Make Me Rich, Or Famous, Or Something

That wonderful day arrives–you’ve finished your first book. Your excitement level has reached a new high, and you can’t wait to revel in your success. Fame and fortune can only be moments away–nanoseconds in the fullness of time. You’re on the brink of greatness; the celebrity life is at hand. And boy oh boy, are you ready!

But–and nobody likes a but–it might be a good idea to chill for a minute or two before you put in your order for a floating mansion you can populate with your peeps. There might be a couple things to consider first. Yes, you’ve finished the writing, for now anyway, but there’s a whole lot more to this game than producing words, even really extraordinary words like yours. You still have to get it published.

Traditional or Independent?

There are really only two ways to get your book out into the world: you can do it yourself, or you can try to get someone to do it for you. The latter approach is commonly called the “traditional” method in which the writer either finds an agent to represent them to the publishers, or the writer goes directly to the publishers on their own. Both strategies have worked, and writers have snagged some very handsome advances for their work.

If you are already well-known, like a celebrity, a politician, or an athlete, you’ll probably get away with announcing that you’ve written a book, and agents will come knocking on your door. The traditional route is clearly the best way to go for you. If you already have connections to people with some pull in the publishing business, your task will likewise be pretty simple. You pick up the phone, call your pal, and tell him or her your manuscript is ready.

But assuming you’re one of the “great unwashed” (Thank you, Edward Bulwer-Lytton), your options are limited. You can mail query letters to agents and editors, or you can arrange to meet them in person at writer’s conferences and/or fan conventions. Sometimes these encounters are planned events which you sign up for in advance, or they might be pure happenstance–like bumping into someone in an elevator, a restaurant or a bar.

There’s a certain etiquette expected at these gatherings. It’s considered extremely bad form to interrupt an agent or an editor while they’re talking to someone else, or eating, or trying to grab a moment’s rest. And never, ever, approach one in a public restroom unless they’re screaming for help. Think of them all as belonging to a huge private club, which isn’t too far from the truth. Most of them know each other, so if you stick your thumb in an editor’s Key Lime pie in an attempt to get his attention, word will spread very quickly, and your career as a published author will instantly be on tour of the local sewer system.

However, if you’re patient and respectful, your chances will come. A prospective agent or editor will look you in the eye, smile, and ask you to tell him or her about your book. This is where you’ll need to deliver the much-ballyhooed “elevator pitch.” It got the name because back in the day, writers often tried to pitch their book in an actual elevator while the agent they’d hunted down was trapped and had to listen, at least for as long as the elevator ride lasted. That meant the writer had to pack all the pertinent details into a spiel lasting no more than thirty seconds. Shorter was better. Probably still is.

What goes into an elevator pitch? Pretty much the same stuff that goes in your back cover blurb. You remember those. We covered them here (in “I’ve Got A Great Idea For a Book”). The blurb, as you’ll recall, distills the essential elements of your story into a compact sentence or two designed to intrigue potential readers. Having that short, snappy one or two-liner tells the editor/agent a couple important things: you understand the importance of a short, snappy sales pitch, and you’re interested in publishing as a business, not a hobby. You didn’t attend the conference or convention merely to rub elbows with your buds, some of whom may be in the elevator with you, possibly in costume. Oh, and by the way, never pitch a book when you’re in costume, unless the agent/editor is, too.

What you’re hoping for from one of these contacts, and hopefully you’ll score more than just one, is an invitation to submit a manuscript, or a piece thereof. It means you’ve breached the outer wall of the publishing stronghold; you’ve made yourself known. You will clutch the business card said personage gave you, and you will treasure it as the rare key to the kingdom which it is. When you write the cover letter that goes with whatever you were asked to submit (nothing more, nothing less), you will remind the addressee of your encounter at the conference on such and such a date. In most cases, they will recall meeting you and will read your submission.

If, on the other hand, you choose to send out dozens, if not hundreds, of blind queries, your response rate will be abysmal. That’s normal. Most literary agencies don’t bother to respond unless they’re interested, and most of them never are. Your best bet in this strategy is to connect with agencies advertising for clients. The drawback here is that these probably aren’t the folks who’re going to take your book to the top. Yes, there are some agents just starting out who will eventually be stars, just as there are editors who will do the same. Understand, however, that they’re the exception, not the rule. But, you’ll never know unless you try.

Next time around, we’ll take a look at doing all the work yourself. It’s really not that hard.

