Browsed by
Tag: writing tips

10 Most Influential Books

10 Most Influential Books

Today I’m taking a break from all the book news and announcements to do something a little fun, that I stole the idea from the booktube tag of the same name, but I’m putting a little twist on it…the 10 Most Influential Books (to me) as a writer!

I’m going to list these in no particular order because I think ordering them from least to most influential would simply be impossible, and I’ll try to give a quick snippet explaining what it is about these books which has stuck with me as a writer or influence a specific area of my writing.

          • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson- I read this book in the course of late 2011 and through the first half of 2012, the second half of it read concurrently with my first draft of The Duality Paradigm and I think the reason this book resonates for me is that I see my own writing style or voice in Larsson’s. There’s a certain spareness of world building while at the same time a very specific attention to detail (exp the characters clothes, what they eat, the furniture in their flats etc) that I think I tend to do in my writing as well.


          • Monster by A Lee Martinez – This book showed me that you could have urban fantasy without wasting a ton of time on exposition. And you didn’t have to write in first person. yay!


          • Dracula by Bram Stoker – the language is beautiful and this remains one of the scarier things I’ve read and I think it shows that it’s more terrifying to leave things to your reader’s imaginations, to leave things poorly explained and unknown.


          • Sherlock Holmes by ACD – I’ve read a large portion of the short stories and novellas by ACD, not all, but almost all. This book challenges POV and protagonist. I think there’s an interesting question of the unreliable narrator in Sherlock Holmes which is rarely explored. But these are Watson’s diaries, journals, short stories, written and narrated by him about our ostensible protagonist. When I’m brainstorming a new story I always have a good long sit and think about who my protagonist and POV characters are before I begin.


          • Dune by Frank Herbert – there’s a denseness in the language of Dune that I worry permeates my own writing because as a young kid, Dune was the most amazing, best well written piece of literature I’d ever read. Dune Messiah is one of my favorite books of all time.


          • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – Alternative Universes exist outside fanfiction theyre just hard to find! I love AUs in fanfic but it seemed like something that only existed in the fannish bubble before I stumbled across The Eyre Affair. This book is a DELIGHT and way under appreciated imho. It also taught me a lot about genre bending/crossing, which is part of the reason it’s a difficult book to pitch to other people. When you write a book for commercial publication it’s important to hone in early on to what about the book will resonate with a reason and entice them to read your book. EG figure out this sentence “if you like _____, you’ll like my book because of _______.”


          • Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper – this is a book from my childhood that has always stuck with me. The poltergeist scene was the scariest thing I had read up to that time as a kid. the entire concept of timeless characters and quests has stuck with me. I’m a sucker for this sort of book (I was obsessed with Narnia as well). Actually idk if this book influences me, I assume it does because there are portions of it that remain vividly burned in my mind.


          • Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen – this book is one of the best examples of an introvert written in literature imho. Don’t give me any of this Bella Swan introvert crap or how YA authors seem to love pigeon-holing introverts. Mr Darcy is where it’s at and not because he’s the greatest hearthrob in western english literature but because he is the epitome of “shown not told introvert” and i love it.


          • Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques – this was the first Redwall novel I read as a kid and it haunts me to this day. I think in my heart I don’t believe in happily ever afters because of this book. Love does not save the day. Love often gets killed and theres nothing you can do about it. And even when that happens, maybe youre never totally a whole person but you can still go on to do great things.


        • The Horse & His Boy by CS Lewis – this was the first Narnia book I read (i know!) and I do still love many of the Narnia books, including this one. But the thing this book reminds me, because I keep it in my head often when I write, and I’ve been thinking of it recently as I worked on The Kingdom of Pacchia (weird connection maybe if you don’t live in my head), but pervasive unconscience racism is very prevalent still and I think it’s helped by a childhood of reading books like this, which were chalk full of straight up muslim villainizing. There’s a certain “darker = evilier” in several of the Narnia books which if you’ve grown up reading things like this (because CS Lewis isn’t the only author who does this obvs) then you may start doing it yourself unconsciously (I’m speaking as a white writer) in your own writing and that’s NEVER something I want to do. I constantly challenge myself to really think about how I’m portraying other people, even if theyre in a fantasy setting, because nothing is innocuous. This is another reason I cannot forgive Tolkien for his treatment (generally) of the dwarves in his books (it’s pretty damn racist, let me count the ways). I never want to do something in my book for no other reason than because ‘that’s how it’s done.’ I want to be better than unconscious stereotyping privileged western white writer.

What are the 10 most influential books to you? I’d love to hear in the comments or on twitter!

A Word About Multiple Drafts

A Word About Multiple Drafts

Why would you waste your time writing the wrong story?

On the subject of multiple drafts: drafting and re-drafting should not be confused with EDITING (which is a very valuable and necessary process). I define drafts as rewriting the same story in its entirety over from start to end. I spend a significant portion of time thinking about my story so that when I sit down to write I know what needs to be written and how it needs to be written, where form is as clear in my head as content. I could maybe understand writing a second draft for one or two books in a catalog of a dozen. But I cannot fathom why I would do this for every book.

