Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dialogue vs.Conversation

Inspiring Me Today: Quite a few people, it seems.

I recently came across a very interesting blog post by agent Anita Bartholomew responding to a Salon article about self-publishing. I had read the article in question and agreed with it on the whole, but found Ms. Bartholomew's post enlightening.

Other than the general usefulness of the post itself, there was a single line that jumped out at me. In describing some of the common pitfalls people encounter in their writing, Bartholomew said, "they don’t know the difference between dialogue and conversation."

Well, that threw me for a bit of a loop. I'd never heard it put that way, so I did some research. I'm not 100% sure where Ms. Bartholomew sees the division, but the most helpful thing I found was this description from author and teacher Dory Lynch (a totally random find! Thanks Google!):
In plays dialog is not idle conversation. Dramatic dialogue should only be included if it does at least one of two things (if not both): advance the plot, and/or develop characters.

Definition: William Packard defined dialogue as "the rapid back and forth exchange that takes place between on-stage characters." He said that "good dramatic dialogue always advances the major actions of the play."
  1. Remember most people seldom speak in whole sentences.
  2. Have each character speak in unique patterns, vocabulary, and choice of subject.
Carol Korty said that the "words of the whole play are like a piece of music—they create sounds, rhythms, tones that are heard and physically felt. They also create images. In this way, dialogue is also poetry, whether or not it rhymes or has a definite meter."

The post is about plays, but still it's helpful. What does this tell us? It tells us that your characters should not simply have a conversation. The conversation should have a point. If it's just fat, then we need to trim it.

However, there's another side of the thing we need to look at too. For the book to work, the dialogue shouldn't feel like dialogue. How do you know you've fallen into that trap? Well, when you're readers can see "Information imparted here" flashing above your characters' heads like a flashing neon sign, that's a bad thing. It causes distancing. And distancing is bad.

We don't want to know we're in a book. We want to completely forget that. When you read a book and "get lost in its pages," it happens because everything feels natural.

So how do you do it? Well, first, think of the information you need to impart. If you've planned your novel the way you're supposed to, then you should have a big list of "to tell" stuff. If your readers know everything they need to know in the book, then you better be at the end of the thing or you're in BIG trouble.

Now that you have the information in question, think about how such a topic would normally come up. Don't force it into a place that people wouldn't normally discuss it. Some topics, especially personal ones, will take a lot of buildup. People don't typically start spilling the beans about their private lives in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot (well, you totally could write it that way, but never mind).

However, buildup is tricky. You don't want to give us every second of the inane discussion of the weather. We need to start the scene later on than that. Still, you don't want to skip right to the juicy stuff, because the reader needs to build up to it just as much as the characters do.

So, here's what I recommend: multitask your scenes. This is my #1 biggest recommendation across the board when it comes to writing, but especially for making your dialogue effective. Have several goals for the dialogue scene and accomplish them in stages. If your characters need to develop or we need to see growth in their interrelationship, then show that while your're building up to that important backstory jaw-dropper.

Past this, I can't really help you. You can either capture that feeling that these people are real or you can't. Writing is as much about innate talent as it is developed skill. I don't know where I stand on the talent scale, but as for the skill... well, the skill I can work on.

[Author's note: I personally like the "dialogue" spelling and have decided to use it. I could care less if the "proper American spelling" is actually "dialog." Leave me alone, stupid spell check.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Post on Revision on Bransford's Blog

Inspiring Me Today: Guest Blogger Bryan Russell

There is an absolutely wonderful guest post up on agent Nathan Bransford's (in)famous blog. If you don't follow Mr. Bransford's blog, I recommend it. It's widely famous for being insightful, entertaining, and not overly filled with complaints about how annoying we authorial hopefuls are.

Today's post is a guest post by Bryan Russell, and is about revision. He explores some of the same important points about revision I have made in the past in my "Trimming the Fat" post, but uses the very helpful (if less mouth-watering) metaphor of a house. Here's a short excerpt:

(P)aint can only do so much. Sometimes stories need more. Sometimes they need deep revisions. That is, a re-visioning, a re-seeing of the story itself. We have to step inside and see a new house in the old one.

