Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Not all research materials are created equal. Take anything you find on the Internet with a grain of salt, especially Wikipedia articles that aren’t heavily annotated with cross references to reputable sources (ones that are fact-checked).

Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com
Is the person who wrote the book you’ve picked up genuinely considered an expert in the field? Are the reviews positive? Seek published reviews, not simply those posted on Amazon, which anyone could write, even someone with an axe to grind—like a jilted lover or former student who flunked the author’s class because he was too lazy to do any of the assignments.

Be aware that even published reviews can reflect some strange biases that don’t necessarily negate the value of the author’s work. Agendas abound in academia especially, and a young scholar might try to build a reputation levying strange accusations against older scholars for not, say, spending enough time on a hobby-horse topic.

As you might gather, trying to sort out who is worth listening to can become a major time-suck. But by doing a little due diligence on a few books, you should be able to build up a short list of reputable voices on your topic, be those scholarly journals, national journalism organs, or simply well-informed bloggers.

At times, there’s really no substitute for going directly to the best source. For tips on finding experts, see my post Expertise is Everywhere, and for tips on conducting informational interviews, see my post Channel Your Inner Reporter.

How do you typically determine whether a source is high quality or simply bogus?
Wednesday, April 29, 2015 Laurel Garver
Not all research materials are created equal. Take anything you find on the Internet with a grain of salt, especially Wikipedia articles that aren’t heavily annotated with cross references to reputable sources (ones that are fact-checked).

Photo credit: kakisky from morguefile.com
Is the person who wrote the book you’ve picked up genuinely considered an expert in the field? Are the reviews positive? Seek published reviews, not simply those posted on Amazon, which anyone could write, even someone with an axe to grind—like a jilted lover or former student who flunked the author’s class because he was too lazy to do any of the assignments.

Be aware that even published reviews can reflect some strange biases that don’t necessarily negate the value of the author’s work. Agendas abound in academia especially, and a young scholar might try to build a reputation levying strange accusations against older scholars for not, say, spending enough time on a hobby-horse topic.

As you might gather, trying to sort out who is worth listening to can become a major time-suck. But by doing a little due diligence on a few books, you should be able to build up a short list of reputable voices on your topic, be those scholarly journals, national journalism organs, or simply well-informed bloggers.

At times, there’s really no substitute for going directly to the best source. For tips on finding experts, see my post Expertise is Everywhere, and for tips on conducting informational interviews, see my post Channel Your Inner Reporter.

How do you typically determine whether a source is high quality or simply bogus?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In the past, I was pretty reticent to join Twitter. The stream design felt overwhelming, and the brevity of what could be posted seemed to favor witty one-liners over genuine engagement. But since 2012, I've learned the ropes a bit and see the benefits of the medium.

image: www.goingmobo.com
I also see a lot of habits among some tweeps that aren't compatible with my goal of making genuine connections with readers and a supportive author community.

Maybe that isn't why you're on Twitter. Fine, but don't take it personally if I choose to unfollow or even block you for some of the following behaviors.

Numbers hounds

There are a cluster of habits that point to a tweep's primary desire to have a high follower count. Unless someone is a genuine celebrity, having a followers count that is disproportionately higher than follows tells me this person cares only about appearing popular or famous.

Here are some typical numbers hound behaviors:

Random follows
This type follows every last person their followers follow, even if there is not one single point of intersection of interests. Doing this makes you look like a bot account. I will assume you hired a click farm if you have no apparent interest in the things listed in my profile.

Repeated follow, unfollow, refollow
If I choose not to follow you, it's usually because your content doesn't interest me, not because I didn't notice you. Dropping and adding over and over just so you show up in my feed merely makes you annoying. Do it enough and I'll block you.

Favorite-never-follow
Folks who repeatedly favorite my content, but when I follow them abruptly stop doing so and ignore me are clearly only motivated in building their follower counts. If you like my content, connect, but don't play stupid games like this. I'll thank you for your favorites, but I won't follow.

Pushy types

These folks want to connect, which is great, but they overstep the boundaries without taking the time to adequately build a relationship first.

Here are some behaviors I deem pushy:

Aggressive mentions
These folks drop my Twitter name into tweets with their random musings, or with information about their book for sale. Folks, this is what your own Twitter stream is for. If I'm interested, I'll favorite or retweet. But using the mention function in this way is like being a door-to-door salesman. It's invasive.

Reserve mentions for interacting with something I said, to thank me, to let me know you're giving a shout out about something I did that you liked (shared useful info., wrote a book you loved, gave helpful advice, that sort of thing).

Nonstop sales stream
If your tweets are constant "buy my book" or constant sales pitches of others, it's going to feel like nothing but noise rather than connection.

If you've been guilty of this, make sure you add value-added tweets to your stream. Use the #Discover and search for helpful #writingtips or #inspiration to retweet. If nothing else, go hit up a quotes website, gather some inspirational messages and schedule regular doses of nice and "you can do it" among the sales. I'm willing to bet those tweets will garner you the most followers. Everyone needs more positivity.

Tit-for-tat offers
If you choose to like my FB author page, great, but don't tell me you liked it and I ought to like yours back. You know why? Facebook algorithms will screw us both over if our author pages are full of fake fans. The REAL fans are exponentially less likely to see new content.

If you like my books and my page, and are genuinely seeking to be my champion. God bless you. But for Pete's sake, don't do it to oblige me to owe you favors. That's really just a form of extortion.

