Inside your head is a space that waits to be filled with light.  Or darkness. The rushing wind and the clatter of leaves before a storm. The clang of swords and shouts of frightened men battling for their lives.  The boom and cough of ocean waves and the salt spray upon your lips.

When the space is empty, you despair.  Your mind chases itself, a hamster on a wheel, racing frantically toward nothing.  And the Nothing swallows your elation, blows a noxious fog of desperation over the rest of your thoughts, leaving you desolate.

It comes out in anger, in tears.  The people around you tiptoe; don’t upset her, they whisper.  Don’t ask her about the book, they caution.  They don’t want you to blow.  Sometimes they don’t know what’s wrong and they tell you to cheer up, or get a grip on yourself. But you have one, an achingly tight grip, squeezing your brain until the last drop of inspiration hovers at the very edge before it falls…

…onto an empty page.

Can you push out the drop? Can you make yourself birth a masterpiece? The answer has eluded greater minds than yours.  A walk in the snow, you think.  Never mind the darkness, the night.  No one will be out so it will be nice and quiet and you can think.  That will engage those rusty gears. So you pull on boots, wrap yourself in a scarf and mittens, button your coat and make your way outside.

The snow crunches beneath your feet.  Somewhere you heard that the sound it makes will tell you how cold it is; is it higher when it’s colder, or lower? You can’t remember so you keep going.  You hear an occasional car grinding by, but it is far away. You can’t see it and it’s not loud enough to muffle the sound of your footsteps.  It’s very quiet, and even though you are surrounded by houses and people, you feel completely alone.

It’s so pretty, and then the clouds bellied low over the landscape unleash another scattering of flakes.  The snow whispers as it falls.  It has a sound, but you didn’t know that before.  You stop and listen and the flakes fall gently on your upturned face.  Like the child you still are deep inside, you open your mouth and let them melt on your tongue and you’re instantly transported to your backyard, and the first snowfall of the season.  Your mother bundled you up and smiled into your eager face before she turned you out into the icy wonderland.  “Don’t stay out too long,” she cautioned.

Good advice.  The cold is beginning to seep through your mittens. Strange that you didn’t notice back then.  Now you feel the slight damp and a numbness settling into your feet. You should turn back, but the snow is so pretty, like glitter falling from the sky and sparkling in the streetlight.  You stand and watch for a moment more.

The growl of a snowplow begins to swell behind you, and the moment is broken. In your mind, in the space, is the image of the glittering snow hurtling inexorably down through the night, catching the light and shedding it just as quickly as it leaves the cone of the streetlight’s glow.  You take it with you and as your chilled fingers fumble with your buttons and you drop your wet boots on the mat by the door, it remains along with the whispered hiss of the snow.  Your cocoa steams but you are far away.

How was your walk? You don’t answer; you’re deep in the image. Ah, they say. She’s musing. Don’t bother her.  She’s gearing up.  And you are.  The rusty machine begins to creak and groan, and starts to turn.  Soon you approach the page and the cocoa sits cooling, forgotten as your tingling fingers tap furiously on the keys, forgetting your earlier anguish, chasing the image through the space in your mind, filling it.  It flows up and out and there is more to follow.  It has begun again.

Yes, you can push it.  And you must, if you are to write.

Geek Heaven

Yesterday I attended a sci-fi/fantasy gathering called VisionCon, held annually at a hotel near me.  It’s a small con and meets in January because most of the larger ones get dates in the warmer months.  This is not the first con I’ve been to, but only the second time I’ve attended this one.

The first thing you notice upon entering one of these things is a wall of sound.  It’s almost palpable:  a cacophony of excited voices, toy phasers beeping, laughter and bits of music floating here and there.  People wander about, some dressed up, and others wearing what appear to be fairly normal outfits.  Look closer and you’ll see Batman and Zim on their shirts, skulls, daggers and fantasy elements in their accessories and many, many tattoos.  I was sorry it was January and I wore a long-sleeved sweater; next time, I’ll brave the cold and expose the beautiful Hogwarts crest tattoo that emblazons my upper left arm.