Yet we can’t always just tear it down and build it from scratch. We’ve invested too much, we’re running out of funds, and the parlor is really quite nice, and the brick fireplace, yes, it’s quite divine. And the view from the sunroom? Who wouldn’t want to keep that?

But there are problems. People tend to get lost. Hallways seem to go in the wrong direction. One of them ends inside a broom closet without a light, an albino raccoon hissing at you feverishly in the dimness. Where did that come from? It seemed so inspirational at the time.

Read the entire post here:

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Cover Design for SPLIT by Jacob Milhouse

Inspiring Me Today: The Hybrid Chronicles: Split by Jacob Milhouse

Hey all,

This is just a quick post to let you know that I designed a cover for my friend and critique partner, the ridiculously talented teen writer, Jacob Milhouse.

The novel, titled Split, is the first book in The Hybrid Chronicles. Here's the description (stolen from his Writers' Alley interview):

Split is a novel about a vampire-witch hybrid named Sage McHale who has a killer split personality—literally. Not only is she a criminal for being interbred, but now her alter-ego has murdered a supernatural political heavyweight. To make matters worse, her boyfriend is a psychotic terrorist, the people who she’s been hiding from her entire life are on their way to capture, if not kill her, and the secret weapon everyone keeps going on about is her. With blood on her hands, a sardonic alter-ego in her conscious and two warring enemies pursuing her for leverage against the other, Sage must choose a side in an upcoming war where she is the ultimate weapon.

So, without further ado, here is the cover design by yours truly:

So, what do you think? I can't take credit for the images of Sage (the MC). Thanks to Jacob's brother for those. I just did the design work.

If you're interested in learning more about Jacob and his work, check out his BRAND NEW BLOG at:


PS: do you twitter? Follow me at

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Finding Your Plot

Inspiring Me Today: Anything by William Shakespeare

Before I begin, a caveat. This blog is and always has been directed towards commercial fiction. However, that doesn't mean the literary fiction writers should quickly hit the Back button. Hold on and hear me out. If you take my advice with a certain amount of salt, it can still be very helpful to you. After all, the greatest author of English literature in the past half-millennium was a commercial fiction author. (Those that disagree with that statement are usually those that discount Shakespeare simply because he was a commercial fiction author.)

Ok, that's over with. On to my point.

How do you answer the question, "So, what's your book about?" Do you hum and haw about theme, or else dive into the MC's entire backstory? Do you spend fifteen minutes giving a blow-by-blow of "what happens"? Do you simply give a one-line explanation of the premise... and stop there?

Well, my friends, these are all examples of a lack of plot. This doesn't mean things don't happen in your book. I'm sure they do. What I mean really is that your plot is either ill-defined or swallowed up. So, we'll look at all four of these examples and then see how to solve them.

Thematic Blockage (you hum and haw about theme)
If you spend all your time talking about your novel's theme and message, then it's a clear sign that you have fallen into the common literary trap (and I do mean literary) of thematic blockage. What I mean by this is that you have been focusing on the message of the book and not on, well, the book. Your book may have a lot to say, but you'll have to make us sit down and listen first. You do that by entertaining us. Mark Twain once said that a classic is "a book which people praise but don't read". You need to find your plot.

The classic rules of plot writing apply here. You need a protagonist (doesn't need to be a "hero") who has a problem to face. There should be one or more obstacles to this goal. The novel is about overcoming these obstacles in an attempt (whether successful or not) to reach this goal. There are tons upon tons of resources on this subject, so I'll spare you the details. All I'm saying is, get a plot. Your message will be better for it.

Character Assessment (you dive into the MC's entire backstory)
If you find yourself talking more about your character than what happens, then you also have a plot problem. Sure, you have a great, well-crafted, and interesting MC. However, it isn't a novel until they do something. And I don't mean the dishes. Again, we need the basics. MC (check), goal, and obstacles. This is especially important in character-centric stories. Authors of these types of stories say, "Well, my book isn't really plot-driven. It's character-driven."