 

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Giving And Getting The Gold

So, what goes into a critique? What is it that makes it useful, or not? For openers, try to be positive. That doesn’t mean sugar-coating. It means finding something you can focus on in order to start on a positive note, even if most of the piece being reviewed needs work. Then you can move toward the areas that you found confusing or which bumped you out of the fictive dream.

A critique is NOT a rewrite. Writers need to do their own revisions. Your job is to point out the places where those revisions should be made. For instance, if the author is telling rather than showing, or writing in passive rather than active voice, let her know. Asking “Can you show this?” or “How ’bout using an active verb here?” points this out. There’s always a chance she had a reason for writing it that way. It’s more likely, however, she simply didn’t notice she’s taken the easy way out.

Comments should feature your thoughts, not declarations about what the world will think. Try using statements that reflect that approach, like: “I found this passage confusing” rather than “This passage is confusing.” Or “I couldn’t understand this,” instead of “this is unintelligible.” After all, maybe you’re the only one who doesn’t get it.

Make suggestions for improvement. Let’s say you found a particular section dull and boring because the narrative focuses on something mundane. Rather than say, “I thought this part was boring,” make suggestions for improving it. “If there’s nothing special about what he wore or how he put it on, consider saying: He got dressed.”

Comment on the writing, not the writer. Anyone in one of my classes who tells a fellow writer he does sloppy work, or that she’s terrible, wins an immediate guided tour out the door and a follow-up, “don’t come back.” C’mon. Being considerate isn’t that difficult. If you want to experience life as a total asswipe, create one as a point of view character in your next story.

Your thoughts are not the equivalent of holy writ. No matter how strongly you feel about an issue in a story–character, plot, voice, even statements of fact–your job ends with your suggestions. It’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to incorporate them.

Use the “sandwich” method. If you started by finding something positive to say, try to end on a positive note as well. You’re not a personal trainer. Writer egos tend to be fragile. Your tough love comments are less likely to help a writer grow a thick skin than they are to make them give up writing altogether. Stick with the job at hand, critiquing, don’t turn it into something else.

And what about the person receiving the critique?

Knowing how to respond to a critique is critically important–too important, in fact, to screw up. So, pay attention!

Start by keeping your mouth shut. Oh, it can be hard I know, incredibly hard, but your job at this point is to just sit there and take it. Remember, you asked for it, and you did that in order to make your work better. So don’t defend a single word of it, no matter how strongly you feel about it. Suck it up and learn. Very often the things you hate hearing the most are the things you most need to work on.

No one ever made the Olympic team the day they took up skating. Don’t expect writing to come any easier. Even if you’ve been at it for a long time–even if you’ve been praised and published–there’s still room for improvement. There always is. Be thankful you’re getting the opportunity to produce even better stuff.

It’s not about you; it’s about what you wrote. Sometimes, despite the best intentions, a critique can sting worse than a foot-long hypodermic. Never assume the comments are about you personally, no matter how much it feels like it. If you find it hard to handle rejection now, just wait until the real world sees your work. If it’s less than it should be, the criticism will be aimed squarely at you, and it’ll be much worse. Suck it up and fix it now, while you still can.

Only you can decide what to change. Not all critique suggestions are valid. One reader may stumble on a point everyone else sails over without tripping. Do you change it for just that one person? Probably not, but then, what if it really is something important? Maybe the reason no one else commented on it is because they’re not as astute as the reader who did. It’s your job to noodle this out. Change the things you agree with; ignore the others.

Don’t rush your updates. Let the critique sit for awhile, preferably long enough that you can be objective about working with it. Working under the influence of the wrong emotions will make it harder to take appropriate action. The file you erase today out of anger and frustration will likely be the file you’ll want to work on tomorrow. It’s okay to be angry (in solitude); it’s not okay to be stupid.

I’d love to hear YOUR stories about critiques — the good ones, and the not-so-good.  What are your best and worst experiences with critiques and critique groups?

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Critiques Are A Writer’s Gold

It will come as a profound shock to many beginning novelists to learn that what they’ve written, perhaps even slaved over, is pretty much crap. Dross. Bison snot. Burnt toast bad. I’m not saying that to be mean, rather it’s meant to supply a realistic jolt. You’re going to make mistakes, because you don’t know any better. That’s not a smear or a put-down. It’s merely how things are. You don’t get a participation ribbon simply for putting words on pages. They have to be worth reading, too.

