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?

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The Tricky Task of Combining Craft with Draft

Editing Class Act

Editing Class Act

For the last few days I have been immersed in re-reading Class Act a final time before sending it to the editor next week, having decided the words were just not going to come on my children’s book after the Easter break.

I find it excruciating rereading my own novels. It usually starts out okay, as time away gives enough distance for me to fall in love with my characters again. After a few chapters, though, each sentence is painful. I know the story inside out and I start to second and third guess myself. I wonder if there’s enough action to be interesting, whether the characters are annoying, whether there is too much introspection and not enough plot. Should I have read more craft books, planned and analysed the text more?

Yesterday I impulsively purchased two books recommended by Kristen Lamb in her post Everybody Arcs: How to use emotional growth to propel the story and capture the reader – Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Negative Trait Thesaurus and Positive Trait Thesaurus (I already own The Emotion Thesaurus)

Unfortunately owning craft books doesn’t help if you never make time to read them. I dipped in, but then I became obsessed with what Rebecca and Alex’s positive traits and flaws might be, and whether they arc during Class Act. It was a short step from that to feeling I wasn’t a proper writer because I didn’t have all that detail straight in my head when I hope to publish the novel by the end of June.

It’s not the right time to be worrying about that. I’m not saying it’s too late – I hope some of that detail will come out in the edit – but it isn’t something to dwell on during a line-by-line read through. However, it does highlight one of my biggest difficulties with writing: merging draft with craft.

Just some of the hundreds of amends

Just some of the hundreds of amends

I’m a pantser rather than a planner. I don’t want to be. I have ground to a halt on my MG novel because I can’t visualise the ending and am stuck in a soggy middle. But every time I try to sketch out what happens next, my characters decide on a different path, and hours of effort are wasted. Either that or I plan the life out of the story and can no longer be bothered to write it. To some extent I write to find out what happens – if I already know every twist and turn of the plot I get bored.

Writing that way makes it difficult to consciously craft, however. I read posts by authors like Kristen Lamb and it all seems so clear: what positive and negative traits a character needs and how they can drive the plot. So, buy a useful thesaurus, select some traits, and off I go. But every time I sit down and try to figure out that kind of detail I draw a blank (and usually lose the will to write).

Somehow, without conscious thought, my characters develop flaws and tells. But their journey, their growth, isn’t really controlled by me. If they grow, learn, change, during the story, that’s more by accident than design. Ditto for making every paragraph multi-functional : contributing to the story, character development, conflict or climax. Of course that’s what the revision process is for. When I start to deconstruct my writing, however, that’s when I start to think it all sucks. The more I stare at the words the less they make sense, until I’m convinced I should chuck the lot in the bin and start again. I feel like my husband, who can play the piano beautifully but thinks it’s just noise because he can’t read music.

Until I can learn to combine craft and draft I suspect my novels will never really sing, but reading craft books makes me judge my own writing too harshly. It’s a quandary. And that’s what editors are for, I guess. Hopefully a good one will help a book find its voice. Certainly I hope mine will help with Class Act. That’s assuming I wade through the words and get the manuscript sent off next week, of course. Back to work!

Training Day: 2013 365 Challenge #197

Team Day: I wish my bum still looked like that!

Team Day: I wish my bum still looked like that!

Today I gave myself a training day. Just as a good marketer or manager needs a day out of the office to refresh her knowledge of the essential aspects of the job, so a writer needs to brush up on craft.

However, I found it as hard to have a metaphorical day out of the office today as I did when I had a ‘proper’ job. Whenever it was suggested, I used to whine about workload and deadlines and productive use of my time. Particularly if the day out was for quarterly strategy updates or *shudder* team days.

Oh what I wouldn’t give now for a day riding quad bikes and shooting clays, or pretending to do a school sports day (see photos) with a barbecue lunch and a free bar and – best of all – getting paid to do it! How our perspective on life changes.