Then there are costumes.  People dressed as Stormtroopers, Jawas, hobbits, animals, superheroes, villains and pirates.  They stroll leisurely through the dealers’ room with their cronies, sometimes in character.  In between film showings, I went to the vending machine for a bottle of water and a small person (boy or girl? I wasn’t able to tell) dressed in a gold bodysuit that covered it from head to toe stumbled in, ricocheted off the walls and tumbled to the floor.  It flopped around for a minute and then got up and went back into the hallway, presumably to join its companions.

I’m not sure what this person was meant to be; I’m not a die-hard sci-fi fan, although it resembled something from the Star Trek: TNG episode “Transfigurations.”  It says something about my geekiness that I simply glanced over, said “Hi,” and continued to plug coins into the machine as though nothing were happening.  At a con like this, such things are not unusual.

A compelling reason for me to attend was the chance to speak with other writers.  Last year they held several panels about publication, which were enlightening for a newbie like me.  This year I caught a reading by Shane Moore, author of the Abyss Walker fantasy series.  A ticket drawing at the reading produced my name from the fishbowl, and I won a copy of the first book in the series, autographed of course.  Yay!

Brian Keene, a terrific horror writer I met last year, was there along with Wrath James White, whom I had not.  They were great to hang and talk with, and they urged me to attend an event that has become a fixture at WorldCon but was new to VisionCon called the Gross-Out Contest.  An adults-only venue, horror writers compete to see who can disgust the audience the most with extreme and highly imaginative tales of gore, grue, slime, puke, shit and sexual congress with these and other foul things.  I made the mistake of telling Brian, Wrath and contest participant John Horner that I could not be grossed out.  Much to my surprise, I was recruited from the audience and dragged up onstage to serve as one of the judges!

Each contestant was given points on performance, grossness of the subject matter and audience reaction.  I wasn’t sickened (as a longtime horror fan, I’m inured to that stuff), but I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard.  At the end of the readings, our markings were tallied up and the winner and four-time previous champion, Cullen Bunn, took his bows.  I won’t tell you what his story was about.  Truly, you had to be there.  If they have this again next year and I’m around, I might be tempted to try it myself.

I shared a beer after the Gross-Out with the writers and was able to ask Brian some questions about movie rights, and hear a little industry gossip. The cons are a good networking opportunity for genre writers.  If you can make it to them, the connections (and the fun) are worth it.

Check out some of these guys.  That is, if you think you can take it!

The camaraderie at these conventions is just amazing.  You couldn’t meet a nicer group of people than those who share your interests.  Fellow Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, comic book and Harry Potter fans abound and it’s almost impossible to go to a con and not connect with someone.  I met a really nice group from Kansas City who welcomed me for a brief pizza party in their hotel room, and I hope to keep in touch with them and even travel there at some point to hang with their Star Trek club.  I’m looking forward to that and hoping that we might meet up at a future con, if I can ever make it to any of them.

People think geeks and nerds are unsociable; this couldn’t be further from the truth.  We are the most friendly, welcoming, highly creative pack of weirdoes you’ll ever meet, and it’s because a shared passion for whatever we’re into spills over onto those around us.  We’re happy to recruit you into our Star Trek club, to share Dr. Who episodes with you and induct you into the world of anime and Lovecraftian horror.  Let us teach you magical spells from Harry Potter.  Your inhibitions will soon melt away and you’ll be free to indulge your inner child and continue that game of make-believe that so charmed you when you were very young.  We’ll never grow up, and we don’t want you to either.

You will be assimilated; resistance is futile.  There is no escape. And when you return to your stuffy nine-to-five world and your coworkers ask you why you are smiling, be secure in the knowledge that there are other worlds than these.

Slice and Dice

Brrr, the ancient floor furnace has gone kablooey and I’m relying on those oil-filled radiators that plug in.  Not quite as good, but they work.  Hopefully it’s just the thermostat, because no one will work on the damn thing, and I don’t have $10,000 to spare for a new furnace and ductwork.  Come on, Publishers Clearinghouse!

Today’s post is about cutting. No, not the kind you do to your wrists, or your enemies, but to your manuscript.  It’s all part of revision, the bugbear for so many writers.

