Monday, January 31, 2011

Helpful Hint #3: Dialogue tags

Limiting the variety of dialogue tags, a "rule of thumb" in the literary world, was very difficult for me to accept. As a second grade writing teacher I often encouraged my students to think of other words to describe their characters' dialogue other than 'said'.

Yet during the production of my first novel, my editor suggested that using more flowery dialogue tags were unnecessary. I remained unconvinced, but took her advice half-way...meaning I deleted some of my tags but kept many of them. Even after reading some well written posts on the subject I couldn't bring myself to agree with what was essentially the opposite of what I had been teaching my students.

However, I began to pay attention to tags used in other books...those by prolific, best-selling authors. As you might have guessed, there was little variation from the word 'said'. And when the speaker was obvious, there might not be a dialogue tag at all.

So I have tried to scale down my use of 'commented' and 'reproached' and 'moaned' (etc).

In addition to that is the overuse of adverbs hooked to tags such as 'she said joyfully'. This is a particular weakness of mine. I am learning, however, that if I take more care in what my characters are actually saying, I don't have to tell my readers how it was said. I can assume they are smart enough to know.

Take for example, "I'm so excited!" Sara shouted gleefully or "Thank you so much," she whispered thankfully. The adverbs are completely redundant. We can infer quite easily the speaker's emotion from the words.

For more on this suggestion check out the following articles:

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hint #2: Does everyone have to have a name?

Author and writing consultant, Rick Shelton, made a statement in a recent workshop that has stuck with me. Although he was giving a Writing Workshop on how we as educators could better instruct children in the art of writing, his truths hit home with me, an author, as well.

"A character should only have a name if he or she does something important in the story."

Hmm. After I thought about it, the statement was so obvious I wanted to slap my hand against my forehead. After all, if the character is so minor that he contributes little or nothing to the plot, why do we care what his name is?

As readers of fiction, we want to connect with the characters in the story. And one of the first ways anyone connects is by knowing another's name. Yet if I give a name to everyone in the story, it devalues the main characters, as well as disconnects the reader. Once a character is named, we automatically begin to picture that character in our mind. We try to form an opinion of that character. Are we going to like this person or not? How is he important to the plot? What is he going to do?

Take for example the beginning (paraphrased) of a recent young author's short story:

Me and my friends, Mallory Grace and Susan and Emily and Emma Claire all went to the mall. Mallory Grace and I decided to get an ice cream. I got chocolate chip and Mallory Grace ordered a plain vanilla. While we were sitting in the food court enjoying our frozen treats we saw some cute boys.

Well, okay. Where did Susan and Emily and Emma Claire go? If they are no longer going to be in the story, do I really have to know their names? The answer, of course, is no.

The young author could just as easily have begun with something like, "I went to the mall with Mallory Grace and some friends."

Again, although the examples are elementary, the truths are still valid. So consider, please, if it is truly important to give a name to the post man, the bus driver, and the sister-in-law's pet poodle. Unless they have more than a ten second part in the story, it's not impolite to allow them to remain nameless.

If you found this hint helpful, you may want to read more from Rick Shelton:

A Tale of Forgiveness, Redemption, and Love

Until Forever, a Christian romance written by Darlene Shortridge is a modern day tale of tragic loss, the consequences of poor actions, the choice of forgiveness and love, and God's will for our lives.

Shortridge shares the story of Jessi, a fearful mother who pours her whole existence into her child, and her husband, Mark, an alcoholic. Neither feels deserving of love, even from each other. Tragic circumstances tear apart their tenuous relationship and years pass before they see each other again.

Meanwhile, God continues to work in their lives through praying Christians who seek to share God's love and plan of salvation with both hurting souls. As the story unfolds we see one of the two make a choice to accept Christ and the huge difference it makes in that character's life. The leaves the question, will Mark and Jessi both find the Lord? And will they forgive each other and regain their marriage?

The plot of this story was compelling and powerful. Although the author's style of writing was not one I typically enjoy, there were time where I was surprised, parts where I cried, and scenes where I rejoiced right along with the characters. For those women who enjoy a tale of loss and love, written with a strong Christian hand, this book if for you!

Helpful Hint #1: POV

Writers have several options when choosing which point of view to use when writing fiction. Since I have no experience whatsoever with writing in the first person, this post shall be limited to the one suggested by most instructors (limited third person) and how it differs from one I have noticed in some other new writers' works (omniscient)...including my own.

