Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dealing with Editors

As writers, we all aspire to be published, so when it finally happens, whether it’s a short story, a poem or a novel, you will find yourself working with an editor.
We’ve all heard stories about dealing with editors, but whatever you think about them, they are there to assist the writer, not make their life unbearable. The role they play forms an important part in the writing business.  Without them, there would be certain chaos, because then every amateurish, badly written story would make it into print. 
Of course, getting on the published ladder is not always a smooth process.  You may be lucky enough to receive an acceptance; however that doesn’t mean to say that your masterpiece is perfect, because it won’t be. The editor may want to change some aspects of the piece. This is quite common, so that doesn’t mean the writer should act like a stroppy teenager and stamp their feet.
To coin a well-used cliché, working with editors really is a two way street. Writers must understand that editors are there for a reason, to help the writer as part of the remit to being published.
Problems always arise when editors make suggestions to the writer to change certain things within or about the story. Very often they are only minor details that need changing.  That could be anything from a character name change or a change of story title. They may suggest cutting some narrative or dialogue, or perhaps they want more narrative included.  They might ask the writer to change a scene or two.  Whatever they suggest, it is done for the benefit of the writer and the story.
You may not agree with their input, or the changes they might make to your story, but you need to act professionally and with diplomacy if you want to get ahead and be published (and stay published). Writers should work with the editor, not against them. 
The natural reaction of most writers is to become instantly defensive about their work when editors suggest changes.  How dare an editor change my masterpiece! What do they know?  I know what’s best for my story; I know my story inside out, it doesn’t need changing!
Hands up if you’ve reacted like that. But they are editors; professionals who provide an objective, outside view of your work, people who know what kind of things work and what don’t, people who read stories for a living.
Editors want to work with and nurture writers, especially new ones. They will spot potential. They will notice talent.  They will know if a writer is worth investing in.  But they will also spot amateurs and they will pick up on your errors, even if you don’t.  They will guide and encourage where it’s needed, so it is worth showing the editor a willingness to learn and the commitment to and perseverance for hard work.
There is no doubt about it - some writers get very awkward and stroppy about being told to change their stories, because often they think they know it all. In their minds, their work is perfect and they simply can’t be told any different.  Unfortunately, this attitude won’t score any favours with potential editors.  Rather than being professional and open to suggestions and changes, these kinds of writers will come across as difficult, arrogant and awkward to work with, and editors will not give them a second chance.
It’s a two way street, remember.
Editors want to work with writers who are willing to work hard and are open to ideas and suggestions and advice, writers who are adaptable, those who can show respect for their editor and their decisions, and more importantly, those are dedicated to their craft.  They are simply doing their job to help you accomplish yours.
Often I have had to make changes to stories at the request of editors.  I’ve had to change the titles of a story; I’ve had to change some parts of the narrative in other stories, or certain words.  But rather than gnashing my teeth and throwing my rattle around as tough I’d been affronted, I made the necessary changes, showed my willingness to adapt, and above showed my professionalism by trusting their decisions.  The result is a solid, working relationship with all my editors. 
The message is quite simple.  Being professional and co-operative will earn your editor’s respect.  And that means they will want to work with you again and again.
Chances are that if you do get onto the published ladder, and you collaborate and work on your relationship with your editor, you’ll gain each other’s respect and stay published for many years to come.
Next week: Writing and self-confidence.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

How to Write Dramatic Dialogue

Dramatic dialogue can create the right atmosphere for the reader, whether it’s action or emotion, or it can fall flat, depending how well the writer has structured such dialogue.

Effective dialogue in a story is one thing, but dramatic dialogue is somewhat different. It should create an edge, a sense of presence.  It should hold the reader’s attention for several reasons: to impart necessary or critical information, to create character-reader immediacy, to create tension and conflict and to move the story forward.

The most common problem with dialogue is that writers tend to write lots of ineffectual and unnecessary dialogue in order to pad out the narrative, but most of it is rubbish.  It’s just not necessary.  Every writer should learn that dialogue must have meaning for both the characters and the reader.

Dialogue should only contain information necessary to the story arc, otherwise it becomes unnecessary padding.

The knack to writing great dialogue is all to do with how well writers listen.  Listen to real conversations. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s the way they say it that sometimes makes us take notice. The tone, the depth and the strength of someone’s voice can mean so many things.

To understand this concept, simply close your eyes while listening to people talking.  Rather than seeing them talk (and thus be open to interpretation and predisposition), you are only hearing them. Your brain will automatically tune into the different tones, variances, nuances and pitch. You notice much more in their dialogue. 

