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On Composition: Writing for Children

13 Jun

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When E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s WebStuart Little, and a host of books for adults, was asked if he had a hard time shifting between writing for adults and writing for children, he said,

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

I fully agree. I’m partial to this method as an author of educational fiction. That’s what I like to call my genre, anyway. It’s made up stories with real-life academics. My goal is to sneak some language, some science, some activism, some human decency into an adventure that, to a child, is just fun.

Not every children’s author aims for the educational, but most children’s books come out of the printing press with a moral or a lesson anyway. Books teach children even when they don’t set out to dictate a fully realized lesson–academic or otherwise–because children soak up EVERYTHING.

It is because books create teachable moments that children’s authors, whether aiming to create a book worthy of lesson plans or not, write UP to children. Why not? What’s the purpose in a book that doesn’t challenge its reader in some way?

Don’t say enjoyment, because books that write up and challenge are enjoyable, too. Frankly, books that don’t stretch the mind get boring. Kids are constantly searching for more. More. More. More.

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So, when writing up to a child, are we missing our target audience? Are we mislabeling our age group? Is it bad that a middle-grade fiction book hangs at the upper end of the age range in difficultly while the story and characters are more enticing to the younger end? Is this bad marketing? Do we need to sell our books to the ages who already use the vocabulary it contains? Do we say, “Well, if that book is too easy, they should buy a book for an older child,” and continue on our way?

No to all of those! Because aging up in books in order to get the desired complexity often results in children reading age-inappropriate story-lines simply so they aren’t bored with its delivery. Writing up to children means delivering appropriate challenges.

And to that I say: why wouldn’t you want to teach that eight-year-old something new within an appropriate and amusing context? Make them ask their parents for a definition.  Make them open a dictionary! Make them revisit first grade methods of sounding it out. Make them say the word wrong a few times before someone hears them and corrects them.

How many times have you heard someone mispronounce a complex word? They didn’t say it wrong because they’re unintelligent. They said it oddly because they learned it from READING! Thank a book that challenged that person somewhere along the way!

So go ahead and put that tough word in your kid’s book. Challenge them academically (whether your book is academic or not) by trusting them with a sturdy vocabulary, honest delivery, and creative contexts. They will accept all of it.

Pro-Tip: Censorship

21 Sep

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I’m all for the whole “time and place” argument against foul language, inappropriate content, and professional/academic versus casual approaches. It’s valid. There are certain things you’re just not going to say to your boss or professor or child.

HOWEVER, these concerns are often hindrances to a first draft. They’re often hindrances to any draft.

Because we are forced to fit our writing into scenarios that are often beyond our control–workplace style guides, teachers’ requests, audience’s age, etc.–the concern about how much of ourselves we let shine in a piece is often at the forefront of a writer’s process. And, just as often, we tone ourselves down to fit into those expectations.

I’m not here to tell writers to break rules that could break a career or a grade (like if you’re writing for children, or a business presentation, or a strict teacher). Part of life is fitting into those boxes, however annoying.

But if you are trying to make waves, start splashing. Write for yourself first, in exactly the way you want, often. Write as if no one is going to see it and as if those who might see it won’t judge. Worry about audience perception during the beta-reader/revision phase. If you hold off from the start, you’ll never know how your true message is received. Push the notion of acceptability. Embarrass yourself with your truthfulness and boldness.

Arthur Miller said, “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He has to be endangered by it. His own attitudes have to be tested in it. The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”

He’s right. All of the fiction and poetry that has ever been deemed a classic is called such because it pushed the boundaries of its time and told truths people weren’t ready to hear. Some of this work has been banned in libraries and schools. What an honor. (This is not sarcasm.)

Whether journaling for personal gain or writing fiction for a crowd, push the limits. Push YOUR limits. Say what you need to say without concern for what your grandma might think, what Amazon reviewers might comment, what assumptions strangers might make about you personally–they DO NOT KNOW YOU.

While there IS a time and a place for certain approaches, art tends to ignore the schedule.