And how do you determine that? After all, your stuff looked pretty damned good  when you first wrote it, right? Mine certainly looked that way to me, and it hurt like hell when someone pointed out–with a great deal of red ink, deletions and aggrieved comments–that I’d missed the mark by the width of several zip codes, at least.

Once I quit moaning and groaning about how cruel and insensitive my reader was, I realized there might, just possibly, be something to what he said. But, rather than take my lumps, especially when I had anticipated taking a bow, I sent the same document, sans corrections, to another supposedly enlightened reader.

To my utter shock, it came back marked up in much the same fashion as the original. That is to say, with mark-outs, red lines, endless comments and one or two attaboys. I felt like mighty Casey as he schlumped back to the bench. I, too, had struck out.

It took a while to get over it. And during that time I maintained a very low profile among the gaggle of writers in my on-line critique group. I shut up long enough to start listening to what many were saying, and I discovered they’d all gone through pretty much the same tough innings. Those who stuck it out and kept working at the craft, learning from what the others observed about their work, and making appropriate changes, became better writers. Much better.

From time to time a few very well-known and oft-published authors would drop in for a virtual visit. They offered their own comments and shared much of what they had learned over the years. And, they acknowledged, they too had suffered some tough, tough feedback. To a man (and a couple women), they agreed that no-nonsense critiques made a profound difference in their work. Wishy-washy, oh-so-lovely ego-stroking did nothing for their work. If anything, it would have prevented real improvement.

This rigorous process taught me as much about writing critiques as it did about writing in general. And that is why it’s one of the tools I use in most of my writing classes. It’s not enough to know that something isn’t working. If you’re writing a critique, you also need to supply a reason. You’re entitled to be wrong from time to time. Everyone is. But you’ve got to make the effort.

Why should you invest so much time in the work of others, many of whom write at a level above or below your own? Because of what you’ll learn in the process. All too often we’re blind to our own mistakes. Our excesses level themselves out in our minds. Everything flows smoothly; our words are pearls on a field of velvet. It’s only when someone notices that our words are more like BBs on corduroy, or bowling balls on railroad tracks, that we see something amiss.

If you’re currently in a writer’s group, take a serious look at the feedback given. If it’s more concerned with a person’s feelings than their ability to express themselves, you’re in the wrong group. You want people who will tell you the truth about your work and what they think of it. Anything less is useless.

Honest doesn’t mean unkind. Critiques ought to be civil and constructive. There are ways to point out the flaws in someone’s work without going into attack mode. The goal is to judge the work, not the worker.

In the next installment we’ll take a closer look at what ought to go in a critique, with an occasional sample of what shouldn’t.

–Josh

Last minute update: Here’s a short video of me recorded by the Kennesaw State University /Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Their publicity staff is excellent!. They asked me to talk about writing. And, they asked me to keep it short. I tried, but if you know me, you know it wasn’t easy!

See for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/KSUOLLI/videos/1396902097052277/

 

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Okay, I’m Done. Now What?

You’re “done” you say? That begs a few questions. Like:

  • Are you finished with the rough draft/first “complete” manuscript?
  • Are you finished with all the updates of your first draft?
  • Have you given up altogether?
  • Are you ready to start on another title?
  • What’s next?

First draft finish line reached!

Typing “The End” at the bottom of the last page can be extremely satisfying. It’s not as mind blowing as holding a copy of your first book in your hands, but it’s still pretty darn cool. And it deserves a celebration of some kind. Take your significant other out for dinner or go play golf with the gang you’ve been ignoring for the past several months. Play with your kids, if you have any, or try making some. <shrug> Walk the dog. Enjoy life away from the keyboard for a while.

If you’re really smart, you’ll ignore that manuscript for a couple weeks, maybe even a month, just to let it cool off. Even if you’re a big-time author–and if you are, I can’t imagine why you’re reading this–you need some objectivity. The cooling off period will let you be more objective about what needs fixing, and there’s always something.

I suggest reading the full manuscript out loud, with feeling. Seriously. It’ll slow your brain down long enough to allow you to spot some errors. You won’t get them all; no one does. But you’ll get a bunch. Many writers decide on a re-write at this point. Many, like me, don’t. Some writers fill out missing chunks, add setting, trim dialog, hunt down adverbs and pet phrases, or focus on tightening text. You’ll need to do some or all of this. (How much? That’s hard to say. I just finished my eleventh novel, and one of my readers found errors in the third revised manuscript.)

