
Bill pulled out…

3. Don’t put tags in after a new person has already entered the conversation. In the same vein of not making the reader play catch up to the action, if a third person enters into a two person untagged conversation, make sure the reader knows it immediately.

“Hey,” Bill said.
“Hey, how are you?” Sam asked.
“Not bad.”
“Awesome, do you want to go to the park?”
“I don’t know. It looks like rain.”
“Oh, hey Karen, how are you?”

Wait, what? When did Karen get there? Was she actually speaking when I thought it was Bill? When possible–if you don’t have a legitimate reason for keeping the reader off balance–try not to make the reader confused enough to stop and reread previous lines.

4. Even in a two person conversation, don’t only use tags at the very beginning of the conversation. Ok, so there are two people standing there talking to each other. Nothing else it happening, it’s just going to be a quick back and forth. Sounds like the perfect place not to use tags. You mark the first speaker as Bill, the second as Sam, and then go at it. If it’s a very short conversation, that’s absolutely fine. If it’s going to go for pages back and forth, still make sure you throw some more tags in their down the line, even if it’s just to make sure someone doesn’t miss a line somewhere and get really confused when it seems like Sam’s saying what Bill would. A good rule of thumb is to have names attached to dialogue atleast three times a page, just to make it clear which speaker is which. Of course, that’s just a vague outline. If it seems likely the reader is still going to get confused even with three tags, make sure you put more in. If you think it’s crystal clear, you might be able to go for longer between tags (though checking in with a beta reader/editor who can tell you if they’re lost will help you know whether or not it really is that apparent later on).

5. Remember the reader isn’t inside your head. And, as always, this is the big one. While it might be obvious in your head that Bill is saying something and then Sam is, you just can’t expect the reader to know that. While it’s so obvious to you that Bill’s moving across the room while speaking, until you’ve written it down, the reader just can’t know that. Don’t over explain things (if it isn’t important that the main character just got their hair done and put on some new sneakers they bought last week, you don’t need to say it. If you already said they don’t like peas, you don’t have to repeat it) but make sure you have all of the necessary information to keep them from being confused a couple of paragraphs down. Are multiple people speaking without any way for someone outside of your head to know who you mean says what? Then use tags. Is the character moving around while talking? Then use action tags. Are there just two people standing there having an important conversation? Then you’re probably ok if you don’t want to use tags for a little while.


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Googled Questions

One of the things I have to say I love about WordPress (the host for this blog, if you missed that in the URL) is that they give you a stats page about your blog. It might be a little more addicting than it should be (I really want someone from Russia to read this blog one of these days to get that country filled in on the “where your readers are” map) but it’s very handy when it comes to seeing how you’re reaching your readers, and what posts are the most popular.

What can be interesting about the stat page, though, is that it will sometimes show you search terms that brought people to your page. For example, if someone searched “Jessica Dall” and then clicked over here from Bing or Google or another search engine, it might show “Jessica Dall” as a search term on my stats page. Of course the page isn’t going to let me know who’s doing the searching (or even what country they’re in) since I’m sure that’s some sort of privacy violation, but it is interesting to see what people are trying to find out when they make it to this blog.

So, for anyone who’s Googled something and haven’t found the answer they wanted here, I’ll do my best at answering some of those questions. (Questions edited for spelling mistakes/coherency)

Q. Is 300,000 words a long book?
A. Yes, it is, but hardly the longest out there.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Why it’s harder to get longer books published , or tips on cutting down word count.