How do you know what to cut?  You can start with the obvious: material that doesn’t belong.  Let’s say I wrote a story about a mad killer in the Batman universe, who strikes during thunderstorms, and Batman has to figure out how to catch him before any more innocent Gotham citizens are harmed.  And imagine I wrote a long section explaining atmospheric disturbances during thunderstorms, how lightning works, etc.  Would it belong in the story? Only if Batman needed it to find the killer.  Otherwise, it’s only a digression.  No matter how excellently the thunderstorm trivia is written, it shouldn’t be there.  Its only purpose is to move the plot forward and if it’s not doing that, it has to go.

A more elegantly written, literary work might have a bit more room for meandering, but in plot-driven commercial fiction there is little time for asides. No one cares. They only care whether Batman will find the guy in time to save the pretty heroine, or perhaps his beloved Alfred, who is knocking about Wayne Manor, unaware that the killer, posing as kitchen help, hid in the pantry during the ball and the thunderstorm is raging and he is now sneaking up on our poor, unsuspecting butler/father figure with a huge knife—EEP!

If I stopped that kind of suspense to tell you how lightning is formed and it had nothing to do with Alfred’s rescue, you would clout me with my own book and I wouldn’t blame you.

Words and phrases that are extraneous clutter your manuscript.   In William Brohaugh’s excellent Write Tight: How to Keep Your Prose Sharp, Focused and Concise, he reminds writers to watch for unnecessary adverbs. Look for phrases like pulled off (or off of, which is especially heinous), called out, dropped down, etc.  The verb is fine by itself; it doesn’t need the extra word, because we know what is happening.

He pulled a piece from the crusty loaf.

Alice called to the White Rabbit.

The knife dropped and the killer began to cry.

Most of these modifiers come from the way people speak. But you’re not going to write the way you speak, are you?  I confess, I’m very bad with this, and I must have cut thousands of extra adverbs, adjectives and prepositions from my book.  Since I’m cutting again to reduce word count, I’m sure I’ll find many more that I missed.

Another thing Brohaugh mentions is checklists in your descriptions.  I had trouble admitting that I did this one.  Here’s an example from the first draft of Rose’s Hostage, a scene where the captive Libby has been allowed upstairs to take a shower:

This bathroom was white, with a colorful floral shower curtain and matching window dressings, and green towels. White wicker accessories – a tissue holder, magazine rack (empty – didn’t anyone read around here?) and one of those tall toilet paper reserve containers that held several rolls – studded the room and the walls were decorated with faded flower prints. The overall effect was of a garden.  It was much nicer than the bathroom downstairs, with its silly ceramic fish and light-devouring blue walls.  She wondered who had done the decorating.  Obviously it hadn’t been updated in some time, but at least someone had tried to make this room a pleasant one.

And now in the fifth draft:

This bathroom was white and green with floral trim. The accessories were white wicker and framed botanical prints decorated the walls. It was much nicer than the bathroom downstairs.

Better, no? Obviously no one cares if the bathroom has a toilet roll holder; we all know what accessories are usually found in a bathroom, and it’s not necessary to list them.  Three sentences and only twenty-nine words.   I hope you can see it just as well.

If I described the bathroom too well, the reader would not have his/her own unique picture of it.  When I read The Lord of the Rings, I see the Shire in a very different way than someone else might.  It’s not that Tolkien’s descriptions are sparse, but that each person has his/her own filter and my vision of the bathroom or the Shire will be my own.  It will remain in my mind and I’ll revisit it each time I read the book.

Try a bit of cutting on your own work. I promise it won’t hurt.  Not much, anyway.  If you have any tidbits to share on this topic, please feel free to post in the comments.

I Could Tell You…

…but it would be more fun if I showed you.

Show vs. tell is one of the more frustrating aspects of writing for me. I struggled like hell to master it and I’m not even sure that now I have it right, so bear with me as I work it out with you.

Have you ever read a novel in which the author explains everything to you? Imagine something like this:

The Hulk moved toward Lisa.  He was very big and she shrank back.  His face distorted in a snarl as he batted aside the rapist.  The man flew into a park bench and was knocked unconscious. The Hulk touched Lisa’s face gently and disappeared into the night.

Okay, so it’s a superhero thing, but I’m trying to focus on the technique and not the deathless prose.  I hope Marvel Comics doesn’t come after me for using it, but it’s illustrative.  That passage tells you what happened, but it’s not very interesting, is it? In fact, it’s kind of sterile.  Plodding.  Wouldn’t this be better?

