Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dialect Dilemma (or I dinna ken fit tae dee)

One of the things I learned when I lived in Scotland was the incredible differences in regional dialects. Just as a New Yorker sounds different than a Californian, a Glaswegian sounds different than an Aberdonian. Really different.

I lived in Peterhead, a fishing town that sticks out into the North Sea, and they speak in a Doric dialect that was unintelligible the first time I heard it. If they didn't want you to understand what they were saying, it was no problem. Combine that with the fact that I worked mainly with youth and teens and you can only imagine some of the texts I used to receive. Fit like? Far r u? (How are you doing? Where are you?)

Keeping that in mind, I knew when I set my novel in Scotland dialect would be a bit sticky. I've heard a lot of writing advice that suggests you don't do it, for several good reasons. But I ignored that advice and had to figure it out for myself. I lived there, I thought, I can handle this. (This is probably when more experienced writers starting laughing.)

The result?

Well, after wrestling with several rounds, here are two reasons why you won't find my novel covered in dinnas, verras, havenas, and the like:

1. It's a mess to read. My readership (hopefully, one day) will mostly be American. I don't want my reader constantly having to Google my dialogue or, worse, hitting a frustration level where they give up on the book altogether. This doesn't mean that my characters need to sound American. There are phrases and words and inflections that can show dialect yet be readable enough to keep the story rolling.

2. It's hard not to make everyone sound like a caricature. Having lived there, I'm sensitive to the fact that regional differences are big, and nailing nuances within the dialects is quite difficult. Every Scottish person does not sound like he or she popped out of the cast of Braveheart. 

What I'm doing now is dropping a few references in the text that hints at the way something sounds, as well as paying attention to speech patterns. I've learned I don't have to phonetically spell every bit of dialect to give the audience a strong sense that a character is a different nationality. Inflection and syntax go a long way.

Anyone else out there work with dialect? How to do you handle it in your characters?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Herding Characters To and Fro

Straight out of college I worked as a staff editor for a small publishing company. We put out a bimonthly women's magazine, which usually had a short fiction feature. One thing I remember being a major pain in editing those stories was how an author (who was often just dipping her toe into fiction writing) felt the need to explain everything her character was doing.

For example:
Mary got up from the breakfast table, opened the front door, and walked down her sidewalk, admiring the new pansies. She reached her mailbox and opened it but found nothing but bills. She walked back up the sidewalk to her house....

Unless Mary met the love of her life on that sidewalk or encountered a dead body, it's not necessary to put all that information in there. Yes, there is a certain amount of setting that is needed to ground a character, but sometimes less is more. Often a few brushstrokes are all that is needed to convey an action. 

Example: Mary checked her mail. Bills, again.

I'm especially sensitive to this at the moment because I'm eyeball deep in editing my novel. To my horror, I'm guilty as well. For example, consider this passage where I'm trying to describe my main character entering an old library:

A plain wooden door with no handle was open. Ana walked through it into a small vestibule that had another glass door that she pushed through.

Frankly, that's pretty clunky and doesn't make a lot of sense. Trying again:

Ana pushed open the wooden door and found herself in a small vestibule.

Not terrific but certainly easier to read. The reason the first take was so convoluted was because I had an actual library in my head and envisioned how Ana would walk into it. But I need to be careful that I'm not insulting my reader. They know that to get into a room you have to walk into it. I don't have to spell that out for them every single time. 

I'm curious if other writers run into this also? What are your fixes?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Stuck in a Story? Take a Walk

Nashville is a not a city that is friendly to walkers. In my opinion, if I have to drive somewhere to walk, it somewhat negates the entire point.

But when the characters in my novel go a bit stale, or I'm desperate to be reminded of humanity, I have to walk. Why? Because out there is where all the interesting bits of life happen. I like to imagine a person's backstory based on the little clues that give away points about their personalities. Take the following characters:

  • The neighbor who walked her cat on a leash and always wore a sundress. This was when I lived on the northeast coast of Scotland, mind you. There I was, bundled in my Land's End Squall Parka, and there she was, in a straw hat and strappy dress. How did she do it? Why the leash? How did she get the cat to cooperate? (I'd actually really like to know the answer to the last question.)
  • The man who constantly hung laundry. Every day, without fail, he put out his washing and then took it back down again in the afternoon. He was single. How did he generate that much laundry. Did he take in washing for other people? Was he running a business?
  • The woman who walked with a shower radio. You know the kind with the great big hook? She walked with it held up to her ear. Did she get tired of holding it up? Is that all she can afford?
  • The man on the tricycle with the pennant flag. I think every city I've ever lived in has one of these fellas. How long has he had the tricycle? What is in his bicycle basket?
  • The woman who sits in shrubbery. There's a woman near my workplace who wanders the sidewalks every day. Sometimes as I drive by she will startle me by sitting in the middle of some business' shrubbery. Right there on the mulch. What is she thinking about? Who is she waiting for?
  • The man who jogs in a chicken suit. Yep, in a full blown chicken suit. He lives in my parent's hometown in Oklahoma. Maybe living so close to the Panhandle got to him; I don't know. But I want to know why? It can't be comfortable.
These people are tipping points, little glimpses into the "what if" that can start a story or revive one. There's a rich, rich pageant out there that feeds the written page. What do you do when you're stuck in a story?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Often Do You Write?

