Write Honest Dialogue, You Racist Swine

Hi Folks,

The following is a guest post by my friend, professional fiction writer and ghost writer Dan Baldwin.

Billy Ray Watkins stood in the doorway of the old shack where the unfortunate sharecropper was kept prisoner. Watkins, 300 pounds of angry bigotry and hate, pounded his fist, sneered and wiped the chewing tobacco spittle from his lips. He grinned and said, “You lacking-in-a-proper education, fatherless son of the African veldt, I’m going to smack the doodoo out of your ebony tushie.”

Writers have an unspoken contract with their readers and that is to write with honesty, especially dialog. To write any other way is to break that contract, disappoint or even enrage your reader, and put your writing career on the fast track to the “$1 Each” cardboard box at the front of the foodstore. To write any other way produces drivel like the lead paragraph in this post.

My thriller Sparky and the King takes place in the 1960s Deep South. The plot involves members of the Klan and organized crime figures bent on vengeance against the influence of “race music” embodied by one Elvis Presley. Honest writing demanded that I used the language of those people when I wrote sections of the book in which they appeared. Some of that writing was uncomfortable, but necessary.

Honest dialog can challenge a writer not only in the writing of it, but also in the selling. I tried to explain to an agent who objected to the racial hatred in the terms used by my characters. I said, “Three hundred pound murdering racists in the Deep South don’t say ‘people of color.’”

Honesty isn’t always easy to write. I’ve heard “How can you write such filth?” more than once. Honest writing invites criticism, much of it off course and unfair. My mother was a devout Christian lady and every time I gave her one of my novels I always warned, “Now Mom, remember it’s not me saying and doing all those bad things; it’s the characters.” She understood. I gave a copy of Sparky to my doctor and she understood – I think. However, every time I’ve been in for an exam since, she’s had an armed guard in the room, so….

The bottom line for a writer is basic: If you want to write about certain people and aspects of our culture, you have to use the language appropriate to that time and place and those people. You’ll have to use foul language, unpleasant scenes, and despicable characters doing despicable things. If you can’t do that honestly, choose another subject so you can honor your contract with your reader.
Dan’s Quote of the Week: “If the Creator had a purpose in equipping us with a neck, he surely meant for us to stick it out.” Arthur Koestler

To learn more about Dan Baldwin and his work, please visit his websites at http://www.danbaldwin.biz or http://www.fourknightspress.com/. You can subscribe to either or both by emailing him at baldco@msn.com.

Expressing Tone

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 4/6/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

After my original posting of “sigh… present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative,” a couple of years ago, several writers emailed to ask why I titled that post the way I did, namely in lower case and repeating the main primary phrase. I thought my response was entertaining enough to warrant updating and posting here.

Actually, as is the case with many techniques I use, I stole that technique from television.

In a couple of episodes of Family Guy, the writers did a take-off of Star Wars.

Of course the take-off was pure satire. The writers took pains to point out major flaws in the Star Wars story. They also pointed out places where dialogue began with a decision, wandered pretty much aimlessly for awhile, then returned with a new decision that would better serve the story.

In the actual story, the dialogue was written and delivered with excitement and pleading and firm resolve, as it should be. In the Family Guy version it was DOA, as evidenced by the flat-lined, deadpan delivery.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker flies off to some star system to study under Yoda, the Jedi master of masters. After some playful interaction, at the end of which Yoda finally admits who he is, Luke tells Yoda he has come to learn the ways of the Force.

Yoda, in so many words, says no, he will not train Luke. But after much pleading and wailing and gnashing of teeth (about a half-hour of movie time, if I remember correctly), Yoda finally relents.

In the Family Guy version, it went much quicker than that.

1. Luke flies up and asks Yoda to train him.

2. Yoda says, “No, I will not train you in the ways of the Force.” Wait two beats. “Okay, I will train you in the ways of the force.”

And that’s what I had in mind when I wrote “present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative.” I preceded it with <sigh> to flatten it out a little further.

Some probably will notice that my delivery is not the same structure as that in the Family Guy episode. In mimicking the original story, they began with “no” and progressed to “okay.”

But because most who read this blather already know I’m staunchly entrenched against the inane idiocy of writing narrative in present tense, I saw no reason to do the same. Though perhaps it would have been more effective.

