Category Archives: Writing skills and techniques

New FREE Writing Newsletter

newsletter header

This year I am starting up a monthly writing newsletter. It is completely FREE and sent to your email once a month.

Each month the newsletter will include:

  • Writing tips.
  • Helpful writing links.
  • Book recommendations (good writers are also voracious readers!)
  • A writing challenge.
  • And bonus bits, eg: sneak peeks for my stories or special giveaways.

How to subscribe:

Simply look the the right hand side of your screen and right underneath the search box you will see ‘FREE NEWSLETTER’. All you have to do is click ‘I want to subscribe!’ and enter your email. You can also sign up through my Facebook page HERE.

The very first issue will be sent out later today!

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The Basics of Writing Good Dialogue

balloon-898682_1280In my time critiquing, I’ve found that a common issue is dialogue. There are three main elements to consider when writing dialogue:

  1. How to punctuate dialogue correctly.
  2. Effective choice of dialogue tags.
  3. Avoidance of ‘talking heads’.

To start, I just want to be clear on what I mean when I use the term ‘dialogue tag’.

Dialogue tag = said, asked, cried, stuttered, exclaimed, etc.

How to Punctuate Dialogue Correctly

The Problem: A lot of writers, especially beginning writers, can be unsure exactly how to punctuate dialogue. Do I use a comma or period? Does it go inside or outside the talking marks? What about dialogue after the tag; do I capitalise or not? What about the dialogue tag; does that need a capital letter? A period or comma?

What to do: Here are the rules you need to remember…

  • Always end dialogue with a comma inside the speech marks if it is followed by a dialogue tag. eg:

“I love pasta,” said Sarah.

  • Even if there is a long piece of dialogue with several sentences. eg:

“Hi, Kate. How are you? I just got back from Hawaii,” said Ben.

  • The only exception is if the sentence is a question or exclamation, in which case you would use a question mark or exclamation mark. eg:

“Can I borrow your pen?” asked Nathan.

  • Notice you always start the dialogue tag with a lower case letter, even when using a question/exclamation mark. Unless of course you use the person’s name first. eg: Nathan asked.
  • If you want to switch it around and have the dialogue tag first, you put a comma after the tag, start the dialogue with a capital letter and end the dialogue with a period. eg:

Olivia said, “Don’t forget the milk.”

  • Always end dialogue with a period if it is NOT followed by a dialogue tag (if it is a stand alone piece of dialogue without a dialogue tag or it is followed by the character completing an action) eg:

“This class is boring.” Penny leaned back on her chair and rolled her eyes.

  • For dialogue broken up by a dialogue tag, the above rules apply for the dialogue preceding the tag; for the dialogue following the tag you should use a period after the tag and begin the next bit of dialogue with a capital letter on the same line (only make a new line if a new character is speaking). eg:

“I saw him over there,” Tom said, pointing. “He was standing by that tree.”

  • There is an exception to this, but if you’re feeling confused, don’t worry about this one for now. If you are breaking up dialogue in the middle of a sentence (and this is not something you want to do often as it is better used for effect), you will use a comma following the dialogue tag and begin the dialogue following the tag with a lowercase letter. eg:

“I think,” said Kylie, “we should go to the disco.”

Does all that make sense?

Effective Choice of Dialogue Tags

The Problem: Remember back in school when your teachers taught you all the different ways you could say said? Remember how they encouraged you to use a variety of different dialogue tags and avoid the boring word ‘said’ to make your writing more descriptive? The problem is effective writers use said more than any other dialogue tag and avoid those other flowery dialogue tags as much as possible; the complete opposite of what we were taught in school.

What to do: Forget what you learned in school. From now on ‘said’ is your best friend when it comes to dialogue tags. The reason for this is ‘said’ is unobtrusive, which helps make your dialogue flow more naturally. Your second most used dialogue tag will be ‘asked’. That’s not to say you can’t use other tags here and there for effect, but make sure they are realistic (eg: a person can stutter dialogue, but how exactly does one smirk dialogue? It can be said with a smirk, but it can’t be smirked.) If you are unsure, say the dialogue out loud the way you’ve written it.