Lisa’s eyes were riveted on the rapist’s knife.  Her heart thumped in her throat, a thick lump cutting off her scream.  Her arms were limp noodles, her legs stone.  Leaves rustled behind the man and her gaze shifted as a massive form rose from the hedge. A bolt of shock shot through her.

The Hulk appeared, gargantuan muscles outlined in silver from the moon’s pale glow. He moved toward them, and she shrank back. The rapist’s lip curled but he didn’t turn.

The Hulk paused, looking at them.  His face distorted in a silent snarl, and a massive hand shot forward and batted the rapist aside like a bug.  The man’s body hit the nearby park bench with a loud crunch, and he was still.

Lisa held her breath. Every muscle in her body stayed locked. The Hulk’s fingers stretched toward her face and her eyes clamped shut.  She could hear him breathing , a steam engine with legs, and felt a slight pressure as he touched her face.  The tip of his finger slid gently across her cheek.  Then a thud of footsteps, shaking the ground under her feet, and she popped open her eyes just in time to see him loping off into the darkness.

“Thank you,” she whispered.  A shout from the street broke her paralysis and she fumbled for her cell phone and called 911.

Is that better? I think so.  I tried not to get too purple with it, but now you have a better sense of what Lisa is thinking and feeling when the rapist is holding a knife on her and the Hulk appears to save the day.  It takes more time to say it, but it’s more interesting.  At least I hope it is!

Telling instead of showing has its place; since the showing takes longer, a book written completely in this manner would be a thousand pages long.  Lisa’s story could continue thus until we get to the next important happening:

She dutifully filled out the police report. By the time she had finished giving her statement, exhaustion had overtaken her.  She called a cab, rode home in befuddled silence and fell into bed, not pausing to undress.  The merciful tranquilizer of sleep stole over her.

Here you can move Lisa quickly from the police station to her apartment without boring the crap out of your reader.  They won’t care about the details of the police report, her cab ride, etc. Your next chapter or scene will drive the plot, perhaps a conversation with her boss, the intrepid newspaper editor (“But J.P., I saw it! It’s real! I’m telling you, there’s a story out there and I mean to get it!”), or a sleuthing scene where she gets to the bottom of the Hulk’s mysterious appearance.

Showing brings your characters to life. It gives them a chance to do the things you want them to do, rather than sitting idly by while you tell your reader about it.  I’m still working on it.

For a great cinematic example of show don’t tell, see THX 1138, a 1971 science fiction film by George Lucas, featuring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance.  If you have any good examples or tips to share about this topic, please post them in the comments.

Kick It

I don’t have an agenda today; just some thoughts to share with you.

Today I sent a story to a magazine that gives submitting writers the first line. It can’t be altered in any way.  The story must spring from it.

I thought and thought. What to do with it? Was my idea trite? Would there be other submissions like it? I told myself to focus. Don’t worry about what others are doing.  How could I make it my own? Eventually I got in the groove and came up with something pretty neat. I hope they like it. I certainly enjoyed the process.

That’s the nature of a challenge. When life gives you something, whether difficult or not, you must own it.  You’re only accountable for your own response and following that, your actions, or inactions.

Many times we don’t try something because we’re afraid of the outcome. Writers write, but then don’t submit.  Artists abandon their work for personal reasons and then never go back. People eye each other across a crowded room, but never take the plunge and miss out on what could possibly be a galvanic connection, personal or professional, that could make their lives better.  Why do we do this? Because we’re afraid of humiliation? Or maybe, because we just don’t think we can do it?

I have a few challenges in my life right now, which are sorely testing me. I’m trying to look on them as opportunities, for some of them have the potential to enrich my life greatly. It’s the promise of a great payoff that keeps me plugging away, despite obstacles my secret Anxiety Demon tells me are insurmountable.  The uncertainty of working so hard for something that I want without knowing if I’m going to have it damn near kills me, especially when writing doesn’t go well. And some things are out of my control and in the hands of others.  But I have to trust that they will turn out all right.

That is my biggest challenge. I’m a worrywart, a pessimist.  I crave reassurance. I don’t know if all artists are this way.  I can only speak for myself.  I have to learn not to talk myself out of things, whether a story problem, a pile of work on my desk at the day job or the next query after a lovely Reply O’ Doom.  It’s just a matter of sitting down and calming myself and not thinking catastrophically or giving up and walking away from what I want just because a little uncertainty happens to creep in.

