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Writing Exercise: Observing Dialogue

Writing dialogue.  In fiction, it can be challenging to make characters sound human and, simultaneously, make sure what’s said moves the story or a character’s development forward.  How people speak, what they say, and how they say it gives a writer ample opportunity for creativity.  But how do you make sure your characters sound like people?

The Exercise

Part One

One way to familiarize yourself with creating natural-sounding dialogue is to listen to people in conversations.  For this exercise, I’m asking you to eavesdrop on the people around you.

Go to a public place and observe two people or a group having a conversation.  Transcribe the conversation as much as possible, making sure to keep what’s being said as pure as possible.  Jot down what you can.  You’ll notice how people speak in sentence fragments, pauses, and subtext.

Suppose you don’t feel comfortable doing this in public.  In that case, you can use a conversation at work or between your kids or other relatives.  Just remember that you are observing the conversation, not participating.

Don’t do it for too long, just enough to get something useful for part two.

**NOTEDo not record the conversation.  Many states have laws against recording others without their permission.  Just to be safe, take notes. **

Part Two

Write a short story using the dialogue as a launching pad for creating the characters and the situation.  The conversation doesn’t have to be where you heard it; you can have the couple in the coffee shop be astronauts on Mars.  But stick with the dialogue you transcribed as close as possible.

Now, using that dialogue, continue the conversation.  Where do things go next?  Can you use what you heard and keep that tone and feeling with made-up dialogue?

Part Three

Once you finish the short story, have a trusted friend or loved one read it.  Can they tell where the real conversation ends, and your made-up dialogue begins?  This is a good test to see if you are on the right track to creating realistic dialogue.

Final Thoughts

While it can be a challenge, creating natural-sounding dialogue will help keep readers engaged with the story.  Often when we write dialogue, we are in a room alone, speaking to ourselves or in our head.  By observing and listening to real people interact, we can further our communication skills between our characters on the page.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: The Acknowledgements Page

While you probably wrote your novel by yourself, you probably had several people assist you along the way.  If the book gets published – either through self-publishing or a mainstream publisher – there are even more people who become a part of the process.

It’s important to be gracious and thank those who helped take your novel from Word document to published media.  An Acknowledgements page at the beginning or end of your book is a great way to give these unsung heroes the credit they deserve.

The last thing you want to do is be like Herman Munster:

Let’s talk about how to create an Acknowledgements page.

Should You Have One?

If you did everything 100% yourself, you don’t need one.  However, if you really think hard about it, you can probably think of at least three people who helped you along the way that made your book a reality.

If that’s the case, you should write one.  Now, it doesn’t have to be very long.  But giving credit where credit is due is always a nice gesture.  Especially if you want help on future writing projects.

Who to Thank

As you brainstorm who should be in your acknowledgments, think if these possible people:

•          Family and friends who offered support

•          Anyone who read your manuscript and gave you feedback

•          Your editor

•          Your cover designer

•          Your author photo photographer

•          Your publisher

•          Your agent

•          Anyone who assisted with research for the book

•          Any people who inspired you to write the book

If you had direct contact with them during the process, I would consider thanking them.  If you want to go the extra mile and find out who the typesetter was for the book and thank them, go for it.

Make sure to briefly mention what they did for you on the project, too.

Do I Need Their Permission?

If they are a public person with a business that helped you out – like a cover artist or editor – let them know you plan to put them in the Acknowledgements.  Make sure it’s okay with them.  If it is, ask if you can put their website or other social media contact info after their name.  

For friends or family, I would ask permission, too.  Some people may ask you to just use their first name, and others may appreciate the thought but ask for their name to be left out.

Either way, respect their wishes.

If this is a good team, keep them happy for future projects.

Examples

Skim through the books on your shelf, at a bookstore, or at the library.  See how different authors present their Acknowledgements Page.  Here’s mine for my second novel, Midnight House:

Midnight House would not be where it is today without the assistance of my editor, Kathleen Brebes.  Her notes and comments were a valuable resource that helped me polish and fine-tune the novel and its story over the past year.

Thank you, Kathleen!