At some point, you’ll declare your brainchild ready for the world. It’s not. You still need to run it by your First Readers, that cadre of trusted souls who will crawl through your words in search of every niggling little booboo, every innocent tyop, and every literary faux pas they can find. When they do find them–and they will–praise them to the heavens. Treat them to chocolate and adult beverages, for they have done you an invaluable service; they’ve saved you from looking like an idiot, or worse.

Fix everything! Then, and only then, are you ready for the next step.

To hell with it! I’m done.

Sadly, quite a few writers give up before they reach the finish line. There’s no shame in that. Writing a novel is hard, and writing a good one is even harder. And just imagine how many people you know will be able to say “I told you so!” (They will, too, because they can; they’re not-so-secretly pleased that you failed at something they couldn’t even imagine doing.) But, if you’re still reading this, I suspect there’s a part of you that isn’t ready to abandon all the time and effort you’ve already spent on your project. Maybe you just need a break, a little time to get your head straight and your creative side re-energized. That’s okay, too.

While thus occupied, consider re-reading my thoughts on what to do when you’re stuck. You’ll find them here. You wouldn’t be the first writer to think about quitting just because the job turned out to be harder than you thought it would be. So give these possible fixes a shot. Who knows? You might find yourself moving forward again.

Ready to start on something new?

Cool! But before you jump headlong into the next project, give some thought to what you learned doing the last one. Were there mistakes you’d rather not repeat? Knowing what you know now, would you have approached your last book differently? How much of that will apply toward the new project? Why not write those thoughts down where you can review them as you move on. You’ve written a book and learned some valuable lessons. Don’t ignore ’em!

Okay, manuscript, it’s time. Make me famous. Or rich. Or something.

Much as I’d like to squeeze this in here, it really deserves its own spot. So, I’ll tackle that next time. For now, I’m curious to know how other people feel when they reach the finish line for a first draft. Relief? Exuberance? Disappointment? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

–Josh

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When Yay Becomes Yuck

There comes a point in the development of most novels, maybe even all ’em, when the writer throws up his hands, his pen, and maybe his beer, and says, “This is shit. It isn’t working. The characters aren’t talking to me. The muse is off to South Beach, and all I can think about is mowing the damned lawn.” Or something similar, suitably loaded with creative epithets and admonishments, perhaps something even more dramatic like breaking a pencil or barking at the dog. Or cat.

Some writers, many actually, can get themselves straightened out such that they’re able to finish the tale. Others may be so dejected they kiss it goodbye and never look back. It’s that second bunch I’d like to reach. They’re the ones who need a little extra help, maybe a pat on the back or a kick in the tail. Or, more likely, they need a strategy to get back on track.

There was a time in the life cycle of the story when its author could barely contain her excitement over telling it. The characters enchanted her, the setting offered exciting opportunities, and the plot seemed fresh and fragrant. But somewhere along the way the whole thing got bogged down, and the story’s appeal drifted away like smoke in the wind.

A number of things could account for this, but it’s likely a combination of issues. These are the most common:

  • The characters have become predictable
  • There’s no end in sight
  • The plot twists aren’t twisty enough
  • There’s too little conflict
  • There’s not enough tension
  • There’s no way out of the latest predicament
  • Everybody’s talking and nobody’s doing anything

Predictability — Any character can become stale. The way to prevent it is to constantly put obstacles in their way. Big ones, little ones, loud ones, annoying ones, whatever. If your character isn’t doing anything, it’s because you haven’t been hard enough on them. So get mean! Hurt them. Abandon them in a storm. Lock them in a room. Feed them time-released poison. Kill off a loved one. Have the phone ring smack in the middle of the scene you’re working on, and deliver the news: “Opie, I’m so glad you’re home. Better sit down, son. I’ve got some hard news for ya. Sheriff Taylor was just shot and killed by Deputy Fife.”

Is it done yet? — Not without a climax and a denouement. Stories that just trail off and die because the author lost interest are rarely published. If the writer didn’t care enough to work out a good ending, no one else will care enough to see how far they got. If all else fails, kill off your protagonist. What have you got to lose? If you can’t finish this volume, you sure won’t be turning it into a series. Maybe you just need to give someone a change of heart; turn a player from bad to good or vice versa. If you’ve been outlining as you go (see my thoughts on that here), you should be able to figure out where your tale wandered into the wilderness; cut it back to there and start in again.