Q. When writing in third person, can you say what several characters are feeling?
A. It depends. There are two different ways of writing third person: Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient. In the first (currently more popular) narrative, you are telling a story through the point of view (POV) of a character, just describing them as he/she/it rather than I. In third Person Limited you should stay in the head of your POV character (thus you can only say what they feel/what they observe. If they don’t know Character B is upset because she had a little sister POV Character’s age, the narrative can’t explain that while still in POV Character’s head). In Third Person Omniscient, the story is being told by an all-knowing narrator. It is generally uncommon to find true Third Person Omniscient stories at the moment (the style seems to have been most popular in the 19th century) but if the story is being told by a narrator who knows everything it is possible for that narrator to say how all the characters a feeling (just make sure you aren’t writing in Third Person Limited and then decided you’re going to call it Third Person Omniscient randomly just so you can jump back and forth with how characters are feeling).
Likely article(s) they were interested in: Head Jumping

Q. Should you use contractions in query letter?
A. Sure. I’m not sure there is a set protocol for it (I never knew one when I worked in submissions) but I don’t believe there’s any reason to sound overly formal in a query letter and (at least to me) you sound more natural as a writer if you use contractions, which is a good thing in my humble opinion.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: I don’t think there’s one directly related, but I do touch on why you should use contractions in creative writing here.

Q. How much narration do I need in a novel?
A. Depends on your novel. There are reasons to use narration some places and dialogue others. It’s about weighing the pros and cons to each. The big thing is not to worry too much about having a perfect ratio of narration to dialogue in your novel, it’s to make sure you’re telling the story the best way it can be told.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Pros and Cons to dialogue and narrative in Too Much Dialogue

Q. What’s the poison thing vampires have?
A. I don’t know, Googler, I don’t know… Apparently rather than turning someone into a vampire by feeding them your vampire blood (a la Anne Rice) in some books it’s “vampire poison” ( though I suppose it would be “vampire venom” if you’re going to be technical on the poison vs. venom thing) that turns a human into a vampire (the bite infects them or what not and if they don’t die the poison/venom changes them into vampires). Of course, it’s fantasy, so your guess is as good as mine.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: One of the many where I talk about writing problems where Twilight just happens to pop up…

Q. Is it ok to use song lyrics for writing prompts?
A. Absolutely. I’ve used a couple of different songs as the original inspiration for characters, plots, or even entire stories that have now been published. What you don’t want to do, however, is quote the song lyrics in your story (you can get into a whole host of problems with copyright infringement then).
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Writing Prompts

Q. What’s the shortest word count a publisher will accept?
A. It depends on the publisher (look at their submission guidelines as to what they accept before sending a query). It also will depend on if the publisher only publishes novels (generally considered to be over 50,000 words, but many publishers put novels in the 70,000+ words range) or if they also publish novellas and short stories. Of course, word counts are generally guidelines. One novel I have coming out this summer is around 51,000 words and the publisher generally doesn’t publish things that short, they just liked mine and made an exception. If nothing else, and you have an awkward word count, try searching for a publisher on a site like Duotrope which will let you search based one word counts accepted rather than just “novel/novella/short story”
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Word Limits

Q. Why do people say “dahlin'”?
A. Regional accents (in this case Southern US more than likely). If I remember my history of language class, that exact morphing of “darling” come from the fact that a US “Southern” accent is actually closer to an old English accent than many other US accents (supposedly Shakespeare would have sounded sort of Southern to us?) and thus it shares the same ‘h’ sounding ‘r’ as a British accent today (“dahling”). As to spelling it like that in a novel, “dahlin'” might be one you can get away with for phonetic spelling of accents (people generally will know what the word is without struggling) but as always, I’d be wary of trying to go overboard with “fonetik” spellings.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: Wy I Hayt Fonetik Axsents

Q. When are info dumps necessary?
A. Never. Ok, ok, probably not never, there’s always an exception to all writing advice and times you can do things that aren’t suggested amazingly, but as a general rule? Stay away from info dumps unless you’re parodying a Bond villain. There are almost always better ways to get information into a story than info dumping.
– Likely articles(s) they were interested in: Tips on how to get information in without info dumps in Info Dumps

Q. Is J. K. Rowling a bad writer/J. K. Rowling bad writing examples/examples of awful writing in Harry Potter/[and the list goes on]?
A. It’s interesting to see just how many different people are looking for examples of what makes J. K. Rowling a bad writer. Honestly, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as some light reading as a teen, but no writer is faultless, so for those looking for some of J.K.’s weaknesses:
Over uses adverbs
– Clichéd plots/characters/etc
Flat Prose
Contrived Plot Points
And I’m sure there are more that people will point out (believe me, if you were a best seller, people would be picking apart every little problem you have in your novel too) but those are some major ones. Just remember, no author is infallible.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: But They Did It… about why best sellers aren’t always the best role models.