Pro-Tip: What Makes Strong Writing?

10 Mar

Across all genres and purposes, writers want to know the one thing they can do in order to ensure readers consider their writing “good writing.”

My first piece of advice is to get rid of the notion of “good writing.” Pitting yourself against other writers in order to determine if your creative vision is “good” will get you nowhere. Writing, even in the academic and professional fields where creativity might sometimes be limited by style sheets and strict requirements, is a deeply personal endeavor. It’s not just the final product that author’s judge, but their journey to get that product. Trying to put worth on an experience is like saying your dream vacation is only worth as much as the airfare costs. It discounts everything you get out of travel on an intellectual, spiritual, and physical level. Writing a text is a trip–maybe not always a vacation–but a trip nonetheless.

So, why would you try to qualify your path against someone else? And why would you settle on the achievement of “good writing” when that’s based on how similar your process and product is to someone else you consider “good?” Isn’t that just good mimicry? You want to be “good,” or rather strong, at what YOU do and how YOU do it.

Strive, instead, for strong writing, writing that holds it’s own regardless of how similar (or not) it is to the work of others you admire. Yes, we first learn by mimicking, in speech as babies, and as authors. But, at some point, you start to sound like YOU, and if you go around trying to decide if your writing, and therefore if YOU, are good enough, you’re likely to have moments of doubt. You might feel like you don’t measure up, like an imposter, like someone who isn’t REALLY an author because you haven’t done x, y, or z thing that some other person who uses the title of author has done.

Strong writing is original, written with pride (but not necessarily confidence because you can be proud of your effort and still worried about its outcome. Confidence takes time), and organizationally sound. Above all of the basic prescriptive grammar and mechanics rules, the tenets that say writing SHOULD be done a certain way, is organization. If you’ve got a solid structure that readers can follow, if it’s logically arranged, if it’s thoroughly explained and balances detail without crossing into the condescending, then everything else you do after that will fall into place. Proper grammar and following the rules (which you can purposefully break once you know them) is only useful if your thoughts are linked together in a coherent way. Every sentence could be perfectly constructed according to the textbook way to use punctuation marks, point of view, and tense, but a text still won’t make sense if the overall structure doesn’t carry your thoughts clearly.

What I’m getting at is this: You want strong writing, not “good” writing because strong writing is not a matter of opinion. A text either makes sense or it doesn’t. A text is either organized or frenetic. (Don’t confuse the organized or frenetic nature of a text with the same qualities of a character. Even pieces with chaotic characters are still organized as a whole, although let’s not get into the unreliable narrator discussion. It’s often an exception). “Good” writing will be different to every author and reader. Stop comparing yourself to other authors, and start holding your writing up to your past work. Are you improving?

Pro-Tip: Drafting-Behind the Scenes

8 Dec

Hello, all!

I realize this website has become quite self-serving. I haven’t written a pro-tip in a while, but I’ve advertised the life out of my book.

Oh, well. Here comes some more–a pro-tip/advertisement hybrid.

I recently had two of my poems published by Life In 10 Minutes. The first was a characterization exercise for Acephalous. The second was a true-to-life musing about the holiday season.

For my characterization planning, I wrote from the point of view of Atlas to better get into his head. Even when characterization exercises don’t make it into the book directly, familiarizing myself with my characters on that level allows me to write about them as if they are each a real person. I highly recommend it.

There’s no right way to do this. For me, these things usually come in fits and starts in the middle of the night. The MEMO section of my cellphone is awash in brooding prose that has no bearing on my emotional state but that of my characters.

I know other writers who carry around a journal everywhere they go, just in case. That’s a bit much for me. No girl needs anything extra added to the weight of her purse. There’s enough in there already!

However, I am drowning in post-it notes. Someone out there, please invent a post-it note binder or portfolio so I can store these things with some logic.

Regardless of how you might choose to complete your characterization projects, I recommend that you do it somehow, sometime, before you write the final revision of a text. Acephalous is a different book from the version people test read, and it’s a good thing it is.

