Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Copyright & Plagiarism

by Annette Lyon

Reader question from Terry:

Can you, or do you need to copyright short stories to put on a blog?


A disclaimer: The information here is based on my industry experience, but I’m not a lawyer. For legal advice, be sure to consult an attorney familiar with the publishing industry.

The short answer is no, you don’t need to copyright short stories on your blog.

The somewhat longer answer (which will also diverge into another area):

Once you write a story and it’s in any tangible form (saved onto your computer, scribbled in a notebook, typed out, on your blog, written in crayon on a napkin), it’s already under copyright protection by law. There is no need to register your work to have that protection.

When you get a book published, the publisher takes care of actually registering the copyright, which makes it nice and official so everyone is aware of your copyright. You get the © and a date by the mark so everyone knows how long it’s been under protection (generally the year the book was actually published, not when you wrote it, even though, yeah, it was already protected then).

Since publishers and agents know the generalities of copyright law, they aren’t going to try to steal your work. That would take a lot of effort, frankly, and they’d rather just be ethical, sell your stuff, and get both of you some money.

As I’ve mentioned before, putting that little copyright sign next to your manuscript’s title smacks of amateurism and paranoia. It doesn’t hurt, however, to put a copyright notice on your website or blog as a gentle reminder to readers that your work is under protection, just a small, "Content Copyright 2008." In this electronic age, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone (not editors and agents, but casual readers) to cut and paste and republish without permission or attribution.

If you’re genuinely concerned about someone stealing your work, you can do one of two things to prove your work existed when you say it did.

Register your work with the U.S. copyright office. Not hard to do, but it does require paperwork and a fee.


Mail yourself the manuscript. Then don’t open the package. That way, if Joe Schmoe comes along three years later and steals your work, you have physical proof on your postmark as to when your version existed—and that yours pre-dates Joe’s by a margin.

And here’s where the topic expands:

If Joe writes something that rings a bell—it has a similar concept, maybe—that may or may not be a violation of your copyright. His version would have to have a lot of similarities. You cannot copyright an idea, just the expression of one.

He might be plagiarizing your work. Or not. It would be depend if Joe uses your actual words, regardless of whether the story is the same. An author can be guilty of plagiarism if you’re lifting or just slightly altering someone else’s words. Paraphrasing without attribution is often considered plagiarism too.

While violating copyright and plagiarism are both unethical, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Say, for example, that a writer silently ripped off Jane Austen. She wouldn’t be guilty of violating copyright. No court around would find an author guilty of that, because Austen has been dead for so long that her work is in the public domain. (This is why you can find a dozen different houses publishing her books—they can do it without paying anyone royalties.)

However, if the author were to try passing off the copied Austen sections as her own, that would be plagiarism. Sometimes the two overlap, but sometimes they don’t.

When working on my last book, I was sure to tread carefully. The story is a retelling of a Shakespeare play, and some scenes are—deliberately—similar to the Bard’s.

During the drafting phase, I had a writer tell me that I could use anything from the actual play. Lift whatever I wanted, he said. Shakespeare is very much in the public domain, so he’s centuries past being protected by copyright.

The whole idea of trying to pass Shakespeare’s lines as my own didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on why until later: that plagiarism and copyright don’t always fall under the same umbrella. Sure, I could lift some lines and be free of copyright issues. But I’d still be plagiarizing.

As I wrote the book, I made sure not to directly quote Shakespeare, but because some scenes do mirror the originals, I made sure to make it very clear to everyone that my book was an adaptation of good old Will’s work. That way I’m not trying to take credit for someone else’s words and ideas. The similarities would be seen as what they really are (an homage to Shakespeare) and not as an effort to pass off his ideas as mine.

I made it crystal clear everywhere: My publisher knew. I posted the “adaptation” information on my website and (repeatedly) mentioned it on my blog. I advertised the book that way in press releases (“Shakespeare Meets 1860s Salt Lake City”). It's even mentioned in the acknowledgments so readers would know going in.

Unfortunately, some writers do try to pass of other people’s work as their own, as romance author Cassie Edwards recently learned the hard way. And no, inserting speaker tags and otherwise changing up someone else’s words just a little doesn’t keep it from being plagiarism.

Since I’m a historical novelist, Edward’s situation provided a good reminder for me. Not only should I track my sources to protect myself, but I need to also be sure to use them the right way—as just that: sources of information, not a place to fall back on when explaining something. It needs to be my words, my voice, my expression. Not theirs.