Q. Some real stories on why you shouldn’t use i cant believe it’s not butter?
A. All right, not really a question, and I don’t have an answer for it, but some how it linked someone to my blog. I really have no clue how. Still amuses me enough I felt the need to end with it. If someone has some sites with stories on why you shouldn’t use “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (other than that meaningless “margarine’s a molecule away from being plastic” myth) please let me know, since obviously a search engine thinks I can help people with that.
– Likely article(s) they were interested in: …um…I really have no clue…

You Don’t Say…

Now, anyone who’s ever read my work knows I’m big fan of dialogue. As I’ve pointed out before, I’ve even gotten letters from my editors claiming some of my short stories to be 95% dialogue. While I’m not sure that’s completely fair, I am completely willing to admit you can often find my short stories in an anthology by flipping through it until you find one that has a huge chunk of dialogue in the middle of a page.

Now, is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I seem to have made it work for me. And I’d think it’s a good things too since dialogue is what I find easiest to write. My narrative may have been less than stellar with my first couple of novels (Mary Sues, wordiness, and info dumps abound, I promise) but going back now the dialogue’s actually not that bad.

For some people, though, I know dialogue is the hardest part. On the NaNoWriMo Forums we find:

I always have a hard time writting dialogue so If someone could help me It would be appreciated.”

I think good dialogue is very hard to write. So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will require extra effort when it’s time to rewrite and revise… ”

I’m about 1,000 words into my NaNo and for some reason I”m stuck on dialogue.  When I wrote out the beginning of this conversation it sounded fine in my head, however, on paper/screen, it looks horrendous.”

Struggling with narrative and struggling with dialogue are both bad things (they make for stilted/unnatural reading) but for right now I will focus on some tips for writing better dialogue.

1. Listen. Just like people develop an ear for notes when they’re musicians (my French Horn-playing brother can pick out a flat note from a mile away) writers tend to develop an ear for language. Some people are better at it naturally than others, but if someone writes well, somehow or another they’ve figured out what sounds right.  Developing that ear is part of what makes writing get better over time (practice makes perfect after all) and while reading good writing can definitely help with that, when working on writing better dialogue, simply sitting down and listening can be one of your greatest tools.

In acquisitions, you see people put down all sorts of credits on their query letters (past publications, degrees, having worked as a journalist/technical writer, etc.) and you learn very quickly which credits mean something. The reason spending 20 years as a technical writer for a company doesn’t mean much on a query letter is that creative writing is very different from formal writing. Being a technical writer means that (hopefully) you have good spelling and grammar, but it doesn’t say you can write a good novel. People talk in fragments, they use poor grammar, they use slang. Where you’d never (again hopefully) find a piece of business writing that says, “Me and my guys…” You may very well find a character in a novel saying it, and making it work.

The more you listen to those speaking around you, the more you will be able to write dialogue naturally.

2. Don’t be too formal. As I said up above, people don’t talk in completely proper English (some seem to barely speak it at all). One of the most common problems I see in novels I’m editing with stilted dialogue is that, for some reason, the author has gotten rid of most of their contractions. Perhaps it comes from years of teachers trying to get us not to use contractions in formal essays (I know my teachers did) but creative writing is a completely different animal from formal/technical writing (it’s why writing “This is my first novel, but I’ve been a technical writer for X years” isn’t so helpful on your query letters, FYI). Taking contractions out of your dialogue makes your character sound awkward. It’s actually, I’ve found, one of the best ways to make your character sound like a non-native speaker. People use slang, people use improper grammar, people slur words. Don’t over do it, but embrace it for more natural dialogue.