            I’d also like to give a huge thank you to my good friend and feedback partner, Kevin Klein.  Kevin enjoyed my first novel, The Field, and I was excited to share the second novel in the series with him.  His feedback and opinions helped make Midnight House an even stronger Young Adult novel.

            Thank you, Kevin!

To my cover artist, Steven Novak, who once again took my ideas and brought them to life in another fantastic cover.  Thank you, Steven, for your help and excellent work!  Check out his work at http://www.novakillustration.com/

And to everyone else who asked how the second book was coming along, kept up the encouragement, and dealt with me disappearing to write and edit, thank you for all your support. 

And thank you to everyone for reading Midnight House!

Final Thoughts

Everyone appreciates being acknowledged for the work they did.  Whether your team members played a major or a minor role, taking the time to thank them in print is a great way to support and appreciate those who helped make your dream a reality.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Readers, Have You Ever Given Up on a Book?

I’m an avid reader.  I love to read a variety of books.  Fiction and non-fiction.  Long books and short.  Sometimes it can take a few chapters for me to get into a book, but usually, once things get moving, I’m in for the duration.

But sometimes, I hit a wall.  For some reason, there are books that I can’t get into, and I can’t stay focused and can’t stick with the book.  I have tried to read a handful of books more than once and still have trouble getting into them.

One this year was Gone with the Wind.  I kept falling asleep while reading, which was never a good sign, and I had to give up.

Another was written by one of my favorite authors.  I’ve started it about four times and can’t get past the first 50 pages without reaching for another book.

Okay, I’ll tell you what it is.  It’s Stephen King’s The Stand.  I’ve read dozens of King’s books, but I just can’t get into this one.  Has anyone else had this problem?  It is about as long, and I had no issues diving into that one.

So, why does this happen?  I can’t be the only reader this has happened to.  It’s weird when a book is no longer being read for enjoyment; it’s now an assignment. 

Is it worth the multiple attempts to reread a book with thousands of books to read, or is it truly a fool’s errand?

Have any of you encountered this problem?  

Have you had trouble getting into a book from an author you love?

Have you fought through the wall and finished the book, or given up and moved on to another book?  

Leave a comment and let me know.

Happy Reading, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Writing Your Author Bio

You’ve done it.  You’ve reached the publishing phase of your novel writing journey.  Your story is locked in, ready to go, and you are excited to see your creation in print.  But there’s one thing you may have put off or forgotten about:  your author bio.

This can be a daunting task to some, especially first-time authors.  While you don’t want to write an A&E Biography about yourself, you want to consider some of the following points.

Let’s talk about them!

Keep It Simple

A few short paragraphs is all you need to include at the back of the book about who you are.  You want to make sure you present yourself in a positive light and ensure the primary focus of the paragraph is you as a writer.

Use Third Person

Author bios are generally written in the third-person POV.  Yes, it may seem weird to talk about yourself like you’re someone else, but it seems to be the standard form.  

Include Relevant Information

Any previous writing you’ve done, if you have a blog, if you have a degree in English, or if this is your first novel are all good points to add to your bio.  If you’re novel is about a mountain climber, and you have years of mountain climbing experience, include that too.

If you wish, you can use the last sentence to discuss your personal life, but keep it short and straightforward.

Don’t Lie

The last thing you want to do is make up insane lies about who you are in your bio.  Why?  Let’s say you self-published the book and put in your bio that you worked at NASA, were an advisor to President Obama, and saved a bus full of nuns from going over a cliff.  

Your book becomes a success, and you are suddenly on Good Morning America.  Do they want to talk about the book?  Nope.  They want to talk about your time at NASA.  Or working for Obama.  Or saving the nuns.  Now you must lie on national TV in front of millions who have access to the internet, know Obama’s White House staff, or work for NASA.

You have just become a liar on national TV and damaged your credibility.

Don’t lie.

Read Examples

Pretty much every book has an author bio at that back – oddly, so do some autobiographies – so there are hundreds of examples to look at and use as a reference.  If this is your first novel, I recommend finding the bios in other authors’ first novels and seeing what they included.

Here’s my author bio from my first novel, The Field:

Ian Dawson is a playwright, screenwriter, and now novelist based in Southern California.  He has a BA in Dramatic Art from UC Davis and a Masters in Screenwriting from Cal State Northridge.