The same goes for using lots of adverbs, eg: she said, happily. or he said, lamely. Try to find ways to describe the way your characters are talking through use of actions, facial expressions, body language and even the dialogue itself. It’s a good way to include character quirks/traits. eg: Jessica might react in different way to John.

So instead of:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica said, excitedly.

You could have:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” Jessica jumped up and down, a grin like a Cheshire cat stretched across her face.

John’s character would interpret excitement in a different way:

“I can’t believe we’re going to Disneyland!” John said, fist bumping Pete.

exchange-of-ideas-222786_1280

Avoidance of Talking Heads

The Problem: There is a lot of back and forth dialogue happening between characters, with no visual description in the scene to ground readers.

What to do: This is a good opportunity to show your characters’ personalities or disperse descriptions of the scene naturally. By interspersing little descriptions of what your characters are doing as the dialogue takes place, you avoid big blocks of back and forth dialogue which can cause readers to get lost or envision talking heads with no scenery to ground them.

So rather than:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona.

“What do you mean?” asked Gary. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

“I mean really see each other.”

You could write:

“I feel like we never see each other any more,” said Fiona. A tear ran down her cheek and dropped onto the shirt she had been ironing. 

“What do you mean?” asked Gary, his eyes never leaving the TV. “We see each other every day. We live together.”

Fiona ran the iron over the shirt, not realising she had been ironing the same sleeve for the last five minutes. “I mean really see each other.”

In the second version we can see more of the characters’ personalities and mood. It also grounds the readers to where they are: at home.

 And never forget the golden rule for dialogue:

Always start a new line when a new character starts speaking. (If the same character is still speaking, even if there are a few sentences of action in between, you don’t need a new line.)

Any questions? Leave them in the comments!

Writing Mentorship Program Opportunity for Emerging Writers

Yesterday I learned of an exciting new mentorship program that’s starting next month for emerging writers. It’s being run by the fantastic editor, publisher and author Jodi Cleghorn. I had the opportunity to work closely with Jodi on two of my published short stories (A Troll for Christmas and Eighteen for Life) and both experiences really helped me improve and hone my craft. Jodi is passionate about helping out new and emerging writers and she’s an expert at helping to show you how to bring out the best in your writing.

Jodi describes her new program, For The Asking, as:

…a hybrid program combining direct mentorship, a writing course and elements of creative exploration. It has the flexibility to accommodate different goals while at the same time providing a shared space to connect with (or hone) the craft of writing through experimentation in style, form, voice, genre and different creative modalities, combined with thoughtful critique, self-reflection and peer interaction. Each mentee will also have the opportunity to pursue one or two writing related goals.

This is a fantastic opportunity for:

  • people who have always wanted to write, but have never had the courage to take the next step.
  • new writers who would like to take their craft to the next level.
  • those who need extra confidence in their writing abilities.
  • experienced writers in need of a creative reboot.

The first 12-week program begins on Sunday 13th September. You must be over 18 years of age to be eligible. You can apply for one of the four available places by going HERE and scrolling down to the end of the post for the application link and further details of the program. Applications need to be submitted by midnight 3rd September (Australian Eastern Standard Time).

3 Tips for Pacing in Picture Books

DSCF6518adjusted Yesterday there was a Twitter chat on pacing in picture books (#PBPacing) with kidlit agent Jodell Sadler. She imparted some great tips on how to make your picture book text shine through what she calls the five Ps: ‘Pacing, prosody, poetry, play and performance’. She describes pacing as, “…the interplay of art and words, the slowing and speeding of the text to enhance story emotionally.”