So consider this a revision of the title if you need one:

present-tense narrative is evil. no, wait. present-tense narrative is great. please write in present-tense narrative.

Ah, it was also called to my attention that my posts are sometimes too long (and I assume not entertaining or educational enough) to warrant reading them all the way through.

Well, at this late stage in my life I can hardly notch-up the entertainment value of my drivel, so from here on out I’ll do my best to shorten it a bit. 🙂 Maybe I’ll post a little more often too. Maybe.

‘Til next time, happy writing…


I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.


S-stuttering an’ St-stammering an’ St-stuff

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 9/10/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

As I write this, I just had an excellent question from an acquaintance in Tucson who wrote that she had bought my Punctuation for Writers a few years ago at a Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA) meeting and had found it useful. However, it had not mentioned how to write a character’s stuttering, stammering speech.

I thought her question laid a great foundation for a blog post. She wrote,

“I am now doing a “down and dirty” edit/proofreading of a work for a friend. The main character stutters, and the way the dialogue is presented is very distracting. … I have been on-line looking for guidance in writing stuttering, but I need a source that I know is legitimate (for lack of a better word) and is one that I can say to the author, ‘Harvey Stanbrough says do it THIS way. He knows what he’s talking about!'”

She’s such a nice lady, isn’t she? 🙂 So anyway, here’s my response, expanded just a bit to provide a little more extensive example:

I r-r-recom-m-mend you wr-write st-st-stuttering like th-this. Just remember to s-spell the entire first sound of the st-stutter before the h-hyphen. (And be careful not to overspell it, by which I mean, don’t spell what you don’t want pronounced.)

After all, s-stutter is not quite the same as st-stutter or stu-stutter, and p-pronounced is not the same as pr-pronounced or pro-pronounced. Read them aloud and you’ll see what I m-mean.

M-most often you’ll w-want to repeat only the f-first letter of a word, or a single conson-n-nant later in the w-word. B-be careful of repeating the f-first l-letter of a w-word like l-letter though because the lower-case L l-looks like a one (1) and c-can be distracting all b-by itself.

However, you’ll w-want to use the first t-two letters of a word like th-though b-because the TH forms a single sound, almost as if TH is a letter b-by itself.

And as with all phonetic and other d-dialect spellings, d-don’t o-o-overd-do it. The g-good p-part about spelling s-stammering is that it’s n-not quite as labor intensive as other t-types of phonetic spelling. Th-those who s-stammer often d-don’t s-stammer on the s-same word or syllable all the t-t-time.

Okay, enough of th-that. When you spell stammering speech, be sure to use the hyphen to indicate the “break.” It isn’t really a break, and it definitely is not a pause (as that created by a comma or em dash, for example).

As I mention in Punctuation for Writers (get it at Smashwords or Amazon) the hyphen is the only mark of punctuation that actually speeds the reader up, making him read two words as if they were one, as in “It was a dark-green Cadillac.”

So we use that speeding-up property of the hyphen to indicate the stutter or stammer by rushing the reader through two individual but repeated sounds as if they were one.

Next time you get m-mega b-bored, write some s-stammering speech for a little while. It b-becomes ad-d-d-dictive.

‘Til next time, happy w-writing!


I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Deep POV?

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 7/30/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

There’s been a great deal of talk in the past few months (when I wrote this) about a “new” technique called “deep point of view.” The truth is, deep POV is nothing new.

Most sources define it as a way to enable the reader to experience the scene as the character experiences it. In other words, don’t allow your narrator to keep the reader at arm’s distance by telling the reader what the character experienced. Instead, the narrator should simply describe the scene (that’s the narrator’s only job anyway) and then step out of the way so the reader can see, hear, taste, smell and feel the scene for himself.

In still other words, Show, Don’t Tell.

Yep, that’s right. Deep POV is precisely the same thing as Show, Don’t Tell.

Both of them mean “don’t tell the reader what’s going on; describe the scene and then get out of the way; let the reader experience it right along with the character.”

I hear your next question: Well, Mr. Man, how might one accomplish such a thing?

As you well know, I’m up to here with writing instructors who, when asked to explain “Show, don’t tell,” say something like “Well, I can’t really explain it, but I know it when I see it.” If you ever hear that from any writing instructor in response to a question about something he’s trying to teach you, run. And for goodness’ sake, stop giving him your money!

