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Sounds Like Part I…Tips For Writing Realistic Dialogue

Sounds Like Part I…Tips For Writing Realistic Dialogue

Conners died in the night, did you hear? And Beachdel’s taking a leave of absence. This Jonas kid shows up in my office with reports and statistics and a bunch of stuff in Sanskrit I can’t really follow, but he wanted to be part of the division and we’re short staffed.”

That does not explain why I—”

Because I need all hands on deck but I send him out there by himself, he’ll get eaten alive.” She pinned Cam to her seat with a diamond-eyed look. “But I stick him with you, I make him your responsibility, maybe you keep him alive long enough to ask for a transfer too.”

So is that what you are doing?”

That’s right.” She smiled, more like a grimace. 

© Lia Cooper 2012

Engaging, well-written dialogue is the pudding at the center of the fancy cupcake that is your story. Weird image but stick with me. Flowery language, adverbs and adjectives, are the frosting. Too much and you’re going to throw up. Plot and setting are the cake, good enough to sink your teeth into but kind of bland without the hit of delicious dialogue—the pudding at the center. (If you’ve never tasted a cupcake with pudding, I’m genuinely sorry. Link takes you to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Cupcakes my local bakery made last month.)

How Do You Write Good Dialogue?

Saving the Greeks photo by Lia 2011

I call this The Actor’s Method for writing good dialogue.

I developed this writing method from a habit I first established up when I was a high school freshman trying to memorize The Waste Land, and which I later used to memorize lines for plays I was a part of. I worked on lines in my car while I was driving. I would recite scenes to myself over and over and over again, working out different ways of saying the same thing, holding imaginary conversations with other characters to develop my character’s personality and work out how they would respond to different events.

I apply these same principles to my dialogue:

  • Read your dialogue out loud, speak it out loud. Better yet, act it out loud.
  • Give your characters distinct voices. You don’t have to be a great voice actor but try not to speak it all in a monotone. See how the way you’ve written your dialogue leaps off the page.
  • Re-read your dialogue out loud.
  • Talk to yourself. Have you heard the expression “off the page writing?” It refers to work you do for your story that may or not actually make it onto the page, this includes research, outlines, plotting, character sheets, and world building. Apply this principle to your dialogue; hold conversations between characters in different situations, whether or not it’s for a scene that appears in the story. It will help you figure out how your character speaks, their rhythm and word choices, and how they respond to different situations and other characters.

Lia’s Writing Tip: When you re-read your work, look out for places where it stops being the character speaking and becomes you, the writer, speaking too much through the character. Your characters may be literal sock puppets, but you still want them to sound In Character and authentic. You don’t want the reader to realize that they’re sock puppets.

All Writer’s Eavesdrop

You’ve probably heard a writer talk about the great conversation they overheard at Starbucks the other day. Writer’s are nosy. They eavesdrop. Why do you think we all spend so much time “writing” in coffee shops?

Photo by Renee McGurkEavesdropping can be great for developing your ear, just like acting. It exposes you to dialogue as it’s happening and in its natural habitat—e.g. aloud. But that doesn’t mean you should copy conversations you hear verbatim. 75 percent of conversations are also poorly constructed and banal, and if you copied them word for word you’d either bore or irritate your reader until they failed out of your story.

The trick to using conversations you hear to write good dialogue is to refine real life conversations to their sharpest denominator and build from there. Cut out 95 percent of the filler—the ah’s, um’s, and er’s—then cut out 90 percent of the repetition—if your character says something don’t repeat it in the action and vice versa.

  • Keep in mind that everyone lies, including your characters! They lie to themselves, they lie to each other and they lie to the reader.
  • Listen to how people lie, exaggerate and prevaricate. Listen to how they miss say something, how they mix up words or fail to convey their meaning.
  • Eavesdrop and then throw away 75 percent of what you hear. Keep the most interesting piece and build up.
Lia Cooper’s Writing Process

Lia Cooper’s Writing Process

The first serious author’s blog I tried to write was called The Writing Process. Despite having journaled on Livejournal for a decade I didn’t know anything about good blogging habits—not about SEO, tagging, using keywords, proper format (ie news format or the inverted pyramid), nada. I thought that I could write the same way I had journaled. And what’s more, I didn’t think I had useful writing tips to share in a world where content is key. I’ve still only scratched the surface but I’m learning.