3 tips for Pacing in Picture Books

  1. Be aware of page turns. Whether you make up a mock PB or a table in Word, think about where your page turns will be and how those page turns affect pacing. If you’re not sure how many pages a PB should have or how the page layout works, Tara Lazar (picture book author and founder of PiBoIdMo) has a great post on picture book layouts (seriously, bookmark this post!) Jodell says of page turns, “Page turns are integral. They offer surprise, new scene, and interactivity to your book…”
  2. Consider the sound of your words and the rhythm of the text. This is called ‘prosody’. It can make a huge difference to the read-aloud-ability of your PB. Practice reading your PB aloud and listen to the rhythm. This is just as important for prose PBs as it is for rhyming PBs. Jodell says, “We can write long and drawn out, especially if we add description or we can select key objects and place + add in rhythmic description and really juju up our efforts faster.”
  3. Great repetitive lines can enhance your PB. One point Jodell made that stood out to me was using the rule of 3s with repetitive lines. She said to repeat the same line 3 times, then have a break. The repetitive line can serve as a pacing marker in your story. If the 3 repetitions denote setbacks in the story arc, then having a break for the climax demands attention from the reader. Jodell says of of repetitive lines, “Kids love to join in.” 

Jodell has lots more great tips on her website Pacing Picture Books.

Show, Don’t Tell Challenge Share Day

januarychallenge

How did you go with the challenge this month?

As a reminder of what this month’s challenge entailed, or for those who are coming in late and still want to have a go, this was the challenge:

Show, Don’t Tell Challenge

1. Below I will list three ‘telling’ sentences and a photo.

2. Your challenge is to pick one of the sentences or the photo and write a descriptive paragraph or flash fiction (no more than 300 words).

3. You must not use the ‘banned’ word in your piece.

4. You must use each of the five senses.

5. You have two weeks to complete the challenge. In two weeks I will share my challenge piece and invite you to share yours in the comments.

Here are the sentences (and you are more than welcome to do more than one if you want!):

1. I was scared. (banned word = SCARED)

2. The boy ate an apple. (banned word = APPLE)

3. It’s a great party. (banned word = PARTY)

And here’s the photo:

kitten

(banned word = KITTEN or CAT)

Please share your piece in the comments below!

I picked the kitten picture for my piece. Here it is:

An orange ball of fur curled up among long tendrils of grass. Small and scared, it huddles, making tiny mews. I stroke its soft fur–like stroking a cloud–and pick it up with a gentle touch. His whiskers tickle my cheek. His breath is milky and sweet, reminding me of milkshakes at the little cafe by the lake. Blue eyes blink up at me. He searches my face, “Are you my mummy?”

The next challenge will go up in the first week of February.

What Does ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Mean?

show dont tell

The writing challenge this month is all about ‘Show, Don’t Tell’, but what does it mean and how can you apply it to your writing?

Showing is all about creating visual imagery for your reader and making them feel as though they are there and connected with your main character. You can tell your reader a character has dark hair and pale skin, but how does your main character view this person? Connect your reader to you character’s mind by showing what they see and feel. Eg: A character who is attracted to these qualities might say, “Dark ebony hair framed her porcelain skin and her red lips were shaped like a cupid’s bow. It was like Snow White had stepped right out of her fairy tale.” A character who doesn’t find those features attractive may describe her in a different light, eg: “Her coal-coloured hair made her bloodless face appear whiter in contrast as though she were one of the undead. The only colour on her face was on her lips, which were caked in red lipstick in the manner of a lady of the night.”

Showing vs. Telling

Here are some more examples of the difference between telling and showing.

Telling: It was a hot day.

Showing: The sun blazed in the sky. Sweat ran down my forehead. The jingle of the ice-cream cart’s bell called to me.

Telling: A tall man.

Showing: The man’s head brushed the top of the door frame as he walked through. I craned my neck to look up at his face.

Further Reading

For a more in-depth look at showing vs. telling and further examples, you can check out these previous posts I have written on the topic.