2b. Don’t use stereotypes/slang you don’t know. Side note to the last two sentences of number 2, people use slang/improper grammar, but they aren’t stereotypes. Don’t try to force in slang you aren’t familiar with to try to make a [enter ethnicity/nationality/age here] character sound “natural” A little might be ok, but making a character say “wicked” or “dawg” every other sentence will sound just as unnatural as overly proper dialogue (and has the added bonus of often coming off rather insulting).

3. Don’t be long-winded. Unless your character is supposed to be a blowhard (or a Bond villain) keep dialogue short and to the point. Contractions, nicknames, abbreviations, people tend take just about any short cut they can use to cut down on the length of what they’re saying. Long monologues with a lot of unnecessary words comes off as unnatural.

4. Use punctuation properly. One of the biggest problems with written dialogue is that you just have the words, not the intonation/cadence you have in actual speech. “Why did you do that” can be said a million different ways, but how it’s read is dependent on your reader. Use commas properly to show small pauses, Periods to show full stops, and if you need to use italics (sparingly) to show emphasis (“Why did you do that?”) Don’t worry if using a period every once in a while ends up with a sentence fragment (re: people don’t speak in proper English). If something is an afterthought, a period might best suit the sentence. For example:

“I really want a dog or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog, or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog. Or a cat.”

4b. Don’t overuse punctuation. My old editor used to joke that every book she edited was only allowed five exclamation marks (well half-joked). Overusing punctuation can be just as bad as under-using it.

“I don’t know!” Works, the person is upset.

“I don’t know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Makes it look like either the character is crazy or (at least to me) like it should be on a preteen’s MySpace page (do people still use MySpace?)

Punctuation is a fine balance, don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t go crazy with it (and please, please, please, DoN’t WrItE LiKe ThIs to show someone is drunk. Yes, I have seen that in a manuscript before. It was quickly edited out for “he slurred” and actions which showed he was drunk).


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Plot Holes (Part III)

With everyone buzzing around Plot Hole articles (Parts I and II) it was pointed out that I missed a comment from Secretly_Samus, author of Shannon on Writing and Rewriting, on Part I. Secretly_Samus writes:

This [Plot Holes Part I] makes me…ponder the question, how do you know when you have a plot hole?”

I apologise for the delay, but to help everyone who wonders if they have a plot hole, “The Pesky Plot Hole Questionnaire” can be a lot of help.

So don’t stress yourself too much over it, but if you’re worried about possibly having a plot hole on your hands, try asking yourself some of these questions (both from the original questionnaire on Freelance and Fiction and some I’ve added myself):

  1. Do your characters overlook obvious solutions to their problems? (e.g. the heroine forgets to use her incredible knowledge of karate when she’s attacked.)
  2. Do your villains conveniently overlook or pooh-pooh the one flaw that could let the hero escape?
  3. Does the cavalry arrive more quickly than is physically possible? (Your character took three days to cross the mountains. She gets thrown in jail. Her sidekick, who didn’t start the journey until learning of her predicament, is there springing her out the next day.)
  4. Are people a little too willing to help the heroes? (Or a little too unwilling?)
  5. Do you tell reader that the hero’s plan was brilliant but refuse to actually reveal how he/she pulled it off? (Skipping past the daring action can be a huge cop-out.)
  6. Do your heroes recover from physical trauma much too quickly? (Recovery times may vary greatly due to fantasy potions and sci-fi gadgets, but those elements need to be set up well in advance.)
  7. Do your heroes recover from emotional trauma too quickly? (We want to empathize with the     protagonists, and that can be hard when we’re still grieving over a killed-off character and the hero is running around like nothing happened.)
  8. Does the hero/heroine go ALONE to the one place where the villain will surely find him/her?
  9. Does a problem arise out of nowhere just to spur the plot along?
  10. Have you broken the rules of your universe to get out of a dead-end/move the plot along? (Ok, so people in your fantasy novel can fly, but not higher than 300 ft….except your Main Character when they need to…)

If anyone can think of others, please feel free to comment below/message me to add them.