I did at least get lunch made for me on my training day today, as hubbie’s contract finished on Friday and he’s at home again. So, when I should have been writing Claire installments or chasing the proofreader for an update, I read through Nigel Watts’ great craft book, Writing a Novel, which I discussed last week.

It’s a chatty book, full of great little quotes, which I have been adding to Twitter and Facebook today. The advice is neither new, profound, nor extensive, but I like the book all the more for that. I read through around half today – before the muggy heat sent my brain to sleep – and I’ve been mapping the advice on structure against Baby Blues, Class Act and Two-Hundred Steps Home.

School Girl Amanda (six years ago!)

School Girl Amanda (six years ago!)

It’s interesting to see that Baby Blues contains more of the necessary components than I realised, although I suspect I don’t have conflict and resolution in every chapter – I know that’s a personal weakness in my writing thus far.

I also struggled to verbalise Helen’s key motivation or pinpoint the exact nature of her character change. I came up with ‘finding a purpose in life’ or ‘creating a happy home’ as her motivations and her main change in terms of character growth as ‘takes her own decisions rather than letting life dictate them’.

For Class Act I had more detail in some places, less in others. I’m still not happy with the name of my lead protagonist and that is actually hampering me. The fact that I don’t have a name means, to me, that she isn’t fully formed in my mind.

The main reason for my training day was to figure out what to do with Claire and Two-Hundred Steps Home. As I’ve said before, the story is finished. She’s been through most of the stages of the eight-point structure. She’s made crucial decisions and dealt with the climax: assisting Josh to reunite with his wife even though she fancied him, looking after Sky despite her fear of children, standing up to Carl, and freeing herself from Michael.

All the early mystery has been revealed and the suspense answered. However, as Rinelle pointed out in the comments, Claire still hasn’t resolved her work situation. I know she has the strength to do it, but she needs a reason. Maybe that will be driven by love or lust (falling for Mitch and leaving for NZ, though I don’t think that’s likely as they didn’t hit it off), or maybe it’s the job offer in NZ (again, unlikely). Her motivation has always been pride – saving face, not being out done, not letting people (Carl, Michael, Josh) get the better of her. Now, though, she’s ready to move beyond pride. I need to figure out where to.

I effectively need to start a new plot, with a new trigger and a new quest. I just have no idea what that will be!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire hung up the phone and grinned. It had taken a dozen phone calls and not a small amount of patience, but she had managed it. Now for the difficult call. She stared at the piece of paper in front of her, with the all-important name and number on it, and resisted the urge to put the call off until later. Now. It has to be now, or I’ll chicken out.

Tapping her pen against the table, she waited for the phone to connect, the contents of her stomach doing the hula.

“Good morning, Ruth speaking.”

“Hi, it’s me.” She heard the wobble in her voice, and wondered what was causing it. She was helping, wasn’t she?

“Hello, why are you calling? Is everything okay? I thought you were on your travels again. Did you speak to Mum?”

Claire swallowed. She’d forgotten about her conversation the previous evening. “Ah, yes. She and Dad are away, at a spa or something.” She prayed her sister wouldn’t ask any more questions. There were mental images that were best forgotten.

“What? She didn’t tell me she was going away. Who is going to collect Sky from school? It was all I could do to get her there this morning.”

Ignoring the stab of irritation at her sister’s attitude, Claire reminded herself that she was sick and needed all the help she could get.

“That’s why I’m ringing, actually. I’ve been thinking about it since I left. Mum and Dad need some time to rebuild their bridges-” She heard her sister’s intake of breath, and rushed on, “-Not that Mum minds helping you, but it must be frustrating for you, to always have to ask her for help. I thought about what you said – about needing a child-minder – and I’ve found one.”

“I told you, I can’t afford childcare.” Ruth’s tone made it clear what she felt about Claire’s interference.

“You don’t have to. It’s my gift to you. I should be helping, but I’m stuck doing this stupid challenge. The least I can do is let Carl fund a child-minder for you. They’re still paying me, and my outgoings are minimal. Anyway, it’s all arranged. It might be a bit make-do this term, but Jenny assures me she’ll have plenty of space next term.”