After working on it for 15 years, Ian finally completed his first novel, The Field, which he is excited and proud to present to readers all around the world.

Ian loves to read, write, hang out with friends, travel, cook, and try new things.  He also loves writing comedy and making others laugh.

Final Thoughts

Your novel is most readers’ first intro into your creative mind.  Your author bio should let them know who you are as a writer and give them some insight into your life.  By keeping it brief and honest, you can ensure that you have created an author bio that is informative and relevant.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Exercise: What Could Go Wrong?

We do a lot of things every day.  Some we want to do, others not so much.  Whatever the activity, there is potential for things to not go as we planned.

The Activity

Think about an activity you do that has the potential for things to spiral out of control.  This could be driving to work, dealing with customers, picking up your kids from school, etc.  We do plenty of things every day on auto-pilot, so these activities are a good place to start.

The Exercise

Picked an activity?  Great.  Now, write a list of every possible situation or scenario that could go wrong while doing this particular task.  It can be a minor inconvenience or one that’s exponentially catastrophic.  No matter what it is, write it down.

If you have had bad experiences in that situation that you can utilize, that’s even better.

Once you have a reasonably long list, pick out the ones that could be placed in order of escalation from minor to major.  Now you have a rough outline to work with.

Create a short story using the scenario and these escalating elements.  It can be comedic, it can be tragic, and it can be hyper-realistic.  Whatever tone you want to use, take advantage of your list of bad things that could happen and have fun with it.  If you come up with new things that can go wrong as you write, feel free to add them!

The Example

So, I drive on the 405 in L.A. every day to work.  There is potential for many things to go wrong in this location.  If I chose this as my activity – Driving to Work on the 405 – I could come up with some things that could go wrong based on my own real-life experiences: 

  • Car breaks down in traffic during heatwave
  • Car’s transmission dies in traffic
  • Hay truck on fire shuts down freeway
  • President Obama leaves LAX, freeway closes
  • Car chase
  • Multiple lanes closed during afternoon for cleaning
  • Roadwork
  • Car accident – three cars or more
  • Car fire
  • Multiple cars on fire
  • Plane does emergency landing on freeway
  • Big rig tips over
  • Rock smashes windshield

Next, I would take the list and figure out a way to incorporate as many as possible into a short story.

Final Thoughts

When we get stuck as writers, it’s important to brainstorm many ideas to help our characters get into or out of challenging situations.  This can help keep your writing interesting and keep your reader engaged and interested.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: What’s in a Blurb?

Last time, we discussed ways to create a pitch to sell your story to others.  In this post, I want to show some examples of blurbs from different novels and genres.  I grabbed these directly from each author’s website, and links are provided at the end of this post.

As you read through the ones I selected, ask yourself if each blurb covers the basics of the story?  Do the story points included in the blurb hook you as a reader?  Do they make you want to read the book?  Why or why not?  Do the blurbs capture the tone or genre of the novel effectively?  

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill. But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons.

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.

The Stand by Stephen King

One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that – in the ensuing weeks – wipes out most of the world’s population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas. The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil.

It by Stephen King

A promise made twenty-eight years ago calls seven adults to reunite in Derry, Maine, where as teenagers they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city’s children. Unsure that their Losers Club had vanquished the creature all those years ago, the seven had vowed to return to Derry if IT should ever reappear. Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that summer return as they prepare to do battle with the monster lurking in Derry’s sewers once more.

A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

Wrapping Up

Now that you’ve read through the ones I picked, I urge you to explore the official websites of your favorite authors and see how their books are described on their sites.  By reading examples in your genre and from authors you enjoy, you can further your knowledge of how to effectively write a blurb or pitch for your own story.

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Blurb Sources:

Writing Tip of the Week: So, What’s Your Story About?

When we’ve written something we’re proud of, we often want to share it with others.  When we ask someone to read out work, the typical response is: “What’s it about?” This is usually where we fall into two categories.  

The first is the deer in the headlights look, followed by basic descriptors (“It’s a thriller, and it’s got ghosts.”).  The second is we overexplain to the point that we see the other person’s eyes glaze over.