My Best Advice for Other Aspiring Writers 

This post discusses:

–          Using the five senses.

–          Eliminating ‘was’.

–          Interweaving description into your story.

Show, Don’t Tell 

This post gives a more in-depth explanation of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ with an example ‘showing’ paragraph like the one I want you to attempt for this month’s challenge.

Keep your eye out for the challenge sharing post at the end of this week. If you’re not subscribed, you can sign up for free (top left-hand side of blog) and you will get an email notification when the post goes live.

Show, Don’t Tell Challenge

januarychallenge

This year I’m featuring a monthly writing challenge on the blog. As ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of my writing mantras and is a topic I’ve covered many times on my blog, I thought it only fitting for it to make up my first challenge.

Here’s how the challenge will work:

1. Below I will list three ‘telling’ sentences and a photo.

2. Your challenge is to pick one of the sentences or the photo and write a descriptive paragraph or flash fiction (no more than 300 words).

3. You must not use the ‘banned’ word in your piece.

4. You must use each of the five senses.

5. You have two weeks to complete the challenge. In two weeks I will share my challenge piece and invite you to share yours in the comments.

Here are the sentences (and you are more than welcome to do more than one if you want!):

1. I was scared. (banned word = SCARED)

2. The boy ate an apple. (banned word = APPLE)

3. It’s a great party. (banned word = PARTY)

And here’s the photo:

kitten

(banned word = KITTEN or CAT)

This is meant to be for fun and to challenge ourselves as writers. I can’t wait to see what others come up with.

Writing a Novel – Character Profiles

Welcome to the first post in my Writing a Novel series. Today we will be looking at character profiles.

Usually when I am embarking on a new novel, I plot first, then do character profiles. This time around, my characters, specifically my main character, have been clamouring to be heard. My plot, at this point, is still not completely clear in my head, but the characters already have very strong voices. So this time around I am starting off with character profiles (and hoping once I know them and their motivations a bit better, the plot will become more clear).

Simple Bios

A few years ago I discovered ywriter and one of the great features is that you can include character bios (which can be as detailed as you want), including their goals. There is even a tab for including a picture!

ywriter character profile

I spent far too much time searching Google images for pictures that fit my character descriptions, but it really made me think about how my characters look and even helped me develop their personalities (of course Nyssa has to be smiling in her picture, because she is such a positive, happy character). The Mac equivalent to ywriter is Scrivener, though I’ve never used it, so I’m not sure if it has a similar feature.

For the bio, I kept it simple at this stage. I included age, physical features, family, personality traits (both positive and negative) and goals. You can see an example of a character bio on the post NaNoWriMo — Character Outline.

Character Interview

With the character’s basic personality now in mind, it’s time to delve deeper. I like to do character interviews with the main characters to really bring the characters to life. In my post, Creating 3D Characters: The Character Interview, I talk about this more in-depth and provide some examples of questions to ask that really get to the heart of your character. And in my post, NaNoWriMo — Character Outline I show how these questions might be answered (using Harry Potter as an example).

Visualising Your Character

There are so many fun, creative ways to do this. Here are a few of my favourites:

A character collage. Write your character’s name at the top of a piece of blank paper and grab a heap of old magazines, some scissors and some glue. Cut out things that would suit your character and stick them on the paper. Does your character have brown hair? Cut out a actress with brown hair. Does your character love music? Cut out a picture of an ipod. Does you character wear jeans? Does your character love animals? Is your character a doctor?

charactercollage

Sketch. Blank paper + pencil. It doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at drawing, you’re the only one who will see it. Add labels, eg: ‘blue eyes’, ‘sword’, ‘permanent smirk’. Make it more than just a picture to show what they look like, let their personality and the setting of the novel shine through, too.

Powerpoint. This is especially good if you have several main characters. On each slide find a picture to represent how you imagine your character to look, then accompany with dot points that describe your character’s personality.