Plot Holes (Part II)

Since writing my first blog post about Plot Holes, I have gotten a few requests from people to point out some plot holes in famous stories. As I am not one to disappoint my readers, I have compiled some examples of plot holes I know, and that have been pointed out on other fun sites, for your reading pleasure. (So, while trying to edit out your own plot holes, at least take comfort in the fact you’re not alone).

Note: Should perhaps be obvious but, hey, spoilers ahead.

Harry Potter

1) The first thing people always have to point to when talking about plot holes it seems–the Time-Turner. For those that haven’t read the Harry Potter Series, or anything about them, or seen the movies, etc. “The Time-Turner was a device capable of time travel. The Time-Turner resembled an hourglass on a necklace. The number of times one turns the hourglass corresponds to the number of hours one travels back in time. It is extremely important that the user of a Time-Turner not be seen by past or future versions of themselves unless, of course, said versions are aware of their usage of a Time-Turner. A possible scenario is a wizard or witch killing their past or future selves by mistake” (Harry Potter Wiki). In Prisoner of Azkaban, brainiac Hermione Granger is using a Time-Turner to take several classes that happen at the same time of day, and it comes into play at the climax of the story.

Now time travel is a can of worms for any story, but the main point here is…If the wizards in Harry Potter are able to use time travel, why didn’t they just all go back to before the trouble started and keep it from happening?

There have been several arguments as to how this plot hole could be covered , but still it is a problem. Perhaps they all are destroyed in Book 5, but why didn’t they do it in the first four books (or before the series even started)? Perhaps within the realm of Harry Potter time travel you can only jump back, not move forward (making it so your future self doesn’t want to go too far back and not be able to catch back up to the “present”) but why then not find someone who doesn’t want to be in the present anyway, offer them a lot of money and have them go live a couple decades ago? All in all, it’s a problem J. K. Rowling opened up in Prisoner of Azkaban, and never could fully patch.

2) Wands changing ownership. “According to the seventh book, Harry disarmed Malfoy. Malfoy was the true owner of the Elder Wand, and so Harry became the true owner. If disarming was a suitable method for gaining ownership of a wand, then everyone in the DA would own each other’s wands.”

3) Horcruxes. “In COS [Chamber of Secrets], the horcrux in Harry should have died when the basilisk pierced him? Even though Fawkes healed him a few minutes later, the diary was destroyed in seconds when it was pierced, why should it take longer for the “Harry horcrux” to die.”


All right, I’ll try not to pick on Twilight too much (lord knows I’d like to), but just some points that really bother me (not counting factual errors like the whole “west coast” of Brazil thing [here’s a map of South America if you don’t get why that’s eye-rolling).

1) Edward is undead, his skin is ice-cold, doesn’t have blood circulating, but he’s still able to be, ahem, intimate and produce a child. Of course, as this blogger puts it, “Then again, he’s taken twelfth grade chemistry like a hundred years in a row; maybe he’s developed a new form of Viagra or something.”

2) Even after all her research in Twilight, Bella has no idea they sparkle instead of burn in the sunlight. In New Moon, Edward goes to get himself killed by revealing he’s a vampire by what this forum poster calls a “sparklefest”. As they put it, “did he not think of the fact that NOBODY KNOWS SPARKLING = VAMPIRE? Seriously, if they did see him in the sun, I bet they’d all just go, ‘Dude, it’s St Marcus’ Day, not Mardi Gras. God, you’re such a twat’.”