If your dialogue makes you outwardly cringe, try a character profile sheet or writing a poem from his or her point of view. It works.

 

Pro-tip: Writer’s Block

7 Oct

I’ll use myself as an example today. I sat here for a good 10 minutes trying to come up with a pro-tip for you guys about grammar or the publishing process–something useful. But, I just didn’t want to write about any of those things. Between past articles and teaching composition classes 4 days a week, I feel like I’ve said it all. So, instead of forcing myself to say what I thought YOU would want to hear–advice that caters to a very specific issue or topic–I said, “Screw it. I’ll say what I want to say,” and tackle a broader concept.

My first piece of advice on writer’s block is to stop trying to say what you think the audience wants to hear, and just do you. Get YOUR thoughts out first, whatever they are. Forcing your writing to fit others’ expectations rather than your own does no favor to the audience. It will sound forced, and they will notice. Plus, it doesn’t matter one bit if  your first, second, third draft is worthy of its audience. Whose is? Hemingway himself knew that first drafts are shit. His words, not mine.

So, don’t you think that makes a first draft a great time to experiment with your thoughts? Address audience needs later on when you’re revising. It will do no good to cater to the audience in those first few versions that no one will see anyway. That’s your time to decide what the heck you’re trying to say in the first place before shaping it to fit their expectations.

Once you get around to revising the more permanent versions, that’s when you have to ask yourself if you’ve followed through on all of the expectations you set up in your introduction. That’s when you consider what the audience already knows and what they still might need a little background or description to figure out. That’s when you assess your word choices and decide if your vocabulary meets the level/age of the audience, if your approach matches the goal of your text for that audience, if the tone matches the nature of the piece.

Second, don’t stop before you start! Many people are under the impression that if the first line, first page of a text isn’t catchy, then there’s no point in continuing. And, while an interesting hook is important, its existence shouldn’t be the reason you do or do not continue writing the piece. Writing and revising are recursive processes. This means that it’s never totally done. You will always go back and look at something you’ve already done and scrutinize it. It’s exhausting, but wonderful. This means what you write, no matter how attached to it you feel, is not set in stone. Write that crappy introduction and keep going! Go back to it when you’re done with the draft. Sometimes, it’s easier to write a snappy intro once the whole story or essay is finished. At that point, you know what you have to draw from, what’s upcoming, what you can allude to in the first few sentences.

Third, shut off the teacher’s voice nagging in the back of your mind. Even if that voice is your own. If the rules you’ve been taught about what you can and can’t do when you write don’t help guide your process, if they stall you out instead, ignore them (at least until you revise–some situations, like work and academics, do legitimately require a rigid standard of delivery and shouldn’t be ignored).

In writing, especially creative writing, there are very few rules that are law. Most are just stylistic guidelines based on a prescribed method of academic or traditional writing. This is called Standard Written American English. It’s the prescriptive norm of how “they” say English SHOULD BE used, including both grammar and usage. Sometimes those standards don’t allow us to convey the creativity or naturalness of speech we’d like. When writers take guidelines as law, they often catch themselves in a rigid process that can’t conform to the pliable, recursive nature of a text. Embrace the descriptive use of language. This is the way English is ACTUALLY used in every day speech: slang, colloquialisms, and regional/cultural dialects included. Doing so will help create realistic, relatable characters, natural settings, conversational dialogue, and a personable approach that engages the reader. Even in formal writing, this can be achieved by staying true to your authorial voice rather than trying to force it into the voice you think the reader is waiting to hear.

Most importantly, don’t blame the inability to sit down and write something on “the muse” not showing up. Writing is work. Whether your muse has shown up or not, you still have to in order to get something done. It’s not always an inspired, fevered gutting of the author. Sometimes, it’s just that thing you’ve got to get done today. Writer’s block is usually always rooted in some sort of anxiety: Can I do this correctly? Am I breaking the rules? What if it’s crap? No one wants to read this. I’m boring and there’s nothing original left in the world. How am I going to do this by the deadline? I’m afraid to say this. What if people think the main character is me?