Neither is the best approach to getting someone to read our work.  That being said, it’s best to have what would be known in Hollywood as an “Elevator Pitch” prepared for your story.  Having this stored in your memory is a great way to concisely tell others about your story to hook them and garner interest.

Let’s talk about it!

What is an Elevator Pitch?

As the name implies, the Elevator Pitch is a 60-second sales pitch for your story.  It should entice and interest the listener to the point that they want to know more.  Think of this as a commercial for your novel or script.  How do you effectively hook someone into buying your product?

We’ve all seen thousands of TV commercials, YouTube ads, movie trailers, and commercials for TV shows. Some get us excited; many others don’t.  The trick is to be in the first category, driving interest toward your project.

But how do you do it effectively?

Begin at the Basics

Can you write down the main plot of your story in one sentence?  Does the sentence present the main character, their opposition, and the primary conflict?  

This should be your first task when coming up with a pitch for your story and can also help you later when you have to write a blurb for the back of the book.  You want to get people to buy the book, giving them just enough information to feel compelled to purchase and read more.

What are two or three key moments in the story?  Do they move the main character in a new direction?  Look at your inciting incident (the moment the main character starts on their journey), the first major plot point, and the story’s mid-point.  These should be major events that drive the story and the character forward, and they are points you can add to your pitch.

Since we want to keep them interested, don’t mention or imply how the story ends; just give them a taste of what the story is about and what happens.

Now you have one sentence with the basics of the story and some key story points outlined.

Genre Matters

It’s also important when working on a pitch to keep your genre in mind.  Is your novel or screenplay a comedy?  Is it horror?  Is it a thriller?  A mystery? 

As you begin to craft your pitch, make sure the tone matches the genre of your work.  If you tell someone about your thriller and they start laughing, that’s a problem.  If you pitch a comedic story and they sit there stone-faced, that’s a problem, too.

I recommend looking at blurbs on the back of books in your genre to see how they set the tone.  Are there ones that work better and hook you more?  Those are the ones you want to emulate tone-wise.

Drafting, Drafting, Drafting

When you first start to draft, overwrite the paragraph to your heart’s content. It’s okay.  

Then, go through the paragraph again and trim it down.  A word here and a sentence there.  You want to fine-tune the pitch to cover the story’s basics in a way that makes someone want to know more.  

This can be a challenging process but take your time.  I recommend reading the paragraph to a few people to get their feedback.  Does it make them want to know more?  Is it too vague?  Too wordy?  Are there any points where they lose interest?

This pitch is your calling card for your work, so make sure to take the time to make this the best sales pitch you can.

Final Thoughts: Not Just Hollywood

While this concept may have originated in Hollywood, this is a great format to practice if someone finds out you’re a writer and asks what you’re working on. It’s also good if a friend or relative asks what your book’s about or any other situation where you have the opportunity to tell someone about your book.

These less-formal situations will also help you gauge interest based on your pitch.  If someone doesn’t seem interested, you can ask them why (don’t get upset or offended).  Especially if it’s your first attempt at pitching, you want to get feedback so you can get better in the future.

Be proud of what you’ve written or what you’re working on.  Sell it to the masses!  Pitch that story!

Happy Drafting, and I’ll see you next time!

If you want to learn more bout Elevator Pitches, I highly recommend the following book:

Writing Challenge of the Week: The Next 99 Days

There are only 99 days until 2023.  If you write 1,010 words daily for the rest of the year and, you’ll have written 100,000 words by the end of 2022!  

100,000 words entering the New Year.  Sounds like a great plan!

Are you up to the challenge?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Reading Tip of the Week: Planning Ahead for 2023

January 1, 2023, is only a mere 108 days away, and it got me thinking about my reading goals for the coming year. Is it too early to create a reading plan? Perhaps. But, with my current reading goal of 25 books almost completed – I’m at 22 read so far – I was starting to figure out my reading goal for next year.

And, planning ahead of time helps distance it from the stigma of being a New Year’s resolution.

So, let’s talk about it!

Why Have a Plan?

I used to read whatever I wanted and as many or as few books as I felt like each year. But when I started setting a yearly reading goal, it turned reading into a goal-oriented activity. It was a great way to turn off the TV and open a book since I had a set number of books I wanted to read in a year.

