Listening for Echoes

The Martin Kids

The Martin Kids

When I get stuck with my writing – when I’m not sure how a scene plays out or what happens next – I walk the dog. And while I’m walking, I listen for echoes of my characters’ voices.

It feels like hunting for butterflies with a gossamer net. A scene, a visual, a story line, for me, nearly always starts with a fragment of dialogue.From the words, the tone, the attitude I hear, when the words appear in my mind, I can tell the mood and action of the character.

At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of my third Seren Kitty novel. I knew how the story was going to end (I do planning now, get me!) but sometimes that is more a burden than a blessing.

When I reach the climax my writing falls into, “And then Seren did this, then this happened, then this went wrong, then she fixed it like this…’ It’s all too fast and frantic.

So today I stopped, just as the rain stopped hammering on the plastic roof (My poor daughter has been on an outdoor school trip today through torrential rain. She’s going to be soaked!) I’ve come out to walk the dog (who isn’t happy because the vet has said she’s not allowed off-lead while her foot heals, after a bad sprain.)

Almost immediately after I left the house in sparkling afternoon sunshine and puddles, I could hear Seren’s voice. She was calling her mum from the phone she just borrowed from the baddies. She’s explaining what’s just happened. Her voice is clear in my head. She’s scared, but she’s come through a lot already and she’s a plucky girl. And, besides, the rain has stopped falling on her too (which is even more important when you’re sometimes a cat).

Seren has spoken and I have heard the echo. Now I need to go home and make it real. After I’ve taken a towel to the school pick up, that is.

Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

The Tricky World of Children's Fiction

The Tricky World of Children’s Fiction

Ever since I started taking my writing craft seriously, I have read a lot of advice on how to write dialogue. Specifically on dialogue tags.

Whether I’m reading writing advice books, studying creative writing, or perusing blogs on what to do and what not to do, the advice is all the same.

1. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’.

People don’t see ‘said’. More importantly, don’t suffer from Dialogue Tag Thesaurus Syndrome.

E.g.

“Where are we?” Marina whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jacob answered.
“It looks like a cave,” Marina replied.
“It’s too dark to tell,” Jacob murmured.

This is good advice. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘trying too hard to avoid said‘ you see in some writing. Although I think there is a place for using some of these words sparingly to help add to the description and texture of the dialogue. Especially where word count is tight, like in children’s fiction.

2. Where possible, avoid using dialogue tags at all. Instead work in some action to help move the dialogue on and make it flow better.

E.g.

“It’s so beautiful.” Marina bent down and looked at the flower.
Jacob glared. “It’s girly.”
“No it’s not!” Marina gave him a furious look.
“Well, I think it is.” Jacob shrugged and turned away.

This is fine in moderation, but used too much I think it slows the dialogue down and makes it hard to read.

3. If you only have two characters speaking, you only need to identify them every few lines.

E.g.

“Come on, let’s go, Jacob.” Marina ran through the woods.
“Okay, I’m coming. Slow down!”
“Can’t catch me!”
Jacob heard Marina giggling and followed the sound. “Oh yes I can.”

I use this a lot in adult fiction, but I would use it sparingly when writing for young children. They read slowly and get lost and it’s easy to forget who is talking, unless it’s obvious from the voice of the character.

Plenty of examples of 'she beamed'

Plenty of examples of ignoring advice no.4

4. Don’t use dialogue tags that have nothing to do with talking. You cannot grin, laugh, giggle, sneer, sigh, groan, moan and talk at the same time. You can whisper, yell, shout, murmur, cry out, but only in moderation.

E.g.

“I bet you can’t climb that tree,” Jacob sneered.
“Oh yes I can,” Marina chuckled. “Watch me.”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jacob cautioned. “Girls can’t climb.”
“Don’t be silly,” Marina sighed. “You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”

Now this is the advice I have the biggest problem with. I hear it everywhere, particularly in the writing course I’m doing at the moment. I’ve trained myself to always put the action separate. “Oh yes I can,” she said, grinning. or to use a full stop. “Oh yes I can.” She grinned at him. But since starting to write children’s fiction, I’ve discovered two things.

a) Using she said, grinning uses too many words. It makes the dialogue slow and static

b) No one else cares about this rule. Seriously. I’m reading a children’s book a day and every single one happily uses, She grinned, she giggled, she chuckled, she frowned. They even use, she hissed, when the dialogue doesn’t contain a sibilant word. (Advice says you can’t hiss ‘Granny’ because it doesn’t contain an s.)

So, here’s the rub. As a new writer, do I follow the writing advice or the examples? I have trained myself so well I actually cringe when reading ‘she sniggered’ as a dialogue tag, especially when reading out loud to my children. But they don’t care. To them it’s normal. It makes the writing flow, it adds texture, and – best of all – they understand it.

