Advice, Characters, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Writing

Keeping the Voices Straight

I love to write dialogue. I’d guess that in 87% of my scenes, I write the dialogue first and fill in the narrative later. So, deciding what my characters say is rarely a challenge, but making sure their voices are distinct and stay true is.

character_speakWriting in both male and female voices is a challenge in itself. Then you have to consider the character’s education, life experience, and regional influences to develop a voice that sounds natural. And you have to repeat that for each of your characters. Ideally, even when your character is not identified by name, the reader shouldn’t have to read very far into a paragraph before realizing who’s speaking or narrating.

In The Brevity of Roses, a few of my characters, for whom English was a second language, didn’t use contractions when they spoke. Because I didn’t want my main character to sound too stilted, as often as possible, I challenged myself to form a natural-sounding sentence without using any words usually contracted in informal writing.  Still, after each draft, I made an editing pass specifically looking for contraction slip ups.

Also, in that novel, two characters were upper-educated poets and because I’d written a good bit of the book in their voices, by the time I got to a third major character who was a young, streetwise woman I found myself slipping back and writing words and phrasing, both in dialogue and narrative, that she wouldn’t have used naturally. I had to edit those out.

In one of my current works in progress, my biggest challenge is staying “in character” as I write the parts from my Jesse’s point of view. He was born into a poor mining family in the West Virginia mountains and left school when he was fifteen to hire on as farm laborer in Kentucky. I don’t want to write his voice in dialect as much as I want to give the flavor of his voice. That flavor is not my own and I catch myself slipping out of character often.

In addition to Jesse, I have several characters who speak with just a touch of country and a couple who are pure “city folks.” One of those is the main female character, Nicole, who happens to be an English teacher. So again, I’ve set myself up for several editing passes just to make sure I’ve kept the characters’ voices “natural.” I accept that challenge.

If you’re a writer, what challenges are you facing in your current work?


Critique, Humor, Writing

A dialogue with my inner critic

We all have inner critics. Some manage them better than others do. All too often, I tremble under the tyranny of mine. She’s not cute and harmless. Not at all. Think She Devil, like this:

I’ll give you an example of how she works. A writer friend emailed me the other day to ask if I’d considered offering editing services to increase my income. She said, “Your writing is so precise and careful.” and indicated she felt I could be of benefit to other writers. All well and good, right?

The next day, while doing some mind-numbing work, I thought about the email again. Suddenly, my inner critic offered a different interpretation.

Inner Critic: Precise and careful, huh?

Me: Yeah, so?

Inner Critic: Sounds to me like she thinks your writing is a bore.

Me: No … I don’t think so.

Inner Critic: Textbooks are precise and careful.

Me: But … I’m pretty sure she meant that as a compliment.

Inner Critic: Ha!

Me: What did she mean, then?

Inner Critic: There’s an old saying: Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit.

In typical She Devil fashion, she poofed away, her cackle echoing in her wake, leaving me to question my worth as a writer … or an editor. She’s pure evil, is my inner critic. Next time she pops in, I’ll slap her with a wet fish.

Advice, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Novel, Scene, Tips, Writing

Practice makes perfect!

This photo has nothing to do with today’s post topic. I just wanted to share an amazing photo of two of the loves of my life.


You’ve all been dying to know how my novel editing is going, right? (Aw, come on, pretend.)

Surely, you’re not tired of the subject; My Topics shows I’ve only written 37 blog posts about editing. But then, this is a blog about writing and editing is a major part of that. That’s why I do it again and again and …

I’m still working my way through recording the chapters and editing from the playback. I’m not editing only for rhythm in my writing this time. I’m also keeping these questions in mind:

  • Did I make the setting clear?
  • Can I make actions clearer?
  • Am I showing emotion by action as well as—or more than—by dialogue?

Fortunately, my answers to these questions haven’t resulted in too many changes … so far. My final step will be to check what I’ve not given a lot of thought to while I was writing. I think I have a fair instinct for paragraphing, but scene and chapter breaks I’m a little iffy on, so I’ll ask myself these questions:

  • Does every scene (and chapter) have a purpose and is that purpose achieved?
  • Does each scene (and chapter) start and end at the proper points?

I know several of you are also in the midst of editing. How’s it going?

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Advice, Craft, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Narrative, Novel, Revision, Scene, Tips, Writing

She said what?!

In this round of novel editing, I discovered a problem caused by rearranging scenes. I was reading merrily along when I said to myself, “Wow, is Renee a bitch or what?” Granted Renee’s a little rough around the edges, and says pretty much what she thinks, but still. I didn’t believe she and Jalal knew each other well enough, at that point, for her to speak to him that way.

So, to check out my theory, I took all the bits of conversation they’d had up to this scene and pasted them into another file. I cut out all narrative and dialogue tags, and color-coded to make it easier to see only the words they had spoken to each other. Like this example (which is not the bitchy part):

“I love your accent.”
“I don’t have an accent.”
“No? Say my name.”
“Well … maybe a little.”
“So … you were born in Iran.”
“Are you … Muslim?
“Will you ever move back home?”
“This is my home; I am an American citizen. I have lived here a long time.”

The conversation that got my attention used to appear a later in the book where Renee’s little dig at Jalal made more sense. But I had shifted around previous scenes which moved this scene up. These two had actually said less than 800 words to each other, so yes, it was inappropriate for Renee to feel such familiarity with Jalal that she would take such a jab at him. The fix will be to insert a new scene, in which they get to know each other a little better, before this one. (Yay, higher word count!)

Btw, I also found out that dialogue can look pretty dull without the narrative. 🙂

Advice, Dialogue, Editing, Fiction, Novel, Read, Revision, Tips, Writing

Lo and behold, my novel speaks!

In addition to all the editing I did daily while writing my novel, I have twice printed it out and gone through complete edits. With my third printing, I began audio recording. My purpose is to get a little distance and, in some respect, experience a “fresh” reading. But this experiment has resulted in a few surprises.

See how seriously I take this?

First of all, reading a novel aloud is not something I normally do. I’m certainly not Meryl Streep, all dialogue is read in the same voice, so it doesn’t “sound” like what I heard in my head as I wrote it. And it’s a strange experience to speak words I don’t use in life—profanity. Not that my book is filled with it, but I feel ridiculous when I have to say those words. Also, it’s hard to keep from smiling after I read some of Jalal’s lines … he’s a charmer. And I wonder if I’ll choke-up when I come to a couple scenes that made me cry when I wrote them.

Secondly, I’m only three chapters in, but I’m surprised at the number of edits I’ve made already. I thought I’d caught almost all of the little problems in my previous rounds of editing, parts of which were read aloud. I’ve written about “beats” before, the main thing I’m listening for, which has enabled me to hear and correct awkward syntax, but I’ve found something else.

A problem particular to one of my characters is the use of contractions. English is not Jalal’s first language, and though he has little remaining accent, he speaks more formally than a native. He doesn’t use contractions. I’ve been conscious of this from the start and caught most of my slips as I wrote, but by reading the manuscript aloud—or hearing the playback—I’ve caught several more slips.

And imagine my surprise when I read that Meredith’s future husband had been a PhD candidate in the “archeology” department, when he received his degree in anthropology. So, it looks like I’ll do more work than I hoped this time around, but rewriting is the what it’s all about. I’m polishing like mad.

Now, hand me that microphone.

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