Sound familiar? I get it. But who cares if it’s uninspired? You’ll get to fix it tomorrow.

For more reading on writer’s block and methods to move past it, read Mike Rose’s fantastic, albeit lengthy, Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block.

 

Pro-Tip: YOU! Second Person POV

21 Jul

It’s been a long time since I posted a new Pro-Tip, so I thought I’d jump at the chance while there’s a lull in my schedule (read: my printer is SO slow).

Second Person Point of View is the least commonly utilized POV for fiction, and the hardest to use well. Second person POV is the “you” form of narrating or discussion. This POV places all of the actions of a text on the reader, as if he or she is the one doing something. This method is useful for creating suspense in text, as well as to discuss the “general you” of human-kind. It’s also a helpful tool in marketing and how-to writing, like a lot of my advice on this website. In addition, second person also effects some suspension of disbelief because it requires the readers to pause their individual worldviews and personalities and inhabit the mannerisms, emotions, actions, and context of the text’s “you.” For advertising especially, it entreats the reader to say, “Yeah, I DO need to go buy this/do that.”

Fiction Ex: You pull up to the curb and cut the engine, noticing there's already a 
light on inside. You know you left the house dark when you went out hours ago. The 
sight is alarming. Your hairs raise. As you approach the door and extend your key, 
each step brings you closer to confirming your worry. The door is ajar. You can hear
your heart thumping in your ears, a symptom of the fight or flight response. 
Responding with the former, you kick the door wide and enter, shouting, "I'm calling
the police." 

Advertising Ex: You can't miss this sale. Find all the great styles you'll need for
that beach vacation. Come shop TODAY!

Notice in the examples that the narrator doesn’t draw any attention to himself. This differs from a first person, “I,” point of view and from a third person point of view where, though the narrator doesn’t interject his own worldview, the narrator also doesn’t discuss the reader.

Sometimes first and third person narrators will occasionally talk directly to the reader. It’s a unique method of storytelling similar to breaking the third wall in film. Whether the primary POV is first or third person, a narrator makes personal interjections directed at the reader. This isn’t an easy voice to pull off, and I generally allow the reader to feel as much a part or observer of the text as he or she desires depending on their own levels of empathy, introjection, and interest in suspending reality. However, I won’t be the one to say, “Never do it!” Talking directly to the reader lends a certain casual feeling to a story, and can be very inviting to a reader because it asks the reader to join the conversation or play a role in the events. Read the example below to see the difference in tone provided by talking to the reader while using first person POV. Notice also that the first example is in present tense and this example is in past tense. I did this to display that tense choice does not exclude any POV options.

Ex: I pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. I noticed there was already a light 
on inside.  

You know, I'm pretty forgetful, but I'd bet you $50 I hadn't forgotten to turn it 
off.

I'm sure I left the house dark when I went out hours before. The sight was alarming. 
My hairs rose. As I approached the door and extended my key, each step brought me 
closer to confirming my worry. The door was ajar. 

I bet you saw that coming. 

I could hear my heart thumping in my ears, a symptom of the fight or flight 
response. I don't know if I made the right choice; you'll have to be the judge of 
that. I kicked the door wide and entered, shouting, "I'm calling the police." 

You're going to laugh at me when I tell you what happened next.

Essentially, a text doesn’t qualify as second person POV just because “you” is used in the narrative. The designation of POV is most easily assigned by looking at who in the narrative is completing the actions of the story. 

The Takeaway:

First Person: I, as the narrator (and often main character), do things within the story, and the other characters are seen through my eyes and worldview.

Second Person: You, the reader, do things withing the story, and the other characters are perceived by your worldview.

Third Person: They, the characters, do things within the story, and they are perceived by a named OR unnamed narrator that, depending on limited or omniscient knowledge, has varying degrees of insight into each character’s worldview.