Anyone who thinks that writing for children is easy is wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂

Have you come across this? Do you have a problem with ‘she grinned’? Do you always follow writing advice?

How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

This morning I’ve been researching the interesting world of swearing, for my MG fiction book. This is the first time I’ve written for pre-teens and I hadn’t realised how many mild swear words litter my writing, or how different words have different shock values depending on the country.

For example bloody hell and bugger off probably wouldn’t cause too much consternation in the UK, although there is obviously more impact on the written page than in the spoken word. I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at crap or oh my god or good heavens. But then I come from a non religious family and I’m sure the latter two would worry religious families more.

Interestingly my children are more shocked by ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ than ‘shit’ because we as a family have given the words more power, although I do try and distinguish between saying ‘that shot was rubbish’ and ‘you’re rubbish’. I’m not even going to discuss the reaction I got from nursery when my son repeated my stressed-out-end-of-tether phrase ‘shut up!’ to another child. Let’s say they would have been less disapproving if he’d said f-off. Maybe.

Swearing, after all, is all about shock value. You only had to see my unfortunate and accidental (and instantly-regretted) reaction when my daughter mispronounced ‘can’t’ during a recent reading session. Having to explain why even Mummy wouldn’t use that word probably gave her the ultimate weapon against me. But I digress.

Some level of exclamation is needed when writing, to show emotion and make dialogue sound realistic. Unfortunately I don’t yet have Tweens, so I don’t know what they say when they’re upset/shocked/scared/angry. And I’m sure what they say to each other isn’t what their parents want to see them reading in a children’s novel.

Scouring several websites this morning, it seems the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. But how to do so without sounding twee? In Elizabeth Kay’s lovely book, Ice Feathers, she uses phrases like ‘for the Wind’s sake’ and ‘flapping’. Unfortunately they make me think of all the phrases I hear on Cbeebies like ‘galloping guinea pigs’ and ‘flapperty flippers’, ‘jumping jellyfish’, or, my favourite, ‘Well, I’ll be a sea monkey’s uncle.’

I think I will use foodie words for my male protagonist, as he loves cooking. Things like ‘fried tomatoes’, ‘pancakes and crepes’ and possibly ‘shiitake mushrooms’ although apparently that’s from a Spy Kids movie and I don’t want plagiarism issues. My female lead is a fairy and lives in the woods, so phrases like ‘eggshells’ and ‘creeping caterpillars’ might work. Is ‘bird poo’ too much? I’m sure I’ve borrowed books from the library for under fives that have the words poo and pants. Does it become unacceptable if Mummy isn’t reading it?

Who knew writing for children was so much harder than writing for adults, especially when you’ve had a colourful upbringing. Well, me actually. But it will be worth the effort I hope!

What are your favourite non-swearing cuss words? What do you let your children say and not say?

Related Articles:

Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog: Danika Dinsmore ~ Tropes & Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers

From the Mixed-Up Files… Of Middle Grade Authors: Is it Okay to Curse in MG Books

AbsoluteWrite: Acceptable Swear Words for Children?

How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

In Celebration of Pantsing

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. On top of drafting a new novel, which has been draining my energy, I had my daughter at home on Wednesday, because the teachers were on strike. Goodness knows how I’m going to write or blog in the school holidays: I think I might have to try and plan to have manuscripts with editors so I can take the time off without guilt and frustration.

On the plus side, I am really enjoying getting stuck into a new novel, especially one where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With a Romance, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, no matter how much you try and avoid cliches and tropes. Eventually boy meets girl, they have some problems, but they get together in the end.

With this Middle Grade fiction book I started only with a character and a rough idea that it would be a fantasy book, along the lines of The Divide – one of my favourite MG books in recent years. (The first book in the trilogy is currently free on kindle. Bargain!) The trick will be to avoid plagiarising Elizabeth Kay’s book and coming up with my own, original, story, while still learning from what I read.

The best bit about Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) is that you avoid the info-dump. The most tedious part of editing a first draft of a Romance novel for me is that I always info-dump in the first couple of chapters, so have to go back and rewrite whole sections. In fact, for both Baby Blues and Class Act, I ended up adding a bunch of chapters at the beginning of the manuscript, to turn the info-dump into action.

But when you know nothing more about a character than his name and the fact that he lives in a farmhouse with his mum and two older siblings, it’s much easier to drop in backstory as required and as it occurs to you. Then the second draft becomes about continuity.