Offensive content
If your stream is filled with hate speech, foul language, constant put downs, whining and complaints, or p0rnographic material, I'm going to unfollow. I'm clearly not your target audience.

Note that I said "filled"--occasional grousing is normal, as is occasional salty language. But venomous verbal attacks of things I care about are not great connection-makers or conversation starters.

And erotica writers, please don't read it as "judging you" when writers of other genres like me don't follow back. Maybe we're judging ourselves, as in, I know what things would tempt me to be unfaithful to my marriage, at least in my imagination, which Jesus taught is bad for me and which St. Paul taught me to flee from. Also, I write Christian YA and I carefully curate my follows so that my part of the Twittersphere is a safe place for teens who want to live a life of faith.

Direct messages: the gray area

I have really mixed feelings about DMs. Here are the kinds of DMs I see regularly, and how I feel about them:

TrueTwit notifications
If I get a TrueTwit notification, I'll know you are carefully curating your feed, which is totally legitimate, if a bit of a hassle for me. I get not wanting bot accounts bothering you.

However, bot accounts tend to unfollow pretty quickly if you ignore them. So do other annoying types mentioned above (except the follow/unfollow/refollow--those you have to block). In the meantime, this hoop you require new followers to jump though is likely to turn away good, genuine connections who don't have time for your hoop routine. Consider ditching TrueTwit, and simply follow back only those accounts with interesting content.

Buy links
This is just a private version of aggressive mentions. I ignore these.

I'd prefer you showed me in your feed that your book is one I want to read. Show me cover art, share interesting interviews you gave to bloggers, share snippets, that sort of thing--in your own feed.

Other site links
Mostly these are tit-for-tat Facebook like "suggestions"--like my page, I'll like yours. I highly doubt the like I give will be returned. And I don't really want fake fans anyway. I ignore these requests also.

Better that you periodically tweet your FB page link (a few times of week max), so that your real fans can find it.

Bizarre comments or threats or links
I assume your account has been hacked if you tell me someone is spreading rumors, or you ask for financial help, or you send a condensed link with a vague teaser like "you won't believe this!" I might do a mention ("@joeschmoe bogus DMs are being sent from your account") in hopes you will see it, and then unfollow you just to distance myself from your hacker.

Get-to-know-you questions
These can be wonderful or just weird.

A good one might be, "I liked the blog post you shared about dialect.  What book or author do you think does that well?" or "I loved the Harry Potter books, too. Which is your favorite?" or something along those lines. It shows that you engage with my content and want connection. As long as you don't require great effort for me to answer ("how can I get published?") or get too personal ("are you married?"), I will likely interact.

If it's clear you have a stock question that's auto-sent to every follower, ones that tie to your content but show no knowledge of mine, I'm apt to ignore. "Who are your favorite cowboy hero's?" was one such question posed to me. That assumes I like cowboy romances--I don't--and that I don't mind grammatical errors like your inability to make the word hero plural (it's heroes, silly). I promptly unfollowed this writer, despite the good writing tips she shared in her feed. The DM made it clear she's far more interested in selling and engaging with readers than being part of a writing community.

Free content
This is actually a decent tactic, giving a Twitter follower access to free content like a short story, if they'd like to know more about you and your writing style/genre/themes. It is a gift that invites deeper connection, a generous gesture.

I'd caution to not do this with brand-new followers. Interact for a while first. Otherwise, it will seem pushy.

Requests to connect elsewhere or promo opportunities
Sometimes folks use DMs to ask how to connect on sites like Goodreads or Pinterest, because they'd like to connect there too. That's perfectly fine. I'll answer when I have time to respond.

I've been offered guest posts through DM also. The most effective ones say something complimentary about my content and give a link, so I can see what their site is like. Because I write religious fiction, I have to take care to stick with sites that aren't promoting erotica or occult material. That's just basic branding.

So if you want to reach out to followers this way, think value-added and friendly, helping connection.

What Twitter behaviors do you consider turnoffs? What alternate suggestions do you have for folks who've made these mistakes?
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 Laurel Garver
In the past, I was pretty reticent to join Twitter. The stream design felt overwhelming, and the brevity of what could be posted seemed to favor witty one-liners over genuine engagement. But since 2012, I've learned the ropes a bit and see the benefits of the medium.

image: www.goingmobo.com
I also see a lot of habits among some tweeps that aren't compatible with my goal of making genuine connections with readers and a supportive author community.

Maybe that isn't why you're on Twitter. Fine, but don't take it personally if I choose to unfollow or even block you for some of the following behaviors.

Numbers hounds

There are a cluster of habits that point to a tweep's primary desire to have a high follower count. Unless someone is a genuine celebrity, having a followers count that is disproportionately higher than follows tells me this person cares only about appearing popular or famous.

Here are some typical numbers hound behaviors:

Random follows
This type follows every last person their followers follow, even if there is not one single point of intersection of interests. Doing this makes you look like a bot account. I will assume you hired a click farm if you have no apparent interest in the things listed in my profile.

Repeated follow, unfollow, refollow
If I choose not to follow you, it's usually because your content doesn't interest me, not because I didn't notice you. Dropping and adding over and over just so you show up in my feed merely makes you annoying. Do it enough and I'll block you.

Favorite-never-follow
Folks who repeatedly favorite my content, but when I follow them abruptly stop doing so and ignore me are clearly only motivated in building their follower counts. If you like my content, connect, but don't play stupid games like this. I'll thank you for your favorites, but I won't follow.