“That’s September, Claire. Four months away. I can’t make-do for all that time.”

Claire inhaled and tried not to react. She’d known it wouldn’t be easy to help her sister.

“All Jenny means is she will have to share the childcare with Mum, as she doesn’t have space every day. But she lives near you, so bringing Sky home won’t be a problem. Even if all she does is walk her home from school, that will help. Won’t it?”

Silence followed her words. Sensing it would be a concession too far from Ruth to admit that, Claire shrugged and let it go. “I’ll text you the details. I’ve asked Jenny to call you about collecting Sky from school today. I’m guessing you’ll have to get it authorised. And Ruth,” she hesitated, then decided nothing ventured. “Try and accept the help, okay. Think of it as recompense for me still doing this awful challenge when I’d rather be playing with my niece.”

She hung up the phone before her sister could respond. Realising she was breathing hard, Claire was about to head down to reception to check out and continue to the next hostel, when the phone rang. Oh, Ruth, don’t be a dummy. Take the help.

Glancing at the phone, she realised it wasn’t her sister calling back, but a withheld number. Hoping against reason that it was Kim, Claire answered the call.

“Hello, is that Claire Carleton?”

“Yes, speaking.”

“Ah, Claire. My name is Linda Small, I work for a recruitment agency. I have a position that might interest you, if you’re in the market for a change of role.”

Claire sank back onto the bunk bed, and listened with wide eyes to what Linda had to say.

***

Dressing up, Dog Walking and Self Doubt: 2013 365 Challenge #63

My proof copies and my craft books

My proof copies and my craft books

Today was a lovely Sunday of swimming, dog walking, family visiting and playing dressing up with Mummy’s wedding dress. (Not me, obviously, I can’t get it on any more!)

My little babies managed to walk all the way to the top of the field behind my parents’ house and back without being carried. That’s a first. We saw deer and rabbits and the kids and dogs had a great run in the sun.

Perfect.

It made up for getting to the pool this morning to find a Gala on. We had to drive to the next town and suffer an inferior swimming experience. At least we’ll appreciate our local pool all the more next time we get there, especially a dry changing room floor! It’s the little things.

Self-doubt came swooping down today, through the medium of Social Media. I read two things that reminded me not to get too cocky or over confident, although neither was intended that way or was even directed at me. (And I can’t imagine being cocky or self-confident in any universe).

The first lesson came from a thread on a LinkedIn Group I follow and it was about self-published authors not having their manuscripts properly edited. Lisa Tannier wrote:

I see so many complaints lately from Indie readers about lack of editing. It is like the author is in such a hurry to publish that they skip over a crucial part of writing the book.

Guilty! I can’t afford an editor and I know I should probably have done at least one more revision on Dragon Wraiths before I stuck it on Kindle. Lisa’s comment was followed up by one written by an Editor (although I did note it had a couple of I-wrote-too-quickly typos, which wouldn’t endear me to an editor!)  Caryl McAdoo replied:

And, thing about self published authors, many DON’T have a good story told from characters from their Point of View – their work is full of passive to-be verbs, attributions, too many ‘ing’s and ‘ly’s, and unnecessary prepositional phrases.

I confess I didn’t even understand all of her comment: my grammar is pretty poor and mostly I’ve focussed on getting my punctuation right. I know full well my writing is too passive and I don’t use enough punchy verbs, instead of littering ‘ing’s and ‘ly’s through my prose. It made me shiver to read her comment because I fear a slating review (though with only 4 Dragon Wraiths copies sold I don’t think anyone is going to bother writing one!)

My little girl growing up

My little girl growing up

The second chastening lesson came via a conversation with Charlene K Blackwell on Twitter. She mentioned that she’s reading Orson Scott Card’s craft book Characters and Viewpoint. I have a copy on my shelf, it’s a great book. But I haven’t read it in at least a year, possibly more. I bought my craft books when I taught Creative Writing briefly to an adult education class (much to my shock and terror as I never expected to get the job.) I also studied craft with the Open University while pregnant with my first child. I confess, though, that I rarely open a craft book these day. They sit on my shelf next to my print-proofs and that’s probably as close as they’ve got to each other.

