Nancy: Who said that?

In the past couple of months, I have been out in the writing wilds, reviewing multiple manuscripts. I return to you now with disturbing news: someone has absconded with all the dialogue tags.

Or so I thought, when three of the last four manuscripts I reviewed had long passages of dialogue with no attributions. None of those innocuous “he said” “she said” phrases. No bodies in motion in the same paragraph to show who must have said it. Not even the slightly more annoying scene blocking some of us (ahem, are those three fingers pointing back at me?) tend to use, at least in early drafts, for variation. This lack of tags occurred in scenes with two people talking. And three characters. And even five! Yes, I read a scene with five people in a conversation, with no way to discern, from the words on the page, who was saying what.

I got a sinking feeling.

When a trend appears across manuscripts of writers who do not know each other (and therefore probably haven’t come up with a new technique themselves), I smell “advice” emanating from “professionals”. When I asked one of the writers about the lack of tags, she confirmed my fear. She had cut most of the dialogue tags from her manuscript after her writing group (that’s a whole other blog post, isn’t it?) told her she should stop using them. WHAT?!!! I wondered out loud where they had learned this…ok, I’m struggling not to use profanity, so imagine some nicer word for BS. According to my writer, they got the advice from agents. More precisely, from agents ranting on Twitter.

That loud thwack heard ’round the world was my head hitting my desk. Continue reading

Michaeline: Random Writing Advice

Do you ever take a book, and just let it fall open, put your finger on a paragraph, and read it . . . hoping to find advice and guidance? This is a very, very old fortune-telling technique, and while I don’t believe in fate, I do believe that the sudden juxtaposition of random nonsensical elements can make a lot of sense.

Brian Eno did juxtaposition with his cards of Oblique Strategies (today’s advice on Twitter: “What are the sections sections of? Imagine a caterpillar moving”).

David Bowie did juxtaposition with his music and his cut-up technique, which he borrowed from William Burroughs who used it in the 50s and 60s. (Burroughs was well known for his writing about the Bohemian subculture he was involved with; Jack Kerouac was one of his Beat buddies.)

I like just opening up a book of writing advice, and seeing what “the universe” wants to tell me. Of course, it isn’t “the universe”. It’s my own subconscious. If “the universe” tells me nonsense, I ignore it and go on. But if I like the paragraph, or if the paragraph really bothers me and refuses to let go of my imagination, I pay attention to it.

Today, I was looking at Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight. The book has been in my backpack for the past three weeks, and last Monday I placed it in the bathroom, hoping I’d finally take a minute to start reading it again. I’m still not ready for a re-read, but opening the book and picking a paragraph at random gave me this:

“Notice that it isn’t enough to be interested or informed; it takes both. If you are interested in your subject but know little about it, you can’t satisfy the curiosity you arouse. If you know a great deal about the subject but are not passionately interested in it (like some scientists and teachers), you will put people to sleep.”

Since we were talking about research this week with Jeanne on Tuesday, I thought it was timely advice. I’ve got the third edition of Knight’s book, which was revised in 1985. It’s got a lot of practical advice for any writer, and can be read from start to finish, as well as being used for diving for pearls of wisdom.

So, I’m off to do some guilt-free research! If it interests me that much, surely I can make it interesting for at least some niche audience!

Nancy: Damn Fine Story Advice: Story Stakes

If you hang out with writers long enough, observe them in their natural habitat, and learn what keeps them up at night, at some point you’re bound to hear a discussion about what writers like/are able/can bring themselves to read when they’re deeply immersed in their own stories. Books inside their writing genre? Outside the genre? No books at all during certain stages o the process?

These days, I’m rarely ‘not writing’ (not to be confused with procrastinating – that I do aplenty!), so a writing-driven reading moratorium won’t work for me. But I tend to read like I write: a little bit of everything and more than story at a time. Lately, I’ve been drawn to non-fiction. Per usual, I’m geeking out on science-for-non-scientists books. But this weekend I put down Stephen Hawking and picked up some Chuck Wendig (with no segue, rhyme, or reason because my mind is a mysterious, scary, mess of a place).

If you’re not familiar with Wendig, you really must check out his blog, where he generously doles out  amazing advice, life observations, movie reviews, and the occasional recipe (although I am not going to try this one). For a more distilled collection of his story-specific guidance, I highly recommend Damn Fine StoryIt made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me…Okay, what it actually did was make me think, but don’t let that scare you away from it – it’s thinking in a fun way! As with all writing advice, he implores his readers to take what they need and leave the rest for another time, place, or writer. And this weekend, what I needed was a deep, thorough look at story stakes. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Muffling the Inner Critic

Okay, technically I’m not suggesting you go out and get drunk as part of your daily writing practice (unless you want to, of course, or you’re channeling Hemmingway), but there is a nugget of wisdom in the quote above.

It has been suggested a time or two, by people who know me, that with the addition of a little alcohol (a modest amount, not a “hold my hair while I retch” amount), I’m ever-so-slightly more charming and delightful.  I’m not much of a drinker, so just a small amount goes a long way toward giving the world a happy / soft-focus appearance and making stress and worry step back a bit.  It also does a great job silencing that inner voice that always seems to be worried about saying something dumb or doing something embarrassing.

When it comes to writing, your version of “drunk” may mean kicking off your process by listening to your favorite playlist, relaxing in a warm bubble bath, or doing a little mind-clearing meditation.  Whatever helps you get your mind in the story, and drowns out that voice that insists on judging every word you put on the page, is a good thing.

I’m out of bubble bath, but I’ve got a nice bottle of port in the kitchen, so I’m going give it a try (for research purposes, of course).  If it doesn’t help me get some words on the page, at least I’m likely to get a good night’s sleep.

So, what ways have you found to silence your inner critic so can focus on getting words on the page?

Michaeline: When Words Fail

The Oblique Strategy of the Day was “State the problem in words as simply as possible”.

A girl gagged in a laboratory, watching a gooey liquid man experiment with test tubes

When words fail, sometimes you have to use other tools to define the problem. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

And you’d think this would be an easy-peasy strategy for the writer, since what we do is words. But there are two sides of every argument, and there are two sides to every brain, and sometimes, just sometimes, the problem isn’t from the verbal half of the brain, but that mysterious, artsy-fartsy, swirly-whirly half of the brain that sends us dreams of hairbrushes and neglects to make clear exactly what that means.

So, when you don’t even have clear images to base your words on, it’s time to dig in the toolbox and look for other techniques to make the problem more clear – because half of solving any problem is knowing exactly what the problem is. Continue reading

Justine: Flexing Your Writing Muscles

manlifting-weightsIn many ways, writing is like working out. The more you do it, the easier it is, and the more stamina you have. On the flip side, when you stop working out, it’s a bitch to get back into it again.

One of my New Years Resolutions was to get moving for 30 minutes a day. Aside from not writing, I’ve also been neglecting myself, and I decided, after reading this stunning NY Times article about how much of your LIFE you can lose by being inactive, that I needed to Continue reading

Michaeline: Writing Advice

Gilded Age woman writing with a quill.

Writing advice is like horoscopes. If something grabs your notice, you better pay attention. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

This week, I’ve found a lot of great writing advice. So, I’m going to step back today and let the masters tell you how it’s done.

First up, we have Shirley Jackson tell us all about motif and symbolism in this New Yorker article. Shirley Jackson wrote the horrifying short story, “The Lottery,” but “Garlic in Fiction” is a lot easier to digest.

She says, “Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.” This is garlic, meant to be used sparingly and in just the right places to give a story a flavor that lingers in the reader’s mind. She follows up with examples. Continue reading