Not so, I'm afraid. All that classic phrase should mean is that your goal is an internal one. Is your book about a conflicted Nazi in World War II? Well, the goal is the character's "salvation" and the obstacles are his job, his familial expectations, the Nazi propaganda, and perhaps even his own pre-existing prejudices. Looks like MC, goal, and obstacles to me. Now start crafting your plot around these details.

Drowning Plots (you give a blow-by-blow of "what happens")
Another cause of seemingly plot-less books (this was my problem) is actually an excess of plot. Perhaps you have a lot of stories to tell. Perhaps you just love watching your characters interact, and you have an excess of fat. Perhaps you haven't quite committed to a specific MC yet at all. Whatever the exact reason, the result is a story that is so bound up in events that you fail to have a clear plot.

Go back to the formula we've been discussing. Who's your MC? If you don't know by now, decide. Today. Now, what's the goal? Not sure? Well then, figure out what you're building towards. If you don't have any clue where you're going, how do you expect to ever get there? Decide where the book ends. Then, you can determine what the goal is, because that will tell you where you should be working towards. Then, figure out what are actual obstacles to that goal. You can only have ONE goal. One. Just one. Only one. One.

No, you're book isn't different or special. Stop arguing with me. One.

So, once you have that, all else is fat. Back to the trimming the fat discussion. If it doesn't work towards that goal, it can go. To mix metaphors, cut out the weeds that are chocking your plot.

A Premise Problem (you give a one-line explanation of the premise and stop there)
There is NO SUCH THING as a premise-driven plot! A premise-driven plot is like a sports car with no wheels. I don't care how cool your premise is, if you don't have a plot to back it up, the premise is irrelevant. Trust me. I know. I've fallen prey to this myself.

Let's say you have a good premise for a book plot, perhaps... * cough* ... your book is about a girl who goes to school to become a magical spy. Well, that's great, but unless your (that is to say, my) MC doesn't have a particular and identifiable plot, then the premise isn't going to get me anywhere. What I had to do was find out what her goal for that book was and work the plot towards it. I knew where I was going towards, but I didn't do anything to tell that to the readers at all. When I introduced the first breadcrumb, the reader didn't know. I had the excess of plot problem we mentioned before, and how were they to know this wasn't yet another subplot? Readers will only go with you so far. I had to find a way to tell them that this was important without telling them everything that was going on. So, I wrote a scene that made the importance clear, but kept the mystery going.

Like I've been saying, my book needed a MC, a goal, and obstacles. I really had all of them, but for my premise to translate into a plot, I had to identify them and craft the novel so that it worked with them and towards them.

And that's what you need to do too.

My Graffiti Wall Interview

Inspiring Me Today: The Writers' Ally by SA Larsen

Hey everyone! Just a quick note to let you all know that I have an interview up over at Sheri Larsen's "Graffiti Wall". It was a lot of fun, and big thanks to Sheri for giving me the opportunity. I hope everyone stops by to check it out and leave a comment too!

(PS: Traditional post to follow shortly.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Properly Formatting Queries

Inspiring Me Today: The Guide to Literary Agents blog

Recently, the Guide to Literary Agents blog wrote an excellent post about properly formatting queries.

I do recommend you check it out. However, I have a couple quick notes to add, for those of you wanting a bit of a quicker and more repeatable method. Pasting into notepad is certainly a sure-fire way of removing formatting. However, it isn't the only way. Here are some other ways to remove formatting.

Google Chrome
If you use Google Chrome as your web browser, there is a built-in "paste without formatting" command. Normally, the keystroke for pasting is CTRL + V. However, if instead you type CTRL + SHIFT + V, then it will paste without formatting. This makes typing your emails quick and easy, and you'll strip out the formatting no problem.

If you use Google Gmail, then you have another easy way to remove formatting from an email. In the toolbar where the Bold, Italic, etc., tools are, there's also a Tx button. The Tx button removes formatting from selected text. So, you can paste your text into your email editor and press the Tx button, which should remove any weird size, font, etc., changes.