Pushy types

These folks want to connect, which is great, but they overstep the boundaries without taking the time to adequately build a relationship first.

Here are some behaviors I deem pushy:

Aggressive mentions
These folks drop my Twitter name into tweets with their random musings, or with information about their book for sale. Folks, this is what your own Twitter stream is for. If I'm interested, I'll favorite or retweet. But using the mention function in this way is like being a door-to-door salesman. It's invasive.

Reserve mentions for interacting with something I said, to thank me, to let me know you're giving a shout out about something I did that you liked (shared useful info., wrote a book you loved, gave helpful advice, that sort of thing).

Nonstop sales stream
If your tweets are constant "buy my book" or constant sales pitches of others, it's going to feel like nothing but noise rather than connection.

If you've been guilty of this, make sure you add value-added tweets to your stream. Use the #Discover and search for helpful #writingtips or #inspiration to retweet. If nothing else, go hit up a quotes website, gather some inspirational messages and schedule regular doses of nice and "you can do it" among the sales. I'm willing to bet those tweets will garner you the most followers. Everyone needs more positivity.

Tit-for-tat offers
If you choose to like my FB author page, great, but don't tell me you liked it and I ought to like yours back. You know why? Facebook algorithms will screw us both over if our author pages are full of fake fans. The REAL fans are exponentially less likely to see new content.

If you like my books and my page, and are genuinely seeking to be my champion. God bless you. But for Pete's sake, don't do it to oblige me to owe you favors. That's really just a form of extortion.

Offensive content
If your stream is filled with hate speech, foul language, constant put downs, whining and complaints, or p0rnographic material, I'm going to unfollow. I'm clearly not your target audience.

Note that I said "filled"--occasional grousing is normal, as is occasional salty language. But venomous verbal attacks of things I care about are not great connection-makers or conversation starters.

And erotica writers, please don't read it as "judging you" when writers of other genres like me don't follow back. Maybe we're judging ourselves, as in, I know what things would tempt me to be unfaithful to my marriage, at least in my imagination, which Jesus taught is bad for me and which St. Paul taught me to flee from. Also, I write Christian YA and I carefully curate my follows so that my part of the Twittersphere is a safe place for teens who want to live a life of faith.

Direct messages: the gray area

I have really mixed feelings about DMs. Here are the kinds of DMs I see regularly, and how I feel about them:

TrueTwit notifications
If I get a TrueTwit notification, I'll know you are carefully curating your feed, which is totally legitimate, if a bit of a hassle for me. I get not wanting bot accounts bothering you.

However, bot accounts tend to unfollow pretty quickly if you ignore them. So do other annoying types mentioned above (except the follow/unfollow/refollow--those you have to block). In the meantime, this hoop you require new followers to jump though is likely to turn away good, genuine connections who don't have time for your hoop routine. Consider ditching TrueTwit, and simply follow back only those accounts with interesting content.

Buy links
This is just a private version of aggressive mentions. I ignore these.

I'd prefer you showed me in your feed that your book is one I want to read. Show me cover art, share interesting interviews you gave to bloggers, share snippets, that sort of thing--in your own feed.

Other site links
Mostly these are tit-for-tat Facebook like "suggestions"--like my page, I'll like yours. I highly doubt the like I give will be returned. And I don't really want fake fans anyway. I ignore these requests also.

Better that you periodically tweet your FB page link (a few times of week max), so that your real fans can find it.

Bizarre comments or threats or links
I assume your account has been hacked if you tell me someone is spreading rumors, or you ask for financial help, or you send a condensed link with a vague teaser like "you won't believe this!" I might do a mention ("@joeschmoe bogus DMs are being sent from your account") in hopes you will see it, and then unfollow you just to distance myself from your hacker.

Get-to-know-you questions
These can be wonderful or just weird.

A good one might be, "I liked the blog post you shared about dialect.  What book or author do you think does that well?" or "I loved the Harry Potter books, too. Which is your favorite?" or something along those lines. It shows that you engage with my content and want connection. As long as you don't require great effort for me to answer ("how can I get published?") or get too personal ("are you married?"), I will likely interact.

If it's clear you have a stock question that's auto-sent to every follower, ones that tie to your content but show no knowledge of mine, I'm apt to ignore. "Who are your favorite cowboy hero's?" was one such question posed to me. That assumes I like cowboy romances--I don't--and that I don't mind grammatical errors like your inability to make the word hero plural (it's heroes, silly). I promptly unfollowed this writer, despite the good writing tips she shared in her feed. The DM made it clear she's far more interested in selling and engaging with readers than being part of a writing community.

Free content
This is actually a decent tactic, giving a Twitter follower access to free content like a short story, if they'd like to know more about you and your writing style/genre/themes. It is a gift that invites deeper connection, a generous gesture.

I'd caution to not do this with brand-new followers. Interact for a while first. Otherwise, it will seem pushy.

Requests to connect elsewhere or promo opportunities
Sometimes folks use DMs to ask how to connect on sites like Goodreads or Pinterest, because they'd like to connect there too. That's perfectly fine. I'll answer when I have time to respond.

I've been offered guest posts through DM also. The most effective ones say something complimentary about my content and give a link, so I can see what their site is like. Because I write religious fiction, I have to take care to stick with sites that aren't promoting erotica or occult material. That's just basic branding.

