Beat Changes

Those who knew me back in high school or college know that, while I did do creative writing groups back then, I was really more of a drama kid. Fall semester always meant the school play, and Spring the musical. While acting and writing are certainly different art forms, I do thank that experience for helping with one very important part of creative writing: Dialogue. You might be speaking someone else’s words when reciting a script, but you certainly develop an ear for how conversations flow.

The other very important lesson I picked up was beat changes.

You see, unlike a novel or short story, plays tend to give very little direction. You might see something like:

John: (sarcastic) No. Really?

Which would tell the actor how the line is meant to be read, but, for the most part, the script allows the actors to make roles their own without any sort of narration that says how each line is meant to be delivered.

Because of this lack of direction, it also is up to the actor to figure out where there are natural pauses, emotional changes, or just separate thoughts all crammed into one line. These breaks are–as my college drama professor was always prone to yelling at us–beat changes. And they are very important to acting. By picking out where there are natural shifts, it is possible to add complexity to a scene rather than just speaking the words.

In writing fiction, there is something similar. While our characters might not be picking out all of the emotional shifts in a scene, breaking up the beat changes for the reader will make for more powerful scenes.

So, how do you do that? The easiest way is to give the readers a natural pause. This gives the same effect as an actor physically giving the audience a beat change. Pauses can be done a number of ways, but the simplest to use dialogue tags/narration properly.

For example, say your character has a beat change between two sentences in dialogue. Just the line might be something like:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. Are you listening to me?”

There is naturally a beat change between those two sentences. Without any sort of break between the sentences, however, they end up mushing into each other. There is no “beat” for the reader to switch tones in their head. The emotion you have for “I just don’t know what to do anymore” carries straight over to “Are you listening to me?” By instead writing:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she said. “Are you listening to me?”

You have a natural break between the lines. It can be stretched out a little longer using “She paused” depending on what suits your scene.

These beat changes can become even more powerful by using the tag to “show” the emotions/stretch out the beat (rather than just using the word “paused”). For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed, looked up again. “Are you listening to me?”

Now there’s action “on stage” that is showing the switch in thoughts, along with a sizable break between the two sentences that gives the illusion of the character pausing–all using body language, like an actor would.

To really stretch out a beat change, you can even separate the dialogue all together. For example:

“I just don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed.

John stared at his hands.

Jane frowned. “Are you listening to me?”

Even though John doesn’t say anything in the scene, throwing him in there with his own action stretches the silence in the reader’s head, leaving no mistake that these are two separate thoughts.

While what is said is always important to a story, it is also sometimes important to remember the silences for a more natural feel–and emotional effect–to scenes. You want your characters to “act” in your readers’ heads. Not just give them the lines and leave them to figure out the emotion.

There are no actual actors to bring stories to life in prose like you have in plays.


 Live in the DC area and want to see some great emerging playwrights? The DC Fringe Festival runs through July 27th with wonderful plays (like TAME by Jonelle Walker). Check it out.

You can’t write that!

News Alert: The Bleeding Crowd is coming out August 27th, for those interested, from Melange Books. In the mean time, you can find my short story, In a Handbasket, available for free here through Boxfire Press. Please enjoy!


A common theme I have been seeing on my favorite haunt, the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, are questions about what you are and are not allowed to write. The first time I saw this question, I was a little surprised, but now that I’ve seen it more than once, I figured I would take the chance to cover it here.

While the NaNoWriMo site came down for repairs before I could find the original thread (literally asking what you are and are not allowed to write), but today’s post which sparked this post includes this line:

But since a character in my novel is a rapist (and yes, this is essential to the plot and the ending) there are some rape scenes…I heard that you can’t actually show the act happening (I think that’s a bit weird, considering how other acts of violence are considered totally fine) but whatever, it’s not that important.”

Ok, rape is a touchy subject, I don’t think anyone is going to argue it isn’t (especially not after all of the news stories out in the past couple of days). There are many, many people who have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lives (men and women) and there are several more who don’t care to read about things such as rape in their novels/short stories/etc. But does that mean you can’t write about it.

Honestly, my first reaction when reading that post was, “Where did you hear that you can’t write/show a rape happening in your story?” Part of me just really wanted to know if it was a passing comment the poster had picked up and internalized, or if someone in a creative writing class was teaching there are certain things that you can and can’t write about. Because honestly, when it comes to creative writing, there is very little you can’t write about.