The plots aren’t sufficiently twisty — Start looking in left field. It’s where the really bizarre, gonzo goofy shit comes from. Try dipping into that well. Turn good guys into psychotics; turn relatives into robots; let ’em get hit by an invasion (any kind: animal, vegetable, political). Lift your story, metaphorically of course, by one corner and flip it upside-down. OR: Imagine the most unexpected outcome, one that’s beyond the scope of anything you’ve done before. Maybe your crazy Aunt Emma is elected President. Maybe your innocent little brother is arrested on suspicion of planning to kill someone important. Maybe your hero’s dog finds a body in the front yard (or the back seat of the car).

Not enough conflict? — Seriously? You’ve read this blog more than once, and you haven’t figured out that conflict is the lifeblood of storytelling? If your happily unchallenged character isn’t married, arrange a wedding, otherwise arrange conditions that’ll lead to divorce. Add a child. Lose a pet. Adopt an orphan with a penchant for mayhem. Fire her!

You’re short on tension — Threaten someone, either physically, emotionally or psychologically. A physical threat might be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab you.” A more emotional threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend.” A psychological threat would be: “Do what I ask or I’ll stab your girlfriend but make it look like you did it. Film at eleven.” The thing to remember is that no matter what sort of threat scenario you devise, the effected character must be left hanging for at least one scene, preferably more. And while you’re waiting to show how character A will escape his problem, character B should be wading hip-deep into her next conundrum.

There’s no way out; the hero’s gonna die — Well, how big a deal is that? Where could you take the story if a main character died prematurely? Can you back up and change the threat? Have the horrible happening happen to someone else? (Oops, sorry dude. You’re gonna die.) Maybe he’s only unconscious. Maybe he can be brought back from the dead? Almost any solution is better than resorting to deus ex machina (wherein God reaches down from the heavens and saves the poor schlub). C’mon! If you were crafty enough to get your guy into such a pickle, surely you can think of a way to extricate him. There’s always the weather, war, and/or knocking down the walls.

Yackity yack, no attack — This is no time to bemoan your decision to write so-called minimalist fiction. If there’s nothing going on because you failed to provide some conflict, then maybe you should just toss this one in the pooper. Next time, give your players something to do and someone to do it to.

–Josh

By the way:

If you hurry, you can snap up a free download of my new book, Oh, Bits! Click here. Just know that it’ll only be free for a couple more days. Best of all, you could be the very first reader to post a review! Here’s your chance to see what all this book-writing verbiage can lead to. See it put into practice. Read the book; tell your friends; have some fun!

And, thank you.

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Deconstructing Cinderella

Here’s a handy way to review the 7-Point Plotting approach. We’re going to take apart an old and well-loved tale and completely rebuild it. In the process, we’ll experiment with Point of View as well as the plotting formula. And, if that’s not enough, we’re going to take a run at writing to a Theme as well.

Disclaimer: There are many different versions of the Cinderella story. The oldest dates back to a Chinese tale recorded in 860AD. Wikipedia has a fascinating history of the tale (Click HERE for more information). We’ll focus on variations one might employ using the Disney version as our starting point. The actual location, or place, for all these is wide open. Call it “Fairyland” for now.

 Possible Openings (Person, Place, and Problem):

  • Cinderella at work while the wicked step-sisters taunt her.
  • Step-sister One feels sorry for Cinderella, but the Step-sister Two prevents her from doing anything.
  • The stepmother, under orders from royalty, is forced to treat Cinderella badly or her own daughters will be at risk.

Notice that the point of view character (POVC) in each of the three options is different. We experience the world through that one character’s senses. Note also there’s a unique theme for each potential story line:

  • Salvation through hard work by Cinderella (with maybe a little luck).
  • Tragedy despite perseverance by the step-sister.
  • Mistrust — just because the Prince is a prince it doesn’t make him charming.

Try/Fail options:

  • No matter what Cinderella does, she can’t satisfy her stepmother or step-sisters. She grows more despondent and her only friends are birds and rodents.
  • Step-sister One tries to do nice things for Cinderella, but Step-sister Two always thwarts her, and the threats to Step-sister One grow worse.
  • The Prince tries to lure Cinderella into an unwholesome act, but she resists him. He only grows more enamored even though she’s a commoner, and they have no future.
  • Step-sister One recognizes how despicable the prince is and tries to get him interested in Step-sister Two, thus taking the pressure off Step-sister One and Cinderella.