So if you want to reach out to followers this way, think value-added and friendly, helping connection.

What Twitter behaviors do you consider turnoffs? What alternate suggestions do you have for folks who've made these mistakes?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Writing effective dialogue is tricky, no doubt about it. It can't be pointless and boring. It can't be too fast or too slow. But most of all, it can't be confusing.

An important consideration in creating dialogue clarity is paragraphing--which lines should be grouped together, and which ones shouldn't.

I think the best way to learn is to analyze an example, then look for guiding principles.

Below is a section of an unpublished middle grade short story of mine about a bunch of preteen musicians at a competition, trying to psych each other out. It's in third person limited omniscient POV, told by eleven-year-old Callie.

Because the audience is younger readers, more of the dialogue has either a tag (he said), or an action beat (Joe smiled), or a description than would be strictly necessary for adult readers. But note that there is variety in how speakers are identified. Constant "he said...she said" can be as grating as no attribution is confusing.

Note also in the fifth through seventh paragraphs, there is one actor, but noticeable shifts in emphasis, which calls for separate paragraphs. Callie goes from processing to decision to acting on a decision. Those paragraph breaks are an important clue to the reader to pay attention, something is changing with each new paragraph.

---

The flautist beside her kicked her legs out straight. Callie flinched when she noticed a wide run snaking from ankle to knee of the girl’s dark tights. [Callie's observation, her POV]

“Trumpet, huh?” the flautist said. She tossed her hair and wrinkled her nose at Callie. “You know a brass player has never won this contest.” [flautist response]

Callie set down her horn and said, “You have a run in your tights.”

The flautist narrowed her eyes. “Nice try, brassy. I’m gonna wipe the stage with you.”

A snarky comeback tumbled to the front of Callie’s brain. Then she remembered the boy who’d been stalking the hall, bragging. He came back from the audition red-eyed and smelling of puke. Two minutes under the bright lights and his toughness had vanished. A scared kid among other scared kids. Why couldn’t anyone be real about it? Or at least less jerky? [Callie's interior mental and emotional processing]

Could I? she wondered. Could I play a new tune, a different game? [Callie's crux moment thought]

Callie sat up straighter. “I have an extra pair you can borrow if you want.” [Callie acting on decision]

“What?”

“Tights. I have extras. You want them?”

The flautist looked at her leg and screamed. “What am I gonna—? I can’t go out there like—!” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Callie pulled a crinkly cellophane package from her bag and set it on the flautist’s lap. “Here, please take them, um…”

“Amber,” the flautist whispered, sniffling. “I’m Amber.”

“I’m Callie.” She jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go ahead, there’s time.”

Amber nodded, clutched the tights, then jogged down the hall.

The boy violinist a seat down from Amber smiled and gave Callie a thumbs-up. “Nice strategy,” he said. “One down, eighty six to go?” [new actor introduced]

Callie shook her head and rolled her eyes. [action beat only reaction]

“Let me guess…I have spaghetti sauce on my shirt? Mismatching socks? Come on, Trumpet Girl, bring it on.  I can take it.”

“You look fine. Good luck.” Callie blew another warm breath into her horn.

“Yeah, right. It is spaghetti sauce, isn’t it? Man, I knew it!” He jumped up and ran for the bathrooms, nearly banging into Amber. [violinist action and speech, segue to new actor]

“What’s his problem?” Amber asked as she took her seat.

“Nerves, I guess.”

“Hey, Callie? Um…thanks for the tights. They’re way nicer than the ones I was wearing.”

“No problem.”

Amber bit her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess.”

“How come you’re being nice to me? I was, well, not to you.”

Callie shrugged. “I just don’t see the point of us all snarling at each other.”

“But it’s all part of the game. Throw the other guy off balance and all that.”

Photo credit: ronnieb from morguefile.com
“I came here to play music, not mind games. Honestly, does putting other kids down make anyone a better musician?”

Amber picked a hangnail. “I think it just makes me tense, trying to look tough.”

Callie nodded. “Exactly. I mean, what good is that?”

“So how do you not get nervous?”

Callie twirled the mouthpiece in her pocket. “I remember how it feels when I’m playing. Like there’s liquid gold flowing from my breath, through my horn and filling everything with light and happiness.”

Amber stared at her, wide-eyed.

“That sounded totally nuts, didn’t it?” Callie said.

“No. It sounded nice. Light and happiness. I like that.”

The boy violinist stomped up the hall. He stopped in front of Callie’s chair and yelled, “I look fine! Totally fine!” [previous actor returns. His actions and speech]

“Of course you do. Didn’t I say that?” Callie replied.

“She did, I heard her,” said a cellist two chairs down. “So how about you stop hollering? I’m trying to meditate.”  She closed her eyes and laid her hands, palms up, in her lap. [tertiary character speech and action]

----

What are some key takeaways from this example?

1. Same actor and speaker in a paragraph.

2. New actor or speaker, new paragraph

3. Segues to new actors need to be clear.

4. Use not only tags, but also action beats, descriptions, distinctive diction (dialect, pet phrases), address to another speaker ("Hey, Joe"), or mention of a relationship ("Mom wouldn't like it") to distinguish speakers.

5. Reactions that are unspoken--action beats or the POV character's thoughts--should be separate paragraphs from what they are reacting to. See #1 above.