This advice might be a little different in countries that are known to censor writing (there are a few out there where less-than-complementary writing about the government can end up with the writer in prison, I believe) but at least in the United States (and any other country with no state-sponsored censorship), the list of what you can’t write is pretty short:

1. You can’t plagiarise. That is, if someone has written something before you, you can’t take it word-for-word and call it your own. At least not without getting sued (same goes for things under copyright you haven’t gotten permission to use, even with proper credit given).

2. Libel. You can’t present something detrimental to someone’s character/life as true that is not. (This is more relevant in journalistic writing, but basically don’t write that your neighbor likes to kill people in his spare time and act like it’s true when it’s not [if it is true, you can write it, but please, call the police first]).

3. Child Pornography (if you’re in Australia or Canada). Both countries have laws banning cartoon, manga, or written child pornography. Outside of those countries, it isn’t illegal (though it is still rather icky, just saying).

And, well, that’s about it. There are a couple more things that aren’t protected under freedom of speech/the press that the Supreme Court has ruled on, but if you’re writing fiction, it more than likely doesn’t apply to you.

The long and the short of it is, there is no morality police who is going to swoop down on you for writing something that could be offensive. We don’t live in a police state. There is no Hays Code that prohibits, rape, drug use, swearing, graphic sex, blasphemy, or any other topic from being put into print. If you are ok writing it, you’re more than allowed to put it down on paper.

This does not mean, however, that people are required to give you a platform to distribute it. While you are allowed to write about something many people might find offensive/disgusting/reprehensible, publishers/distributors are more than allowed to not publish/distribute it on their site.

For example, for romance/erotica publishers, you will often find notices such as this on their submission page: “We  do not accept: scatological stories, incest/twincest, sexual content  involving anyone under the age of eighteen, snuff, rape or bestiality.

You are more that allowed to write something incestual, you may even be incredible popular with it in your story (I’m looking at you George R. R. Martin), but that doesn’t mean you can demand that someone publish your book just because you wrote it.

Far too often, I come across someone who has had a post removed from a forum online, and they start railing about how the site is violating their First Amendment rights. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again, A private company/person/other private entity cannot infringe on any of your constitutional rights. The Bill of Rights protects you from the government. The government isn’t allowed to take down your blog. Someone hosting it for you, however, can. It’s their site, they can choose what they’d like to put out there. (Note that I don’t just say publishers, but distributors. Many right remember some controversy over pulling books and banning authors from selling on their site. If you violate their content guidelines, even as a self-published author, they have the right to remove you. You can read more about that here.)

So, can you write about touchy subjects? Sure. Should you? That’s a little trickier. Like everything with writing, it’s about trade offs. Think about what your goals are. Do you want to market to a wide audience/be able to pitch it to every publisher in your genre? Maybe you should second guess how detailed you’re going to be about that scene. You know the one I’m talking about. Are you writing a gritty, adult novel that will most likely find a home in a niche market? Have at it. If you’re willing to write it, no one is going to stop you.

And so, write what your story needs. Most likely the only thing limiting your writing is you.

Finding Time to Write

All right, all cards on the table, just writing the title for this blog felt a little hypocritical right now. Obviously I have not had a lot of time to write this blog as of late, and I have written maybe a paragraph of my own writing. Life just sometimes gets in the way. For me, recently, it’s been moving, a nasty bout of tonsilitis, going over edits for books coming out in the next few months, and work, but it really can be anything. Perhaps you really want to write, have a great idea, are ready to go…but your kids need to be taken to karate, and dinner needs to be made, and you just finished a 70-hour work week, and you really should walk the dog… I understand, believe me, I understand. There are hundreds of things in life that take up time, and with less than 170 hours in a week, that hour you spend in traffic each way to and from work can really start adding up.

So what do you when you don’t have the time to go to a writer’s retreat for a week, or even just spend the afternoon somewhere with a pen and paper and no interruptions?

1. Always carry pen and paper. This works best for those writers who like  handwriting over typing, but it works for just about any writer on the go. The last time I had a solid 40 minutes to write, I was sitting at a cafe waiting for a friend who had overslept our brunch date. While waiting for people who are late is never fun, while she was doing her best to get there, I had 40 minutes of finally just sitting and writing, because I had pen and paper in my bag. If you don’t have the ability to carry even a small notebook with you (small Moleskines or similar notepads are godsends for small bags/pockets) at least have a pen. In a scrape you can generally find something to write on, you just need to actually be able to write (after all, many great ideas have started written down on cocktail napkins and toilet paper...)