Okay, if you really want your stories to be more interesting and more engaging for the reader (for you practical types, this translates directly to more sales), use deep point of view or show, don’t tell or whatever other label you want to slap on it.

To accomplish that, first

Don’t allow your narrator to use the sense verbs: saw, could see; smelled, could smell; tasted, could taste; heard, could hear; and felt, could feel.

Are there exceptions? Times when it would be better to allow your narrator to use a sense verb?

Probably, but most of the time, no. You should be able to recast a sentence so you get rid of the sense verb. (Again, this is only for the narrator. Characters can say and do pretty much whatever they want.)

Again, just describe the scene. Here are some examples:

  • She felt the ground tremble. (The ground trembled.)
  • She heard an explosion rock the city. (An explosion rocked the city.)
  • Second, don’t allow the narrator to tell the reader how a character feels about something or what the character “knew.” Instead, trust your reader. Let him infer from the character’s own dialogue or unspoken thought how the reader feels and what he knows:
  • John felt an uneasiness growing inside him. (An uneasy feeling grew inside John or An uneasiness grew inside John.)
  • John knew the sense of unease should be setting off alarms in his brain. (Just delete this pig of a sentence. Or get on with it: A sense of unease set off alarms in John’s brain.)

Third, when the characters are talking, don’t allow your narrator to step in and tell the reader what they’re saying:

Red walked into the room. “Hey, John. You wanna go to the movies later?”

John looked up. “Sure! What’s playing?”

Red told John Gone with the Wind was playing on the first screen and that Barbarosa was playing on the second screen. At that point, John reconsidered his options and told Red he’d rather not go because he had a lot of work to do.

Okay, this wasn’t a truly engaging conversation in the first place, but do you see how the narrator just stepped in between you and the characters and took over? That will tick off even the most loyal reader.

Using deep POV (or Show, Don’t Tell or whatever) really is just good manners. Just remember that every time your narrator speaks, he’s stepping between the reader and your story, the reader and your characters, the reader and whatever tension is going on. Therefore, when the narrator speaks it should be absolutely necessary.

For much more on this and other narrative tips, consider picking up my ebook, Narrative in Fiction: Whispers from the Background. I even more strongly recommend Notes from Writing the World. It contains the full text of the narrative book and five more writing how-tos from my writing seminars.

By the way, I’ve decided to revive my copyediting service. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Daily Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Creating Characters: Resources

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/12/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

Odd… I think I’ve never written a post on Creating Realistic Characters. I taught a seminar on the subject [in May 2013] in Bisbee, and I taught the same seminar in Tucson in February. Attendance was low on that one—meaning the market’s saturated—so I probably won’t teach it again for a couple years.

After the seminar in Bisbee was over, I realized it might be a good idea to bounce at least major characters—the protagonist and the antagonist—against Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Doing so will help the author not only understand the character better, but it might also help the author assign particular character traits, quirks and eccentricities.

Certainly a character who still hasn’t mastered and moved beyond the Physiological level (his needs are only air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion) would have different personality traits than one who had achieved any of the higher levels. The former character also would express those traits through different personality quirks and eccentricities than would the latter. Not really heady stuff, but something to think about.

After I shared the above bit of information with the folks at Bisbee via email, I received a response from one of my friends there (Thanks Lucinda!) who suggested a visit to the Human Metrics website.

At Human Metrics this particular link will open on the Jung Typology Test. Lucinda mentioned that her acting and communication students use it and find it interesting. I can add that it’s also a bit eye-opening, or it was for me. I recommend it.

Of course, if you answer the questions as your protagonist or antagonist would answer them, it will help inform (and form) those characters. It will help assign or explain character traits, personality quirks and eccentricities, and even  help the author initiate or resolve character arcs.

Why do I believe it will help? Because according to the site itself, having taken the test, you will

  • Obtain your 4-letter type formula according to Carl Jung’s and Isabel Briggs Myers’ typology, along with the strengths of preferences and the description of your personality type
  • Discover careers and occupations most suitable for your personality type along with examples of educational institutions where you can get a relevant degree or training
  • See which famous personalities share your type
  • Access free career development resources and learn about premium ones
  • Be able to use the results of this test as an input into the Jung Marriage Test™ … to assess your compatibility with your long-term romantic partner

How could that not be a good tool for creating a well-rounded protagonist or antagonist?

