Blah, Blah, Blah, Or How Much Dialogue Is Too Much?

April 4th, 2014 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

The dialogue bubbles that appear on my smartphone in texts has got me thinking about dialogue (again), so I want to continue this topic from last month.

In response to last month’s article, one of my subscribers asked, “How much dialogue is too much?” That’s a good question and one that has no clear-cut answer. It all depends on the scene and the characters involved. However, there are two questions you can ask yourself to help ensure that your dialogue is concise, effective, and efficient.

1. Could more information be revealed through dialogue?

Many details, such as a character’s education level, age, and outlook on life, can easily be reflected in the words and tone in which he or she speaks, and thus alleviates the need for distracting backstory or asides. For example: ”I ain’t got no time for all this gobbledigook!” This character is most likely elderly, uneducated, cantankerous, and cynical—all of which is conveyed in only nine words.

2. Can important information be revealed through actions or the use of punctuation rather than spoken words in the course of dialogue?

In other words, show rather than tell, a mantra all writers are familiar with. For example, through action:

“It’s time to leave.” Susan rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh.

(rather than) “It’s time to leave,” Susan said, frustrated.

Through punctuation:

“I walked in the door and—”

“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim said.

(rather than) “I walked in the door and fell over the rug.”

“Hey, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” Jim interrupted her.

In both of the above examples, the writer shows the reader vital information that adds depth and nuance to the scene without taking the reader out of the scene to tell him or her pertinent details.

Finally, a good practice for determining if your dialogue is too lengthy or includes too much detail is reading your scene out loud or, better yet, having someone else read it out loud to you. Often our ears will catch what our eyes don’t. Even if we struggle with writing dialogue that flows and sounds authentic, we know it when we hear it—and when we don’t.

 

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Just Say It

March 5th, 2014 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

Dialogue is one of the trickiest elements of writing. The ability to capture on the page the natural flow of speech and conversation is a skill that comes naturally to some writers and evades others. But never fear. Writing dialogue well can be learned.

There are three components to dialogue: words of speech, cadence and flow, and dialogue tags, all of which together can reveal the character’s personality, temperament, ethnicity, and current emotion or mood. Here, I’m going to address dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are the two words at the end or in the middle of a line of speech, e.g., “said John” or “John responded.” Their main purpose is to keep the reader informed as to which character is speaking. But when they are overused, they tend to interrupt the flow of conversation and thus distract and irritate the reader. The first rule I abide by is this: When there are only two characters in a scene, it’s not necessary to include a dialogue tag every time each character speaks. However, in lengthy scenes of dialogue, do add them occasionally to keep the reader up to speed as to who is speaking. And of course, in scenes containing more than two characters, including dialogue tags more often is necessary.

The second rule I adhere to like glue: Use any word apart from said sparingly. I came to accept this rule kicking and screaming because, in my own writing, I loved using the diverse tags that (I thought) added such color and depth to my scenes. Clever words like opinedelaborated, and divulged along with everyday words like explainedinterrupted, and replied. However, as an editor, I now embrace and laud this rule, as I’ve seen over and over that these tags often distract from the narrative and, yes, even sound pretentious. And in most cases, they are redundant and therefore unnecessary. In the course of the dialogue, it is typically apparent that a character is opining, elaborating, divulging, explaining, interrupting, or replying.

So remember: go easy on the use of dialogue tags in scenes containing only two characters and refrain from overusing various words in dialogue tags. Often, a simple “said” is sufficient.

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The Muddling Middle

February 5th, 2014 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

When I began my newsletter eight months ago, I was on fire, brimming with ideas and enthusiasm and committed to having it sitting in my subscribers’ inboxes first thing on the first day of each month. And for the first six months, I did just that. But then on the seventh month, it showed up in their inboxes on the fourth day of the month (because of the New Year’s holiday, I told myself), and now today, the eighth month, it showed up on the fifth day of the month. What’s happening??

Like all of us do at one point or another, I’ve hit the muddling middle.

The muddling middle is that place where the flame of our enthusiasm has waned, our once clearly charted course has veered into the brambles, and our keen vision and sense of purpose has grown cloudy and sludgy. We have all been there or are now. The muddling middle of life. The muddling middle of winter. The muddling middle of writing or editing a book. The muddling middle of building a business. The muddling middle of (you name it). Despite the circumstances, the muddling middle feels the same: blechy.

