For Purveyors of the Soup Sandwich

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 8/20/2013. 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.

I started to call this “Dueling Respondents” but that wouldn’t have been quite accurate. After all, as far as I know, the two writers who served as the catalyst for this post don’t even know each other.

One of those writers, upon reading my “Top 10 Mistakes Writers Make” argued, albeit lightly, that he had used many of the “mistakes” I argued against and that none of his readers seemed to care.

Point taken. Far be it from me to attempt to teach an old dog (I can talk because I’m an old dog too) new tricks, even if those tricks will help him retain readers.

The actual truth of the matter is that none of his readers seemed to care As Far As He Knows. That’s very different and more realistic than just assuming they didn’t care.

Most readers won’t bother to contact a writer to say “Hey, your book stinks.” Generally, I’ve found that most lay readers (those who are not also writers) have a dog’s outlook on life: if they can’t eat it or read it, they’ll tinkle on it and get on with their life.

Okay, to be absolutely fair, I should also mention that this particular author is a very strong writer and well-enough established that he probably can get away with some things that most of us wouldn’t be able to get away with. But that wasn’t the point.

The point was, having more readers is better than having fewer. Successful writers with bad habits also have a bad effect on writers who are younger in the craft.

Novices, while citing the success of other writers, often say silly things like “Well, Famous Author doesn’t use quotation marks around dialogue, so why should I?” or “Famous Writer’s work is replete with misplaced modifiers, so what’s wrong with them?” or “Famous Writer says adverbs are bad so I will never use an adverb.”

Or my personal-favorite avoidance clause: “The reader will know what I mean.” That, frankly, is a p-poor excuse for not learning and applying the craft. And no, when I wrote p-poor I wasn’t st-stammering. The reader will know what I mean.

The fact, plainly stated, is precisely this: Every single solitary time you write something that interrupts the reader, you’re running the risk of the reader having reached the point where he’s had enough. At that point, he’ll close your book and find something more enjoyable and less maddening to do.

I preach this constantly, even working it into seminars and classes and conversations and email exchanges that have nothing to do, directly, with the writer-reader interaction that occurs through your work. Yet some folks believe they’re immune, that “the reader will know what I meant.”

Of course, I’m a bit conflicted. As a writing instructor, I want what’s best for other writers. But I’m also a writer, and as more and more writers bow to mediocrity, the fewer I will have to compete against.

Okay, so if you honestly believe letting your narrator say the character “sat looking out the window” when she was already sitting or “gave his hand a shake” instead of saying “shook his hand” is a good idea, hey go for it.

If you believe it’s all right to let the narrator say in a tag line that your character “snickered” (or “laughed” or “cut in” or “gave back” or “returned” or “sentenced” or “tumbled out”) a line of dialogue instead of “said” a line of dialogue, that’s fine.

As an instructor, I have to shake my head in disbelief. But as a writer? Hey, I’m with you all the way!

If you believe the narrator saying the character “moved to the couch’s edge and pushed her glasses up her nose’s bridge” is as effective and clean as saying she “moved to the edge of the couch and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose,” that’s okay too.

If you believe it’s fine to let the narrator say “Bob’s nose pressed against the window” instead of “Bob pressed his nose against the window” or “Sharon’s legs raced wildly down the street” instead of “Sharon raced wildly down the street” or (Heaven forbid) “John’s eyes shot across the room” instead of “John quickly looked across the room,” PLEASE go ahead and write it that way.

If you think you should write “When he walked into the room several men sat at tables and others walked up or down the stairs” instead of saving reader confusion by writing “When he walked into the room several men were sitting at tables and others were walking up or down the stairs,” have at it.

And by all means, please, if you believe it doesn’t sound at all redundant and ludicrous to write “he thought to himself,” go right ahead.

At this point, I’m actually grinning, greedily and anxiously, and cheering for all those writers who know “the reader will know what I mean.” You betcha.

Oh, and the other respondent I mentioned at the beginning of this? She sent me an email recently. Here’s an excerpt:

I read only one chapter of a book I downloaded. That was as far as I could go.