I’ve just watched a top tips video by Barry Cunningham, the man who published Harry Potter, on how to write children’s stories. His first four tips (the fifth covered submissions) could be summarised as:

1. Put yourself back in the age group you are writing for: remember the excitement of that age [Ah crap, I can hardly remember being a child]
2. Include lots of details: The setting. What are they eating? What do they look like? Kids love detail [Oh dear, I’m not one for reading or writing lots of detail]
3. Planning: make sure you know when to introduce and remove characters, when your climaxes are, in order to keep the reader engaged [This is a blog post on Pantsing. Enough said]
4. Remember the importance of humour, especially in dialogue [My book is shaping up a bit dark and depressing. I’m screwed]

Oh well. Plenty of stuff to work on in the second draft! For now I’m enjoying finding out what happens next.

Reading is Working, Honest

A Doorstop of a Book

A Doorstop of a Book

I had a bit of a hiccup this morning; the first biggy since starting on the tablets a week ago. I had hoped the tablets would help reduce my insomnia, but they seem to have made it worse instead. I’m waking at 2am and 5am every night, unable to close my eyes. In retaliation I’m back to napping as soon as the kids are asleep which only exacerbates the issue.

I woke up fretful and panicked, with palpitations and a strong desire not to have to face the school run. I made it through the chattering and the tears and the “Mummy I’m going to miss you” but by the time I got home I was shattered and most definitely unfit for work.

Add to lack of sleep the presence of hubbie at home on a rare day off and writing just wasn’t going to happen. I find it extremely hard to write with someone else in the house, almost as if I feel guilty that I’m not doing something more productive with my time, like laundry or housework. It stems from childhood and it drives hubbie potty, not least because a lazy day on my part without guilt makes it much easier for him to do the same (not that writing is a lazy day).

Anyway, for a whole host of reasons I decided it was a day for reading. I’m ploughing my way through a doorstop of a fantasy book I found in my old bedroom at my mother’s house – The Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts. If I’ve read it before I blocked the painful experience from my memory. I’m not sure why it’s gripped me now because it’s a fiendishly difficult read. As opaque in language as The Raven Boys, but lacking Maggie’s poetry and passion, it’s dense and unfathomable but clearly with enough story to maintain my interest. I’ve given up on much easier reads.

The book sprung to mind when I read Rinelle Grey’s recent post on world building in Sci Fi and Fantasy (Is Simple Ever Better? My answer is yes!). The world building in this book is elusive and complicated, but promises unicorns and dragons so appeals to the fairy princess in my soul. And as I curled up in bed reading I suddenly found myself opening my laptop and tapping out 500 difficult words to get me to the next place in Class Act. Clearly just the act of reading can free up words in a muddled mind, connect those pesky twenty-six characters into something with vague meaning.

So, there you go, reading is working if you’re a writer. I have proof. I never need feel guilty again. (Though of course I will. Who wouldn’t feel guilty reading and calling it working for a living?) Next time though I might just choose something easier to read. Like War and Peace.

What’s Your Character’s Love Language?

Do you know your characters' love languages?

Do you know your characters’ love languages?

It’s no secret, here on the blog, that I was strongly affected by reading The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and coming to understand mine and my husband’s particular languages. It has strengthened our relationship and helped us communicate. I’m also now looking at the children and trying to understand how they feel love.

But, being me, I never miss an opportunity to put my life lessons to work on my writing.

Today, at the end of walking the dog – it taking that long for my drugged brain to start working – I turned my mind to the dilemma of my current writer’s block. I’m trying to pen an emotional scene in Class Act, to get my protagonist Rebecca past a difficult experience in her life, without having any direct knowledge of the issue.

I don’t want to belabour the point. Like the postnatal depression in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (which I do have experience of), the issues in Rebecca’s past are important for the effect they have on her character and relationships, but I don’t want them forming the be all and end all of the novel. I’m writing genre fiction not literary fiction and aiming for a happy ever after, albeit a plausible one that survives challenges.

So I wondered how I could help Rebecca get through the difficulty most quickly, and whether that could be done genuinely with the right man without it all seeming too convenient and unrealistic. It made me ponder what her Love Language might be and I realised that – for her – the love language has to be Words of Affirmation. Therefore Alex, the love interest, needs to talk to her, reassure her, convince her of his sincerity. I’m not sure what his Love Language is yet. I think his might be Quality Time. That’s the thing lacking from his childhood and the thing he yearned for in his failed relationship at the start of the novel.

I feel as empowered in my writing as I did in my marriage by looking at things this way. I have also realised that I know my characters better than I might give myself credit for. I think I’ll use the five love languages again when considering my romantic protagonists. It’s a new, interesting and simple way to ensure coherent, three-dimensional characters, particularly in the Romance genre.

Just goes to show, you can learn from the strangest of sources. As a friend of mine used to say, “Every day’s a school day.”