3) Alice’s visions. So many to choose from here (such as her visions only happening when convenient to the plot) but the big one I’ve seen pointed out goes against the rule Meyers has given her visions (that they can be changed based on people making different choices: “In Midnight Sun, Alice claims to have seen a vision of Bella as a vampire – implying that Bella has made the decision to become a vampire. At this stage, Bella doesn’t even know that the Cullens are vampires. How, then, was Alice able to see something based on a decision that it would have been completely impossible for Bella to make?”

4) And we’ll leave it at one more: “In Breaking Dawn, when Bella wakes up for the first time as a vampire, she describes being able to…hear all the way to the freeway. Sensory overload aside (even though such a high level of assault on the senses would probably have extremely damaging impacts), how is it that she is able to hear everything down to the freeway, yet Alice and Jasper were unable to hear her on the phone to James in the next room?”

The Da Vinci Code

1) Paternity Testing.  “Ok let’s admit that the body is Mary Magdalen and you can do a DNA on the surving Magdalen descendant, you still don’t have Jesus’ DNA.  So, how are you going to prove that the child is Jesus’ and Magdalen’s and not Magdalen’s and some other Joe Schmo.”

2) Clues to the killer. At the beginning the dying man leaves a message with clues to get the main characters started on their quest. He adds in the Fibonacci sequence to make sure his granddaughter is brought onto the case. Was there any reason he didn’t just write down who killed him and why? It seems he would have had plenty of time to.

Wicked/Wizard of Oz

1) Why didn’t Elphaba (The Wicked Witch of the West)’s parents ever bathe her in water? As one forum poster here puts it, “I know she had an inhuman aversion to it even as an infant, but why wouldn’t her folks wash her in it anyway?” It’s a pretty good question in my opinion. Of course, this plot hole would be relatively easy to explain away by saying people tend to wash with something else if that’s what Maguire wanted to do.

The Sound of Thunder

The Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury is “all about these guys that use a time machine to go back in time and hunt dinosaurs.  When they arrive in the past, there’s a levitating walkway that they’re allowed to walk on, but they CANNOT step off of it.  The idea is that if you alter anything from the past, it could change the way EVERYTHING happens in the future.  Long story short, one of the guys steps off the platform, accidently kills a butterfly, and when he comes back to the future, all the signs say the same thing, but are spelled differently.

“The biggest hole here is the fact that stepping off the walkway can ruin things, but killing a dinosaur, thus making it fall over, onto land that it never would have originally fallen on, also obviously antagonizing the dinosaur, which would change its course of direction from what it naturally would have been, doesn’t matter.  Why does one butterfly from the human make a difference, but the butterflies that the dinosaurs fall onto, or the fact that dinosaurs are dying unnaturally soon makes no difference?” (Duncan) Personally, I would also like to add to Duncan’s plot hole…there’s a moving walkway in the [insert appropriate paleolithic era here]. How did someone build it/get power to it/etc. without changing anything?

Yet another time travel problem.

And, since I have family in town and blog posts may be few and far between for a week or so more, something to entertain yourself in my absence: Name the Movie by the Plot Hole: (I’m sad I only got 9 of 12…)

All of a sudden, he was suddenly there

Please excuse the delay in blog posts, I’m currently recovering from some nasty bug. Now that I am once again able to sit at a computer, we return to your regularly scheduled blog posts.

Today’s question:

Somewhere I heard that you should never use “suddenly” or “all of a sudden” in writing… I was just wondering if this was true or not.”

Now, before we start, it’s always important to remember that “never” is an abused word when it comes to writing tips. There are certain things that can make your writing weaker–such as over using “to be” verbs, or adverbs, or…–but it’s just as much of a problem if you hinder your writing by avoiding things like “to be” verbs or adverbs at all cost. Advice that begins with the word “never” should always be taken with a grain of salt. Or, as my friend likes to joke, “Never take advice that begins with the word ‘never’.”