I don’t doubt that there are other online personality assessment tests out there. If you have discovered any that you found useful, please share those in a comment in the form below. That way anyone who chooses to check back will see the information as well.

That’s it for this time. Until later, happy writing!


Note: I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Narrative, Dialogue and the Fantasy of Balance

Note: This post first appeared in my blog in 2012. I’ve updated it with new information.

Hi Folks,

Seems like every other week or so someone reports to me that a writing instructor or contest judge or other self-appointed expert has advised that the writer should use less dialogue and more narrative in a given story. Recently, a respondent recalled the exact wording the professor of ludicrosity used:

“If you change a lot of this dialogue to narrative, the story will be a lot more interesting. All fiction should be about forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative.”

What? ALL fiction SHOULD BE about forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative?

Okay, really, honestly, seriously, there is a lot wrong with that statement.

First, nobody who has any knowledge of how to write fiction can possibly say with the slightest bit of sincerity that any rule applies to “ALL” fiction. If they try it, stop listening.

Second, the story will not be more interesting if you change dialogue to narrative. Actually, the reverse is true because you’re getting rid of a direction character-reader connection (dialogue) in favor of a middle man narrator (and then this happened). Ugh.

Third, if you believe “All Fiction Should Be” forty percent dialogue and sixty percent narrative, what’s to stop you from believing the next so-called expert who tells you the ratio of dialogue to narrative should be thirty/seventy or twenty/eighty or ten/ninety or any of those in reverse?

Oh, and fourth, as my Psych 101 instructor said roughly a b’jillion years ago, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself, and definitely don’t ‘should’ on anyone else.”

Seriously, it’s a nasty habit. Don’t do it.

I also noticed two interesting facts about people who spew numbers and talk about achieving a “balance” between dialogue and narrative:

  1. They don’t actually write fiction themselves, and
  2. They never provide a concrete reason. Never.

Now you probably already know what I think about so-called experts who can’t provide the rationale for their advice. Briefly, if you can’t explain ad nauseam what you’re teaching, shut up. Seriously.

If your standard line is “Well, I can’t explain it but I know it when I see it” or “I can’t explain it but this is right, trust me,” ummm NO. You need to either teach something different or maybe get a job in which all you have to remember is to ask whether the customer wants fries with his order.

Okay, so here’s MY rationale for saying the guy was wrong to spout such inane advice:

Dialogue provides the reader with a direct, intimate line to the characters, the people who are actually living the story. Because it directly engages the reader, even bad dialogue is automatically more interesting than any narrative. Not that you should “give yourself permission” (or whatever they’re saying now) to write bad dialogue.

Narrative on the other hand is intrusive. Even necessary narrative, which is to say narrative that is written to describe the scene. In every case, the narrator comes from outside the storyline to tap the reader on the shoulder and talk for a moment. If the moment is too long or unnecessary, the interruption will cause the reader to stop reading and find something less annoying to do. In effect, your narrator will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Some narrative is necessary, but remember this guideline: The narrator’s only task is to describe the scene.

The good narrator is a tame narrator. He isn’t allowed to offer his opinion, comment on the state of the world, describe a character’s emotional state of being or use (except very sparingly) verbs that indicate physical or emotional senses: saw, could see; heard, could hear; smelled, could smell; tasted, could taste; felt, could feel; or knew.

Instead, the good narrator will simply describe the scene and let the reader see, hear, smell, taste and feel right along with the character as the scene unfolds. Here are a couple of examples:

Good: A few minutes later she heard the front doorknob turn and the door squeal open.

Better: A few minutes later the front doorknob turned and the door squealed open.

Good: As she entered the house, she could smell the acrid odor of sizzling electrical circuits.

Better: As she entered the house, the acrid odor of sizzling electrical circuits stung her nose.

Incidentally, this is also what writing instructors mean when they say “Show, don’t tell.” That snappy little saw actually means “Don’t let your narrator tell the reader what’s going on; instead have him just describe the scene so the reader can see for himself what’s going on.” The former is easier to remember, but the latter makes more concrete sense.

Now, I’m the first to admit that not all stories lend themselves to dialogue. Some stories need more narrative than dialogue. Some even need to be written only in narrative. (The “tamed narrator” bit still applies though.)