“They both laughed. She nodded her head yes and they went in two opposite directions.”

And then there were words used incorrectly. For example, one guy was “nauseous” instead of “nauseated.” Then again, maybe he was. I never saw him. That was all I could take.

Do you suppose this reader (who also happens to be a very good writer) will contact the author of that book and tell him about these problems? Of course not. That isn’t her job.

The reader’s job is to suspend her sense of disbelief.

The writer’s job is to not buy it back.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

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!

Harvey

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!

Harvey

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.
Harvey

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.

Action Verbs

Hi Folks,

In the previous two posts I mentioned using action verbs in brief descriptive narratives. The same goes for longer narratives, of course.

There are three kinds of verbs: state-of-being verbs, linking verbs, and action verbs.

State-of-being verbs do not show action. As their name implies, they are used to indicate a state of being.

The state-of-being verbs are am, is, are, was, were, be, being and been. These are often accompanied by have, has, and had.

Linking verbs (and state-of-being verbs can act as linking verbs) do not take a direct object. They take a complement, which they link to the subject of the sentence; hence, their name.

A linking verb, when it is not one of the state-of-being verbs listed above, is a sense verb: That is, it gives the reader a sense of action rather than letting him see the actual action in a mental movie. Sometimes it actually invokes the reader’s own physical senses. In the examples below, the linking verb is underlined, and the complement appears in italic font:

Bill Clinton was the president. (See how “was” links Bill Clinton and the president?”

I feel angry. (Angry modifies the linking verb “feel.”)

I smelled hay and became confused. (Became links “I” and “confused.” Smelled is an action verb and hay is its direct object.)

Notice that in every case, the complement either describes the subject (the complement is an adjective) or could take the place of the subject (the complement is a noun or pronoun).

Action verbs are those that actually enable to reader to experience the action through the character and the narrator.

Whenever you write a noun, you place a picture in the reader’s mind. When you follow the noun with an action verb, the picture moves and enables the reader to see for himself what’s going on. This is why you often hear fiction instructors say you should show, not tell, the reader what’s going on.

When you use action verbs, you’ll also need and use fewer descriptive adjectives and adverbs. Any unnecessary ones will fall away of their own accord. This means you don’t have to “watch” for adjectives and adverbs.

The successful writer will, in effect, show a movie in the reader’s mind.

I’ve long believed the best way to teach a concept is through example and illustration. To illustrate why you should avoid state-of-being verbs and use action verbs whenever possible, consider the following:

John was angry.

This sentence contains a subject, John; a linking verb that’s also a state-of-being verb, was; and a complement that describes John, angry. Now, what do you know about John? What do you see in your mental movie? If you have a picture of John in mind at all, is the picture clear or vague?

John was very very angry.

How about now? Now do you have a better mental movie going on? Remember when I mentioned that using action verbs would reduce your dependence on adjectives and adverbs? Okay, now let’s try a sentence in which we allow the reader to see John’s anger for himself:

John kicked the door down, stormed across the livingroom, and smacked Steve in the mouth.

How’s that mental movie now? Is there any doubt in your mind that John’s upset? (But notice that the words angry or upset or mad never appear.)

If you choose to add adjectives or adverbs to the example, they will only enhance it. For example, he “kicked the solid oak door down” is more powerful than “he kicked the door down.” Then again, would you need “stormed angrily” instead of “stormed”? Nope. It’s redundant. “Stormed” conveys that anger connotation without the adverb.

BY THE WAY, if you haven’t been following Dean Wesley Smith over at http://deanwesleysmith.com, over the past few days he’s been posting some EXCELLENT instruction on how to write sales copy (blurbs, descriptions, etc.) for fiction stories and novels. I strongly advise you to check it out. You can copy the chapters of the book he’s writing on that topic and paste them into a Word document to read later. He doesn’t mind. It’s why he posts them live.

Until next time, happy writing.

Harvey

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.”

“Nostrils.”

“What?”

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!

Harvey

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.

Harvey

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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.

Harvey