That said, I don’t believe trying to stay away from using “suddenly” “immediately” “all of a sudden” etc. in your writing is a bad idea. Beyond the fact that it sometimes falls into the category of unnecessary words, using “suddenly” and its partners often has the exact opposite effect of what you want it to in writing. It makes the action seem less, well, sudden.

This comes down to one of the biggest problems about writing action scenes. Where in a movie or the like you’re able to control the pacing (wait just another second and then *bam* Monster is there out of nowhere) each reader reads at their own pace. It’s possible that they’ll read slowly enough there seems to be little tension, or have to do something and set the book down, or get distracted, or any other number of things that you can’t control for as an author.

So how, then, are we supposed to get that same jump-through-yourself moment you have in the movie? Use “suddenly” right? That’s what it means after all, all of a sudden. “Suddenly the monster appeared.” It makes sense.

Counterintuitively, however, putting in another word makes the entire action less sudden to a reader.

Often when editing, I’ll put in the suggestion to keep sentences short in high action scenes. You can’t control much about the pacing as far as how your readers read a scene, but sentence length and paragraph breaks are a good way of speeding up and slowing down action. The shorter you keep a sentence the more immediate the action is. For example: “He ran.” Two words, the reader knows exactly what’s happening and is on to the next piece of information. Make it longer, however–“He began to run”–means it’s going to take the reader longer to make it through one action. The longer it takes to read something, the slower the action feels. The same goes for breaks. When reading, a comma is a generally a quick pause in the reader’s mind. A period is a full stop. (Hopefully how you read the past two sentences served as a good example for me). Commas blur things together. Periods break them apart. Therefore:

“She looked around, and then the monster was there.”

Seems to move more slowly than.

“She looked around. The monster was there.”

The same goes for using “suddenly” “all of a sudden” etc. “The monster was there” takes four words to get us from point A to point B. “All of a sudden, the monster was there” takes double that (and has a natural pause in reading it with the comma).

By writing that the action is sudden, we have successfully made the action that much less sudden in the pacing of the scene.

As with all of my other advice, you shouldn’t take this tip as gospel law. If “suddenly” makes a sentence flow more smoothly, use it. If it seems entirely necessary, use it. It is just one more piece of advice telling you to look carefully when you feel the need to point out something is sudden. Don’t hinder your writing trying to stick to “Never do X, Y, and Z” rules, but always consider how you can best serve your writing. If that’s by using an adverb or “was” or “all of a sudden” by all means use it. But, if there’s a better, stronger way to say what you mean, use that.


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Info Dumps

In a recent blog post, I briefly touched on the topic of Info Dumps, that is, a long section of text that gives a ton of back story all at once. In that post I was suggesting to look at chopping down info dumps as a way to decrease the word count of an overly long novel. Now, since then, I have gotten the question:

Could you elaborate on how to turn info-dumping into story-telling?”

It’s a good question. After all, in any story there is going to be background information a reader needs to know. This is especially true in stories set in other worlds (be them fantasy, sci fi, alternate universes…) where the reader can’t know everything already (who’s in charge? how do they live? what is the weather like?) but it also happens in modern-day stories. Perhaps the majority of your readers will understand it being cold in winter, but who is your character? Who are their parents? How did they end up doing what they do? Depending on the story, all of that could be important. So how do you get all of that in without falling into an info dump?

1. Figure out if the information is actually important. As I pointed out in my earlier article, we authors tend to know the entire history of a character/world (or at least we should since it helps in writing a story). Perhaps you even know what the character’s favorite color is and what time they get up for work in the morning (depending how in depth your planning is and if you’ve filled out character questionnaires). All of that is important to you as a writer, as who your character is shapes a story. All of that might not be important to the reader, however.

Did your character have a pet they really loved as a child? All right. Does that pet come up in the story? Is it still alive and mentioned? Does the character not want another pet because of its death? Did it’s death strongly influence how the character is acting now? If so, you can bring it up. Does the pet never show up? Did its death not really affect the character at this point? If so, it might be an interesting bit of information to you, but it probably doesn’t need to be in the story.