That applies to all writers, regardless of whether you’d technically be violating copyright, because plagiarism is just as serious, and if you want your readers’ or your publisher’s trust, you have to make sure what you’re writing are your words. And if you’re using someone else’s words, say so up front, giving credit where credit is due.

Monday, April 28, 2008

On Writing Fantasy--genre toolbox

By Julie Wright

On Writing Fantasy

Genre Toolbox

In every genre, there are important tools to use for writing in that genre. I am going to spend the next couple of weeks doing a genre toolbox for a few of the genre's that I know intimately. I'm starting with fantasy since that is what I'm currently working on.

• Magic system-- Create rules for your magic system. Where did your magic come from? Who controls the magic? Does your magic have limits? Does it cost your characters anything to use that magic?
• Plot-- I don’t care how cool your world is if nothing cool is happening there. No matter the genre, plot is essential.
• Characters—I don’t care how cool your world is if I can't relate to the characters. Even if you have dwarfs and elves and creatures we can't pronounce, you need to make them relatable on a human level.
• World building-- Even when you turn our world upside down, you have to build it up again in some new way that works for the story and is believable. If you are building a new world from scratch, then write yourself a research paper on the populations of that world. Draw yourself a map of that world. Explain what kinds of plants grow on that world, and what the people of that world eat. What do people do for a living? Is that world ruled by a king or a queen? Is it governed by the people? Does chaos rule supreme? Never underestimate world building. Most of the background history will never be used in the book, but you as the author MUST know your own world if you want the reader to believe it exists.
• Biology/science-- Just because this is fantasy doesn’t mean there are no rules. The science of the world needs to make sense. If you have a purple land-roving-squid with twenty tentacles and two legs, there better be some logical believable reasoning behind it.
• Industry knowledge-- Fantasy now-a-days is so much more than middle earth. If the most current fantasy book you’ve read is Tolkien, then you don’t know your field. Research the Hugo and Nebula award winners. Know what is being published so you don’t fall into the trap called: “Yawn, that is so yesterday’s story.”
• Reinvent the wheel. Don’t be afraid to retell an old fable or myth from a fresh point of view. Think how many times Cinderella has been remade; consider the success of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl.
• Imagine it. Close your eyes. Can you see your world, hear the dialect of your people? Do you understand the pressures and stresses in your character's daily life as they move throughout the world you've created for them?

Meet me back here next week for the romance toolbox.

Monday Mania--First Page

One of our readers submitted the first page of a novel. Feel free to make comments, but please keep them constructive.

Critique Archive 0016:

Chapter 1

The cursor blinked a challenge at me: do. it. do. it. do. it. I reached for the mouse but my finger hovered over the button, not quite ready to click. Holding my breath for a minute while I screwed up my nerve, I finally blew it out with a defeated “Dang.”

There was a snort from the sofa. “Dang?”

I could see Sandy’s bright red hair peeking over the top of the sofa arm. “Quiet in the peanut gallery,” I told her.

“Sorry. It’s just….dang? Take it easy there, Jessie. That’s tough talk for a nice little Mormon girl,” she teased.

“I can’t use any of the really good curses because you’re inactive. I have to set a good example.”

There was an even louder snort from the sofa, but this one was laced with laughter.

“What’s your problem, anyway?” she asked. “You didn’t bring work home with you again, did you? What happened to New Year’s resolutions and all that?”

“Coerced resolutions don’t count.”

“Do I need to get your butter pecan again?”

Just last week she abducted my deluxe carton of Haagen Dazs and held it hostage over her head until I promised to go out more during the new year. I stayed strong until she waved a spoonful of ice cream under my nose. Then I folded like an extra chair in Sunday school. It was a dirty fight.

Which brought me back to Sandy’s question. Or rather, her accusation. “No, it’s not work.” I hesitated. “I guess…..maybe your nagging worked.”

The top half of Sandy’s face finally made an appearance over the sofa arm, her blue eyes showing curiosity. “I don’t nag. I make suggestions. Which excellent one are you taking?”

“There’s so many to choose from. Let’s see, I’m not going to get weekly manicures, I will not be taking up yoga, and I will never eat tofu on purpose.”

The last one I delivered with a glare. She tried to sneak some tofu into my diet by sticking it on a whole wheat pizza but I figured out pretty quickly that it was not, in fact, a gourmet Italian sausage. “Bean curd will never be meat, Sandy. Never. Leave me to my carnivore ways.”