Some days are harder than others. Lately, it’s been tough to get back into that groove, but look what I accomplished with just one line.  There’s no telling what wonderful things may be just around the corner.

If you have a particular strategy you use to help yourself face personal and professional challenges, please share in the comments.

Is It the Real Thing, Or Just a Fantasy?

Ten points go to anyone who recognizes the line I paraphrased as a title. :)  Now on to business.

What defines writing?

The dictionary says this:

1. words written down: words or other symbols such as hieroglyphics written down as a means of communication
2. written material: written material, especially considered as the product of a writer’s skill
3. activity of creating books: the activity of creating written works, especially as a job

4. Same as handwriting (sense 2)


It’s that third definition that creates problems. What kind of writing constitutes creating? Or a job, for that matter? Does being unpublished count?

Most people say that if you have written a creative work or an article and had it published in a tangible medium (that is, a printed form on actual paper) then you can count yourself as a writer.  Others insist online publication counts.  With the advent of blogging and the shuttering of physical media such as newspapers and certain magazines which are now solely on the Internet (Cracked comes to mind), as well as content sites like Suite101, Associated Content and ezinearticles.com, writers have more opportunity than ever to put their work out there.

What about technical writing? Yes, that counts. It doesn’t have to be creative work; technical writers have to make complex material understandable. That takes a great deal of skill.  Homework? Well, maybe. The writing you do in college won’t probably ever see the light of day, but dissertations and theses can be published.  Anything you do will help you hone your skills.  Academic writing is very different from creative writing, which is different from technical writing which is different from blogging, but it’s all communication, the first definition.  They also fit the second because it’s your skills that enable you to put them down in the first place.

Regardless, if you’re generating content in written form and doing it with some regularity, you’re writing.  Writing is what makes you a writer. Talking about writing doesn’t make you a writer. Telling everyone about the book you’ve been researching for years doesn’t make you a writer.  Are you actually writing it? No? You can only take so many notes. Get busy.

Painting makes you a painter. Maybe you’re no Bob Ross or Michelangelo but if you paint, you’re a painter.  If you make sculptures, you’re a sculptor.  What people want to know when they ask if you’re a writer is if you’re getting paid for your work.  Pay makes you a professional writer in their eyes, and that makes you worthy of respect. You’re no longer an amateur; your writing has ceased to be a hobby and is now a job. The skeptical look you get goes away and people shake your hand and wish you luck with your writing career.

I’m still waiting for that moment.  Right now I hear things like these:

  • “Yeah? You published? Not yet? I hear it’s damn near impossible.” Gee, thanks for the encouragement.
  • “You should write [children’s books, vampire romances, etc].” No, I’ll write what I want to write. You’re not paying me to write vampire sop and writing for children is very different than writing for adults.
  • “You’re not going to quit your job for this, are you?” I get it. You’re concerned that I might borrow money from you.  Don’t worry.
  • “Don’t forget me when you’re rich and famous!” I alternately like and hate this one. It implies that I might be rich and famous someday, but the sarcasm is a buzzkill.  Also, thanks for the warning that you might try to hit me up if that actually happens.  I’ll be ready for you.
  • “If you’re not published, you’re not a real writer.” Bullnuts.  Only a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published while she was alive and she is regarded as a major American poet.  And yes, poetry is real writing.
  • “Ooh, I write too. Will you take a look at my story and tell me what you think?” Usually, but not always, asked by someone whose work is abysmal.  I hate looking at people’s manuscripts because I don’t want to live a rerun of a scene from Secret Window (“You stole my story!”) and because a lot of unpublished writers can’t take feedback.

If the writer who asked this last is seriously looking for beta readers, the request might be more formal. Make sure that if you want to help him/her that you have time to read and critique someone else’s work.  If your life is very full and it’s hard to find time to do your own work, this might not be possible. Try to be as polite as you can if you have to turn someone down for any reason.