2. Make writer-friendly choices. With the new move, I have now sadly gone from walking to work every day to actually having to commute into the District. Luckily there are a few different ways I can get to work, the main ones being driving the entire way (about half an hour, depending on traffic) or driving to a Metro stop and metroing the rest of the way in (about forty minutes). While having the added benefit of being a little easier on my wallet, taking the Metro into work means that I have about half an hour on a train to sit and write rather than half an hour focusing on the road.

Now, I know that changing up a commute might not work for everyone. Maybe you live somewhere that doesn’t have available public transit, or you need your car with you, or taking public trans would change your commute from 15 minutes to 50 minutes…you definitely shouldn’t make your life harder while trying to find time to write, but try to fit writing in to times that would otherwise be busy. Maybe, if you drive an hour each way to work, you can get a recorder and dictate a story to yourself. Maybe, if you spend your child’s nap time watching television, you could try to write instead (or write while watching TV if you can multitask). Look at your day, and try to figure out if there are places where you’re just sitting waiting or “killing time”. It’s likely you could get some writing in at those points.

3. Schedule “Writing Time”. Routines can be a good thing when trying to find time for things. It’s sometimes easier to motivate yourself when you’ve gotten “Every Tuesday from 7 to 7:30 is writing time” in your head. It can also help if you’re the type of writer that needs an uninterrupted stretch of time to actually work out a scene (some people don’t work well with interruptions, it’s just what your writing style is like). Try to figure out if there’s a quiet night, or morning, or anything else where you can spend some time writing. Then set the time aside and actually do it. It doesn’t have to be hours on end, just try to give yourself half an hour Sunday morning, or Wednesday night, or whenever else you have the time and get some writing in.

4. Make it a group activity. If you have some writer (or want-to-be writer) friends, and trying to maintain a social life is part of what’s making it hard to find writing time, write-ins might be a great solution to get you some writing time. A NaNoWriMo staple, a write-in is basically what it sounds like, a bunch of writers get together somewhere all carting laptops or pen/paper and then spend however long they can stay alternating between writing and talking (when you need a writing break of course). Having other people around also has the added bonus of giving you a little more motivation to actually write (local cafes are often good places for write-ins, including those in bookstores. Starbucks and [my personal favorite] Panera Bread are also great choices for outlets and free wifi).

5. Remember your outside life is important too. Do you really just not have enough time to write even after all of that? Would you have to stop seeing friends, or doing something else that you love to fit in even a couple of words while on the train to work? Then don’t stress yourself. Writing will always be there, the rest of your life might not be. Allow yourself to take a break, and start writing again after you’ve finished wedding planning, or your kickball team’s season is done, or when that big project at work is done. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a life.


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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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How to Take a Critique

Anyone who’s had a look around at some of my other blogs probably knows that I am in the process of having a couple of books come out this summer (one under my name, one under a pseudonym). Anyone who follows my Twitter account (or Facebook Fan Page) also probably knows I just sold a short story to a magazine that will be printed in the near future.  All of that, combined with the fact that I edit projects freelance means most of my time lately has been editing/reading edits/reworking edits… and the list goes on and on.

Now, I fully believe being a writer helps you be a good editor. The two don’t necessarily go together (I’ve met some editors who are awful writers and some writers who are awful editors) but part of both jobs is to have a good ear (eye?) for what sounds right on the page.

The other way around, though, I don’t think there’s quite as strong a connection. Great editors can be great writers, of course, but all the other little things that make for a good editor don’t necessary flip straight over to being a good writer. What being an editor does do for writing, however, is help you take critiques.

Luckily for my editor side, every author I have recently worked with has been great (thank you all if you’re reading) but I know very well how bad things can get when you’re editing something for someone who really just wanted a pat on the head to say how good their work is and for you to catch typos.

Now, the writer in me fully understands how hard it can be sometimes to have someone ripping apart your work. As much as I might not like something I’ve written, it seems to fall into a “no one can beat up my brother (erm, writing) but me!” situation when someone else starts pointing out flaws.

But, having been on both sides of the editing process, I also know how helpful editors can be (and not just for the typos). Looking at the most recent round of edits I got on one manuscript, I see my editor pointing out things here and there that I’ve pointed out as problems in manuscripts I’ve read. Obviously I agree that those things need to be changed, but I didn’t catch those problems when it was just me reading my own writing. It’s possible to be too close to your writing to see problems that are obvious for someone else, and thus I always suggest having other people look your writing over before moving on with plans (be it submitting to agents, publishers, or self publishing). It doesn’t have to be a professional editor if you don’t want to pay for one, but at least have a writing group or go through a novel swap with someone else.

