Tag Archives: A to Z

Elements of Critique: Dialogue

My teenage son is constantly getting into trouble with Mom. It’s because of his mouth.

“The problem’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

With dialogue the problem can be both.

First, I need to know who’s talking. That means attribution tags are important to include as early into the speech as possible. I read books to my kids, and I do voices for certain characters. You’d be surprised how often I have to double back after reading two or three lines of speech, because the author did not let the reader know who was talking until the very end.

If I’m critiquing a piece and I come to a point where I don’t know who’s talking, I’ve identified a problem for the writer to fix.

Second, I need to know how something is said, but this can be tricky. I used to try descriptive speech verbs. He muttered, she bellowed, he shrieked, she replied, he shot back, she wondered aloud. However, conventional wisdom considers that a form of “telling” instead of “showing.” Therefore I avoid it. Here’s why:

If a question is asked and another character responds, the words they speak will make that relationship clear. If a character complains about a situation, my mind will imagine them muttering without having to be told. How about the difference between:
“Get away from her, or I’ll kill you,” Ashton shouted. He aimed the gun at the robber.
as opposed to:
Ashton leveled the pistol at the robber. The hammer clicked back. “Get away from her, or I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Which reads stronger?

She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. “What is this,” she yelled. “What does it mean?”
as opposed to:
She looked down at the strange symbol on her hand. Her eyes wide, her face ashen, she gasped and gripped her sister’s arm. “What is this? What does it mean?”

Which one merely tells the reader she’s panicked? Which one helps the reader hear it in her “voice” on their own?

I use “said” and “asked” almost exclusively. They become almost invisible. For my taste, I use something special only if there’s a chance a reader might think it was said in a different way. For example, “whispered” might be useful if it is the next line of dialogue in the middle of an argument, to note the sudden change in tone.

Insert speech here.
Insert speech here.

Third, dialogue has to sound natural. When I write out a conversation, I read it out loud to see if I would stumble over any of the words. If a sentence is hard for me to spit out when I’m calm, then it’s probably impossible for my character to say when she’s in a crisis or heated argument.

There’s a special consideration for fiction: accents. Sometimes we want to show that a character has a certain ethnic background by typing dialogue to show the accent. This can be done well, but must be done with consistency and can’t be such a heavy ‘accent’ that the reader has to try to figure out what’s being said. As usual, less is more. Describe the accent, then go for clarity.

A stereotypical fantasy example is that Dwarves all have a Scottish brogue. “Aye, laddie, me an’ my kin are headin’ out to th’ Castle o’ th’ Dark Elves ta crush th’ snot outta those wee dirty cavedwellers.” Painful.

Patterns of speech might be preferable to attempts at accent. Describe the unique qualities of the sound – a lilting voice, a thick rumble, rolling consonants, slurring words. Then write the character with a special order of words, such as, “I will speak to my cousin, yes? My cousin, he knows these things you seek. This is good thing. He and I, we help you.”

That way the character sticks out with an identifiable voice, without forcing the reader to figure out what you’re trying to say through “accented” dialogue.

Finally, dialogue is best in short bursts. I write a few words first, then show some action taking place or include the character’s thought, then place the next spoken sentence.

“When I write,” David said, “I try to time the breaks in speech to create a rhythm.” He stroked his chin and stifled a yawn. Man, I’ve been talking about dialogue too long. “By including action and thought in between snippets of dialogue, I show the reader a more complete picture of what’s going on.”

Obviously there’s more to it than those points. Whole books are written on the subject of crafting dialogue. But these are some of the things I look for when critiquing a piece.

And I think I’ve said enough.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow, even though we’re nowhere near finished with the A to Z challenge, I will be looking at critiquing endings.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined¬†Scribophile¬†recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.

Elements of Critique: Background

As part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge of 2014, I am posting every day in April on topics arranged alphabetically. My theme for this year is Elements of Critique.

That’s all the background information I need to convey.

Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, one of the aspects of writing that can trip us up is the background. If we give too much time to it, we end up boring the reader or distracting them from the present story we’re telling. If we give too little, the reader may have no context or understanding why the story we’re telling matters.

For example, in a historical fiction piece or nonfiction article about a battle in World War II, a writer might feel the reader needs to know a chain of events that led up to this moment. So the writer starts the story or account with long paragraphs documenting the war effort up to that point, explaining the strategic importance of different battles, and detailing various troop movements around the war zone.

Yawn. Who ordered the history textbook?

It’s even worse in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, where the writer feels like the reader has to know all about this exciting world the writer created. So the first few pages get filled with pretend history about a bunch of events the reader has no connection to or concern for.

In a fantasy or sci-fi setting, there’s a temptation to detail exactly how some special magic system or technology works. Action is taking place, and then the main character declares, “Activate the photon emitter.” And then the reader is treated to three paragraphs of pseudo-science jargon about how the device works.

Background is important to include sparingly, like a favorite seasoning on a steak. Sprinkle; don’t pour. I should be able to bite into the meat of a story or nonfiction account and taste the flavor of the setting as I chew on the action taking place.

Conversely, be sure to sprinkle in the background details here and there. As a reader, I need to know something about the situation, some details about how a fictional society operates, perhaps a snippet of explanation showing how these events in nonfiction came about.

Back to the steak analogy, I don’t want a bland hunk of meat.

The trick is to reveal small background elements intermittently, keeping the reader grounded in the setting. And it helps, where we can, to show the reader what that element looks like in some way.