Microsoft Word
If you do use Word to write your queries (checking for grammar errors, etc.), then there is a way to at least remove unwanted formatting changes. When you paste in text, instead of using standard paste, go to Edit->Paste Special and select Unformatted Text. This will let you paste in text and use formatting of wherever you're pasting to, rather than where you're pasting from. Your text will still have formatting, but it will be consistent formatting throughout, which is the important thing. (Note that if you do this often, you can create a Macro in Word than you can then apply to a keystroke, say the above-mentioned CTRL + SHIFT + V. Go here to find out how to do it.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Share Your Darlings" Blogfest

Inspiring Me Today: Michelle Gregory's cool idea!

Do you blog? Do you write? Here's a great way to share in the writing community and give light to those scenes you love, but just had to cut. Remember all the "fat" we've been talking about cutting? Have a bit of fat that just tasted SO good, but added nothing to the "meal" that was your book. Here's your chance to re-purpose it. Post it on your blog on July 1st.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sneak Peak at my WIP: Weathervane

Inspiring Me Today: "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire

If you've been following me at all on Facebook, then you may have heard wind of a project called Weathervane. I haven't said much about it, but you can see the cover here.

Well, now it's time to reveal just a bit about it. There's obviously a lot more about this world, but I put together a little query pitch about it. Check it out and let me know what you think!


When you’re a stormrunner, you live and die by one rule: when the rooster spins, you run.

16-year-old David King spends his days watching his weathervane and trying to protect his family farm, not only from the freaky extreme weather than has become a weekly occurrence, but also from the manipulative yanks in Norte’s storm-free capitol, The District. David’s delicately balanced world is blown away when he is randomly selected by electronic vote to be a candidate for the next chairman of the board of Norte. David knows that being elected as a candidate for the country’s highest office is not an honor; it’s a death sentence. Besides, he’s just a farm boy who spends his free time leaning against a cow and writing poems about Bethany Sheldon. What can he do?

David doesn’t know. All he knows is that when you’re a stormrunner, you live and die by one rule: when the rooster spins, you run… but not away.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Five: Just Cook It Already

Inspiring Me Today: "The High Road" by Broken Bells (here)

Well, I'm not sure how the food theme developed for this series, but oh well. I was originally going to borrow the phrase "Stop picking at it!" for this post, but a whole blog about not picking at your scabs would be kinda gross. Besides, who wants to compare their completed manuscript to a gaping wound? So, it's back to the cooking metaphors!

If there's one thing I've learned from cooking over the years, it's that at some point, you need to stop trying to trick it up and just stick it in the oven. You're more likely to ruin the dish than do any good, and if you don't cook it at some point, you're going to starve. (Insert requisite "starving artist" joke here.)

There are many reasons why we keep fiddling with our manuscript long after we should, but there are two primary ones. We'll look at both of them.

The first reason people tend to keep poking at the book is a sense of perfectionism. There is the expectation, I think, that our manuscripts must be perfect before we give it to any other living soul. We get that expectation both from agents and ourselves. Agents say that your manuscript should be free of errors. That's true. However, that doesn't mean you should obsess over every single thing.

Here's what you should do. Go into Word and turn on the style checker [authors note: leave a comment if you don't know how and I'll walk you through it]. That'll go through the manuscript with a pretty fine-toothed comb. If you've read and reread through your book several times, then between those two things, your book should be ready to send to an agent. Remember, an editor is going to look at this thing too. They'll help you clear up any other minor errors. Don't wait months on end because you're afraid you have a stray comma somewhere.

The second reason people continually work on their novel is, I think, more common. It's fear. As authors, our work is like a child or something. It's something we've sweated over and worked hard perfecting. A rejection of our manuscript is a rejection of us. If the book sucks, we suck. So, we tell ourselves that maybe if we spend one more month on it, maybe then it won't be so scary sending it out there. Maybe then we won't get the rejections (or any more rejections). Even if the novel is just a poorly-executed dish, we're there furiously adding seasonings, hoping somehow to save it.

Well, either way, the response is the same. At some point, you need to just stick it in the oven. Bad or good, you can't do anything more for it now. If it flops, it flops. If it wins, it wins. The only way you'll know is to just cook it already and see.