“Okay, but I don’t think you should be praying for your double pepperoni pizza to make you ‘strong and healthy’, either. God’s too busy to work that kind of miracle.”

I burst out laughing. “It’s pepperoni, not anthrax.”

She grinned back. “All right, so I haven’t reformed you from your carnivorous, nail bitten, meditation rejecting ways, so what are you—” she interrupted herself. “Oh.” She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment. “You’re going to go on a date, aren’t you? Spill it.”

“Well, the thing is I, uh.…” I trailed off in embarrassment. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. I squirmed ever so slightly in my seat.

“What? Spit it out.” She levered herself all the way off the sofa and beelined toward me, stopping when she could see over my shoulder. “Online dating?” I squirmed even more in an effort to block her view. She held me still with a hand on my head while she looked. Cringing a little inside, I waited for the jokes or the lecture. I got neither.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Sandy said after a moment.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Ways a Writer Reads a Book

by Lu Ann Staheli

Recently I attended a workshop with Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky). During her keynote address, she gave a list that I thought was worth sharing.
Keep a reader’s journal where you record your thoughts about the following for each book you read like a writer.

1. Did you connect with the book?

2. Who was the publisher?

3. Study the opening line. Does it hook you?

4. Does the book shock and intrigue you?

5. Does the title hint at the main problem?

6. Does the opening page at least hint at the main problem?

7. What is the story’s main problem?

8. Are there at least two plot lines in the book?

9. How is the story resolved?

10. Who resolves the problem?

As you study your responses, think about how your own writing would fare in someone else’s journal. Is there something you should be doing to make your story stronger and more marketable? Think about her list of questions as you write and revise.

And good luck with someday having a Newbery of your own!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Posting Excerpts on Your Blog

From one of our readers:

Hi. I am not sure if this would be good for your blog readers in general, but it seems to be a growing concern/confusion amongst many writers. Should we put up excerpts of our novels or other works we hope to see published (i.e., articles that may go into a book, a short story from a collection, a novel excerpt, etc.) on our blogs? Several other writers and myself have been reading lately that publishers won't publish anything that has been, even in part, "already published on a blog."

This is timely question since there are many publishers who don't like authors to publish exerpts of their contracted novels on blogs or websites. You need to get permission from your publisher in order to post an excerpt--even if it's still in preproduction.

If you have a novel you've written, but it's not under contract, it's all right to post an excerpt. But make sure to label it as a work in progress--and that it shouldn't be quoted in a review of your final book.

Posting an article that you are trying to get published is probably not a good idea. Most magazines ask for first rights until after it has been published by them (often, they give back the rights and you can take the same article elsewhere, but you must obtain permission). The magazine wants an "exclusive" per se and doesn't want it to be posted elsewhere.

A short story falls in between a novel excerpt and an article. If the short story is part of a collection, it is probably okay to label it as a "preview from my short story collection". But if it's a stand-alone, then a magazine won't be happy if the short story is already available to everyone. After all, why would their audience purchase their magazine to read your story when they can read it for "free."

Any other thoughts, anyone? Or personal experiences?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Titles, Schmitles

by Annette Lyon

With all due respect to Steve Almond, his latest article in Writer’s Digest wasn’t exactly en pointe.

This is the first time I’ve disagreed with a word he’s said. Usually his fiction column is a great resource, and I find myself mentally cheering him on with each example and explanation. (His piece on metaphors a few months ago was priceless.)

But this month . . . not so much.

In it he touts the importance of picking a title for your work. He claims that those poor souls who don’t pick a title might not be ready to show their work to the world, and then he proceeds to give a lesson (a pretty great one, actually) about how to come up with titles.

All well and good . . . if authors of published novels actually picked their titles.

Which happens, oh, about 1.3% of the time.

Okay, I made that statistic up, but in my experience, that might be guessing high. Sure, Dickens and company got to pick the titles of their books (really catchy ones, too, like David Copperfield and the one that makes you so eager to read it, Bleak House). But in the last, say, ten years, I’m aware of maybe three novels that hit shelves with the title that their authors submitted.

Writers are good at writing. We aren’t so good at selling stuff. That’s the marketing department’s job. That’s also why they hire professional graphic designers to make the covers—so prospective customers might actually pick up the thing and read the back liner . . . and maybe walk out the door with it.

And it’s why they get to pick the title. By and large, these guys have a ton more experience than we writers do in seeing what kinds of titles sell books and which ones land on their faces.