 

 

 

Pro-Tip: Naming Characters

2 May

Whether you’re the type to go for allegory, obscurity, trends, or historical accuracy, naming your characters can take daunting research. It’s a fun job, don’t get me wrong, but it helps to have thorough tools to get the job done.

Baby name websites are a good start. Just Google “baby names” and you’ll find a number of sites that’ll do the trick. They usually include origin and meaning of the name. In addition, many rank the names based on popularity. So, if you want to reflect the times, you can choose a popular name. If you want uncommon names, you know what to avoid. However, these lists, in my experience, are exclusively for given names. And that makes sense. People aren’t looking at lists of surnames for their children. They get those automatically.

Writers, though, we get saddled with having to choose it all. These decisions, if you’re one to put a lot of emphasis on names reflecting personality like me, are foundational ones to make. (It’s totally fine to arbitrarily choose a name based on aesthetic preference alone, too.)

The website Behind the Name is the most thorough list of surnames I’ve found. It includes many geographical areas making naming by ethnicity or nationality is easy. It provides the meaning of each name listed, and it is detailed about noting any variations in spelling or language where applicable.

I’ve gotten a lot of use out of Behind the Name today while working on the second installment of Acephalous. New characters, new names. Comment below if you’ve got your own favorite naming sites to add to the conversation!

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico

Author, Editor, Red Ink Enthusiast™

To Plan or Not To Plan

19 Apr

Are you a “watch the weather forecast and pick your outfit accordingly” kind of writer, or a “put something on and hope you don’t sweat or freeze” kind of writer?

In life, I’m a weather watcher. In writing, I’m a forecast gambler.

A lot of authors will swear by their various methods of planning–storyboards, character charts, webs, lists, outlines, the list goes on. Planners are the ones paying attention to the forecast of their story–deciding on the mood, action, tension, and characters ahead of time. And, lots of authors swear by the process of writing to discover. They throw on whatever they want to wear at the time, maybe bringing along a plan B outfit just in case, but allow the climate of the story to shift on its own, and then adjusting the characters to be appropriately dressed after the fact.

With the former, authors benefit from economy of time. Planning, if you are the type who works well with such structure, means that very little writing time is wasted on things that don’t make it to the final copy. Characters are fleshed out before they even enter the story, plot has definite direction, and the motivation and drama of the story is decided, meaning you already know what characters want, why they want it, and what happens when they try to get it. These are great things to know in advance. I wish it was easy for me to write in this manner, to sit down and say, “Today, I’m going to make this happen.” Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to answer any questions about my characters or plot before getting to a moment in the story where a certain question must be answered.

The latter is my preferred method because I write first drafts off of train of thought. Authors don’t necessarily know where the story is going when it starts, which can be liberating. In addition, having no plan releases an author from the feeling that preconceived ideas about the story must be adhered to. It’s hard to let go of a plan you’ve spent a lot of effort on, even when it’s not working. If it’s not the first book in a series, there’s some direction left over from the books before it, but as a stand-alone plot, very few factors are decided. To dive right in rather than to plan means that characters truly drive the story, and they grow with the plot. Nothing is decided until it has to be, and nothing is permanent. I think this is a good way to prevent myself from writing what I would do rather than what the character would do. This method may produce more loose ends to revisit, but as long as you can keep track of following through on those connections, you can be assured that actions true to the characters are taking place.

Leave your thoughts on the planning process in the comments below!

 

 

Pro-Tip: After You’re Finished Writing

4 Feb

So you’re done writing a piece. What next? Have you edited yet?

That’s the first step, and it’s a step that will be repeated as your own edits and the suggestions of professional editors or test readers begin to reshape the text. Editors will help you look at content AND the technical side of writing. Hiring a professional is a great second step in moving toward publication. Notice I say second step. This is because you should be editing your own work at least twice before paying anyone else to do it. You will spend a lot of money on an editor if she or he is paid to scrutinize a novel that is still at a first draft stage. There will be many flaws pointed out, and the story will not be publication ready when you get it back from the editor. That editor will need to read it again after you have fixed the issues mentioned.