6. Moments of interiority or even action interspersed in dialogue should be paragraphed topically or thematically, with breaks for new topics or themes or actors (see THIS post for more examples)

For further reading, I recommend Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you find paragraphing dialogue difficult or easy? Why?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 Laurel Garver
Writing effective dialogue is tricky, no doubt about it. It can't be pointless and boring. It can't be too fast or too slow. But most of all, it can't be confusing.

An important consideration in creating dialogue clarity is paragraphing--which lines should be grouped together, and which ones shouldn't.

I think the best way to learn is to analyze an example, then look for guiding principles.

Below is a section of an unpublished middle grade short story of mine about a bunch of preteen musicians at a competition, trying to psych each other out. It's in third person limited omniscient POV, told by eleven-year-old Callie.

Because the audience is younger readers, more of the dialogue has either a tag (he said), or an action beat (Joe smiled), or a description than would be strictly necessary for adult readers. But note that there is variety in how speakers are identified. Constant "he said...she said" can be as grating as no attribution is confusing.

Note also in the fifth through seventh paragraphs, there is one actor, but noticeable shifts in emphasis, which calls for separate paragraphs. Callie goes from processing to decision to acting on a decision. Those paragraph breaks are an important clue to the reader to pay attention, something is changing with each new paragraph.

---

The flautist beside her kicked her legs out straight. Callie flinched when she noticed a wide run snaking from ankle to knee of the girl’s dark tights. [Callie's observation, her POV]

“Trumpet, huh?” the flautist said. She tossed her hair and wrinkled her nose at Callie. “You know a brass player has never won this contest.” [flautist response]

Callie set down her horn and said, “You have a run in your tights.”

The flautist narrowed her eyes. “Nice try, brassy. I’m gonna wipe the stage with you.”

A snarky comeback tumbled to the front of Callie’s brain. Then she remembered the boy who’d been stalking the hall, bragging. He came back from the audition red-eyed and smelling of puke. Two minutes under the bright lights and his toughness had vanished. A scared kid among other scared kids. Why couldn’t anyone be real about it? Or at least less jerky? [Callie's interior mental and emotional processing]

Could I? she wondered. Could I play a new tune, a different game? [Callie's crux moment thought]

Callie sat up straighter. “I have an extra pair you can borrow if you want.” [Callie acting on decision]

“What?”

“Tights. I have extras. You want them?”

The flautist looked at her leg and screamed. “What am I gonna—? I can’t go out there like—!” Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Callie pulled a crinkly cellophane package from her bag and set it on the flautist’s lap. “Here, please take them, um…”

“Amber,” the flautist whispered, sniffling. “I’m Amber.”

“I’m Callie.” She jutted her chin toward the bathroom. “Go ahead, there’s time.”

Amber nodded, clutched the tights, then jogged down the hall.

The boy violinist a seat down from Amber smiled and gave Callie a thumbs-up. “Nice strategy,” he said. “One down, eighty six to go?” [new actor introduced]

Callie shook her head and rolled her eyes. [action beat only reaction]

“Let me guess…I have spaghetti sauce on my shirt? Mismatching socks? Come on, Trumpet Girl, bring it on.  I can take it.”

“You look fine. Good luck.” Callie blew another warm breath into her horn.

“Yeah, right. It is spaghetti sauce, isn’t it? Man, I knew it!” He jumped up and ran for the bathrooms, nearly banging into Amber. [violinist action and speech, segue to new actor]

“What’s his problem?” Amber asked as she took her seat.

“Nerves, I guess.”

“Hey, Callie? Um…thanks for the tights. They’re way nicer than the ones I was wearing.”

“No problem.”

Amber bit her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“I guess.”

“How come you’re being nice to me? I was, well, not to you.”

Callie shrugged. “I just don’t see the point of us all snarling at each other.”

“But it’s all part of the game. Throw the other guy off balance and all that.”

Photo credit: ronnieb from morguefile.com
“I came here to play music, not mind games. Honestly, does putting other kids down make anyone a better musician?”

Amber picked a hangnail. “I think it just makes me tense, trying to look tough.”

Callie nodded. “Exactly. I mean, what good is that?”

“So how do you not get nervous?”

Callie twirled the mouthpiece in her pocket. “I remember how it feels when I’m playing. Like there’s liquid gold flowing from my breath, through my horn and filling everything with light and happiness.”

Amber stared at her, wide-eyed.

“That sounded totally nuts, didn’t it?” Callie said.

“No. It sounded nice. Light and happiness. I like that.”

The boy violinist stomped up the hall. He stopped in front of Callie’s chair and yelled, “I look fine! Totally fine!” [previous actor returns. His actions and speech]

“Of course you do. Didn’t I say that?” Callie replied.

“She did, I heard her,” said a cellist two chairs down. “So how about you stop hollering? I’m trying to meditate.”  She closed her eyes and laid her hands, palms up, in her lap. [tertiary character speech and action]

----

What are some key takeaways from this example?

1. Same actor and speaker in a paragraph.

2. New actor or speaker, new paragraph

3. Segues to new actors need to be clear.

4. Use not only tags, but also action beats, descriptions, distinctive diction (dialect, pet phrases), address to another speaker ("Hey, Joe"), or mention of a relationship ("Mom wouldn't like it") to distinguish speakers.

5. Reactions that are unspoken--action beats or the POV character's thoughts--should be separate paragraphs from what they are reacting to. See #1 above.