When they’re wrong, well, the author pays the price, because generally you’ll be at their mercy. You might be able to give suggestions or ideas, but in the end, they get the final say. The one exception might be with short stories, but if you’re planning on writing novels, there’s very little point in fantasizing about what they'll be called.

If you’re lucky enough to keep your title, party on. Throw confetti and toast your success.

But I know too many would-be writers who obsess about their titles, to the point of avoiding the nitty-gritty job of making a great book behind the brilliant title. A catchy name isn’t going to sell your work to an agent or editor. Knock-your-socks-off writing will.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll probably use some of Almond’s suggestions when coming up with something to call my next manuscript before I submit it. But I won’t be married to the title, and I won’t be remotely surprised when (not if) it gets changed.

So I’ll be focusing my efforts where they really matter: Writing the best story I’m capable of.

Then I’ll let the marketing folks worry about assigning a title and a cover to it. That’s their job.

I think mine’s much more fun anyway.

Friday, April 18, 2008

WD Revision Lesson #5

By Josi S. Kilpack

The fifth lesson in revision as per Jordan Rosenfeld's article, Revision for the Faint of Heart, is to purge those non-necessities. The steps leading to this place have gotten you very familiar with your weaknesses, have allowed you to look at your manuscript as a whole and not it's time to, as Stephen King says, "Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heard, kill your darlings."

Darlings are not characters--though they could be--but in my mind I picture a dour old woman of eccentric means petting a horrible dog in her lap that bites everyone but her. And as you pull your hand back from yet another attempt to get into the monster's good graces, she pets it again and says in a tone lighter and kinder than she ever uses in addressing another human "Oh, darling , are you alright?" And you know in an instant she's not talking about you or your punctured flesh, she's asking if somehow her precious canine has hurt itself in it's attack upon you. Do not be that woman! Do not cherish a flea-infested nightmare simply because you've grown attached to it. Consider the other people that will come across it and how they will feel when they're walking into the ER for their rabies shot.

Here are some examples:
*Adverbs, similes, cliches--or in other words, lazy words. Rather than using 'sadly' show us a drooping shoulder, a stifled tear, a quick turning away in dispair. Rather than using cliches like "a turtle coming out of it's shell" show her pulling herself to her full height and breaking into a smile that draws attention from every person in that room because they've never seen her with so much confidence. This goes along with showing rather than telling, and it doesn't work in every instance and ever scene, but look for those times they can be fixed, lazy words replaced with energetic ones

*Overt explanations and back story. I call this spoonfeeding, where you are just scooping up information and plopping it on their tongue. It sounds like "You see, when she was a child everyone thought she was fat and ugly, and now as an adult she can't see herself as anything different." You could tell that in such a different way and give it life-- "Even though she knew she was no longer that awkward child, with more size than shape, and even though she knew that at times she had been beautiful, all she could think about was that she was only one donut, one chocolate shake, one raspberry torte away from being that child again--the girl who got stuck on the jungle gym, the one that could never keep up and finally stopped trying, hiding in the bushes at recess to escape the taunts of her thiner counterparts." Though I recommend you don't do it one horribly run on sentence as I did, I hope you get the point :-)

*Scenes unnecessary to the plot. I call these 'author moments' when you get toward the end of a scene and think "The only reason this is here is because the author wants it here" and I believe we all have those scenes. Ones that for one reason or another speak to us, but don't speak to the story. If you can rewrite it and work in a plot point, go for it, but if there is no way around it accept that it's a pause button and junk it.
-Remember that too much emotion can spoil a great scene. Even if you tend to be on the melodramatic side of life, ask yourself if it's reasonable. When I edit other peoples work I'll underline these sentences and write "Too Much" or "Really?" to draw the authors attention to the fact that I'm not buying it. Keep it real.

*Verbal diarrhea--when your characters are just talking too dang much. We've all read this, and we've likely all been annoyed with it--it's one of the reasons, in my opionin, that books that are made up of a collection of letters are hard to read, nothing happens. I don't mean that the letters, or the dialogue, isn't necessary, but let your characters pause and glance out a window. Let them rub a hand across their forehead or order another drink. Don't let paragraphs of talking go on and on--you'll lose your reader.