Blechy, perhaps, but part of the process. All living things have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the creative process is no exception. We give life to whatever we pour ourselves into, whether that is a relationship, a project, or a cause. I’ve found that realizing and accepting that the muddling middle is just part of the journey—as winter is a part of the cycle of nature—helps me soldier on toward my goal, one step, one keystroke, at a time. Eventually, I find that I’ve slogged my way out of the muddling middle and have ended with a sense of accomplishment and renewed vision.

So don’t lose heart once the dead of winter sets in. Just keep showing up every day and do what you can toward your goal, even if it’s very little. Remember: winter may be long and hard, but spring is on its way—and every day we’re one step closer.

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Journeying

January 6th, 2014 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, mainly because they tend to be just that—New Year’s resolutions. An event. A short period of time, like the New Year’s holiday. Once the resolution period is over, which for New Year’s tends to be around January 31, so is our commitment to our new resolutions.

Bottom line, a resolution is a determination to change, fix, or accomplish something. So why do we so often fail? I believe it’s because we resolve to possessing the end result (e.g., be twenty pounds lighter, have ripped abs, be on The New York Times bestseller list) rather than committing to what it will take to achieve it. Once we embark on the journey toward our dream, we find “getting there” will take a whole lot longer and require much more work and sacrifice than we thought and is fraught with unknowns and potential perils we never imagined. As we allow fear (or boredom, impatience, laziness, discouragement, etc.) to chip away at our resolve, our dreams lie buried in the rubble. Instead, we gain ten more pounds, our abs become flabbier, or our unfinished novel molders at the bottom of our desk drawer. Then next New Year’s we make the same resolutions all over again. With the same end result: nada.

I love the adage, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” but I only agree with it in part. We need to keep our eye on the prize to remind us what our heart longs for, to motivate us when we feel we can’t take another step or type another word, and to encourage us to not give up when all we see for our best efforts is an ocean of blood, sweat, and tears or a mountain of rejection letters. But that can’t be all we focus on, for the purpose of the journey is who we become and the lessons we learn on our way to “getting there.”

So if you’re a goal-oriented control freak like me who likes to foresee and plan for every possible occurrence, whose “getting there” muscles are way overdeveloped, here’s my writing challenge to you for 2014 (notice I didn’t say “resolution”): Plant your fanny in the chair, place those fingers on the keyboard, and allow the journey to take you where you need to go, in the way you need to get there, and in the time it takes to get there. Take it from Diana Nyad, the 64-year-old marvel who swam 100 miles from Cuba to Florida: “getting there” will be all the sweeter for it.

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Beware of Galloping Prose

December 2nd, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

I recently read an article that took me back many moons ago to when I was about eight. I was riding with my mom in my dad’s white Ford Galaxy, which was a stick shift. Mom ground the gears as she tried coordinating shifting with her right hand and steering with her left while using both feet simultaneously with one on the accelerator and the other on the clutch. As I clutched the door handle and braced myself hard against the seat to avoid whiplash, Mom growled under her breath, “Damned car galloping down the street!”

Mind you, the article I was reading had nothing to do with cars, mothers and daughters, or even horses. Yet I experienced the distinct sensation of galloping across hard terrain—ta-DUMP, ta-DUMP, ta-DUMP—which felt no more pleasing than it did in Dad’s car with Mom at the helm. And the reason for this sensation and thus the memory trigger? The article was peppered with commas, very few of which were necessary or appropriately placed.

Now I fully admit to being a full-fledged commakaze myself. However, loving commas does not give one license to abuse their use and thus do damage to the message and cause angst to readers. In the article I was reading, the galloping prose not only obscured the article’s message, it also made me angry with its author for the jolting, jarring read. From now on, I will approach any articles written by that author with caution.

But in that author’s defense, some writers are not innate editors. Still, it is the writer’s responsibility to deliver a clear message that flows more like a canter, and failing to do so reflects poorly upon the writer. Readers don’t care if the author is not a natural editor, but they do care about painful, frustrating reading and often will not give the author a second chance. This is why having a good copyeditor is an absolute must-have, even for writers who are natural editors, as all of us have blind spots when reading our own writing.

So remember: beware of galloping prose. And then hire a copyeditor who is skilled at creating a smooth, steady canter.

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Find Yourself, Find Your Voice

November 1st, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

Writers are always hearing about voice. “We’re looking for a fresh, distinct voice,” or “You need to find your voice.” I think all of us instinctively recognize a distinct voice when we hear or read it, but how do we find our own? Where do we even begin to look?