6. Moments of interiority or even action interspersed in dialogue should be paragraphed topically or thematically, with breaks for new topics or themes or actors (see THIS post for more examples)

For further reading, I recommend Gloria Kempton's Dialogue: Techniques and exercises for crafting effective dialogue. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004.

Do you find paragraphing dialogue difficult or easy? Why?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A speedy, lean machine (photo by xenia from morguefile.com) 
Over winter break, back in December, I picked up a copy of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea by John Banville. It's a slim little volume about an Irish man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. I like prize-winning literary fiction for the most part. I love Ireland. And I'm always deeply moved by stories about grief. I'd heard good things about Banville. His writing is lovely and wryly funny.

And I just can't seem to get through this darned book.


Nearly every page is one solid block of text. At the end of a long day spent copy editing scholarly lit crit (where literature meets philosophy), I just can't seem to get through more than one dense paragraph a night. By about the twelfth line, my mind starts to wander--and not deeper into the story world.

I can't help thinking that I would have finished this book in a week, if only it had shorter paragraphs.

Maybe too infrequent paragraph breaks aren't your particular vice. Maybe you don't have a clear sense of what things to group together. Both issues stem from a common problem: understanding what a paragraph unit is supposed to be.

Paragraph defined


Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it like this:
paragraph - a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.

UNC's Writing Center adds this helpful distinction:
[T]he unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph.

So what a paragraph does for your writing is to put the prose into coherent chunks, make the prose bite-sized so to speak, or at least small enough portions for a reader to fit on her mental plate.

Paragraphing and pacing


This might seem an obvious point, but I suppose it bears saying nonetheless: shorter paragraphs make for a quicker reading experience, and provide a subtle clue that this section of the story is moving along at a fast pace. Action sequences generally have frequent paragraph breaks, while scenes in which a character is regrouping, formulating a plan, or contemplating a decision will generally employ longer paragraphs.

Scenes of suspense, I've found, most often combine short and long paragraphs. This not only keeps the reader a little off-kilter, it also inserts small crescendos of tension. For example, you might have a character being chased who will run, dodge an obstacle, wiggle through a tight spot, and then perhaps stumble or pause to hide or to catch her breath. That pause paragraph might stretch to momentarily release tension, so that you can continue building it, or it can stretch to draw out the inner turmoil the character is experience in order to amp up the tension.

What you don't want in a suspense scene is to insert a long, chatty character monologue about the scenery or her favorite holiday memory or worries about the state of her hairdo. Off-topic tangents, especially lengthy ones, tend to bring a scene to a screeching halt and frustrate the reader.

But what about those contemplative scenes? How do you not get carried away? Audience expectation is one thing to consider--middle grade readers will lose interest after seven or eight sentences, literary fiction readers can persevere longer.

Just keep in mind that the longer you draw out a paragraph, the more mental work you are asking of readers. They may gradually get lost and forget what the paragraph is all about if the topic sentence was six inches up the page. Adding paragraph breaks can be like adding spikes to a mountain face, giving climbers behind you more footholds, easing their ascent.

Paragraphing narration and description


Just because you have one "speaker" in a passage of narrative summary or description--either the narrator or POV character, it doesn't mean that an entire page of this material is necessarily the same kind of stuff.

Narrative summary typically covers hours, days, or even years of story time in a compressed manner. But within that summary, there will likely be shifts of focus or tone. Descriptions will likewise range across a number of different focal points, one after another.

With each shift in focus, subject, or emotional tone, you want a new paragraph

Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink and porky. Harry, on the other hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lighting-shaped scar.
 It was the scar that make Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was only a hint of Harry's very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Durselys' doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time....[continues with a brief summary of the attack that killed Harry's parents]. (Rowling, Chamber 9)

Notice how Rowling gradually shifts the attention from general description to a particular feature. That feature is discussed alone, making way for a segue into the backstory of that feature. Each of these separate paragraphs relate to what came before and after, but each has a different focus.

It may be partly because this book is geared to middle grade readers, but one can see "topic sentences" opening two of the three paragraphs ("Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family"; "It was the scar that made Harry so particularly unusual"). If in your writing you find a statement that is then followed by supporting details, that's a good indication that statement should begin a new paragraph.

Paragraphing interior monologue


Interior monologue will usually entail a character working through his or her thoughts and feelings about events or interactions or relationships, bit by bit. Most often a character will cycle through a range of responses, moving from a negative emotional state to a positive one (or vice versa), from confusion to clarity, or from indecision to decision.

Paragraphing for interiority can be tricky, because at times you are trying to show gradual changes in emotional states. It takes a little finesse to know when the emotion has shifted.

As a guiding principle, your interiority should follow a feeling through its exploration to a change. Pick up the new feeling, created in the change, in the next paragraph. Think of it as a kind of relay race, with each new emotion a baton moved forward.

When it's a mixture of emotion and thought, watch for topic shifts--those are a good indication that your character is perhaps processing a different aspect of the emotion, and each new angle or facet will call for a new paragraph.