This is the point in which you are transitioning from 'what do I want to write' into 'what will other people read' and you have to be very objective about this. It's not easy--I promise you it isn't--but to create your best work you have to keep your reader in mind and realize that some dogs are just plain mean. If it can't be trained, it's best not seen amid polite company.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Editing: It's not over 'til it's over

by Heather Moore

Part of the writing journey is, of course, rewriting

Many new writers are surprised to learn that a book goes through a number of drafts or revisions before it's even accepted for publication. Of course there's a point in time when you need to stop revising and start submitting.

On average, I have my manuscript reviewed/edited by 5-7 people before submitting to a publisher. My publisher will send my manuscript to three readers, who in turn write up evaluations that outline the strengths and weaknesses and suggest whether or not the manuscript is publishable.

IF the evaluations are favorable overall, the publisher will officially "accept" the book. Then the publisher sends me the three evalutations (sometimes they are quite long: 10-13 pages), and I go through each comment and use the advice to make my manuscript stronger. I don't agree with all comments, but I try to explain to my editor why I don't want to change something.

Then, I'm assigned an editor, who goes through my new revision and gives his/her comments. I edit from the editor's comments. This is when the edits "really" count and a writer has to weigh each suggestion or correction with care. It's not the time to brush off a suggestion with "Sally from my critique group just doesn't get me . . . so I'll ignore her character motivation comment . . ."

But even after submitting the next revision . . . it's still not over. A disk changer will implement my fixes, and any approved fixes by the editor, and sometimes the disk changer will come back with comments. THEN the manuscript is typeset and goes to two copyeditors. The copyeditors are mainly proofing, but they may also find an inconsistency that needs to be fixed.

Through this process, the author is reading each new version, checking for errors that can creep up through the typeset or the disk-changer process.

So, by the time the book is sent the press, I don't want to ever see it again. Yes, I'm excited to hold the book in my hands and to gaze at the cover when it hits shelves. But open it and read it? No.

My excitement comes from getting good reviews, hearing comments from readers, and knowing that all of the hard work was worth it. And of course, undying gratitude for all of the "editors" who helped me on the path.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Playing with Tense

by Annette Lyon

Don't. Unless you know what you're doing. Really.

In some of my editing work recently, I've come across an interesting trend among aspiring writers: a huge number of them seem to think that writing in first-person present tense makes their work better or sound more literary or intellectual.

The truth is that it's the author's voice, word choice, pacing, description, and so much more that make them sound good, literary, or intellectual.

If the author has the skill to pull off both first person and present tense, it's a nice layer of icing. But it's not the cake.

Worse, when done poorly, first-person present tense can turn into a real mess, like a lopsided cake with crumbs in the icing and entire chunks missing.

Most fiction, even with first-person point of view, is written in the simple past tense:

I walked, I ate, we drove.

There's a lot of excellent first-person present tense fiction out there:

I walk, I eat, I drive.

In other words, the piece feels like it's happening right now as you read it.

One of my personal favorite books written in first-person present is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It's a fantastic book, one that's funny, poignant, and abounding in excellent writing all around. In a discussion with some friends recently, one pointed out that it was written in present-tense, and another friend, who counts that book as one of her favorites, had to go pull it off her shelf to check. Sure enough, it was present tense. Huh. She hadn't noticed.

And that's how it should be. The nifty tools you use as a writer shouldn't be out there flashing in the reader's face. They should be used for a reason, and that reason needs to be more than, "It'll make me look good." Because chances are, it won't.

Present tense can provide a different style and feel to your work than past tense. It can make the story feel more immediate. And it does have its place. One of the pieces I edited did it very well—and really needed to be in present tense because of the structure, tone, and events of the piece. But most of the others that used it would have been better off with plain old past tense.

Those pieces felt like awkward toddlers trying to get their feet under them as they try to use first-present present, as if they're declaring, "Look at me! I'm a writer! I really am!" Instead, they should have analyzed why they wanted to use present tense—what effect were they trying to create, and will present tense help them get there? In the vast majority of cases, the answer was unclear at best and a resounding, "NO" at worst.

One major problem that creeps in with trying to write this way is accidentally falling into the wrong tense.

For example, if a writer includes a brief flashback into the past, it's all well and good, if they're now using past tense. You can't stay in present tense for a flashback. Doing so confuses the timeline for the reader.

("Wait. Isn't this a memory? Then why does it say it's happening now?")

Similarly, when you come back from the flashback, be sure to stay in the present tense. It's easy for a writer to accidentally slip into past tense (we're all more familiar with it, after all) and then go back to present tense, but it's very hard on a reader to keep everything straight. The back-and-forth reads clunky and amateurish.