In my early writing years, I wanted to write like Anne Lamott, much like in seventh grade I wanted to look like a girl named Kathy. I imagined myself crafting succinct, witty prose colored with biting humor and penetrating insight that delivered a bare-bones, heartfelt, sometimes kick-in-the-gut universal truth. Similarly, in seventh grade, I envisioned myself with long, golden hair flowing to my waist, a sun-kissed complexion with nary a blemish, and pearly teeth as straight as piano keys.

Alas, neither fantasy panned out. Rather, my choppy, canned prose left even me wondering what message I was trying to convey, and the only time I’ve had long, golden hair with a sun-kissed complexion was in drama class after donning a wig and mountains of makeup. And piano-key teeth? Nope. Never. Eventually, I accepted that I am not Anne or Kathy. I’m Diana. And that is when my own voice started to emerge on the page. I had to first find out who I really am by discovering and, most importantly, accepting who I am not.

And I do mean started to emerge on the page. L. Ron Hubbard is noted for saying that you must write 500,000 words in order to find your true writing voice. I break out in hives over all things mathematical, so I don’t know if 500,000 is an accurate number or not. But I do know that finding your voice requires writing a lot of words. And for me that began with trying to emulate an author I respect and admire.

So for those of you who haven’t yet found your voice, just start writing, even if you’re trying to sound like someone else, and trust that your own voice will come. And for those of you who have found your voice, keep writing and honing that voice that only you possess.

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The Power of Words

October 3rd, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

We have all heard “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now maybe not all of us have had bones broken from sticks and stones, but I’d be willing to bet that we have all been hurt by words. I certainly have been. I’ve also inflicted my fair share of pain upon others through words, both verbal and written.

Words carry tremendous power. Words build up, tear down, inspire, and deflate. Words cause joy and sorrow, bring hope and despair, trigger laughter and tears. Every time a writer picks up a pen or sits down at the computer, the awareness of the power he or she wields with one stroke or keystroke should remain at the forefront of his or her mind. Remember the first commandment of the Copyeditors’ Typographic Oath, which also applies to writers: Do No Harm.

However, that does not mean that we be dishonest or disingenuous. The tagline for my business is “It’s All How You Say It.” And that’s exactly my point here. It’s not what we say but rather how we say it. This is particularly important in writing because our reader cannot see our facial expressions or body language or hear our tones of voice that help convey our intended message. All our reader has is our words on the page or computer screen. So, again, we must be mindful of our power and diligent in our responsibility to do no harm.

How can we ensure that we do no harm through our words? We can’t control others’ reactions, right? No, we can’t. We can only do our part. For me, that’s paying attention to my gut instinct when it’s telling me that something is not quite right. It’s putting a piece of writing aside until I’ve had a good night’s sleep and come back to it fresh the next morning. It’s asking a trusted, brutally honest friend to read my piece for feedback. As all writers have their own creative processes, they each have their own filtering systems as they develop their crafts. In the end, the filtering system isn’t what’s important but rather that you have one.

Remember, do no harm. You will rest easier, and your readers will respect you for it.

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Publishing Must-Haves

September 5th, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

Last month, I addressed the three essential elements in determining whether traditional or self-publishing is the best path for you: direction, focus, and commitment. This month, I want to address the three essential elements, the must-haves, before publication, whether traditional or self-, in print or e-books: copyeditor, proofreader, and cover designer.

Must-Have #1: Copyeditor

Earlier this year, I wrote an article lamenting about my disappointment with the first e-book I downloaded on the Kindle I received for Christmas. A word was missing in the very first sentence, and misspellings, faulty capitalization, and erroneous, even missing punctuation peppered the rest of the e-book. As a reader and a consumer, I felt cheated, wishing I had saved both my time and money. But this experience taught me that along with the plethora of publishing opportunities now available to authors comes the responsibility to provide a quality product.

Even if you are a gifted writer who has also inherited the editing gene, the importance of having your manuscript professionally edited cannot be stressed enough. All of us have blind spots to our errors and often do not realize that our written message fails to convey our intended one. Professional copyeditors will ferret out and correct your literary faux pas, thus saving you face with your readers and gaining their esteem. Also, a professional copyeditor will be proficient in the style manuals and other reference materials that adhere to current publishing standards.