A reading plan can also help you stay focused and create a basic schedule to help you reach your chosen reading goal.

How Many Books?

If you’ve never set a reading goal, start with 12 books for the year. That’s one a month, which should be fairly manageable. If you’re an avid reader like myself, you can double that.  

I have seen several people posting their completed 2022 reading goals on social media. One woman has read 172 books and her goal was 80!

Start with a basic number, and if you find yourself burning through books faster than you anticipated, you can always change your goal. For example, I initially started 2022 wanting to read 20 books but realized I would hit that sooner than later, so I upped it to 25.

What Books?

Simple answer: read what you like.  

More complex answer: Vary what you read, so you don’t get into a monotonous cycle that makes you dread picking up a book.  

I like to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, and I also will pick a theme for my non-fiction and stick to it throughout the year. For example, in 2020, I read several non-fiction books about pandemics and plagues throughout history. In 2021, I read about world history. This year, I’ve been focused on biographies about actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

And in between, I read fiction.

Now, you can spin the wheel and choose what books to read and in what order at random, or you can plan out what you’ll read and when you plan to read it.

What About Page Count?

After I read a 900-page biography, I’m not ready to dive into another entry in the Game of Thrones series. I’ll usually grab a shorter book from my shelf or on my Kindle and burn through that before I start another longer book.

Variety is a key factor in keeping the reading momentum going. If you read one of your kid’s books, count it. Reading is reading, and any book you read can count toward your goal total.

Where Can I Keep Track?

You can use several sites and apps to keep track and record your progress. I use Goodreads.com, but apps like StoryGraph or Bookly can work just as well.

Find a site or app that you like and stick with it. Then work toward your 2023 reading goal, knowing that you now have the power to track and complete your stated target.

Final Thoughts

I know it’s early for this post, but, like holiday shopping, sometimes it’s never too early to start thinking about what’s coming sooner than you think.  

By setting a target reading goal and mapping out what you want to read, you can set yourself up for reading success in 2023 and be even more prepared for 2024!

Happy Planning and Reading, and I’ll see you next time!

Writing Tip of the Week: Make Writing a Habit

How often do you sit down and write?  Do you have a word goal?  Page goal?  Chapter goal?  How do you keep track of these measurements?  

Keeping track of your writing productivity is a great way to see your progress daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly as a writer.  Using a basic spreadsheet can assist you in keeping focused on your writing goals and be a great motivator.  It makes it much harder to write “0 words” when you can see the word count achieved daily.

Avoiding the Zero

If you have difficulty sitting down to write, give yourself a simple word count goal: 100 words a day.  You may scoff and say that’s simple, but you should have no problem sitting down and making it happen if it’s easy.

Did 100 for a week?  Great.  Up it to 250.  Then 500.  Then 750.  Eventually, you’ll hit what feels like a comfortable maximum, the amount you can easily do without too much trouble.

Once you reach that number, you can always write more, but now you are at a comfortable and productive daily count.

What Counts as Writing?

Your word count doesn’t have to be you sitting and writing a novel.  It can be writing a blog post, an email, or a newsletter; anything that involves writing can be included in your daily word count.  The key is to sit down and WRITE SOMETHING.

So, if you write 500 words of a short story and write an email to your sister that’s 500 words, you’ve hit 1,000 words for the day.  Awesome!  Want to write more?  Go for it!

Keeping Track

As I said above, you can create a spreadsheet to track your daily word count, but you can also keep track in a journal or on a legal pad.  Some writing programs will also keep track of your writing stats.

From Tracking to Habit

Eventually, your desire to keep your word count going daily will become habitual, and you may become more productive as a writer in the long run.  Comic Jerry Seinfeld uses this tactic and has recommended it to others as a way to keep writing consistently and get better as a result.  Check out the link to the article below about “The Seinfeld Strategy.”

Final Thoughts

Sometimes a visual representation of our progress is a great motivator and can help us stay focused on our present and future goals.  By keeping track of your writing progress and holding yourself accountable, you will write more and improve your writing skills in the long run.

Two books that offer up some great writing productivity tools are linked below:

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!