So is it really necessary to make such an in-depth profile of your character before you begin writing your novel? It’s really up to the author. For me, I find having looked at my characters in such an in-depth way before I begin I am able to really immerse myself in my character’s head as I write and their voices come across more naturally. Also, I don’t have to flick back to page seven to remember what eye colour my MC has or to page fifty to remember if my MC’s best friend has two sisters or three, because I know them so well (or if I really have forgotten, it’s much easier to just refer back to my character profile, than find where I mentioned it).

What do you do to develop your characters before you begin writing? Or do you just jump right in and let them develop as you write?

Interview with Steve Rossiter

Today I’d like to welcome Steve Rossiter to my blog. Steve runs The Australian Literature Review (www.auslit.net) and Writing Teen Novels (www.writingteennovels.com) and is the editor of various anthologies, including Australian Literature: A Snapshot in 10 Short Stories (featuring one of my first ever published stories) and the recently released The Life and Times of Chester Lewis. Steve offers great opportunities to emerging writers through his programs and he has played a big role in my own writing journey. It is a pleasure to have been able to interview him and pick his brain.

You wrote the final story in The Life and Times of Chester Lewis, can you tell us a little bit about it (without giving away any spoilers)?

The final story takes place around Chester Lewis’s 100th birthday and is told from the POV of his granddaughter. It marks the end of Chester’s life story but raises new implications for the Lewis family.

I wanted to create a final story which would spark readers’ imaginations rather than, say, wind down and have Chester reflect on the past 100 years of his life.

You were also the editor for The Life and Times of Chester Lewis, how did you balance your two different roles? Was it difficult switching between writer and editor?

Since I wrote the final story, my main role for the most of the process was as editor.

It wasn’t difficult to switch between the two roles at the end. I wrote my story with pen and notepad then did my first full edit of the story as I typed it onto the computer.

As well as the various short story anthologies you have published, you also run The Australian Literature Review, which often has short story competitions. You must be somewhat an expert on what makes a short story stand out after all the stories you’ve seen! What are your biggest tips for writers of short stories?

In a previous interview, I was asked what makes a compelling character and I responded that it is a combination of purpose and personality. This would be a good place to start for developing a short story idea. I mean developing a character in the full context of that fictional person and the story-world in which they are situated – not just to pick a goal and label a few personality traits in an abstract way. A character’s sense of purpose and their personality will, of necessity, draw from the story-world in which they are situated.

A simple but important tip is: create a story concept before you start writing. Many fiction writers just write with no story concept in mind and hope a story will emerge, or they write about the setting and/or character relationships with no clear sense of purpose or story momentum. This is fine if you’re writing something as a brainstorming exercise to help trigger an idea to adapt into a story concept, but many writers write without clear purpose and use the result as the end story.

The basic components of a story concept could be summarised as:

1)    A character (in the full context of being a fictional person situated in their story-world) actively pursues a goal.

2)    That character and other characters care about the outcome, but for conflicting reasons.

Readers will care about the outcome if they relate to why the characters care and what they do to pursue their desired outcome.

There is a fan fiction writing competition running on chesterlewis.net, do you have any advice for those hoping to enter?

Making an early decision to enter the competition is a good idea, so they have plenty of time to write a good story, then get some reader feedback and refine it before submitting. It runs until August 31st 2013, but writers can sign up early and they have until August 31st to send their story in. There is a $10 entry fee before March 31st(or $15 for those who sign up between April 1st and August 31st).

Participating in the private Chester Lewis Fan Fiction Group on Facebook is a good idea. Once signed up, the private Facebook group is available for entrants to discuss story ideas and their writing, to meet other writers, to receive fiction writing tips, and where authors from the book and some of their publishing industry friends will drop by from time to time.

Can you tell us about some of your current favourite authors/books and what makes them stand out for you?

I don’t so much have a few authors who are my absolute favourites as I have a range of reading interests and like various authors for different reasons.