If your novel is at that point where the content doesn’t need scrutinizing, a proofreader is the appropriate professional to seek. Proofreaders will find the mechanical and technical flaws without trying to do anything to the story or characters you’ve so clearly fleshed out–that’s for the developmental and line editors to worry with, and you’re past that stage.

With any hired writing service, you don’t HAVE to take the advice given, and you are not required to change something in your writing if the suggestions for improving it don’t fit with your purposeful intentions (and by purposeful, I mean YOU did it on purpose and IT has a purpose for being that way, that an end-goal will be reached because of that choice). However, we are paid to look for inconsistencies, errors, and inadequacies, so if a problem is found, chances are your purposeful choice did not convey as such. A purposeful choice to style your writing in one way is different than a blatant mistake, even if it does go against the grammar norm, but it should be written clearly enough to appear deliberate. If you can justify your choice to break the prescriptive rules of how writing “should be,” then that’s the first step in purposeful writing. The next step is clarity. This is because clear writing doesn’t need justification from its author. It is obvious. Editors and proofreaders get to ask the author why something was written in a certain way. Readers of the final publication usually don’t get to talk to the author. Your text IS your chance to make your meaning and reasoning clear. In writing, the author has a one-sided conversation with the reader where all information is given up front; the author must anticipate the opposition and the skeptics to ensure that any weak point that might cause a gap in understanding is patched up preemptively. This includes verifying that all purposeful rule-breaking actually seems purposeful (in both senses as discussed earlier).

Is it time to submit for publication yet? Maybe so. Whether you’ve hired one editor or five, please keep in mind that a publishing company will assign its own editor to your story if/when the manuscript is accepted. Getting it in tip top shape before submitting is the best idea. You want to be taken seriously. However, there needs to be a place in your process where you say, “This is good enough for now.” (Read the article at the link for more on this.) See what the publishers actually say before trying to change parts you still doubt, and see what they say rather than assuming you know what they want out of your genre in the first place. Most authors get many rejections, which are basically free critiques on how to get better. So, maybe before you spend any more money on editors and proofers, try submitting to a few places and see what they say. Then adjust the manuscript accordingly.

Most importantly, though, remember that it is YOUR text (at least until it is accepted and rights are purchased by a publishing company), and you’re never going to have a hired panel of professional problem-finders that 100% agree with the way you wrote something in its original form. Professional editors and proofreaders are all writers first, even if our careers are to help others with their writing. It’s likely you’ll find 100+ ways to say the same thing if you continue to seek out other writers’ opinions because writing is based on the individual’s aesthetic. But opinions have no power unless you adopt them as your own.

In a nutshell–There are artful ways to break the rules, and you ultimately have to go with your gut and your authentic intentions. If your intentions can’t co-exist with the recommended edits, make sure they are justifiable choices. If you can’t find a reason why you did something in a certain way, it’s probably better to change it. If there’s a purpose, a reasonable explanation for breaking the rules, you’re probably safe. But remember, clear and precise writing, even when it breaks conventional rules, should not need explaining. Your choices need to appear as choices and not mistakes, so make sure the unique “rule-breaking” areas are carefully crafted.

 

Happy editing!

Amanda Marsico

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast™

Pro-Tip: Characterization

6 Oct

How do you talk to your friends? To your family? Bosses and coworkers?

For every person and situation, there is a way we present ourselves. Why should this be any different for each of your characters? It shouldn’t.

I remember when teachers used to say, “Don’t start a sentence with ‘because,’” or “You can’t use contractions in formal or serious writing.” And they had lots of rules about slang. To a point, those rules were useful. In the context of their classrooms, they were golden. Following such laws ensured decent grades. After all, breaking a rule so explicitly stated would render the teacher unable to take you seriously beyond that point.