It’s the ability to listen that helps writers create dramatic – and effective – dialogue, not the ability to write.

There are, of course, other factors that help writers to create dramatic conversations that add so much more to the story.

Firstly, dramatic dialogue evolves with the drama you create in your scenes. No drama = no dramatic dialogue, it’s that simple. Emotional scenes, action scenes, tense scenes…they all require the kind of dialogue to enhance it and emphasise it.

What happens when people argue and fight?  What happens when lovers get together?  What happens when people are threatened?  What happens when people find themselves in a terrible, life-threatening situation? 

Their conversations or exchanges would differ greatly for each situation, but each one would have drama in one form or another.  This is true for your story scenes.

Your characters are the key here.  You have to know what your characters want and why they want it.  All characters have objectives and motives - they’re always trying to influence other characters, perhaps trying to get something from them, or they’re hiding something from others (in a good way or an evil way). Other characters, meanwhile, may be resisting the urge to give in to such influences, and will have their own motives.

In other words, tension and conflict within the story should exist between characters, and this should be reflected in the dialogue.

Remember, rhythms in our speech patterns alternate within conversations, so the same should be true of your characters. In heated conversations, the tone of voice changes intensely; ranging from high pitched with emotion, to gruff and raw if someone is shouting.  When we’re cagey our voices tend to waver or stutter, and when we’re happy we become loud and tonal.

People in conversation will have contrasting voices.  So should your characters.
For example:

He leaned in.  Low whispers licked against her skin.  ‘Where are they?  Tell me, and I won’t have to hurt you.’

‘I -- I must have dropped them…’

‘Don’t lie to me!’

Her voice trembled. ‘I swear, I dropped the keys, I was scared…’

Again, it’s worth listening to people’s conversations to understand how this works.

Dramatic dialogue relies on emphasis to create the right effect for the reader.

Shorter dialogue structure is very effective for creating drama, tension and conflict, rather than long, boring monologues. Dialogue should carry emotion and vulnerability and reflect the kind of scenes you’re writing.
‘I can’t open the door, it won’t move.’

He tugged on the handle as the flames licked around the car wheels.  No use. ‘Damn it…’

Her voice became serrated. ‘Please hurry!’

‘I can’t, it’s buckled.’

‘Please, I don’t want to die!’

‘You’re not gonna die. Cover yourself, I’m going to smash the window…’

Dialogue shouldn’t be flat or unemotional. It shouldn’t go on too long and become boring and it shouldn’t become leaden.  Of course, if you have created a thoroughly multidimensional character that leaps from the page, then the dialogue writes itself.

Create obstacles to communication between characters.  For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:

‘We have to close the plant down, right now, before it’s too late.’

‘You said that six months ago, Mr Jones, and nothing happened,’ Smith said. ‘Do you know how much that cost this town?  I’m not prepared to do it again, all on a whim.’

‘It’s not a whim, it’s scientific fact. There’s gonna be an explosion if you don’t close the plant, I’m telling you.’

Smith turned away. ‘I haven’t got time for this rubbish. I’m not prepared to close down a multi-million dollar operation because of some mad scientist…’

Something else to consider is that dramatic dialogue should create a sense of immediacy with the reader.  In other words, the reader should identify with the characters and the situation. That should come from the emotion, tension and conflict created.  They should feel the fear of a character in danger. They should feel the frustration of a character not getting what he wants or needs. They should empathise with the character when they lose something dear.  You get the idea.

To summarise, remember the following:-

·        Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
·        Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
·        Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
·        Keep the dialogue short and snappy.  People don’t prattle on and on when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
·        Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
·        Create immediacy with your reader.

Above all, the key to writing dramatic dialogue isn’t your ability to write, it’s your ability to listen.

Next week: Working with editors.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2

Following on from part 1, we’ll take a look at the remainder of simple punctuation, such as Semi Colons, Colons, Question and Exclamation Marks, and Dashes, and how to use them effectively in fiction writing.

These are useful little things, and often underused. There are those who argue against their use, however, when used correctly, they add so much to the readability of a story and can alter a sentence dramatically.
They can separate two independent clauses that are too closely linked for a full stop to interrupt the flow and pace, for example:

He barely had time to digest her news; she broke it to him, gleeful.
The light flickered; she knew she was in trouble.
Semi colons can be used to introduce an independent clause preceded by an adverb, such as then, so or however. For example:

John thought she’d forgotten, as always; so he left it.
He wondered why she hadn’t showed; then he remembered.