Here’s a few examples:

If a battle left a mark on a character, show a scar or better yet, an emotional episode. In nonfiction, if the battle made a significant impact on the war effort or on the current action, briefly point to what might have been different without that previous event.

In modern fiction or a personal nonfiction account, a character might have memories or make references to events that shaped their relationship to another. Used appropriately, these become a breadcrumb trail of sorts, luring your reader deeper and deeper into the world as they try to discover what happened.

In fantasy/sci-fi, it’s far better to show me what magic looks like in action than to lay out the elaborate system of rules. Maybe you have an elaborate system worked out. That’s great. You as the writer need to know that to stay consistent. But I as the reader only need to see what’s going on, and get tidbits of information (in dialogue or action preferably) about that system.

Done properly, background information is there to make sure I as a reader know why I care about what’s going on now, without being so overwhelmed that I no longer care about what’s going on at all.

Any time it’s used, simply ask, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, is there a way I can show it?”

Tomorrow, I’ll write about what makes a good critique good: staying constructive.

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Elements of Critique: Appearance

Welcome to the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2014, and thanks to you readers who are coming from that list to check this out.

This year I’m covering elements of critique: What to look for to make our writing stronger.

A critique is all about getting other eyes on our efforts, finding out what works and what doesn’t, seeing around our blind spots by taking advantage of the eyes and experience of several others.

Critiquing someone’s creative work can be daunting. You’re picking apart something they poured their heart into. But when everyone realizes the end result is a far stronger piece of writing, the slight pain of criticism and the terror of becoming vulnerable become well worth it.

When you hit “Publish” and send your words out into the Internet, or when you click “Send” on that e-mail delivering your manuscript to a submissions address at a publisher, the people who see your material have one unconscious motivation:

To dismiss it as quickly as possible.

Blog reader feeds and e-mail inboxes fill up fast. People don’t have time to wade through hundreds of articles. We naturally skim through, ostensibly looking for something to catch our eye. In reality, we’re flashing past plenty of material that for whatever reason we deem inconsequential, not worth our time.

Likewise, any editor accepting submissions is going to be inundated with pitches, queries, and manuscripts. The sooner that pile can be whittled down, the better. There’s a hundred more where this manuscript came from.

So the very first element of critique that I want to focus on is appearance.

Any editor or publisher is going to provide guidance for how submissions must be formatted. Magazine editors will post guidelines to give a prospective writer all the details necessary to know how to prepare their query or pitch. Even my critique group provides a formatting requirement, and they will pick on submissions that don’t follow the standards.

For example, If I send my piece in Helvetica font when the publisher demands Times New Roman, right from the outset, I’ve told them a few things:
“I don’t pay attention to what you want. I want you to pay attention to me.”
“I’m above following your rules. I will be a problem to work with.”
“I don’t have time to look at piddly details. That’s what I have you for.”

When a guideline tells me to use a specific style (AP Style Manual or what have you), I should get a quick primer for what that means. It might mean typing ‘OK’ instead of ‘okay.’ Or it could mean not using the Oxford comma when making a list of 1, 2, and 3. (The comma after 2 and before the ‘and’ is the offending comma.)

Tiny details. Simple matters. Easy to miss, with potentially large consequences.

The critique group I belong to has guidelines, and we mostly follow them. There’s room among friends for “I forgot” or “Something went wrong in Word” as excuses.

The editor or potential reader isn’t there to be my friend. I don’t want to give him or her any reason to ignore what I have to offer.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s good.

Appearance matters.

Tomorrow I will look at background.

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April Already?

An e-mail in my inbox today reminded me that April is the month for the famed A to Z Blog Challenge, and for a moment I thought, “Not again…”

Last year I tried doing A to Z on two different blogs, with completely different themes… in addition to posting on two other blogs with still completely separate themes.

It was a challenge, yes. One I’m glad I accomplshed, and one I never want to repeat.

But one blog is easy (or so I tell myself now).

I recently joined Scribophile, an online writing community that operates based on mutual constructive critique. It’s a give and take system where you can only post your work by earning points through giving thoughtful critique to work done by others. Want to post your next chapter or article? Get critiquing!

On top of that, I have become a vocal advocate for participation in a critique group because of the benefits I’ve received from my local group of “critters.”

One of the subjects I saw discussed on Scribophile is, “What makes a good critique?” Isn’t that subjective? What sorts of things should one look for when reading someone’s creative work?

Bam. A to Z topic selected!

This I can do, because it’s something I’m passionate about.

There will be some other posts, but there shall be A to Z posts every day throughout April (with the exception of Sundays) related to facets of writing I look for when I critique a piece.

You have been warned.

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Getting Busy

So, I have some excitement ahead, and I am looking forward to it.

A to Z Blogging Challenge
A to Z Blogging Challenge

It’s Blogging A to Z April. So it’s a time to exercise those writing skills and push out some additional entries on the blog in a fun challenge.

But I’m not doing A to Z for this blog.

I’m going to be attempting an A to Z for the fitness blog I co-author, Fat Guys Vs. Gym.

I’m also going to be writing an A to Z for the worship blog I author: Chasing the Storm.

I am not doing it for this blog, nor am I doing it for my creative writing blog.

I’m excited about what this challenge has to offer, and I hope you can take some time to see the results.

On top of that, I’m going back to work on Monday (boo!) and I’m starting a 4 week Chinese-Mandarin refresher course. Then I’m going to be finishing up some professional education and maybe CLEPing a few college classes. Oh, and I’ll be trying to get into shape since I get my cast off in two weeks.

Time to get busy!

Wish me luck!