Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--D is for Dialogue

“’…and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, `without pictures or conversation?'”

I wholeheartedly agree, Alice.

I love good dialogue.

I love reading it, and I love writing it.

It’s one of the best compliments I can receive when people tell me how great I am at capturing a character’s voice. Readers have said that about the way I write Josh in Ride of Your Life and Gilbert Garfinkle in Why My Love Life Sucks . They’ve even said that about Mordek, the villain in Toren the Teller's Tale .

I like writing dialogue—as well as internal monologue—because it’s the closest I can get to when I was a kid using little figurines and a bunch of little toys to create little worlds and make up little stories. Sometimes, I created the stories with my sister and my brothers, sometimes my cousins or my friends. It was fun because I could be anything I wanted to be and do anything I wanted to do. I could be a princess or a pirate or a dog, or even a princess pirate dog. I could sail the seas, and I could ride winged horses to adventures.

Who wouldn’t love that?

So I approach writing dialogue with the same sense of fun, the same sense of joy at playing pretend.

In a way, that makes it difficult for me to teach someone else how to write dialogue. How do you teach the idea that this is supposed to be fun? How do you get someone back to the same place that they were when they were little kids playing pretend? 

I honestly don’t have the answers to these questions.

What I can do is tell you where a lot of writers go wrong.

First, I see a lot of writers trying to use dialogue to do things, and that’s a huge mistake. A character should never say things a person like that in that situation wouldn’t say.

For example, lots of writers will write a piece of dialogue like, “It sure is raining, Jill. It is a shame that we arranged to get together with Amy and Paul at the picnic ground by the lake to talk about finding a new coach for the Beagles, the junior baseball team that our sons and Paul’s daughter belong to. I am worried we might get wet.”

What’s wrong with this? So many things.

First off, most people rarely address each other by name. Politicians and slimy salespeople do, but if your character isn’t one or the other, keep it at a minimum.

Second, people usually don’t talk about things that are obvious, like the fact that it’s raining would be to the characters having the conversation. Yes, sometimes we do. It’s small talk. But small talk is boring, and your characters shouldn’t be boring, so don’t do it.

Third, people talk in contractions, so it should be “it’s,” not “it is.”

Fourth, a lot of normal conversation is understood. If this character and Jill have already arranged what they’re going to do, with whom, and where, they aren’t going to be bringing it up in conversation. The actual conversation would probably be more like this: “Hi, Jill.” “Harry.” “Ready to go to the park?” “I don’t know, what with this rain. Maybe we should call them and change it.” “Nah, it’ll be fine.” See? There’s a lot that goes unsaid, because it’s redundant.

Fifth, people mostly talk in short pieces, like under twenty words at a time. This is a part of the give and take of a conversation. Sure, sometimes people have longer things to say, and your characters should—but to the most part only when they really have something that needs a lot of words to say. Or if your character likes to talk a lot. Or if your character is telling a story. But that’s pretty much it.

And last, people usually don’t say how they feel, not like this at least. Okay, maybe they do on Facebook, but that’s different. The buttons for how you’re feeling are right there. But in a real conversation, Harry would be expressing his concerns, rather than his feelings of concern. Not “I’m worried we might get wet,” but maybe “maybe getting together outdoors wasn’t such a good idea.”

So why do so many writers get this wrong?

Except for contractions, which some writers avoid because they’re intent on following their English teacher’s rules instead of what common sense tells them, writers make most of these mistakes while trying to make dialogue do double duty.

For example, “I need a way to let the reader know who’s talking, so I’ll have the character address the other character by name. That way the reader will know it’s Harry, not Jill. And I don’t want to show the scene where the characters arrange to meet, so instead I’ll have Harry tell the reader what happened. And if I’m already doing that, I’ll have Harry mention the weather.”

Yeah, no. Don’t do that.

What you want to do is to attempt to replicate how a real-life version of this character would naturally speak, although probably with less stuttering, ums, and likes than many of us tend to have in normal conversation.  