Here is an example from Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life:

Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I'm not sure I know what it really means to say "I love you." These days with Dylan -- when we're together -- it's more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn't that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn't love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing it other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness.
I'm not trying to be a cynic. I seriously wonder about this. Because after my dad died, I thought a lot about what a pathetic job I did loving him, and I couldn't figure out why I was so bad at it or what made it so hard. Then I thought maybe I didn't really love him until he was gone. And that made me wonder whether love is impossible until it is too late. 
Except I know that love is possible, because I know my dad loved me and loved my mom. What I don't understand is how he learned to do that so well and what I'm going to do now that he's not here to show me. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I don't have whatever it takes. (Zarr, How to Save 91-92)
In a few paragraphs, Zarr takes us through mental and emotional processing of a pretty big topic: What does "I love you" mean, and how does one love? Interestingly, in each paragraph, the character begins at a somewhat more positive state and cycles back to a negative state: from realizing love should be selfless to realizing how impossibly selfish we can all be; from desiring the ability to love well to feeling hopeless that it's even possible; from grasping hope in the example of others to once again feeling defeated and irredeemably flawed.

Each paragraph takes a slightly different angle on the topic as well. It begins with romantic love, moves to familial love, and finally examines the teachable nature of love. In her longer paragraph of the three, she uses questions (asking the reader to engage) and transition phrases ("I mean," "I get to thinking") to keep the forward motion of the thought.

More next time...
Paragraphing dialogue is another animal that deserves its own post to be explained effectively, I plan to do that next week, Stay tuned!

Do you find it easy or difficult to separate material into cogent paragraphs? Why?
Wednesday, April 08, 2015 Laurel Garver
A speedy, lean machine (photo by xenia from morguefile.com) 
Over winter break, back in December, I picked up a copy of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sea by John Banville. It's a slim little volume about an Irish man coming to terms with the loss of his wife. I like prize-winning literary fiction for the most part. I love Ireland. And I'm always deeply moved by stories about grief. I'd heard good things about Banville. His writing is lovely and wryly funny.

And I just can't seem to get through this darned book.


Nearly every page is one solid block of text. At the end of a long day spent copy editing scholarly lit crit (where literature meets philosophy), I just can't seem to get through more than one dense paragraph a night. By about the twelfth line, my mind starts to wander--and not deeper into the story world.

I can't help thinking that I would have finished this book in a week, if only it had shorter paragraphs.

Maybe too infrequent paragraph breaks aren't your particular vice. Maybe you don't have a clear sense of what things to group together. Both issues stem from a common problem: understanding what a paragraph unit is supposed to be.

Paragraph defined


Our friends at Merriam-Webster define it like this:
paragraph - a subdivision of a written composition that consists of one or more sentences, deals with one point or gives the words of one speaker, and begins on a new usually indented line.

UNC's Writing Center adds this helpful distinction:
[T]he unity and coherence of ideas among sentences is what constitutes a paragraph.

So what a paragraph does for your writing is to put the prose into coherent chunks, make the prose bite-sized so to speak, or at least small enough portions for a reader to fit on her mental plate.

Paragraphing and pacing


This might seem an obvious point, but I suppose it bears saying nonetheless: shorter paragraphs make for a quicker reading experience, and provide a subtle clue that this section of the story is moving along at a fast pace. Action sequences generally have frequent paragraph breaks, while scenes in which a character is regrouping, formulating a plan, or contemplating a decision will generally employ longer paragraphs.

Scenes of suspense, I've found, most often combine short and long paragraphs. This not only keeps the reader a little off-kilter, it also inserts small crescendos of tension. For example, you might have a character being chased who will run, dodge an obstacle, wiggle through a tight spot, and then perhaps stumble or pause to hide or to catch her breath. That pause paragraph might stretch to momentarily release tension, so that you can continue building it, or it can stretch to draw out the inner turmoil the character is experience in order to amp up the tension.

What you don't want in a suspense scene is to insert a long, chatty character monologue about the scenery or her favorite holiday memory or worries about the state of her hairdo. Off-topic tangents, especially lengthy ones, tend to bring a scene to a screeching halt and frustrate the reader.

But what about those contemplative scenes? How do you not get carried away? Audience expectation is one thing to consider--middle grade readers will lose interest after seven or eight sentences, literary fiction readers can persevere longer.

Just keep in mind that the longer you draw out a paragraph, the more mental work you are asking of readers. They may gradually get lost and forget what the paragraph is all about if the topic sentence was six inches up the page. Adding paragraph breaks can be like adding spikes to a mountain face, giving climbers behind you more footholds, easing their ascent.

Paragraphing narration and description


Just because you have one "speaker" in a passage of narrative summary or description--either the narrator or POV character, it doesn't mean that an entire page of this material is necessarily the same kind of stuff.

Narrative summary typically covers hours, days, or even years of story time in a compressed manner. But within that summary, there will likely be shifts of focus or tone. Descriptions will likewise range across a number of different focal points, one after another.

With each shift in focus, subject, or emotional tone, you want a new paragraph

Here's an example from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:

Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family. Uncle Vernon was large and neckless, with an enormous black mustache; Aunt Petunia was horse-faced and bony; Dudley was blond, pink and porky. Harry, on the other hand, was small and skinny, with brilliant green eyes and jet-black hair that was always untidy. He wore round glasses, and on his forehead was a thin, lighting-shaped scar.
 It was the scar that make Harry so particularly unusual, even for a wizard. This scar was only a hint of Harry's very mysterious past, of the reason he had been left on the Durselys' doorstep eleven years before.
At the age of one, Harry had somehow survived a curse from the greatest dark sorcerer of all time....[continues with a brief summary of the attack that killed Harry's parents]. (Rowling, Chamber 9)

Notice how Rowling gradually shifts the attention from general description to a particular feature. That feature is discussed alone, making way for a segue into the backstory of that feature. Each of these separate paragraphs relate to what came before and after, but each has a different focus.