Oh, and PS: Don't forget to check out WriteOnCon, an awesome free online conference for children and young adult writers. Click on the ticker on the right to visit the site and learn more!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Four: Marinating

Inspiring Me Today: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In my previous post in this series, I used the analogy of preparing a steak to describe the editing process. We discussed "trimming the fat," being able to recognize the true difference between fat and meat, and knowing when to cut fat and when to cut meat.

But what if you've cut too much fat, now you're steak... I mean your novel... is doomed for dryness? Or, what if your novel is a little dry from the start? Well, that's definitely a problem.

How do you know you have this problem? Well, you'll get comments from critique partners and agents (and editors, if you're lucky enough to be that far in the process) that say things like, "I just didn't feel a strong enough connection to the character," or, "I didn't care what happened to the MC," or worse, "I didn't like the MC." Another thing you'll hear a lot is "the story just didn't seem to have any heart." Of course, you're reading that and going, "It's a zombie book. There's plenty hearts. It's a favorite delicacy after the brains!"

Umm, you're being too literal dude. We're wanting the emotional stuff. If you're killing off characters and it should matter to us at all, we'll need to know something about them. Death in the abstract is, unfortunately, not enough to make an impact on most people. That's the whole point of The Hunger Games (which if you haven't read, SHAME ON YOU! Go buy it today!). The people in the Capitol don't care about what happens to the tributes because they don't know enough about them. The best they get is a little five-minute interview, and everything is mostly staged to get sponsors, so it's about how they'll win in the arena. Not really anything about them as a person.

For your book to succeed, whether you're killing people off or not, you're going to need that investment in your characters. How do you get that? Well, to keep with the food theme... you marinate. In other words, as counterproductive as it may feel to add when you're trying to cut down, you're going to need to write some.

The first question you may have is, "What's the difference between a marinade and fat?" Well, the truth is, marinades usually have some sort of fat in them. However, it's fat that is specifically chosen for its taste and its burn temperature (watch Alton Brown's Good Eats if you don't know what I'm talking about). We're talking about oil, not beef fat, which is why cooks cut fat only to add it back in with a marinade. These fats bring certain flavors and properties to the party that help with the overall experience of the dish. The choice is targeted and deliberate.

That's how marinating works. The same is true for novel-writing. If we don't care about your MC, you'll need to add in some fat, but the additions should be deliberate, and do more than add humor or insight. They shouldn't have a single flavor profile. Marinades usually combine oil, an acid, and also some herbs and spices. The different flavors "marry" and as such, the marinade serves many different purposes, including adding taste and tenderizing the meat. Your added scenes should have the same multidimensionality to them. If it's just a funny scene, it can go. If it's just a sad scene, it can go. If it's just an informative scene, it can go. It needs to be all that.

Make a list of all the things you know your novel is lacking. Do we need to know more about the main character's background so we can understand why it's so important that they find the cure for these zombies? Has the story been rushing along with tons of zombie killing action, and now your readers are worn out? Do we not understand what's binding these people together at all beyond the basic need to survive? Well, sounds like your story is needing some marinade.

In this particular instance, you're needing some info for the MC, some humor for your readers, and some interaction between your characters. Ok, so... info, humor, and interaction. How can we get all of that in a single scene? How about a conversation between your characters where they discuss your MC's background in a humorous way? Not that tricky, really.

Of course, with conversation scenes, it's best if you have them doing something instead of just talking if possible (I'm not always great at this part). Let's take the zombie book again. Well, one way is the classic of having your character talking while killing zombies (in a "this is starting to get routine now" sort of way). In fact, the scene itself could be humorous, and so the background element could be more personal and heartfelt. Another option would be having them talk while carrying out some important plot point (sneaking into the facility where the zombies were created so they can get the cure, for example). That's what I mean by targeted. Don't make it more fluff. Make the scene multidimensional and integrate it with the existing plot points. If it's just hanging out there disconnected to everything else going on, it's destined for the knife at some point.

It's a very delicate balance, I know. It's certainly not one I've mastered. However, if you can do it correctly, the right marinade can set your steak... your writing... apart from any other your readers have ever tasted.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Ledger Domain Book Cover

Not to post two blatantly promotional posts in a row, but here's the latest cover for The Ledger Domain. It was a quick job, but I like it. For those of you graphic design critics out there, I'll state for the record that it isn't my best Photoshop job ever. Still, I like it. It's kinda creepy.