Must-Have #2: Proofreader

Even the most meticulous, eagle-eyed copyeditor is not infallible, so acquiring another pair of professional eyes—a proofreader—after the editing process is another wise investment. Copyediting and proofreading go hand in hand, but they are not interchangeable. Copyediting scrutinizes everything in a manuscript: grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, transitions, content, tone, style, structure, clarity, citations, and potentially libelous or defamatory material. The proofreader looks for strictly mechanical errors, such as misspellings, erroneous grammar, and missing or erroneous punctuation, spacing, and capitalization that may have been overlooked in the editing process. Since the manuscript has been professionally edited, the issues at this point should be minor. However, skipping the proofreader is still not an option. In the long run, you will be grateful that you didn’t.

Must-Have #3: Cover Designer

Your print or e-book cover is your only chance to make a good first impression, and we all know how important that is. With literally thousands of books vying for readers’ attention, a classy, eye-catching, professional-looking cover will make your book stand out from all the others, and a professional cover designer will be skilled in doing just that. And by all means, proofread the finished cover. You won’t get a second chance to make a good first impression!

 

So there you have it. The publishing must-haves, in order of priority: copyeditor, proofreader, and cover designer. Hiring these three professionals will be costly in both time and money. But in the end, when you’re holding your pristine, polished, professional-looking baby in your hands, you’ll realize it was worth every cent and second.  

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Publishing Quandary

August 8th, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

With the numerous publishing options available today, writers often ask me, “Should I publish traditionally, or should I self-publish?” Every time, I answer, “That depends.”

Depends on what? First, know what your goals, intentions, and desires are for your book. Do you intend to only give it away to family and friends? Do you intend to sell it at speaking engagements and readings, book fairs and festivals, or out of the trunk of your car? Do you want to reach a local or regional audience with your message or a national and possibly an international one? What are you seeking overall? Fame and fortune? Leaving a treasured keepsake for posterity’s sake? Providing a missive for the universal good of all? Knowing the answer to these questions will give you direction.

Second, how much time, money, and, yes, energy can you afford and are willing to invest in the publication process, i.e., editing, design, and marketing? Keep in mind that today even in traditional publishing the marketing of the book is primarily the author’s responsibility–even before it is published. (Get Known before the Book Deal by Christina Katz is a great resource.) Knowing the answer to this question will help you focus.

And third, are you willing to see the publication process through to completion when you hit the inevitable snags, such as the money you set aside for editing needs to be used to fix your carburetor or replace your refrigerator? Are you all-in, or will you scrap your project the minute things go awry or you’ve received your fifteenth rejection letter? Knowing the answer to these questions will reveal to you your level of commitment.

Determining your publishing path follows the same formula as writing your book: direction, focus, and commitment. If you have written a book, you know you have what it takes to present it to the world. Just make sure that before you do–whether through traditional or self-publishing–you have a product that is as polished to perfection as possible.

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Is Texting Considered Writing?

July 22nd, 2013 by Diana DeSpain Schramer

I started texting five years ago so I could communicate with my then sixteen-year-old son. But with this new way of communicating came another language for me to learn. Texts like “LOL. IDK” baffled me, especially since I translated LOL to mean “lots of luck,” which made no sense whatsoever in our conversation, and I was clueless about IDK. Nowadays, I’m much more with it, but my texts are still grammatically correct and perfectly punctuated. No compound sentences without a comma for me.

But texting, no matter how well written, is not writing. Texting is the 21st century’s version of the Morse code, albeit with letters, intended to convey information as quickly and sometimes as secretly as possible. We have only 160 characters with which to communicate with our tech-savvy, faster-than-fast-paced younger generation, so some standard shorthand is necessary. And if we fail to learn it, failure to communicate with the younger generation follows. But texting is still not writing.

Writing is the longhand form of communication, where we must actually stop and think about what we’re thinking about, figure out what message we want to convey to others, and then undergo the arduous task of getting our point across in a coherent, concise way. This requires time and thought–and many more characters than 160.

The line between texting and writing has become blurred, with one being confused for the other especially among young people. Still, I think—at least I certainly hope—that we are light-years away from opening a book and reading, “‘TMI! PIR!’ my BFF said, LOL. ‘J/K.’” But given the warp speed with which technology advances—and with it our communication regresses—maybe that is not so far-fetched. OMG.

But until then, Merriam-Webster’s is the standard that all of us, young and old, abide by, and formulating well-thought-out sentences is still necessary for clear and effective communication with one another, especially in writing. And in that my old-school heart rests easy.

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