But any time anyone tells you a story must (or should) be xx% dialogue and xx% narrative, follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Immediately, if silently, decide against taking any advice from that person, ever; then
  2. (if you want to have a little fun) Ask him to explain his rationale.
  3. Cross your arms, don a knowing look, and wait.

If your lifelong dream has been to see a guy’s head explode, I hope you will enjoy the show.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

More Real Dialogue Tips

Hi Folks,

In the previous post I mentioned the nuances of the stuff between the quotation marks. Here’s a second installment on dialogue tips. This is all about the nuances. If you have questions about any of these, please ask in the comments section. Thanks!

Well-written dialogue should

  • be colorful, especially the dialogue of flat or secondary characters, and even more especially if the flat or secondary character is used to foreshadow a later event. Strive to write each line of dialogue so well that the reader will remember it.
    • why? because flat or secondary characters, if they’re in a story at all, are there to serve a specific purpose, like foreshadowing for example. They or what they say should be memorable.
  • differentiate the characters from each other and enable the reader to identify the same characters in different situations. (A character will act and speak differently in different situations.)
  • have the rhythms, the immediate give and take, of real speech. Also, the use of contractions is important, just as it is in everyday speech, unless your character is a librarian who Speaks. Very. Succinctly. And. Precisely. With. No. Contractions.
    • I don’t recommend having a character like that. If you do, I recommend letting her hang around only as long as is essential to the story.
  • be emotion-laden, both on and beneath the surface.
  • reveal the character’s relationship to the various people with whom he or she talks.
  • give the reader a sense of time and place.
  • reveal the character’s reaction to his surroundings and to the other characters with whom he shares the scene.

General dialogue techniques

  • Use dialogue to reveal the character of the character — who the character really is, how he feels about a particular situation or another character — not always with what is said, but with how it is said, and often with what is not said.
    • “You lied to me! You said you were going for a drive.”
    • “C’mon, Baby. I didn’t say I was going alone.”
  • Allow characters to interrupt each other. This keeps the reader involved in the conversation, as if she’s eavesdropping. (To form an em dash to show interrupted dialogue, use either two unspaced hyphens — like this — or an em dash — like this. Do not use an elipsis… unless dialogue trails off or a character’s speech is halting. See examples above.)
  • Allow characters to answer a question with a question. This technique is excellent for subtly setting up, or hinting at, a conflict.
    • “If you knew she’d be there, why did you go?”
    • “What difference does it make who was there?”
  • Use ragged, non-linear dialogue. Use sentence fragments. The most common is the sentence with the implied you or I as the subject.
    • “Stop!” “Don’t even think about it!” “C’mon, give me the gun.”
  •  Avoid using substitutes for “said” in tag lines. (You’ve heard this before, yes?) “He said” or “She said” is usually the best choice except when the tag line can be eliminated in short passages. (The definition of “short passage” is left to the discretion of the writer.) Sometimes eliminating the tag lines will cause the reader to pay closer attention to the story. (Witness Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

Next time we’ll discuss the use of verbs, especially action verbs. They are essential to the wellbeing of your story.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

Real Dialogue Tips

Hey Folks,

Because dialogue comes directly from the character’s mouth to the reader’s ear, no other part of your story is more intimate with the reader. No other part of the story will do more to engage the reader directly.

Dialogue dialogue consists of three elements: two parts narrative and one part nuance. The narrative parts are tag lines and brief descriptive narrative. Nuance is composed of the subtleties of implication. What your character says is never more important than how she says it, as dictated by your use of punctuation, word choice, and sentence structure.

Tag Lines

The purpose of tag lines—Tag lines exist ONLY to let the reader know which character is speaking. (Some call these narrative beats.) They do not stand alone. They consist of either the character’s name or the appropriate personal pronoun and a simple intransitive verb that indicates utterance. The best verb to use is “said.”

More exciting tag line verbs—If someone tells you to use more exciting tag line verbs they don’t know what they’re talking about. Always using “he said” or “Susan said” is boring, but that’s a good thing. Tag lines should be very brief and boring so the reader can skip quickly over them and get back to what matters. An “interesting” tag line will pull the reader from the story line.

Reverse constructions—There is never a good reason to use a reverse construction (verb first) in a tag line, said Harvey. Again, that calls attention to the tag line. And again, the tag line exists only to let the reader know which character is talking. It doesn’t set mood, tone, or any of those other literary terms.