A limited third person point of view allows the reader to know the thoughts of the main characters in a story.

The omniscient point of view gives the reader everyone's thoughts, sometimes including the writer's.

Everything I have read about point of view recommends the use of limited third person and strongly discourages the use of omniscient POV.

Most people who read fiction want to identify with a character in the story. They invest a part of themselves into that character, and for better or worse, say to themselves either, "That could be me" or "I wish that were me".

People can't emotionally invest in every character in the book. And if they are constantly made privy to the thoughts and motives behind every character, rather than better understanding the story (as young authors believe will be the case by sharing every internal detail), the opposite happens. The reader feels disconnected from all the characters.

Experts say it is better storytelling to choose to reveal on the main characters' internal musings. I have struggled with this personally. I wanted my readers to understand what all the characters in the room were thinking, feeling that it helped to better explain their actions. However, it was pointed out to me that since we as readers connect with only one character at a time, it is better to choose one character and relate the whole scene from his point of view. Now, as writers we can still show what other characters are thinking through the eyes of the main character.

Let's look at two examples:

Mike wanted desperately not to be the last person chosen this time. He stood as tall as he could, puffed his chest out as much as he dared and held his head high. Joe and Tim, the team captains stood at the front of the group. Joe looked at all the other boys, and picked the ones he thought had the best athletic ability. He hated to lose. Tim was more thoughtful. He didn't like to see anyone left out, and he had noticed that Mike was often chosen last.

This is an example of omniscient point of view. We know what Mike and Joe and Tim all think. And its difficult to connect with anyone, because we know what everyone is thinking! Let's look at the same scene strictly from Mike's point of view:

Mike wanted desperately not to be the last person chosen this time. He stood as tall as he could, puffed his chest out as much as he dared and held his head high. Joe and Tim, the team captains stood at the front of the group. When it was Joe's turn to choose, Mike made a concerted effort to make eye contact. He watched Joe scan the faces of the other boys in line. For a split second their gazes locked, and Mike held his breath. Then just as quickly Joe's gaze moved down the line. Mike let his breath out slowly, like a deflated balloon, as Joe remained true to form and chose the best pitcher.

Next it was Tim's turn. Mike's heart hammered in his chest and his hands felt sweaty as he waited for Tim to make his choice. He closed his eyes for a moment, willing Tim to see him, to really
see him. When he opened his eyes, Tim was looking right at him. Unlike Joe, Tim's gaze didn't skitter away immediately. He seemed to ponder his choice carefully. Please, thought Mike. Please pick me.

Who do you, the reader, identify with? Mike, of course. We see the whole scene unfold through his eyes. We feel his emotions, and we long for him to be chosen as well. Do we still get a sense of Joe's and Tim's character? Absolutely. Can we imagine what those two boys are thinking by their actions? Yes. And yet we weren't told their thoughts...we were shown their thoughts through Mike's interpretation of their actions.

For more on this discussion, check out the following link from award winning author, Robert J Sawyer:

Hopefully Helpful Hints from a Humble Heart

I know, corny alliteration, right? Shall I dive right into the explanation?

Becoming a published author and entering the realm of book fairs, literary chat rooms, and Facebook Author groups has broadened my acquaintance with others. As a newly published author, who longs for support and affirmation from fans, I try to support those like me. I search for least one book at these venues that truly interests me. If my chat with the author is memorably pleasant, and/or the book intrigues me, I will purchase it.

So, in short, I have read more first-time authors' books in the last year than ever before. And I would like to offer some suggestions or hints to help us all become better storytellers. Many of these suggestions are practices I still struggle with in my own I offer them humbly. Most are hints not original to me, rather they have been made to me by instructors of writing, educated editors, and other more polished authors.

So the next two weeks, I will post "helpful hints" regarding the art of writing. Please keep in mind that I am in no way suggesting I know it all, or feel I am a better writer than anyone else. However, when my own weaknesses were pointed out to me, it became extremely difficult to enjoy a story when I read those same weaknesses in others' works.

Perhaps you might join me in offering insights as well? Together we can encourage each other and learn to continually improve our craft.

Hint #1 to follow shortly.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

When We Wait

In the meantime.

Have you ever wondered about that phrase? Separately: in the mean time.

That's my mental picture during times of waiting. They are mean times; often periods filled with impatience, anxiety, and foreboding. Waiting is not anywhere near my list of things I enjoy. Probably because I like control... and a plan. So when I'm stuck "in the meantime", waiting for an answer, or an event, or an outcome, it can become a feeling akin to being set adrift in the open sea with only a small flotation ring.