So how do you do that?

By paying close attention to how people really talk.

Of course, you can do this by paying attention to how the people around you talk. But you can also pay close attention to how people talk in YouTube videos or on the news or on reality TV shows. And you can learn from those who are already experts at writing dialogue. That doesn’t just mean in books. All mediums with dialogue—from plays to movies to TV shows—have people who are great at writing dialogue. I’m a fan of pretty much anything written by Joss Whedon or Steve Moffat. They are both geniuses at creating characters and writing dialogue.

Bad dialogue, by the way, isn't just a sin of fiction writing. Once you start to pay close attention, you’ll notice it in movies and TV shows. Some comic book writers are guilty of it, too.  Acknowledging that there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it.

Of course, there are more steps to take after that, but it’s a start.

And now it’s time to play pretend. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--C is for Creating Characters

Anyone can write a story. 

It's true, and if you've ever played pretend or with dolls or action figures when you were little, you know it. 

Illustration:  © Shevi Arnold, 2003

Unfortunately, many of us lose that ability when we turn into adults. 

So how do we get it back? How can creating characters and plots become easy again? 

There are two ways to write a story: you can create a plot based on a character, or you can create characters based on a plot. Like a noun and a verb are required in every complete independent sentence, a character and a plot are required in every complete independent story. If you have one without the other, you might have a vignette. What you don’t have is a story.

So how do you create a character out of a plot?

And how do you create a plot out of a character?

For the first, take your plot and ask yourself who might have the greatest need to do the things the plot requires and the hardest time doing them. Need and obstacles to achieving the thing that’s needed are great hooks. When a character has both, the reader will need to see if the character gets what he or she needs, and the reader will need to find out how the character will try to overcome those obstacles. It’s as simple as that.

For example, our plot is that someone has been murdered and someone else will figure out who did it. Okay, so our main character is probably the person who needs to solve the murder mystery. But why? Maybe our main character is a detective, and it’s the MC’s job, but that’s been done a million times before. Let’s go for something original. Maybe this person is an astronaut on a space station, and the murdered person is the only other person on the space station. Hmm… That sounds too much like a 2001: A Space Odyssey. Let’s keep looking.  Maybe our main character is a kid who was taken from her foster home, and the murdered person is her abductor. She doesn’t know why she was abducted, if the murderer or the abductor were on her side, or even who she can trust. That’s good, because it’s original, the need is great, and there are a ton of obstacles. 

There are millions of possible characters we can create out of this simple plot. Maybe that’s why so many murder mysteries have been written.

For the second, take your character and ask yourself what he or she needs most. Then create a story around him or her having to overcome obstacles in order to get that need fulfilled.
For example, if you created the character of Harry Potter but didn’t know what the plot of his story would be, you’d see that his greatest need was “to have a family.” You’d then have to create obstacles for him, such as his parents having been murdered, him living in the wrong world for a magical boy, the Dursleys treating him like an outcast, his parents’ murderer wanting to destroy him, and so on. The plot would be all about Harry overcoming these obstacles to eventually create a new family, the one he has in the end with Ginny, Ron and Hermione.  

Is this the only possible plot for a story based on the character of Harry Potter? 

Of course not. However, if you have a clear and detailed idea of who your character is and what he or she needs, the best plot for that character should be fairly obvious: create obstacles for that character and watch him or her overcome those obstacles in a quest to fulfill that need.

But what if you don’t have what you need to even start creating a story? What if you don’t even have a plot or a character?

I’m reminding of something the great playwright Neil Simon said in his autobiographical book Rewrites (I’m paraphrasing): “Writer’s block isn’t when a writer has no ideas. It’s when a writer has so many ideas and doesn’t trust himself to choose the right one.”

The answer to that is to simply stop asking yourself what the right one is and just go for it, right or not. 