A nutritional counselor once told me to never go more than two days without exercising. She emphasized that it didn't have to be the full-on workout gear/water bottle/appointment at the gym type of exercise. Even 10 minutes of walking around my block was a good start. Some days I could go full out, other days it might be just a little, but above all, frequency was key.

It's a rule I'm trying to implement in my writing. Because I write so much at my day job, it's easy for me to talk myself into thinking that I've "written" for the day and kept my craft sharp.

It's a dangerous assumption. If I leave my novel for too long, subplots get forgotten, I lose track of clues and emotional arcs, and my poor characters hang frozen in time. I once left my heroine stuck halfway through a window when I went on vacation. When I revisited the scene, I had no idea why I put her there. I got her out, but trying to recapture the initial intensity of the scene (as well as the why?) was tough.

It's as hard as trying to get back into some kind of exercise after you've taken time off. Muscles are sore. Motivation is at rock bottom. The entire process is painful.

We all need a break now and then, but I'm trying not to let more than two days go by without digging into the manuscript. So far, it has really helped keep things rolling along. Now, as for the exercise...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

If Snow White Wrote a To Do List (or Why Your Character Needs One, Too)

When I'm stuck in my writing, when a character has drifted into the doldrums, and when I'm not sure of anyone's motivation anymore, I find making my characters write a "To Do" list is a great prompt to get things back on track. Not only does it give me a course for what needs to happen next with the plot, it can also help flesh out the character as a whole. The fact that my heroine is out of tea bags might not need to be in the final novel, but I now have a greater sense of her character just by peeking at her list and seeing her preferences (she likes Tetley, for the record).

To Do lists are helpful for villains and secondary characters that have a tendency to become cliched or lifeless. They can reveal their motivations and ensure everyone in the manuscript has an agenda.

For example, let's look at the simple story of Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.

Snow White's To Do List:
-Laundry detergent
-Facial moisturizer
-Ensure I stay hidden from evil stepmom
-Continue kindness to strangers on my doorstep

Evil Queen's To Do List:
-Research poisons (apples viable option? check)
-Brush up on disguises
-Buy new mirror

Handsome Prince's To Do List:
-Give the horse a run
-Look for beautiful maidens to rescue (forest might be good? check)

I'll save you from each Dwarf's individual list, but you get the idea. Character To Do lists are especially helpful if I've just ended a big scene, or I've reached that dreaded spot where I have no idea where to go next. Just a little tip to help keep things rolling along. Happy writing!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why I Broke Up with My First Three Novels

Novel 1:
This one was more of a junior high level relationship. I never thought I could write something novel length, but my younger brother challenged me to Nanowrimo. I wrote 50K words. There may have been a plot in there; I don't remember. But this was where I fell in love with writing and got the courage to do it.

Novel 2:
This was a bit more serious. I was reading a lot of Maeve Binchy at the time, and her style of storytelling was in my head. I started writing about a little Scottish town and the lives of the people there, loosely based on my experiences living in Scotland. Halfway through the manuscript a dead body showed up, which presented a real problem. I didn't set out to write a mystery, so the first half of the book was a little weird.

I attended Killer Nashville and learned a ton, such as the fact that if you are going to kill someone in your book, sooner rather than later is probably good. I also got to know some fabulous women writers, such as Tasha Alexander and Bente Gallagher (pen name: Jennie Bentley). They were (and are) huge encouragers.

Novel 3:
This was a very grown up, serious relationship. I completely rewrote Novel 2, so I'm counting it as Novel 3. I spent a couple of years editing it, but I couldn't seem to make it work. The answer to our future together occurred at the Anhinga Writer's Conference last summer.

I sat in a class led by one of my favorite author's, Rhys Bowen. She had us fill out a worksheet that outlined some basics about character, motivation, etc. Right there was when I discovered why Novel 3 and I weren't working out—my main character didn't want to solve a mystery. She had no motivation to and, worse, no reason to either. There were no good reasons for her to find out who did it. The police were more than adequate.