Climax options:

  • Salvation for Cinderella. Her furred and feathered friends come to the rescue. She goes to the ball, charms the prince, and dashes home, leaving her glass slipper behind.
  • Tragedy for Step-sister One. Step Mom sides with Step Two, and they turn Step One over to the Prince as an indentured servant. Tough nuggies, Step-One!
  • Mistrust: Cinderella and Step-One convince the Prince that Step-Two is the girl of his dreams. They even fake a slipper-fitting to convince him.

Denouement options:

  • Cinderella is happy, even if she leaves all her little friends behind. (We could even tweak that sadness into anger so the critters make life miserable for everyone.)
  • Recognizing Step-One’s attempts to help her, Cinderella poisons Step-Two and frames step-Mom for the murder.
  • Step-One and Cinderella, now romantically connected, take the house away from step-Mom and kick her to the curb. Step-Two, now serving as the prince’s live-in SM plaything, hires step-Mom as a maid.

The best thing about writing to a theme is that it’s much easier to keep your players in character. You know what their story is about, and everything they do ought to relate to it. You should never have to wonder if one of your characters has strayed from his or her natural role.

This deconstruction example provides only a tiny fraction of the possibilities one could choose from in creating an alternate version of the original story. “Fractured” fairy tales have been done for ages, and their popularity hasn’t stopped growing. If you’re looking for a new story, or a break from something you’re already working on, give some thought to finding a well-known tale you can tune up. You might end up driving a fictional hot rod.

–Josh

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Dialog Ain’t Just Talk

The things that make dialog great are the same things that make plots and characters great–imagination. Dialog should present surprises. The unexpected makes stories not only more interesting, but more challenging. At it’s heart, dialog is action, and its value comes from the variety of ways in which it can advance story lines. Ho-hum dialog will drag down the most fascinating characters and clog up the most intriguing plots. Why in the world would any writer do that?

If a reader can anticipate what a character says, what’s the point of having them say it? This is why boredom descends like a cloud of poison gas on scenes in which characters introduce each other. Whenever the action in a scene downshifts into mundane, everyday issues, like ordering from a menu or reading a bus schedule, the smart writer will pile it all into a single paragraph, if not a single sentence. And yet, my students give me manuscripts all the time which feature such discussions as if they’re meaningful.

“I’m having turkey salad and water,” Wanda said.

“I’ll have the big steak,” announced Clyde.

“That much meat would make me sick.”

Clyde laughed. “And I’m gonna have some pie.”

Wanda groaned. “You’ll get indigestion.”

“Nah. I’m gettin’ the bacon-cheese fries, too.”

Is there hope for this exchange? Maybe. The problem with the exchange now is that it’s boring. If anything, it’s too much like what we see in everyday life. Yes, there’s a tiny bit of conflict over good nutrition, but it’s not enough to raise the conversation to a level of interest. But, if we amplify the characterization via better speech and action tags and tweak their word choices a little, we might actually hold a reader’s interest. To wit:

“I’m having the turkey salad and water,” Wanda said, laying the menu aside.

“Not me,” said Clyde, his eyes never straying from a photo of the restaurant’s signature steak, a 24 ounce slab of Porterhouse perfection.

That’s enough for me. I’m content knowing Wanda is watching her diet and Clyde isn’t. But why stop now?

Wanda twisted her lips in disapproval. “That much protein would make me barf.”

Clyde just laughed and turned to the dessert section. “You gonna get the pie?”

Would most folks read on? Possibly. There is some characterization. Wanda has expressive lips, and Clyde is narrowly focused. Can we squeeze out a bit more mileage even if there’s no new plot point?

“You have the diet of a dinosaur. Your arteries are going to clog up like a gas station toilet.”

Clyde didn’t respond. Instead, he flagged down a waiter and asked, “Can I get a double order of bacon-cheese fries with this?”

At this point, I presume poor Wanda is ready to deposit the evening’s appetizer on the table, and if I were writing this, that’s likely what I’d have her do. I’d also couple it with some sort of plot point. If Clyde as an omnivore is important to the story, then we’ve already achieved our goal, but only in the second version. The first is still too vanilla. The second effort has been fluffed out and enough story stuff added to make it worthwhile.

The main take-away here is simply this: in your on-going efforts to surprise your reader, remember that dialog provides fertile ground for doing just that, even if the general discussion isn’t very exciting. You can make it relevant, but it takes effort.

Your dialog bag ‘o tricks has some very flexible tools, like speech and action tags, but they work best when combined with spoken words that startle and amuse. If your dialog feels tired and slow, it probably is. Try injecting one of two things: conflict or humor. And if you can manage both, you’ll do yourself and your readers a service.

–Josh

 

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