While they are very useful, try not to overdo them. One thing to remember, however, is that semi colons should never be used where a comma will suffice. 

These are not used as much as commas and semi colons, but they still have their uses.  And, surprisingly, they still cause writers problems, because they’re never quite sure if they should use them or where they should be used.
Colons can be used in place of commas when introducing speech that suggests directness, for example:

She said: ‘Get out.’
He knew what followed: Death.
You will also notice I have used colons to express examples…for example:

Colons, on the whole, don’t make too many appearances in narrative, but like all other punctuation, they should be used correctly and in moderation.
Question and Exclamation Marks

This is another area that can confuse writers.  Firstly, any direct question must be followed by a question mark.
Are you coming with us?
Do you like the colour blue?
What time is it?
What do I care?

These examples are all direct questions, so if your characters are asking direct questions, they must have question marks.  In narrative, if the author is asking an open question, that must also be followed by a question mark.
John watched from the window.  What was he supposed to do?

Indirect questions don’t need questions, even if they sound as though they might:
Now where could it be, you’ve hidden it so well.
I don’t suppose you care much.
I wonder if he’s bringing Dave with him.

Something else that writers struggle with is where to place a question mark if the when using interior dialogue or character thoughts. For example:
Now what, he wondered.
Now what? he wondered.

The first example reads more like a statement, and doesn’t look right, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to place the question mark directly after the question being asked, as per the second example. 

The other thing to remember is not to place a full stop or a comma after a question mark after question marks or exclamation marks because they already include the full stop.
So what about exclamation marks? (Notice this is a direct question, therefore it needs the question mark).

Exclamation marks are always overused by writers. Beginners pepper their fiction with them, thinking that they will add drama or emotion, when in fact the narrative should do that work for them. 
The following examples are exclamation uses that are not required.

‘Oh, you sill thing!’
‘That’s not fair!’
‘I love this!’
The rule of thumb is this: use exclamation marks for genuine exclamations.
He saw the danger. ‘Stop!’
Terror rose up her throat. ‘Help!’

The dash is another one of those little punctuation marks that should be used effectively and in moderation. They can be used singularly or as a pair to parenthesise a phrase.

Pairs are often used in place of commas to separate parts of the narrative, for instance:
The fact that she lied – and she knew this – made Jane angry.

The separated part ‘and she knew this’ is informing the reader, like a little aside.  The sentence still makes sense without it. The same is true of this example:
The part she’d dreaded – the climb – made her stomach bunch.

Always make sure that when you separate narrative with dashes, it makes sense when you read it, otherwise you lose the effect you are trying to achieve and it loses readability.
Singular dashes are often used to add dramatic tone to a surprising end to a sentence.

He tripped over his feet – by then it was too late, and he fell down the slope.
He swung the pole – angry at the intruder...

Dashes can also be placed at the end of a sentence to show a speaker has been interrupted or someone else has cut in with dialogue, for example:

‘I could always take the dog for a w--’
‘Don’t bother,’ she said.

All punctuation has a place in writing, but it’s how writers use it that matters.  Correct usage is paramount if writers want the right effect within their narrative. Knowing when and where to place punctuation is key.

Next week: Creating dramatic dialogue

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 1

Some things might seem simple to most writers, but sometimes the prospect of executing correct punctuation can bring many writers out in a cold sweat.
We all have different abilities and weren’t all born with the ability to execute perfect written English. That said, there are plenty of writers who have fallen into bad habits with their punctuation and wrongly assume an editor will correct all their mistakes for them. They won’t. That’s the job of the writer, so it pays to get on top of punctuation.

This simple checklist below is there to help those writers who struggle with punctuation. It shows how and when to use it, with examples of correct usage.
Full Stops/Period

It’s the single most important punctuation mark and yet the least understood by many writers. That’s because they don’t fully understand its significance to sentences, or how to use it to their advantage.
Full stops in the right places can not only change the tone of sentences, but they can alter the pace and flow and they can add or detract impact for the reader.

The most common mistake among new writers the use a comma in place of a full stop.  That means the comma becomes overused and sentences become overly long or clunky.
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence. But how they’re used makes all the difference. Full stops in the right places show assertiveness. They show breadth. Depth. Pace. They create better sentences.

Now, if I had written the above paragraph differently, without the full stops placed strategically, and I’d used more commas, then it would look like this:-
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence, but how they’re used makes all the difference, because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

While there is nothing too wrong with the above paragraph, other than being longer, the construction loses impact. There is no pace, no tone and certainly no assertiveness created by the first example.
Here’s another example. Which do you think is the better strategic full stop placement?