This was reconfirmed when I sat down with a literary agent and outlined my pitch. Her take on the whole thing: "Jack up the premise." We also discussed POV's and the fact that I probably needed to stick with just one. That would mean chopping half the book and pretty much rewriting the other half.

I'll admit I returned to my hotel room that night a bit sick at heart. I'd put so much time into Novel 3, but it was clearly time to let go. I'd learned a lot. I got out a notebook that night and started writing a kind of journal for a new mystery—just some backstory—but it was a start.

Novel 4:
We're about five months into our relationship now, and I'm crossing my fingers that this will be the One.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fixing Characters Who Cry (AKA The Tough Love Edit)

I'm about two-thirds of the way through my first big editing round on the first draft of my novel. At this point, I'm only interested in the bigger picture of if the plot holds together. Despite this plot-centric focus, though, something keeps cropping up that I can't ignore.

My main character cries. A lot.

Granted, if I were in her shoes I would cry a lot, too. It is a mystery I'm writing. She doesn't have an easy row to hoe, so to speak. But good grief, this woman is a waterworks. I went back and did a Find in Word on how many times the word "cry" appeared in the entire manuscript. I'm not going to confess to the number here.

The thing is, I would never describe my character as a weepy kind of gal. I consider her pretty resilient, all things considered. That, however, is the problem. Her resiliency still exists in my head; it never quite made it to the page. So while I'm going ahead with the plot edits, I'm flagging the script every time this gal falls apart. Sometimes I'll let her, but most of the time she's just going to have to take a deep breath and get on with it.

This little exercise, though, has heightened my awareness of other annoying character traits. My police sergeant sighs quite a bit. I meant to show that he was tired or frustrated, but it's coming off as exasperated. Flag, flag, flag, cut, cut, cut.

I also have several characters tapping pens, drumming fingers, and thumping a staccato beat on every piece of furniture that exists. That particular action was meant to convey that a character was thinking, mulling over, or sorting through clues mentally. There are better ways to show that, so I held a mini lottery. Only one character gets to drum his fingers against a desk, and he only gets to do it once.

I'm now on hyper alert for excessive shrugging, smiling, eyebrow raising, and chewing. We won't go into how many cups of tea are made. It is set in Scotland, after all, and it's cold there. My characters need their tea.

In the end, I hope this will make for a much stronger manuscript. Otherwise, you'll probably find me over here crying, sighing, and tapping my pen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

7 Things a Marketing Agency Taught Me About Writing Fiction

I used to draw a hard line in the sand between my day job – a copywriter for a marketing agency – and my fiction writing. I don’t know why. They both require creativity, focus, and craft, but it took me a while to see that they really do complement one another. Here’s a list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Don't wait for inspiration. I show up; I write. Period. Sometimes I feel like it, and sometimes I don’t. I can’t imagine telling my bosses or a client that the muse didn’t visit me that day. Whether the creative spirit is hovering over my keyboard or not, my job is to show up and do the best I can do. Frankly, this mindset was the only way I managed to finish the first draft of my mystery.

2. Sometimes the best thing to happen to your writing is to have someone say they don’t like it. It’s frustrating, but you learn to kill your darlings quickly in the marketing world. If it doesn’t hit, it doesn’t hit. Trying to figure out what went wrong and then doing redoing it can make for a much stronger end result.

3. Don’t take it personally. This is a tough one, because my words are an extension of my talent and myself, but a critique is not about my talent and it’s not a reflection on my personality. It’s feedback about words. I have a whole lot more. They can be changed, usually for the better.

4. Make every word count. People don’t read marketing materials – they scan them (if you are lucky). If I’m writing copy for a tradeshow booth, I have three seconds to catch an attendee’s eye. For a banner ad it might be even less. Every word I write has to pull its weight, and the same goes for the novel. In my mystery, I had a lovely chapter where the heroine and her romantic interest go on a date. It was quirky, human, and I was happy with it. But nothing happened. It didn’t advance the plot, and I’m not writing a romance. So out it goes.

5. Don’t miss deadlines. Just don’t.

6. Writing and editing are not the same craft; both require work. This was a revelation to me. When writing, I have to turn off the Inner Editor, or I get incredibly blocked and nothing gets on the page. I look for different ways to play with words and images, characters and storylines. Yet when I’m editing, it’s the opposite. I hack and slash until a body count of listless scenes, useless characters, and terrifying plot holes litter the landscape. There’s a reason people edit with a red pen.

7. Never assume. In our agency, I’m usually the last line of defense before something is published on the Web or hits the printer. That alone strikes enough fear into me to be detail-oriented. It pays off in other writing as well. Never assume someone will “clean up” your writing if you know it isn’t good enough. Put the best you possibly can out there.

So what about you? What in your day job has helped you in your creative pursuits?