The last two weeks I’ve talked about writing habits and how to make your personal writing style work for you. These articles are based on first hand observation of writers I know, read and listen to. I love to soak up other people’s process. What works for them rarely works for me but it’s always interesting to hear how other authors go about writing a novel.

About The Author

the author!My name is Lia and I was historically a Waiter. Until a couple years ago I only wrote sporadically and if the muse was with me. So it shouldn’t surprise you that I never got anything written.

I might never be Stephen King, writing 2000 words a day, six day a week. But through patience I’ve been able to find a happy medium between low-volume daily writing and my natural inclination as a Waiter. I have about 2-3 high volume writing months every year where the muse is flowing and the words pour out of me—I also like rewards so these heavy writing months tend to fall around NaNoWriMo—and I intersperse these heavy writing months with light daily writing months. I may only set a goal of 300-500 words during the lulls. The point is that this goal is something I know I can meet, so I’m always working on my novel without burning myself out.

Writer’s Block Is Real

Heroes-Peter-and-Sylar-the wallNot a popular opinion these days. A lot of people will tell you writer’s block is just a writer being lazy or undisciplined but I’m going to tell you that sometimes you don’t know what happens next. Sometimes you’re afraid to work on your story. Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. When this happens, it may be possible to punch your way through the block.

On the other hand, it may also be wise to take a step back and let your brain mull over the problem for awhile.

Good writing habits don’t mean making yourself miserable or trying to be any other writer than yourself. Good writing habits mean finding what works for you and not letting setbacks discourage you.

What Are Your Authorial Priorities?

I write because I love to share stories with people. When a reader sends me an email or leaves a comment telling me that my story impacted them on an emotional level—that is the best feeling in the world. That is why I write.

Writing is hard for me. Being prolific is really hard. I have a short attention span and I’m naturally pretty lazy. For me to be productive, I’ve had to find a balance of structure and time off that keeps my brain happy and my fingers busy.

When you find the balance that works for you, then you too will find success.

How To Make Your Writing Habits Work For You

How To Make Your Writing Habits Work For You

Earnest HemingwayAs a writer it’s important to be true to yourself, both in what you write and how you write it. The most successful writing habits you can have are the ones that complement your natural proclivities in a productive manner. Just like exercising, writing requires you to establish routines that you want to engage in.

Last week I talked about the different types of writers. Lets take this one step further and consider how you can turn your personal style into a successful writing habit.

  1. Identify your style. Are you a Marathoner? A Waiter?
  2. Outline your writing goals. Do you want to write a book? Start a blog? Sell articles for cash?
  3. Calculate your resources. How much time do you have to commit to your writing goals? Do you need a certain environment to be productive?

Common Writing Pitfalls

The best piece of advice I can offer is this: set yourself reasonable goals. This is true no matter what style of writer you are.

If you want to write every day start with a modest word goal—I would suggest 500 words per day if you don’t write regularly already—and as you continue to meet that goal, start to raise it to the level that works best for you.

If you are driven to finish a project once you’ve started and ID with the Marathoner style of writing, don’t forget to eat something. Sleep. Walk around or do a sun salutation once an hour to keep the blood flowing. The last thing you want to do is burn yourself out before you can finish your writing project. Don’t forget, your brain runs on calories and your body needs good circulation to keep the creative juices flowing.

If you’ve ever told someone—or yourself—that you have to “wait for the mood to strike,” try challenging yourself. Start with short freewriting sessions, with or without your muse. Set a short timer and start writing, don’t let your fingers stop until the time is up.