And a lot of times, a story can be told more effectively in the simple past tense. It's a voice most readers are very familiar and comfortable with. A present tense version might call attention to itself . . . in a bad way.

If you do decide to use first-person, present tense, fine. But be sure you can handle it. It's one more plate to keep in the air, and if you let that one fall, it's going to make a huge crash.

The great news: you don't need present tense to be a great writer. In fact, I recommend not using it at all unless and until you have a great handle on all those other plates you need to keep in the air. (Things like plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, dialogue and more . . . that's a lot of plates.)

Don't assume that this is a plate you need to sound good. Some of the best writers in history never gave it a passing glance. Using it well doesn't mean you're extraordinary.

But if you do eventually decide to pick it up, don't do it until you know precisely why it might make your piece more effective and you know—really know—how to juggle it.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Things We Say

by Julie Wight
Everyone says writing should mirror real life, I am here to say, okay. But not mirror exactly. It has to resemble real life, but you don’t want an exact replica. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was: "life, with the dull parts taken out."

Keep this in mind when revising dialogue. Think of two teenagers having a conversation “Did you hear about Jane?”
“Oh I know. What a sitch huh?”
“Yeah, crazy.”

We have no idea what these girls just said. Teenagers speak in tongues sometimes, and readers, even teenage readers aren’t going to put up with pages of this circular sort of dialogue. You do not want to mimic this language unless you’re intentionally mocking it.

Something else to avoid is sounding stiff and stilted in your writing with dialogue. People don’t speak properly when talking to one another. They slur their words together. We don’t say “you will.” We say “you’ll.” In conversations, there are umm’s and errrr’s, and while now and again that works perfect in dialogue, if you do it too much your readers are going to skip whole passages to try to get back into the meat of your story or worse, they’ll put your book down.

Be careful with your dialogue. Mimic reality while making sure to shave out the unnecessary.

Don’t info dump in dialogue. I’ve seen it happen where someone will have two characters having a conversation for the sole purpose of cluing in the reader. It goes something like this, “As you know, Bob, the facility was shut down due to an outbreak of purple spots.”

Here we have two issues. First, in reality we don’t use names all the time.
“Mary would you like some cake?”
“Why Yes, Joe. I’d love some cake.”
“I thought you might, Mary.”

Does that sound like a normal conversation? Not a chance.

Second issue with the first example. Bob already knows the facility was shut down due to the purple spots epidemic so they wouldn’t really be having this conversation. Do not use dialogue to info dump.

Some really fast tips are:
Dialogue tags--Do not veer too far away from he said/she said. If you are always adding clever replacements, they call attention to themselves. He cried . . . She spouted . . . They queried . . . He growled . . . She stuttered.

Using he said or she said is invisible to the reader. The others draw attention to themselves in a negative way.

On the same lines be careful about adverb usage. He said excitedly, she said dejectedly, he cried angrily, she whispered sexily. That gets really irritating really fast. It looks amateurish and you will be embarrassed if your book ever makes it to print (trust me on this one).

Weave conversation naturally with action and a dash of exposition (remember, I said DASH!). Break up the dialogue with action and internal thought.
An example:

“I came to say I’m sorry.” He bent down and rubbed his hands in the dirt
for a minute to clean them off. Hap preferred dirt to tomatoes any

She turned to him, her pulsating hazel eyes glowered. If she’d had the
superpower of heat vision, he’d have been nothing but a pile of ash. “What
exactly are you sorry for?” she asked.

What? Was this a quiz? Wasn’t it enough to apologize without having to
consider the details? He shrugged. It was the best answer he had. The fewer
words, the faster he could get back and figure what Tolvan meant by an’ icy

“I’m asking,” she said, while climbing down from the boulder. “I’m asking
because I want to know if you’re sorry for making fun of my magic trick, or for
my application qualifications, or if you’re sorry you made me look stupid in
front of your grandfather, who might have given me a job if you hadn’t been
there slapping buzzers on my hand.”

Hap blinked and scratched his hand through his hair. “Um . . . I’m sorry
for all that.” He almost said he was only sorry for the buzzer, but felt pretty
certain she expected him to be sorry for all of the above. Girls were funny that way.

By breaking up the dialogue, you create a scene that moves along.

Think about the things you say and the things you hold back. Think about emotions involved in your situations so your dialogue can reflect those emotions. Our conversations reveal so much about us. Make your conversations reveal your characters.