Things not to say:

  • “I’m going to buy everybody lunch if my book gets published!” Too late; I already said it.  Now that the Universe has heard it, I’ll have to do it.
  • Anything snobby that negates the person you are talking to, whether it’s criticizing his/her work or showing off your literary knowledge.  Being an elitist jerk doesn’t make you a better writer. It just makes you a jerk.
  • “Hello?” DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE WHEN YOU’RE WORKING. You’re a writer; get back to work!
  • “My work is perfect. It doesn’t need editing.” You are delusional.  Go buy a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King.  I promise not to laugh when you come cringing back crying “My first draft isn’t perrrrrrfect…”  Mine aren’t either.  Welcome to the wonderful world of Revision!

Don’t be afraid to try other types of writing or even writing exercises, like those put together by Shery Ma Belle Arrieta-Russ.  Find her at WritingBliss.com.  She offers free and paid email courses and WriteSparks, a neat little prompt generator.  I did the Daily Writes course. Not only was it fun, I got two stories out of it and it kept me going between projects before I started Rose’s Hostage.

What crazy things have people said to you about pursuing your creative passion? Share in the comments.

I’s Talkin’

Poaste number ten! Wow, that went quickly.  When I started this blog, I worried that I would have nothing to say.  Of course, anyone who knows me knows that’s not entirely true!

At a loose end, I was paging through some old school papers and found a hilarious English assignment that apparently was about colloquialisms, the countrified version in particular, although I can’t for the life of me remember exactly what the assignment was.  About ten years ago (boy, time flies), I dated Farm Boy, who lived in a rather rural area round these parts.  Their family was close-knit, practical, loyal and hilarious.  I learned a lot of new words from them.

There was you’uns, as in “You’uns come over here for Christmas.”  I had NEVER heard that before I met Farm Boy.  I reckon is another one, but I hear that from my dad, who hails from Texas and says rinch for rinse and warsh for wash, as well as light bub for light bulb.  Most of these seem to be a matter of pronunciation and not words in themselves, as do others like cain’t, aigs (eggs), and idear (idea).

Holler is another one, as in “You’uns go down in that holler and get a deer.” Crick is a good one, as in “Get them cows across the crick.” That’s another one my dad says. Other assorted phrases include “Git’er done,” “Rode hard ‘n put up wet,” “I gotta pee like a rushin’ race horse,” “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age!” and, said in response to someone’s glee that the speaker didn’t share, “If I had a feather up my ass, we’d both be tickled.”

Entertaining, no?  A bit much for fiction, however.  I’ll explain why.

The use of colloquialism and dialect in writing adds color and character to dialogue, but a writer must be careful not to go too far.  Probably the most famous (and the most parodied) is the slave dialect in Gone with the Wind.  Mitchell’s dialogue may or may not be authentic, but it’s certainly hard to read.  Critics have said that her portrayal of slaves is racist.  All I know is reading all those gwines and Ahs drove me bats the first time.

Pages of phonetically-spelled dialogue require the reader to concentrate and can thrust him/her out of the story.  Dialect should never be obvious; when you’re striving to capture a character’s voice, it needs to reflect that character, not exaggerate or parody him, unless you’re trying to poke fun.  Exaggeration is irritating, stereotypical and even insulting.

Mark Twain was well known for using dialect; he could be heavy-handed with it at times.  For example, in Chapter 14 of Huck Finn, Huck is educating Jim:
I read considerable to Jim about kings and dukes and earls and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister; and Jim’s eyes bugged out, and he was interested. He says:

“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Soller-mun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”

The first paragraph, Huck’s first person narrative, is relatively free of hyperbole, but in the style of the day (and still perhaps in Margaret Mitchell’s time), the slave dialogue is rendered in such a way as to emphasize the difference between the two.  It’s too much and has also been vilified as racist.  But dialogue aside, Huck Finn was a landmark work in that it portrayed the black character, Jim, as a real person and not a caricature, albeit seen through Huck’s (a young white boy) innocent eyes.

Twain did not use a great deal of dialect in his book Roughing It, but the language is colorful.  He wrote character-revealing dialogue which was almost as good as a tape recorder.  Take an exchange with the ruffian Arkansas in the protagonists’ mining company:

“Mr. Arkansas, if you’d only let me –“

“Who’s a-henderin’ you?  Don’t you insinuate nothin’ agin me! – don’t you do it.  Don’t you come in here bullyin’ around, and cussin’ and goin’ on like a lunatic – don’t you do it.  ‘Coz I won’t stand it.  If fight’s what you want, out with it!  I’m your man!  Out with it!”