To get the most out of editing/critiques though, you have to fight down that urge to automatically defend yourself, so, some important things you can do to make editing most helpful and least painful:

1. Listen silently. This is perhaps most important if you’re speaking with your critiquer/editor in person, but the same holds true any time you are reading a comment. Don’t start defending yourself before they’re done speaking. It’s hard–believe me, I know–but sit silently, listen to/read what they have to say, and then take a deep breath before going forward. It’s possible your reviewer/editor/critiquer has no idea what they’re talking about, but cutting them off to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about (or not reading a comment because you disagree) won’t help you at all. Listen, absorb, then speak.

2. Just because the edit is “wrong” doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Ok, this of course doesn’t go for edits that make a sentence grammatically wrong, or that introduce typos (sometimes, especially with MS Word Track Changes, typos can appear based on where the program thinks you want something deleted. If you suddenly have “I hadd a boat” feel free to take off the extra ‘d’). This goes for an edit that reworks a sentence into something you didn’t mean. For example, in my recently edited manuscript, the editor changed this sentence:

“The girl stood outside, half-hidden under the overhang.”


“The girl stood, half-hiding on the overhang outside.”

Um, no. I didn’t mean the girl was hiding on top of the overhang, I meant the overhang was hiding her. (Someone on the second story can only see part of her past the overhang). Those sentences mean two very separate things, and I definitely didn’t mean the second one. Still, that doesn’t mean I automatically reject the change and move on. It is more helpful to go back, explain that’s not what you meant, and ask if there’s something that would make the sentence clearer. It’s possible the editor was reading too quickly, but it’s also possible that “under the overhang” was confusing the image in her head (sadly readers don’t automatically see exactly what us writers do).

3. Critiques/Reviews/Edits aren’t personal. All right, if the review is “Your writing sucks, your parents should be ashamed of having you as a child” or something along those lines, you’re more than welcome to think the reviewer is a jerk and ignore them. Most of the time, however, edits aren’t personal attacks on you, or even your writing style. A comment that says “This part is dragging, I’d be tempted to stop reading” or the like isn’t an attack. It’s an honest opinion that says that some of your readers might be getting bored and skip ahead (or worse, set the book down all together). Don’t be hurt by it, take it as a chance to rework the section so people love reading it.

4. It’s OK to disagree with your editor/reviewer/critiquer. Going along with not throwing out an idea just because it’s not what you mean, it’s also all right to completely disagree with your editor on some points. Editors aren’t perfect, it’s possible they’ve changed something that you know you had right (and have the grammar guide to back you up on). It’s possible they just aren’t familiar with a word and thus changed it to something that doesn’t quite mean what you meant. If they’re connected to your publisher, yes, you’ll have to work it out with them (often publishers have final say), but if it’s a friend or someone you’ve hired for an edit/critique it’s all just suggestions as to what they think would be best. You can take or leave any of the changes.

5. Figure out if you actually want a critique. While I fully believe all writing can only be completely at its best after some outside edits (be them from a friend, professional or publisher) some people really just don’t want them (see my point about people who want a pat on the head and typos taken out). If you don’t want to work on your story/don’t want anything changed, ask someone to go through and look for typos, and then move on. As a professional editor, I’ve had one or two cases of people who–while they are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for me to go over their work–don’t actually want me to tell them I’d suggest changes. For the most part, it just ends in several emails about how all my edits are wrong, and then me giving up and only pointing out typos and things that are blatantly wrong/confusing to keep them happy. If you want to pay me content edit prices for copy edit work, fine, I won’t stop you, but it would save money and headaches to just say you want a copy edit/proofreading*.

Edits (good ones at least) help make a story the best it can be, and as hard as it might be, not trying to defend yourself is going to be the best way to learn from them. Nobody is perfect, nobody’s writing is perfect. If you’re willing to hear that, even an imperfect editor can help make your writing that much better.

*Before hiring anyone to edit your work, it’s always good to get an editing sample–even if they’ve come very highly recommended–so you can see if how they edit is what you’re looking for. Offering a 5 page sample edit isn’t just how I prove myself, it’s how I make sure my clients would be happy with my in-depth edits. Edits should be helpful, not a headache.


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