David reached for the light, felt the darkness invade his senses, pressing against him heavily.
David reached for the light. He felt the darkness invade his senses. It pressed against him, heavy.

Where sentences are concerned, writers should consider their construction, and what they really want to convey to the reader. Placing full stops in the right places helps them achieve that.

A comma indicates a short break within a sentence, a pause for breath, before continuing. They add clarity to sentences by grouping together or separating words or phrases, or they can separate a clause from the main sentence. For example:

One, two, three, go!
I used carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes and leeks in my stew…
He was alone, afraid, so I went to help.

It’s where the writer places the comma that demonstrates the right impact for the reader. Take these examples:

You can have it, too.
You can have it too.
You can, have it too.

Grammatically speaking, the first example is the correct one. It’s clear in intention and doesn’t show any ambiguity. The construction of the other two examples isn’t good, so the sentences are weakened. The last example is grammatically incorrect, so don’t make this kind of mistake in your narrative.

There are many different commas, too, like vocative commas and series commas.
Vocative commas are used when someone is addressed.  ‘Morning, John’, ‘Hi, Sue’ or ‘Welcome, Doctor.’ The comma separates the greeting from the person being greeted.

The thing with commas is that it’s also very easy to create ambiguity if placed incorrectly in the sentence.  For example, many writers (beginners and experienced alike) fall for this type:
What’s on, Pedro?
What’s on Pedro?

The first one is correct because the comma denotes a short pause while asking Pedro a question. The second one is asking what’s on him.  A piano?  A sheet? A huge spider?  See how the lack of comma creates ambiguity and shows how the sentence can change in meaning? Be careful to avoid this.

The series comma, which is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma, is a comma placed before the co-ordinating conjunction (and, nor, or) when there is a series of words. It is often used to give an extra pause in longer sentences so that they read better. I used an Oxford comma in an earlier example:

…because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

The series comma has been placed directly after the word ‘pace’ and before the co-ordinating conjunction of ‘and’.
The thing to remember with commas is to use them only when necessary.  Don’t overuse them – that’s what other punctuation is for. 

Apostrophes can cause lots of confusion, but there’s no real need to fear them.

They are used to contract words such as can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), don’t (do not) etc. They also show possession – Jane’s car, the boys’ lockers, David’s toy, the car’s interior.  In these examples, the car belongs to Jane, the lockers belong to the boys, the toy belongs to David and the interior belongs to the car.
One of the most simple contractions causes the most confusion – it’s and its. 

Always remember that it’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, whereas its means ‘belonging to it’.  Writers should always double check if it is the contracted form by reading the sentence aloud, for instance:
It’s raining outside – This is correct use.  It’s is contracted from ‘it is raining outside’.

Its eyes closed – This is correct. If you read the sentence as though it were a contraction, you’ll see it doesn’t look or sound right - ‘It is eyes closed.’  Therefore, ‘its’ is the correct form.
What about these examples? Correct or incorrect?  (Answers at the foot of the article).

It’s all in the genes.
It’s wrath became stronger.
Its time we got going.
It’s unlikely to happen again.
The bit between its teeth.
Hope its okay for you.
It’s time you knew your apostrophes!

It seems all fairly simple enough, but here’s where it gets a little more complicated.

Apostrophes are also required even if the noun is inanimate; for instance, the car’s engine, the pub’s door or two years’ probation.
It’s also worth noting that where plurals are concerned, apostrophes are not required, even if a noun ends in a vowel.  That means words such as bananas, tables, aeroplanes, vegetables etc, don’t have an apostrophe.

Take the earlier example of the boys’ lockers. The apostrophe is placed after the ‘s’ because in this sentence, boys is plural.  If it had been singular, it would be the boy’s locker. This denotes possession of the locker by the boy. 
If you’re still unsure, here are some other examples:

The girls’ dormitory – girls is plural.  The dormitory belongs to several girls.
The girl’s dormitory – girl is singular. The dormitory belongs to her.
The dogs’ walk – dogs is plural. There are several dogs walking.
The singer’s studio – Singer is singular.  The studio belongs to the singer.
The Managers’ meeting – managers is plural. There are several managers in the meeting.

It’s understandable that apostrophes, especially possessive ones, cause confusion, but the more you work with them, the better you understand them.

Answers to the apostrophe examples:-

It’s all in the genes P
It’s wrath became stronger (Should be its) Ò
Its time we got going Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s unlikely to happen again P
The bit between its teeth P
Hope its okay for you Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s time you knew your apostrophes! P

Next week: Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2