2. Figure out if the important information needs to be known now. Perhaps the aforementioned pet is going to be important later in the story (it turns out that the mild-mannered pet your character’s had for 14 years can actually talk and will lead them into Never-Never Land) do you have to get all of the information about the pet innow? Of course you always want to mention important things before you actually need them in a story (otherwise you risk sounding something like, “Oh no, what’s that sound? I can’t go outside for whatever reason, so I’m going to send the dog I’ve never mentioned before but had for years! That’s totally not a cop out!”) but you don’t generally have to put in everything all at once. In one scene you can mention the pet. A couple scenes later your character can say something about how long the pet’s been around. You probably don’t need to give a long paragraph of all the information at once.

3. Figure out other ways to get the information in. The end of point 2 touched on this a little. Just like spreading information out, information doesn’t always need to be given in a chunk of narrative. Rather than starting a story:

“Jennifer was an average looking 17-year-old girl with blonde hair and brown eyes who went to school at Centerville High, the school she had been at for the past three years with her best friend Maya…”

You can work all that information in throughout the story. Even in the first chapter if you need it there.

“Jennifer pulled up to Centerville High and sighed. She’d already suffered through three years of the place, but obviously that wasn’t enough….

“Her best friend, Maya, ran up to her, ‘Happy Birthday! How’s it feel to be 17?’…

“Jennifer tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder…”

And so on and so on. All of the information makes it in, it just isn’t all one large chunk.

4. Don’t rely on narrative. Narrative is meant to tell people things, so it’s completely understandable that it’s easy to fall into an info dump when you’re using a lot of it. You’re talking about the Main Character’s job, and, Oh! How did they get the job? You should probably put that in…but if you do that, you really should talk about college…and…and…

Dialogue is a good way to stop yourself from info dumping if you’re finding it a problem, since it feels more awkward to do (people don’t generally give their entire back story in one long monologue when meeting someone–except perhaps Bond villains). But even with dialogue, you still have to be careful. Good dialogue sounds natural, trying to force information in doesn’t make for any better dialogue than it would narrative.

Try to say away from “As you know, Bob”s (“It’s been 11 years since we last talked, Bob, as you know. So why I’m saying so makes no sense, but I thought I’d say it anyway” “Indeed, I’m glad, after 11 years, we’ve been able to meet in San Jose, as you know, a town on the coast of California…”) and don’t force lead in questions (“Hey, Tony, how long have you had that dog?” *End of what can fit in a plausible answer* “Oh yeah? Well where did you get it?” “It really is special to you, isn’t it?”) It sometimes takes practice, but you definitely shouldn’t feel like a character is interviewing another to get necessary information in (Tip: Remember you can space it out. You don’t need to get everything in all at once).

5. Trust your readers not to be idiots. This could be joined with the first point, but personally, after years of editing, I think it bears repeating. You definitely don’t want to lose readers, but also trust that people reading your book tend to have a basic level of intelligence. If there’s something important put the information in, but don’t feel the need go too far in depth, especially if it’s something the reader is likely familiar with.

For example, perhaps not everyone has a bed, or has slept in a bed, but it is likely that the vast, vast majority of people reading your book will at least be aware of the basic concept. You do not, therefore, have to give a ton of information about it (“The bed has been made five years ago out of panels of wood that had been nailed together to make a frame, with slats between them and a mattress placed on top…”)

You can also tend to trust most of your readers to be able to draw some conclusions without spelling it out. “Jennifer walked to class as the first bell rang” will let people know that Jennifer is probably a student. “The teacher added a final 4 at the end of the equation before turning around” will tell people that Jennifer’s probably in math class (or at least a science class). Bits of detail that come naturally in a scene can serve just as well to get information in, you just have to trust your reader not to need things spelled out.