Punctuation with tag lines—When the tag line occurs before the sentence, or when it occurs after a sentence that would normally end with a period, the tag line is always attached to the sentence with a comma.

Brief Descriptive Narrative Passages

Descriptive narrative passages sometimes are confused with tag lines, but the key word here is descriptive. Also, BDNs stand alone. They are complete sentences, separate of the line of dialogue. The descriptive narrative passage enables the reader to see a bit of the scene.

Use action verbs in descriptive narrative passages. When you use action verbs, you will automatically use fewer adjectives and adverbs. Any unnecessary adjectives and adverbs will fall away of their own accord.

Because it will set the tone or mood or voice of the dialogue to come, the brief descriptive narrative passage should appear before the dialogue:

An impish smile creased her lips. “Almost finished there?” (This way we see the smile and hear her tone as she speaks.)

Most often, if the BDN appears after the dialogue, the reader will back up and re-read the dialogue with the new information in mind. This is an interruption in the flow of the reading, and every interruption is a chance to stop reading your story or book.

Brief interruptive narrative passages are used in the midst of dialogue to enhance the rhythm or to give the reader a brief glimpse of a changing setting. Dialogue is wonderful but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

In this excerpt from “Mama’s Taste in Men,” a short story, you’ll find no tag lines at all and only necessary brief descriptive narratives. Study it to see why the BDNs are where they are:

My fist relaxed and I reached for Joe Ray’s hand. “Mean it or not, you shouldn’t say bad things about my mama.”

He took my hand and I helped him to his feet. “I just said she had bad taste in men,” he said, wiping cow spit off his face with one hand and dusting off his coveralls with his hat. “Besides, it was only a joke.”

“Well, some things you just don’t joke about. Besides, that ain’t exactly what you said. You said if Mama’s taste for men was in her mouth, her breath would smell like dung.”

“That was the joke part.”

“Well, in the future, keep your stupid sense of humor to yourself.” I thumped his chest with my forefinger. “Else you could wind up covered with cow slobber. Besides, Jake’s okay. He just ain’t got no nose holes.”



Sam spoke up. “Nostrils. Nose holes are called nostrils.”

“How do you know?’

Lester, who generally knows what everybody knows, put in his two cents. “Everybody knows that, Vernon. Nostrils is short for nose holes.”

I snorted. “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

“Maybe dumb and maybe not so dumb, but it’s true all the same.”

Lester was tired of arguing, so Sam closed in for the kill. The Broden Brothers Tag Team. “We’ll wait ’til school and ask Miss Durb. She knows all about such things.”

That was my cue to end it. “Fine. We’ll ask Miss Durb. But school ain’t ’til Monday and Mama’s wedding is tomorrow. So we’re on truce ’til Monday.” I stuck out my hand, palm down, offering them the sign of the truce. “Agreed?”

And the nuances of dialogue? That’s just how your character delivers the part within the quotation marks. The voice should be unique from one character to another. It’s whether the character says “Do you want to?” or “Do y’wanna?” or “You wanna?” It’s whether the character speaks tersely or succinctly or vaguely.

The character should always speak the way a REAL person (of the same gender, same race or ethnicity and same education level) from the same area in the same situation would speak. Not complicated at all, is it? (grin)

Use tag lines only when it’s absolutely necessary to let the reader know which character is speaking.

Use brief descriptive narratives (introductory or interruptive) to enhance the scene for the reader.

Follow these brief tips and your dialogue will be miles ahead.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

Writing Memoir

Wait! Before you click off ’cause maybe you aren’t interested in this topic, read this:

If you are NOT a subscriber yet over at FrostProof808.com and if you ARE a writer, you want to do yourself a favor and stop over there to read yesterday’s post. I think you’ll enjoy it. (grin)

Okay, now go ahead and read about Writing Memoir, below.

Hi Folks,

I’m pretty sure a lot of folks who read my blog are interested in writing memoir. This is not a how-to. This is a Go Ahead If You Want To post. Here, I’ll explain some things I think you might find helpful.

I often hear from folks who are considering writing a memoir, but wonder whether anyone other than their family will want to read it. They say things like, “My life just isn’t all that interesting, y’know?”