But now, it’s time to forget it. It’s rubbish. Rules like that have a place in the classrooms of the teachers who value them and little place else. Try writing a realistic character without breaking them. It’s nearly impossible if you want that character to sound like someone you could really meet. And that’s the key—creating characters that we see ourselves and others in, even when the character isn’t a human. Characters are textual embodiments of our human experience. Even a talking dog on Mars will be based on the actions and emotions we know because it’s impossible to invent an emotion or characteristic fully new and alien. It may seem different but, somewhere at its core, every new creation of fiction is rooted in the human experience. If characters aren’t experiencing and acting organically as you or I would, then what are they? Caricatures of prescriptive rules, rules which tell us how language ought to be but do not reflect how language is actually used.

Example: “Tom, it is late. I find we will miss the movie if we do not leave now. Are we not going to the movies after all?”

“No, Summer, we are not. I have to complete this project for chemistry lab. It is due tomorrow, and I neglected to begin work earlier. I am very sorry.”

Ok, so there’s nothing technically wrong with that exchange between Summer and her boyfriend, Tom. The scene is clear. But how forced did that feel? If you were Summer would you talk like that? If you were Tom? Maybe if this was an exchange between Data and a Vulcan… otherwise, I doubt it. Plus, would a Vulcan actually forget to do his homework? I digress.

Many readers play the scenes of a novel like a movie in their minds. Less visual learners may not, but chances are, they at least listen to the soundtrack of the words. Reading a conversation like the example is as awkward feeling as it would be to watch that scene play out in real life. It doesn’t flow. It sounds like a business exchange between strangers, not a dispute between partners, lovers. The formality slows the natural rhythm of reading. It gets in the way. In more colloquial speech, the words run together. They sound in a reader’s head as they would out of the reader’s mouth. Smooth, easy, and with more personality.

When writing, make sure you’re not stalling the tension and momentum of your scenes by being overly formal. Fiction novels aren’t research papers, agent queries, resumes, or instruction manuals. Make your characters talk like real people.

Since you’ve thrown out all of those rules I mentioned earlier, replace them with this: Each character must have a unique and realistic voice that reflects personality. All quirks will at that point appear purposeful because they will be unique to the character.

Perhaps one character really DOES talk that way in the novel. The choice to leave the dialogue formal, or fully informal, at all times, or even riddled with slang or nonsense words would be obviously purposeful to your readers because no one else would be quite the same. The way we talk is a part of our personality, and it is no different for the characters you create.

Keeping that in mind, let’s try the example again.

“Tom, aren’t we going to the movies? We’ll be late.”

“No, Summer. I’ve got this project for chem that’s due tomorrow. I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

OR

“Tom, we’re not going to the movies, are we?”

“Nope. I just remember I have a chemistry project due in the morning.”

“You promised.”

“I’m sorry.”

“See, you always do this. You plan all this great stuff and then you’re all, ‘Oh, well, I gotta do this instead.’”

“I don’t sound like that.”

OR

“You ready to go, Tom? We need to leave now.”

“I’m doing this chem lab. I can’t stop in the middle of it.”

“Really? You knew we were going out at 4. You saw me getting ready. Why did you start the project if you knew you couldn’t stop until the end? Why didn’t you say something an hour ago?”

See how a simple exchange can escalate if you let the language develop to who the characters are individually and what their situation is as a whole? With additional characterization and narration, the reader may already know or soon learn that these two always bicker, that she’s a little spoiled, but that her irritation is justified due to his aloof attitude and transient interests, or maybe it’s a first fight and the reader has to continue to find out if their relationship can withstand it. With more surrounding description, the reader should be able to say these sentences in the voices set up for each character—the reader’s own variation of what the author has led her to imagine.

The takeaway here is, within reasonable consideration of appropriateness to your target audience, abandon all rules that don’t suit the reality of a character or scene. If your character uses contractions in speech or starts sentences with “because,” let him. If the scene requires slang, go for it. If your protagonist only curses when surprised because she hates to be surprised, let it fly, but only in the proper scenarios. Stay true to the character. All of them should talk in the text like they would talk to you in real life.

Happy writing.

Amanda Marsico,

Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast

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