It may be partly because this book is geared to middle grade readers, but one can see "topic sentences" opening two of the three paragraphs ("Harry looked nothing like the rest of the family"; "It was the scar that made Harry so particularly unusual"). If in your writing you find a statement that is then followed by supporting details, that's a good indication that statement should begin a new paragraph.

Paragraphing interior monologue


Interior monologue will usually entail a character working through his or her thoughts and feelings about events or interactions or relationships, bit by bit. Most often a character will cycle through a range of responses, moving from a negative emotional state to a positive one (or vice versa), from confusion to clarity, or from indecision to decision.

Paragraphing for interiority can be tricky, because at times you are trying to show gradual changes in emotional states. It takes a little finesse to know when the emotion has shifted.

As a guiding principle, your interiority should follow a feeling through its exploration to a change. Pick up the new feeling, created in the change, in the next paragraph. Think of it as a kind of relay race, with each new emotion a baton moved forward.

When it's a mixture of emotion and thought, watch for topic shifts--those are a good indication that your character is perhaps processing a different aspect of the emotion, and each new angle or facet will call for a new paragraph.

Here is an example from Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life:

Despite all the love lectures and even though I just said it to Dylan, sometimes I'm not sure I know what it really means to say "I love you." These days with Dylan -- when we're together -- it's more friendly and cozy than romantic and exciting, but it still soothes me. Isn't that more caring about myself, though, than loving him? Shouldn't love have at least a little to do with the other person, separate from yourself? But how can you see anything or anyone in the world apart from yourself? I mean, everything we experience is subjective, since we have no way of experiencing it other than through our eyes. And I get to thinking that love is just a word we use to describe what boils down to a selfish and temporary state of happiness.
I'm not trying to be a cynic. I seriously wonder about this. Because after my dad died, I thought a lot about what a pathetic job I did loving him, and I couldn't figure out why I was so bad at it or what made it so hard. Then I thought maybe I didn't really love him until he was gone. And that made me wonder whether love is impossible until it is too late. 
Except I know that love is possible, because I know my dad loved me and loved my mom. What I don't understand is how he learned to do that so well and what I'm going to do now that he's not here to show me. Maybe I can't do it. Maybe I don't have whatever it takes. (Zarr, How to Save 91-92)
In a few paragraphs, Zarr takes us through mental and emotional processing of a pretty big topic: What does "I love you" mean, and how does one love? Interestingly, in each paragraph, the character begins at a somewhat more positive state and cycles back to a negative state: from realizing love should be selfless to realizing how impossibly selfish we can all be; from desiring the ability to love well to feeling hopeless that it's even possible; from grasping hope in the example of others to once again feeling defeated and irredeemably flawed.

Each paragraph takes a slightly different angle on the topic as well. It begins with romantic love, moves to familial love, and finally examines the teachable nature of love. In her longer paragraph of the three, she uses questions (asking the reader to engage) and transition phrases ("I mean," "I get to thinking") to keep the forward motion of the thought.

More next time...
Paragraphing dialogue is another animal that deserves its own post to be explained effectively, I plan to do that next week, Stay tuned!

Do you find it easy or difficult to separate material into cogent paragraphs? Why?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Do you struggle to come up with ideas for your blog, writer friends? Well, never fear, I have a handy list to stimulate your thinking about awesome topics sure to draw a big audience, post after post.

Photo credit: jppi from morguefile.com

  • Make your romance swoonier with these pretty names for human excretions
  • How vowels are destroying your prose
  • Fantastik! Using product placement to make your fiction more lucrative
  • Inspiring stories from the great nose pickers of literary history
  • How to write a novel in just 30 years by agonizing over a sentence a day
  • No ifs, ands, or buts: Destroy those pesky conjunctions
  • Why redundancy matters
  • Develop stronger plots using chicken entrails divination
  • How to craft exquisite poems using only Wingdings font
  • Tips for combining the styles of James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy to create aggressively unreadable prose
  • Punch or punch? How to develop anxiety about homonyms
  • How to improve your pacing using detailed descriptions of every character's outfit
  • Eight is not enough: How to incorporate more typefaces in your fiction
  • Streamline your character names: ambisexual monikers to give every character in your story


  • Happy April Fool's Day! Do you have a favorite trick or hoax?


Wednesday, April 01, 2015 Laurel Garver
Do you struggle to come up with ideas for your blog, writer friends? Well, never fear, I have a handy list to stimulate your thinking about awesome topics sure to draw a big audience, post after post.

Photo credit: jppi from morguefile.com

  • Make your romance swoonier with these pretty names for human excretions
  • How vowels are destroying your prose
  • Fantastik! Using product placement to make your fiction more lucrative
  • Inspiring stories from the great nose pickers of literary history
  • How to write a novel in just 30 years by agonizing over a sentence a day
  • No ifs, ands, or buts: Destroy those pesky conjunctions
  • Why redundancy matters
  • Develop stronger plots using chicken entrails divination
  • How to craft exquisite poems using only Wingdings font
  • Tips for combining the styles of James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy to create aggressively unreadable prose
  • Punch or punch? How to develop anxiety about homonyms
  • How to improve your pacing using detailed descriptions of every character's outfit
  • Eight is not enough: How to incorporate more typefaces in your fiction
  • Streamline your character names: ambisexual monikers to give every character in your story


  • Happy April Fool's Day! Do you have a favorite trick or hoax?