In summary:
  • Don't info dump
  • don't get repetitious with name usage
  • use adverbs sparingly
  • use said instead of clever dialogue tag replacements.
  • utilize action and internal thought along with your dialogue to break it up and make it flow.

Friday, April 11, 2008

WD Revision Lesson #4

Yeah, so I haven't posted in, oh, six weeks. I realized this morning that if I hadn't missed so many weeks we'd be done with this article by now. But, hey, I like to drag out the lovin.

So here we are with point #4 from Jordan Rosenfeld in Writer's Digest February 2008 edition.

In this point, Rosenfeld tells us to highlight what she calls "High Voltage" passages in our manuscript. These are particularly well written portions of our story that make us smile, that give us the tingle, the moment of "Dang, that is awesome!" They are the sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that make us proud to have been the one to have written them.

Once you've identified these portions, figure out what it is that makes them so "Poppin" (my kids will be so embarrassed I used that word). Is it the actual event that's taking place? Is it a particularly well-done description? Is the cadence nice? Does the variety of sentence lengths pack the punch? Basically, what is it that makes it so snappy, that caught your attention.

This is cerebral work--really dissecting it in your mind, or on paper, so that you can diagnose the specifics that make it so dang brilliant. Then, once you've figured it out and cemented it in your brain, look for other places in your book where you can apply those discovered elements.

What you've done here is you've found a strength. A lot of writing, and learning to write well, is done through finding our faults and weaknesses. A lot of revision orbits around the same thing--what's broken. This is the opportunity for you to find the sparkle, the shine, the glimmer and figure out how to broaden it to more of your work. It's an exercise in positive affirmation and polishing your skills. Don't deny yourself the chance to see the greatness of your creation. And consider making a separate folder or document where you save these gems. You never know when you'll need that inspiration of knowing you done good kid!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sunsets are Fatal

by Heather Moore

In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Chapter 6), he warns us not to BEGIN our book with a lengthy description.

When you start describing a pretty sunset, a dark, leafy forest, or a calm blue ocean, the action of the story stops. So you want to make sure that you don’t BEGIN your book with a lengthy description. When you begin a book, you want to start with dialog, action or thought (internal dialog).

Also, watch for cliché descriptions. There are isolated circumstances when lengthy descriptions work. But until you get published, you need to follow the rules and make yourself competitive against the thousands of other writers out there. In fact, in writers and publishing circles, according the Bickham, cliché descriptions have become a hallmark of poor fiction writing—a red flag that signals the “beginning writer”. i.e. “the rosy fingers of dawn”.

Why? Bickham notes: Fiction is movement. Description is static. In other words, to describe something in detail means that you have to . . . stop . . . describe it . . . then move onto the action again.

Ask yourself this question. When you are reading a book, what do YOU skim over? Have you ever “skimmed” over descriptions to get to “what is happening next”?

It's important to find a good balance with description. Of course, you still need description, but you don’t need a page describing the desert terrain, or even a paragraph. Description must be worked in carefully in small doses.

Description isn't just about describing sunsets, landscape, details of a house . . . Description can also include writing about every single thought and every single action a character has. The seasoned writer will describe a little (tell), and demonstrate a lot (show).

Over the past decade or two, readers have changed. Readers today want you to move your story forward, not stand around picking apart the scenery or discussing every little movement.

From Bickham's book (15), I've modified his speed tracker idea below. If your story is moving too slowly, look at the form of writing you are using most, and speed it up with a higher “mph.” Or if it’s moving too fast, you can slow it down.

10 mph: Exposition—slowest of all.
1. Straight log of factual information—biographical, forensic, sociological, etc.

25 mph: Description
1. Some is necessary, but monitor it carefully.

40 mph: Narrative
1. Characters are in the story “now” and their actions, etc are presented moment by moment with nothing left out.
2. Similar to a stage play and what most of your story should be in. Moves swiftly.

55 mph: Dialogue
1. Talking, very little action or interior thought
2. Can be very quick, like a tennis match, when the characters are talking in short bursts

70 mph: Dramatic Summary
1. Summarizing. i.e. by Bickham: “A car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.”
2. Moves the story forward in leaps and bound.

Our ultimate goal as a writer is to keep the story moving. Don't let the description slow you down!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Speed Bumps

by Annette Lyon

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You're staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer's Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Another writerly "condition" is similar to Writer's Block, but it differs in a significant way. We'll call it Writer's Speed Bump.