As in improv, your answer to any character or plot you think of should be “yes, and…”

Will it be the right one? Maybe, but probably not. The thing is, though, that if you keep answering “yes, and…” to every plot or character that pops into your head—and you keep showing the character trying desperately to overcome obstacles in a quest to achieve a great need—eventually you will discover the right one.  

And in the meanwhile, like a little kid who decides a stick is a sword and that means she’s an awesome pirate on an adventure, you’ll be having fun. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--B is for Books

 Too Many Books?
by Shevi Arnold

Books, books,
I have books,
On all the shelves,
In all the nooks.
Books on writing,
Books on art,
Books by the boxful,
Books by the cart,
Books in a stack,
And more in the back.
Books I’ve written,
Books I’ve read,
For when I’m sittin’,
Even books in my head.
Some say I’ve too many.
I know that’s not true!
I need more books...
And more bookshelves, too.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--A is for Action

Five days left to the A to Z Challenge.

There are only five days left to the A to Z Challenge for April of this year.

What’s the point in even starting this late?

I only found out about the challenge a few days ago. I noticed this hashtag on Twitter, and so I asked one of my friends who tweeted it. “What’s the #AtoZChallenge?” She didn’t answer me, but a few days ago I saw it again. So I asked again. This time a second friend shared the link to the website

The A to Z Challenge is similar to the NaNoWriMo but for bloggers.

As with NaNoWriMo, people commit themselves to writing something within a month. With NaNoWriMo you commit to writing a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. With the A to Z Challenge, people commit to writing a blog post for every day in April except for Sundays. 

People sign up in March and choose one of a variety of themes. There’s a theme for pretty much everything, from animals to writing. Even humor and personal writing are options. Bloggers then go through the alphabet based on their chosen theme. For example, a blogger who chose humor could write about airplane travel on the first, boogers on the second, and California on the third.  

 And because of Passover--and the fact that I only found out about this right before Passover--I didn’t have time to start working on it until last night.

Why start at all then? 

I mean, I’m not a time traveler. (Not yet, anyway. Not that I know of. Future me might disagree.) I can’t go back to the first of April to start writing and posting an article a day.

And very strangely, this segues very nicely into my first blog post. My chosen theme is writing, specifically, "writing words for nerds." 

And my first blog post in the A to Z Challenge is about...

A is for Action

You can edit a page of garbage, as writers say, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Recently, my blog has been a series of blank pages. 

You see, I want to use my blog to help other people, or as Gilbert Garfinkle would put it, “fix the world.” 

If you look around you’ll find serious posts about how to write funny, whether to submit your work to traditional publishers or indie published, a step-by-step guide to publishing a picture book, and lots more. 

So when it comes to writing a new blog post, I find it hard to compete with myself. I find it hard to match that same level of helpfulness as the posts I've already done. 

Yes, I could write a hilarious blog post about cats or about my book addiction. (I blame my heritage for the latter. I grew up in a house where we used bookcases in place of wallpaper, and one of my great grandfathers died when he tried to reach a book on a high shelf and the entire bookcase collapsed on his frail old body. I also have an uncle who died when he was packing up his books to donate them to a library. My family lives by the book and dies by the book.) I guess they could fix the world in a small way by giving someone a laugh. The more laughter there is in the world, the better. 

But how does that compare to helping people publish their books or make life-altering decisions?

It doesn’t.

But neither does a blank page.

So A is for Action.

A is for doing.

A is for writing those pages, even if they’re garbage.

A is for starting the A to Z Challenge, even if it is April 26th and you only have five days left to write 26 blog posts.

It doesn’t have to be great. It can be absolute garbage.

The only thing it can’t be is a blank page.  


Now to start working on my next Writing Words for Nerds A to Z Challenge: B is for Books.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Looking for YA and Kids Book Writers, Illustrators and Other Pros on Twitter?

I've put together a great list of KidLit people on Twitter, and I highly recommend you subscribe if you want to see the latest tweets by writers and illustrators with just a click.

Here it is!

It's a great list full of great stuff. Hope to see you there.