I always respond the same way. Your life is unique. You are a character on the world stage, and almost everyone is interested. Ever notice how much more interesting a famous sports figure or celebrity or Joe Schmuckatelly down the street becomes when you find out something unique about him? So if you’re considering writing a memoir, stop considering and start writing.

Consider this: Say a person lived his entire life in one room of a basement. He never went out, never saw anything but the basement walls. Aside from the sheer horror of that thought, this person might be said to have lived the most boring life ever. Now, given that, if that same person managed to write a memoir of his life in that basement, would you pay to read it? I would.

A few years ago a correspondent asked whether I’d written a  post about writing memoir. Specifically, she wanted to know whether it was all right to use the techniques of fiction while writing her own memoir.

Here’s my response:

Most of my blog posts pertain to writing in general, and therefore pertain as well to writing memoir. For example, the use of various types of punctuation, quotation marks, paragraphing, using strong action verbs rather than state-of-being verbs when possible, the difference between active and passive voice (don’t let the narrator use the “sense” verbs), etc.

But to answer your question specifically, memoir is MUCH more similar to fiction than dissimilar. Consider…

  • Fiction is how the writer remembers something that hasn’t happened yet. Memoir is how the writer remembers something that did happen. If different people write a memoir about the same event, each telling will be different.
  • Fiction is told from a particular point of view (usually the narrator), and memoir is told from a particular point of view, again, usually the narrator.

But what about using dialogue in memoir?

The writer was concerned that she couldn’t accurately quote dialogue unless perhaps she had recorded the dialogue of the day in her journals, or unless she could remember specifically what was said.

Another memoirist for whom I was editing awhile back had told me I absolutely was not allowed to “adjust” any of the dialogue she wrote down because “it’s written exactly as it was said.” I told her and the current correspondent the same thing:

Actually, you wrote the dialogue exactly as you remembered it was said, and we often hear things differently than they’re actually said. In other words, it’s simply dialogue. And as dialogue it serves more than one purpose.

Although certainly it’s meant to convey an accurate record of what was said, dialogue between characters (yes, even in memoir) immediately makes the reader lean in to the story, as if he’s eavesdropping. It forces the reader to be immediately engaged in the story, invested in it. And again, the dialogue doesn’t have to be exactly what was said word for word. After all, you aren’t transcribing for a court of law. (Yeah, as if THAT isn’t fiction.)

So how does a memoirist handle dialogue? Of course, you don’t want to tell outright lies in your memoir, but many memoirists take certain literary liberties when they encounter “missing” gaps even when they’re writing based on someone’s diary.

When you’re writing based only on your journals or your memory, shouldn’t you also feel free to fill in the gaps with literary license? And if that holds true for narrative, it holds true for dialogue as well.

In memoir, as in fiction, dialogue must be smoothed out so it both engages the reader and helps the reader through the story. What dialogue does have to be is interesting, and that isn’t hard to do. For the reader, it’s immediately interesting simply because it’s dialogue, a direct communication from the character to the “eavesdropping” reader.

As you write dialogue in your memoir, look at yourself as a translator. You’re translating the Spirit of the conversation, the essence, not the exact words. You’re getting your story out there, and that’s what matters.

And it really does matter. As a dear friend, Marilyn Pate, wrote about memoir, “Your story is unique. It is the treasure you take with you when you pass away unless it is written or recorded.”

Don’t take your stories with you. Write it down, at least for your children and grandchildren.

If you’re an aspiring memoirist, I have the same top two bits of advice for you that I have for all writers:

  1. Start writing.
  2. Don’t stop.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


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10 Lesser Mistakes Writers Make

Hi Folks,

First, a kind of news flash: We’ve extended the 50%-off sale on fiction over at StoneThread Publishing through Tuesday, January 14. To take advantage of this excellent sale,

  • Visit StoneThread Publishing to get the coupon codes for the titles you’re interested in, then
  • Click any cover to go to Smashwords.
  • Enter the coupon code for the book you want during checkout, and download your selected title in any ebook format (Kindle, Nook, Apple, Sony, etc.)

Thanks for your patience. 🙂 Now on to the blog post!

I called the mistakes I listed in my previous post, The Top 7 Mistakes Writers Make, labor intensive because there is no easy way for the writer or editor to resolve them. You just have to go through the manuscript bit by bit and repair or delete them as you find them. That’s more than a little difficult because, of course, you’re also looking for problems in sentence and paragraph structure, misspellings, errors or misleading use in punctuation, wrong word usages, inanities, bad simile and metaphor, etc.