Writer's Speed Bump slows you down. It can make the words harder to come, but you can still write. This can take place during drafting or during revisions.

The trick, however, is that unlike with Writer's Block, sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the speed bump and back off. In my experience, the "bump" is a moment where you could keep going, but something doesn't feel right. However, you don't know what's wrong or how to fix it.

Worse, if you keep plowing forward, you may just run the story off into a ditch that will require a backhoe to get you out of.

I've learned to trust the feeling that I've just hit a bump. Over the last several days as I worked on a rewrite of my latest novel, I hit many such moments. While I was tempted to drive right over them (I was on deadline, after all), I knew I'd better stop and take a break.

Walking away from the computer at those points was the best thing I could have done. I'd go do something else for a while and let my mind drift and wander to the story. I wouldn't sit down and concentrate on what the problem was. Sometimes I'd pick my husband's brain for ideas. Other times I'd let the issue percolate and simmer.

Stories are like shy animals; you try to grab them, and they'll elude you. You have to wait for them to come to you. Hold out your hand as an invitation, call to them sweetly, and don't make any sudden movements.

Without fail, each time I left the computer and thought a bit about the story while doing something else (nothing exciting--maybe emptying the dishwasher or sweeping the kitchen), I'd have an "aha" moment and know where to pick things up next time I sat down. I ended up taking the story in directions I hadn't anticipated--directions that never would have occurred to me if I hadn't paid attention to the "bump."

The resulting manuscript is a tighter, more focused story that works far better than the original version.

A caveat: Part of the writer brain is hesitant and fearful. Don't interpret the messages from that area as Speed Bumps, or you'll walk away from the keyboard with your fears wrapped around you like a parka, and when you return, you won't have anything new to add to the table.

But next time you're sitting at your computer and you feel that gentle nudge that . . . hmm, something's not quite clicking into place . . . listen. Walk away. Think about it. The answers will come.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Writer's Toolbox: The Semicolon

by Annette Lyon

To some people, they're an outdated form of punctuation. To others, they're one more valuable tool in guiding a reader through their work so they hear the correct tempo and beat of the words.

The semicolon is a unique animal. It has a pause length longer than comma but shorter than a period. It's similar in length to the em dash, but it has a different feel to it.

The trick is knowing how to use it properly.

First off, what a semicolon isn't:

A semicolon is NOT a replacement for a regular colon. While it does connect two similar thoughts, it does so in a different way. Quite often (but not always), what comes after a plain old colon cannot stand by itself and still make sense. On the other hand, what comes after a semi colon is fully capable of standing alone as a complete sentence.

In other words, don't do this:

Laura peeked through the curtains and gasped at what she saw; at least a dozen cats walking around, cat food tins and cat poop everywhere, and in the middle of it all, Mrs. Porter sleeping on a lop-sided couch with a cat on her chest.

Replace that semicoon with a colon, and you're good to go.

Why? Reread it. While the portion after where the colon belongs is longer than the part before, it's still not a complete sentence. Yes, we need a pause there, but what comes next is just a series of visual details without the handy-dandy subject and verb that make a real sentence.

Another common mistake is using semicolons in place of em dashes. I am a fan of em dashes and use them all the time. Few rules apply to how you use them (quite possibly why they're so popular; they're hard to use wrong). But you can't take a spot where an em dash (and its lovely pause) would go and necessarily replace it with a semicolon.

Remember the rule of thumb: Both sides of a semicolon must be able to stand on their own.

Another wrong example:

The door burst open, revealing Steve's boss holding a clipboard and looking distraught; lay-off time.

Use an em dash there or add more to make it a full sentence: "lay-off time had arrived," or, "it was lay-off time."

One area of semicolon use is often debated: Can you use it in dialogue?

Many people say to forget about it, that semicolons are outdated nowadays and belong only in non-fiction. Instead, they argue, you should use em dashes in dialogue.

It's all well and good if that's your position. But I personally use semicolons in my fiction all the time, and I've been known to do it in dialogue as well. There are just moments where the pause length, the "breath" for the reader, and the feel I'm looking for can be achieved only with a semicolon.

There are other uses for the semicolon (splitting up items in a series that already have commas, for example), which we may cover another time, but for now, keep in mind the basic rule: Both sides of a semicolon have to made sense by themselves.

Think of the semicolon almost like a "yield" sign between two sentences that makes you look both ways before proceeding. You'll find connections and subtleties in the writing that couldn't be there any other way.