Off the top of my head, some Australian authors whose novels I like include Fiona McIntosh, Rebecca James, LM Fuge, Tony Park and Jaye Ford, and some international authors whose novels I like include Stephen King, Gregg Hurwitz, Jodi Picoult, Thomas Harris, Cynthia Voigt, April Henry and Bernard Beckett.

If I was to lump the authors together and describe some things their novels tend to have in common, I would say they have characters with purpose and personality, they have a story with clear stakes, they have an easy-to-read style, and they explore interesting subject matter with intelligence and originality.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently writing a novel set in 1939 Poland with a teenage main character, intended for publication in 2014. My aim is for the novel to be entertaining for teen readers and a serious historical novel for adult readers.

I have Writing Teen Novels (www.writingteennovels.com) undergoing a big expansion from January 1st to feature daily posts throughout the year from a great mix of established novelists from around the world. There will be more than 20 novelists with a post per month throughout 2013 and guest novelists each month.

I will be launching Writing Historical Novels from January 1st along similar lines as the expanded Writing Teen Novels site.

The line-up of authors for these two sites will be announced in December. There will be numerous New York Times bestselling novelists as monthly contributors on each site (including one with more than 75 million copies in print), as well as novelists who are also professors, historians, feature film directors, screenwriters and producers for film and TV, scientists, non-fiction authors, documentary makers, teachers, journalists (including a Pulitzer Prize winner), and more.

I also have Writing Novels in Australia (www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com) – initially a place for members of a writing program I ran in the first half of this year to put down some thoughts about their writing and to reach readers – relaunching from January 1st with a mix of Australian aspiring novelists, early-career novelists and established novelists, including authors such as Helene Young (published by Hachette and Penguin) and Greg Barron (published by HarperCollins).

Any parting words of wisdom?

Write the kind of fiction you find personally rewarding. If your aims for your fiction include commercial publication or to be read by other people (and most writers want their writing to be read by other people in some capacity), find some overlap in what you find personally rewarding to write and what others find personally rewarding to read.

 Thank you, Steve, and good luck with rest of your blog tour!

If anyone would like to see Steve’s blog tour schedule or read some of his previous interviews or guest posts on his tour, please follow this link.

Book website: www.ChesterLewis.net

Facebook page: www.facebook.com/TheLifeandTimesofChesterLewis

Writing an Action Scene

Last week I was answering interview questions about my story in the integrated short story collection The Life and Times of Chester Lewis and, since I hadn’t looked at it in quite a while, I gave the story a reread. Like most writers (I would imagine), I couldn’t help but think there were places where I could have written more tightly or hooked the reader in more. As writers I don’t think we ever stop editing our stories in our heads, even after they’ve published. I’m a perfectionist in that way, and I don’t think I can ever feel like my writing is perfect. Good, maybe, but perfect, no.

I did concede to myself, however, that I was quite happy with how the main action scene turned out. There are some main points I keep in mind when writing action scenes that I think make a world of difference:

1. Short, sharp sentences pack a punch.

2. But, it is also important to vary sentence length to keep readers engaged, not bored. Short, sharp sentences lose their impact if you don’t vary them with some longer (but not too long) sentences.

3. Get into your character’s head. Think about his or her reactions.

4. Up the stakes. Just when it looks like the character will be triumphant, just when they’ve got the upper hand, turn the tables. Throw the worst case scenario at him or her. Make it seem as though all hope is lost and there is no way out.

If you want to check out my Chester Lewis story and judge my action scene for yourself, The Life and Times of Chester Lewis is actually on special offer today for its launch. You can grab a copy of the ebook for $0.99 (it’s normally $3.99). This is an especially good opportunity to pick up a copy and get started on you fanfic story (if you’re entering). Remember, it’s $2000 for the winner of the competition and it’s open worldwide. What a great opportunity!

Do you have any tips for writing action scenes? What really hooks you in when you’re reading them? Do you have any favourite action scenes from books you’ve read?