That's not the way it should be. I know that. I know that. There are a thousand overused cliches dedicated to the purpose of keeping one from sinking in the sea of worry and inactivity while waiting for one thing or another: Stop and smell the roses. Don't wish your life away. Enjoy the moment. Its the little things in life that count. Carpe diem.

So why do I fall back into an attitude of impatient restlessness every time? Lack of faith or trust? Maybe. Probably.

Worship is easy for me—I have so much to be thankful for and am constantly in awe that the creator of the universe longed for my love, and relishes my relationship. And, in the end of all things, I know without a shadow of doubt that Romans 8:28 is true. God will work all things to the good of those who love him, who are the called according to his purpose. But I would be insincerely trite if I didn't acknowledge that in the meantime, the mean times, I often loose sight of that truth.

It's like a previous blog regarding God lighting our path. I want to know the endgame. I want an insider's peek at the grand scheme, the long range goal, the whole plan. Then my sea of uncertainty would be nothing but dried up land, and I could walk forward with calm assurance, in control.

Ahh, but that's the point, isn't it? As much as I want to be in control of my thoughts, my circumstances, my life, my goals, God wants the opposite. It's a battle I hope to lose one day, and in losing I know I will actually have the victory. Who better to give the reins to than the One who is expert in all things?

So today is another attempt to remind myself that the meantime does not have to be mean. It should not be filled with anxiety or impatience. It should be filled with focus, with purpose—doing good and righteous deeds, and giving glory to the one who deserves so much more than our praise.

I hope this will be a reminder that sticks with me for a long while....because chastisement is also not on my list of things I enjoy...but that's another blog topic entirely!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Hauntingly Hopeful Tale

How can a book be both haunting and hopeful? Susan Meissner manages it with a beautifully gentle pen in "Lady in Waiting".

I generally don't choose books whose plots focus on a couple with marital difficulties. I must confess, if the lure of sixteenth-century England had not caught my attention, I might not have chosen this one. And even as I struggled to identify with our modern day Jane, whose husband has decided he needs space, I eagerly consumed the pages dedicated to another Jane, one who lived in the 1500's.

A ring binds these two stories together. Found hidden within an ancient prayer book by Jane Lindsey, owner of an antique store in Upper West Side, Manhattan, the inscription on the inside of the band compels her to search out the original owner. As the story turns back in time to Lady Jane Grey, an elusive familiarity with that name whispered of a tragic end.

Meissner has a gift for creating beautiful pictures with her words, even when those pictures are filled with sorrow, longing, or uncertainty. Yet, with the inevitable events of history moving more swiftly than I wished for Lady Jane, Meissner leaves us with hope for Jane Lindsey. And in doing so, gifts us with hope for ourselves.

I would recommend this book without reservation to any woman who enjoys a touching tale. My thanks to WaterBrook Press for allowing me to read and review it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trusting the Light

A couple of Sundays ago I heard a profound explanations of a particular Bible verse. What made it even more incredible for me was that I never thought it needed one before.

We had a guest preacher at church; our previous youth minister and associate pastor, who moved to Maine several years ago as a church planter and evangelist. In the midst of sharing how the Lord called his family to missions in Maine, he said, "We thought the Lord was calling us to work in Maine for two years. But you know sometimes he chooses to only show us light at our feet."

He went on to quote the verse from Psalm 119:105: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path." (NIV) I had memorized that verse as a teenager, still love the way Keith Green turned it into a praise and worship chorus. I treasured it for the promise that the Lord would always show us the way we should go. Never did I question the difference between a lamp and a light. But I had never heard it explained the way Chris Johnson went on to share.

He said sometimes the Lord shows us just enough of his will (the path he has for us), that it is illuminated like a lamp at our feet. We know where we are, that we are on the path, but we cannot see far. Why does the Lord allow us only this brief glimpse? Perhaps if we saw the whole path it would be too awesome to comprehend...or too daunting to venture forward. Perhaps to increase our trust in him. Perhaps to keep our focus on the task at hand.

However, other times he is a light for our path. He allows us a deeper vision. We see the road ahead, with all its bumps, twists and turns. But even so, we have his illumination is also a promise of his constant presence and guide. And whatever God shines his face toward must be glorious indeed.

This year may we seek out His word, trust Him when he is the lamp to our feet, and follow Him when he is the light for our path.