With all of that going on, trying to remember to watch for a narrator overstepping his bounds by using sense verbs or using past tense when past-progressive is necessary or using gave, stood, or sat as throw-away verbs is a bit much even for a professional editor. That’s why it’s so important for you, the writer, to learn not to make those mistakes in the first place.

This time I’m listing a few “lesser” mistakes. These too are fairly common and they certainly can keep a manuscript from being accepted for publication. However, as a freelance editor I don’t mind these so much because they’re fairly easy to rectify. I (or you) can use Microsoft Word’s Find & Replace dialogue to repair or delete them quickly. (For an excellent tutorial on the invaluable Find & Replace feature, Click Here.)

He Said (or Thought) to Himself

No, he didn’t. He mumbled or muttered or whispered or said quietly or thought, but he didn’t say to himself. Don’t let the narrator write “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” in a tag line. It’s inane, redundant, and just plain silly. Allow your narrator to use “to himself,” “to herself,” or “to themselves” only if the narrator is talking about a character having a room “all to herself” or a character is “keeping to himself” etc.

Using “Took and” or “Reached and” or “Reached Out and” or “Reached Over and” or “Reached Across and” (You get the idea.)

Don’t allow your narrator to say a character “took and” something or “reached out and” or “reached over and.” In every case, you can lose the phrase and allow the reader to move to the meat of the action. For example,

If a character’s lying in bed reading and “He turned out the bedside lamp” the reader will see him reach. The narrator doesn’t have to say “He reached over (or out or across) and turned out the bedside lamp.”

She took her daughter’s hand and squeezed it. (Couldn’t she have squeezed it while it was still attached to her daughter? What you want here is She squeezed her daughter’s hand.)

She took a can of air freshener and sprayed the kitchen. (She sprayed the kitchen with air freshener.)

He reached out and picked up the TV remote. (He picked up the TV remote.)

She reached over and smacked him upside the head. (She smacked him upside the head or She did what came naturally.)

To easily and quickly find and correct these, key “took” or “reached” into the Find What block of your Find and Replace dialogue box.

Beginning a Sentence with “Suddenly” or “Instantly” or “Instantaneously”

Beginning a sentence with “instantly” or “suddenly” or anything similar is almost never a good idea. If something happens instantly, have your narrator get to it without delay so the reader can experience it. If you force the reader to read the word “instantly” or “suddenly,” it slows the reading and waters down the immediacy of the action.

Likewise, I advise against using such words even later in the sentence. Please don’t try to get around this one by changing “Suddenly a shot rang out” to “A shot suddenly rang out” or “Instantly her eyes welled with tears” to “Her eyes instantly welled with tears.”

Other Misuses That Are Easy to Fix

Despite its widespread misuse because it sounds cool, “likely” is an adjective, not an adverb, and it is synonymous with “probable,” not “probably.” I cringe every time a weather guy says “It likely will rain tonight.”

Despite its widespread misuse, it’s never “try and.” It’s always “try to.” If you want to correc this one with Find & Replace, be sure to put “ try and ” (with spaces on both sides) in the Find What block and “ try to ” in the Replace With block. Otherwise, chances are you’ll replace things you don’t want to replace.

Try not to let your narrator use the phrase “she (he) knew.” Instead, just omit it and see whether the sentence works just as well. Most of the time it will.

The narrator very seldom (if ever) needs to use the words “now” or “today.” Past tense is the natural voice of narrative, and both of those refer to the present.

Try to avoid phrases like “he admitted” or “she had to admit that” or “he couldn’t deny that.” Such phrases answer a question that hasn’t been asked. Writing “he couldn’t deny that he was jealous” implies that someone asked him whether he was jealous. Likewise, writing “she had to admit that blah blah blah” implies that someone was interrogating her and she finally gave in. This is another example of the narrator over reaching.

Don’t write that a character “nodded her head yes” or “shook his head no.” When a character nods, it always means yes. When he shakes his head, it always means no.

Although it’s often misused, “while” always indicates a simultaneous passage of time. The writer most often wants “although” or “even though.”

‘Til next time, happy writing, and may all of you enjoy a happy and prosperous and free New Year.