So why did I create a new cover? What was wrong with the old grungy cover? Well, nothing really other than it was a bit boring. Also, this fits more inline with the current book cover trends for older YA. I like it, and hope you do too.

Traditional posts to resume next time. I promise!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Updated Excerpt on

Hey everyone,

Just a quick note to say that there is a new (or rather, updated) excerpt up on my website,

To get to the quote, go to the link above, click on Dowered Three up top, and then click on Excerpts on the left-hand side of the page. The "Intro" excerpt is new. The old "intro" excerpt was the way my book originally opened. I haven't had that opening for a while, but haven't gone in and replaced the quote. Now the new one is up. Go and enjoy, then come back and let me know what you think!


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

YA Book Review: Daniel X by James Patterson

A few weeks ago, my status update on Facebook was as follows:

"Wonderful. Just wonderful. I'm working hard to get my book published and SHE get's a three-book deal??"

I was reacting (overreacting?) to the news that Tyra Banks has landed a three book deal for her YA series about kids in the modeling biz. Now, I haven't read Trya's book, in part because it hasn't been released yet. However, it annoys me because it's yet another example of celebrities getting into the YA writing game. It's a trend just as thoughtless and annoying as tiny dogs, big glasses, and third-world adoptions. Celebrities are writing because, let's be honest, writing YA is "cool" these days. Thanks Jo Rowling. Yes, you've given us a generation of kids who read and a series that will last for generations, but you've also given us Lauren Conrad, the author.

This isn't to say that these celeb books aren't any good. I've never read them. However, somehow I'm not anticipating a whole lot.

Despite my general annoyance at the celebrity YA trend, I sort of expect that type of thing from Hollywood. However, what really annoys me are the bestselling adult authors who are following the trend as well.

The prime example of this is an adult author whom I actually like very much: James Patterson. I am a big fan of James Patterson. His Alex Cross novels are some of my favorites, especially Roses are Red and Violets are Blue. I'm very influenced by him as a writer, and constantly find myself inspired by his writing style. So, I'm in no way trying to bash James Patterson. I like James Patterson.

But really, he shouldn't be writing young adult fiction.

I recently read The Dangerous Days of Daniel X. Or rather, I should say that I tried to read it. I promise that I did try. I tried several times to suffer through it, but all in all, the whole thing was just ridiculous.

Daniel X is a boy (possibly an alien) who has a wide range of awesome superpowers and goes around the world fighting disgusting alien creatures bent on destroying the world. The premise reads like an 8-year-old boy telling his idea for a short story. It's definitely the sort of thing tween boys would think up.

But it's not the type of thing tween boys should be reading. It's the literary equivalent of a fart joke. It apparently sells well, but when you put it up against something like The Stoneheart Trilogy or The Hunger Games, it pales. The Stoneheart Trilogy is a boy book series for the middle grade/younger YA set, and is just as suspenseful and gripping as any Patterson novel. My whole body would often tense up while reading a Stoneheart book. However, the difference is it doesn't do what Daniel X does from the get-go.

It doesn't insult the reader.

I don't know what Patterson expects from teens. Perhaps he thinks that they lack the ability to appreciate an intricate plot, characters with any depth, or a beautiful and appropriately understated world. Maybe that's why he's written a book that feels, if possible, like a dumbed-down version of Men in Black. Seriously, the fact that kids are buying and reading this book at all is sad, and is a tribute more to the marketing power of the James Patterson brand than to any quality in the book itself.

Please, please, if you're writing YA, remember that teenagers are intelligent, normal people. They aren't five-year-olds looking for books that serve as little more than the flashy light toys my baby girl likes to play with. They want books that relate to what they're going through. That's the difference. If you want to know how to write YA, make your book relatable to teenage life. Don't make it an insult.

Tip Tuesday on Literary Rambles

Not to have two Literary Rambles posts in a row, but Casey has kindly reposted my blog about the yWriter5 software for her Tip Tuesday. If you're tried it or checked it out since I posted about it, be sure to stop by her blog and leave a comment.