If you work better with a clear deadline and would like to make some money with your work, consider freelance writing. There are many places online that post writing jobs—Yahoo’s Contributor Network and are two good sources. If you are more interested in creative writing consider a writing challenge with a deadline and a support community, such as National Novel Writing Month.

Be Flexible

But what if you already know your own writing style and have an established writing routine, and it’s still not working for you? Routines are good but sometimes they can make you feel like you’re stuck in a rut.

Take a day and try out a new style. Take a day off, don’t write anything and read a book. Spend a week making short writing goals—even if they’re just 100 words per day—and challenge yourself to reach them.

In other words, shake things up! Try working on a non-writing project and give your brain a break. Just be careful that you don’t take a single day off and wake up four months later having not written a single word in the interim.

I think most successful writers will agree that the act of writing is a balancing act. Every author is going to have a different sweet spot. As a newish writer, it’s easy to be overambitious, but setting yourself smaller, achievable goals can help build your confidence as well as your “writing muscles.”

What’s Your Writing Style?

What’s Your Writing Style?

There is a lot of advice out there about how to write and how to establish “good” writing habits. But every writer is different, and no amount of good advice will help you if it doesn’t jive with your personal style. I can say with certainty that if you try to write in a manner that’s at odds with your natural inclination, you won’t succeed. You may have a little initial success but you won’t have longevity.

I’ve identified four types of writers and their writing habits. Which style fits you?

  1. Photo by Michael Gäbler
    The Sleepless Marathoner: “If I’m writing, I’m not sleeping.” When inspiration strikes, the sleepless marathoner doesn’t mess around. They start working on their idea almost immediately. They work on it obsessively. They work on it at all hours. They work on it when they should be eating or sleeping. They work on it exhaustively. Like the African Wild Dog, they run that book down for hours until it’s spent and finished.

  2. Photo by Marlene ThyssenThe Waiter:
    “I have to wait until I have inspiration.” This second style of writer tends to write irregularly, because they’re waiting for the right moment or for inspiration. I often hear these writers say that they have to be in the right mood to get any significant or productive writing done. They may start lots of projects but have difficulty finishing any of them because the “mood” changes. They may frequently re-write first chapters or start projects over and over. But for as long as the “mood” lasts, they can be very focused and productive.
  3. The Dailyer: “I write X every day.” X in this case can mean words, pages, scenes or chapters. I see this style most in published authors writing guest blogs on top tier writing sites and doing wide circulation Q&A’s. This type of writer sets a goal for themselves and meets that goal every day. There are two sub-categories to the Daily writer: low-volume and high-volume.

    1. palreyHigh-Volume:
      I’ve heard writer’s say they aim to write 10-20 pages a day. Does this sound like an insane number to you? Me too but I’ve seen a couple of writers do it during National Novel Writing Month. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that he writes 2000 words a day, six days a week. I also like to call these types of writers “job writers” because they treat their writing time like a full time job. They get up in the morning and write for 6-8 hours at least five days a week.This much writing may feel unnatural and does not suit everyone. Like a palfrey or gaited horse who uses a unique non-standard 4-beat gait to cover ground quickly, smoothly and for extended periods of time, the high-volume daily writer will set make large strides in their writing every day without straining themselves.

    2. Photo by Samuel BlancLow-Volume:
      These writers also write every day, or almost every day, but they have smaller daily word goals. They might try to write one scene every day or set a more modest word count goal such as 500 words. The key here is slow but steady progress.

  4. PuppyThe Deadliner:
    “I have to have a deadline.” It doesn’t matter if it’s an academic or work deadline, the deadliner finds it difficult, or even impossible, to get motivated to write without some type of reward. That reward may be a good grade or money. They need clear, well-outlined goals and someone to which they are accountable. This type of writer may be naturally good at writing but it probably isn’t their passion. It’s just a usable skill.

Once you identify the style that comes naturally, you can use it to work for you, whatever your writing goal. Next week I’ll talk about the pros and cons of each style and offer tips for writing productively.