It walks the line, but Arkansas is still perfectly understandable and his voice is clear in the reader’s head.

When writing dialogue using colloquialisms or dialect, you still need to follow the rules.  What many writers don’t realize is that it needn’t be written the way people actually talk.  This is never truer than for dialect; the idea is to suggest a regional or cultural flavor in speech.  If your character has a Southern accent, for example, you don’t have to write this:

“Well hay-ell, Honey, you-awl don’ need ta put yaselves ahwt on mah account.”

when this will do:

“Well hell Honey, y’all don’t need to put yourselves out on my account.”

Y’all is familiar Southern speak. It lets us know a bit about the speaker’s regional origins.  He could be from Georgia or Texas or somewhere else below the Mason-Dixon Line, but we know it as soon as he opens his mouth.  Or if you’re writing a mystery, his right-on-the-money phony accent completes his disguise and conceals his sinister intent.  If you combine the cultural elements with other traits consistent with the character’s personality and upbringing, you can achieve your local color without straining your readers’ eyes.

Stay away from stereotypes.  Not all Southerners are polite and not all New Yorkers talk fast or broaden their A’s. Stereotypes cheapen your characters; they should have traits that are uniquely theirs, including their speech.  In Stephen King’s latest novel Under the Dome, the power-mad second councilman refers to people he doesn’t like or respect as “cottonpickers.”  It’s a tag that is peculiar to him and tells a lot about his personality.  (By the way, read that book.  SK is in fine form and I couldn’t put it down.  I hope I learn how to build tension that well someday.)

Read as much as you can. Pay attention to other writers’ dialogue.  See what works for you and what doesn’t.  If you’ve noticed a stellar example of dialect and colloquialism in fiction, or a terrible one, tell us about it in the comments.


Ah, the New Year.  A time to start over, to make promises to ourselves we may or may not keep, to beat our heads against the blank page of a new project.

I like to call this state of being before the outline is completed “stuckityness.”  (So it’s not really a word; shut up, Spellchecker.  I meant to type that.)  I’m always stuck at first; it takes time to get into the mindset of a new world and wrap my thoughts in the fog of a new set of characters.  In order to do that, I have to eliminate distractions.  You know what they are.

  • The TV.  When I’m working it’s usually on but muted, because for some reason I can concentrate better if I have something to ignore.  I’m sure that comes from multitasking at work.  Receptionists and admins rarely get the luxury of closing an office door.

Usually I listen to music while writing, but since the TV is on all the time when I’m home, things just don’t seem quite right when it’s not.  But I park it on a rerun-heavy channel like Nick at Nite, so I don’t get distracted by a hot guy or exciting reenactment.

  • The Internet.  This is so hard for me; I love the Internet. I’m on it all the time.  If I can’t get online, I freak as though I’ve lost a limb.  God forbid I can’t get my email, read Cracked.com or Consumerist, or message my peeps. The Web brings its own set of distractions, especially chat and videos. One feeds off the other and there goes three hours or more.

I set a limit of 45 minutes to an hour to surf and check all the sites I regularly haunt.  Then I must work for at least two hours before I can go back online, even to look something up.  When it’s going well, I often work longer.  Chat is limited to a quick greeting and a check back at the end of the session.

  • The phone.  It never fails; as soon as I sit down with my laptop and headphones, someone calls me. I just have to remember to bring the cordless handset with me in case a call is a welcome respite.  I hate getting up once I’m settled.

I can and do ignore the phone, so I tell people to leave a message. I usually check it and call back the first time I get up to take a break.

  • Neighbors or solicitors banging on the door.  I can’t do much about the former, but I dealt with the latter by posting a sign that says “NO SOLICITORS; NO PROSELYTIZING; NO LEAFLETS; NOW GET OFF MY LAWN.”

A guy knocked earlier this fall and said “I know you mean it on your sign, but I was wondering if I could pick up your brush pile for $5.”  Hell, yes.  That’s a great deal.  Just keep the candy, magazines and preaching far, far away.  I don’t need any of that.

Discipline is the watchword.  Without it, no book would ever be written because it takes time and effort to do it. If you want to write, you have to realize that it is work and you are the boss.  No one will make you sit your tookus in the chair and do it except you.

What tactics do you use to eliminate distractions? Tell us about it in the comments.