The thing is, I’m impatient. Terribly, terribly impatient. And easily bored. I can cope with two, maybe three, revisions of a manuscript then I’m sick of the sight of it. Part of the reason I put Dragon Wraiths live was to get some critique on it because I don’t have the guts to join a critique group. How nuts is that? I don’t want honest feedback from a small group of fellow writers so instead I’ll put it out for any random stranger to tear it apart!

Actually I have spent more time editing and rewriting my Claire instalments than any of my manuscripts. I used to think I had to plough through a first draft and then edit it after the words were out. Now I suspect the new way is better for me. Write a little bit every day and then polish it until it shines because chances are I won’t have the patience to do it properly when the book is finished. It’s a lowering thought.

So my new aim is to start re-reading my craft books and to incorporate bits into my Claire posts. I’ll relearn the things I’ve forgotten and maybe I’ll manage to eradicate some of the passive verbs and ‘ly’s. Here’s hoping.

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Claire paced through the milling crowd of passengers and tearful family members without registering them. At the back of her mind a nagging sense of loss itched like nettle rash. She patted her pockets for the fifth time, convinced she must have left her phone or keys in the café.

“Claire?”

The sound trickled through the hubbub of noise and brushed at Claire’s cheek. She half turned her head then carried on walking.

Even the memories are taunting me now. Thanks guys, impeccable timing.

“Claire Carleton?”

Stronger this time; more stream than trickling brook. It cut through the swaying trees of strangers and curled around her feet. Her heart stopped and her body followed suit, frozen in place by an impossible sound.

Not impossible though. Not even unexpected. He practically lived in this place when he wasn’t at mine.

Glacier-slow, Claire twisted her head to locate the source of the sound without giving away that she’d heard. Except of course her body had betrayed her by standing still. Stillness gave you away in a place of perpetual motion and Michael was by her side before she’d even had a chance to locate the direction of his voice.

“It is you.”

He stood too near for comfort but too far for touching. His hands hung loosely as if they had already reached out for an embrace and been repulsed.

Claire kept her head low, allowing a wall of hair to shield her. She could tell Michael was itching to reach forward and brush it behind her ear as he always did: to laugh as he always did when it fell forward again with the irresistible pull of gravity.

His breathing was fast, as if he had run across the Arrivals hall to catch her. A hurrying man with a case on wheels and a laptop bag pushed between them, oblivious to the tight cord his movement had severed. The wave of his passing swirled the scent of Eternity round Claire, weakening the joints of her knees and making her tummy wobble.

They smiled then, sharing a moment of humour at the severance of their precious moment. As always, his smiled jolted her heart and warmed her skin like summer sun.

Oh Michael. Damn you for being here. Now. When I desperately need a hug.

She raised a foot to step towards him, reached a hand to clasp his arm and lean in for a continental greeting. Another voice called out; spewing forth like a burst pipe.

“Michael? Where are you? We’re going to miss our train. Oh…” The voice approached and stopped short of where Michael and Claire stood face to face.

“Claire. How lovely to see you. Michael said you were in the Outer Hebrides or something.” The clipped tones could cut glass. Or hearts.

Claire heard only half the sentence: the remainder was drowned out by the roar of blood in her ears. She felt it rushing to her face, heating the skin until it glowed like blacksmith’s steel.

Michael’s face drained of colour in response, as if she now had all his red hue too. He opened his mouth to speak but Claire raised a hand to fend off his words. She blinked at the tears welling in betrayal and spun herself round before he could witness them.

As she stalked away she heard Debbie’s strident tones curling after her.

“How rude. She never did have much grace.”

Claire broke into a run, not caring who saw, the need to escape stronger than her sense of pride.

***