If you aren’t writing the correct story STOP WASTING YOUR TIME WRITING THAT GARBAGE and go back to the drawing board.

I don’t care that Hemingway said you should write 30 drafts of something. I think that if you NEED to write 30 drafts some something, there is a fundamental problem with your process such that maybe you should spend a little more time thinking about your story before you sit down to write it. But then again, I’m not a fan of wasting my own time.

The Road To Writing Full Time

The Road To Writing Full Time

You’ve heard the cliche: everyone thinks that they can be a writer. Or that writing a book can’t be that difficult. But anyone who has tried to write a book will probably disagree.


Writing is hard, except when it’s easy, and even then it’s still pretty hard.

For me, writing this month has been slow but steady. Book 3 is chugging along at 15k words right now (hopefully 16k by the time you read this). Definitely not where I wanted to see my word count but it’s a start. Every book begins with a start. And then you have to keep building and adding onto it, until you finish it. For most of us, myself included, this means writing a book is a marathon and not a sprint. It can be hard to keep that in my head.

I want to be a full time writer now. I want to bang out a novel every month or every other month now, but I’m not there yet. At most, I’m a halftime writer. I write fairly consistently but not 40 hrs a week–which is where I would ultimately like to be.

3 Stages Of Being An Author

  1. Beginner: you’re working on your first story, or maybe your second story, writing when you can but not overly consistently
  2. Amatuer: maybe you write consistently but you don’t write a ton, you’re averaging a book a year
  3. Full time: you write multiple books a year, you put in 40 hours a week, you treat writing as your full time job.

A lot of people spend a long time at stage 1. I spent four years at stage 1 calling myself a “writer” but not managing to finish anything. It took me 18 months to write Duality and about 8 months to write the sequel, The Convergence Theory. I thought by the time I would start Book 3 I would be at stage 3 already but I’ve discovered that I’m really still at stage 2: writing more consistently but not putting in enough hours to call this my full time job.

That’s OK. I don’t have to be at stage 3 right this minute. Maybe I won’t get to stage 3 for a couple more years and a couple more books. That’s fine. The important part is that, just like when I’m writing a book, I add onto my writing habits a little more and a little more.

I’m not going to start busting out 10k words a day this week. Or next month. I’m not going to reach my 85k word draft goal by May 1st but I will make it by June first, which is a huge improvement over TCT’s timeline.

Composition book or Writer's NotebookBuilding A Writing Career Begins With Good Habits

Just some thoughts to chew on if you’re feeling discouraged.

  • Set goals and meet them, but if you aren’t going to meet one, don’t become so discouraged that you give up or ignore the deadline altogether
  • Have patience, both with your work and yourself
  • Increase your time commitment, word goals, and publishing milestones steadily–remember the tortoise
  • For 75% of authors, making a living is all about building a backlist (eg 10+ published titles), building a backlist takes time
  • Even though this is a marathon, don’t hesitate to do tiny sprints here and there to encourage yourself
  • Don’t stop writing.

Do as I advise, not as I do. Trust me, I’m not good at always taking my own advise no matter how good it is. That’s another reason I’m still only at stage 2 😉

duality quoteQuestions About The Blood & Bone Trilogy/Timestamps/Prompts

I’m opening the floor this week to questions about my books (Duality as well as the unpublished sequels), as well as timestamp requests (something you wanted to see more of from the first story or what came after? Give me a prompt and I’ll write you at least 500 words. This is open to pre-story events, porn, and secondary characters as well). Least a comment below or hit me up with an email 🙂

CampNaNoWriMo 2014 Week One

CampNaNoWriMo 2014 Week One


You may have noticed there was no blogpost last week–my apologies! I fully intended to write a short sum-up of my first couple days of Camp this year but Camp had a bit of a late start in Lia’s world.


  • The draft for Blood & Bone Book Two: The Convergence Theory is done!

word count paranormal romance


  • Writing has begun on Book Three! I’m a little (see: A LOT) behind on my word count but I’m steadily catching up.
  • To everyone who has volunteered to beta read book 2–my editor is about 3/4 finished so the book is still on track to reach you by the middle of the month!
  • To anyone interested in reading chapter 1 before release day, I will be sending out a sneak peak of Book 2 to mailing list subscribers 😉
  • To everyone else, be sure to check back here May 1st for The Convergence Theory cover reveal!! I’m super excited to share it with you guys, I’ve been sitting on this cover for months.

A Few Words About Camp NaNoWriMo Week 1

My goal was to write 2800 words/day. I started a couple days late and I had a couple slow days. So far my mean word count has been ~1000/day. Not great but not the end of the world. I’ve also been interviewing for a barista job and started a 7 Week Walking Challenge, all of which have no helped me be more focused on writing. Nevertheless, the month and my goal of 85,000 words is not lost!

This weekend I’m planning on doing a bit push to close the gap and get my daily word count back down to 3k/day to finish on time.

Here are my 4 strategies for beefing up my word count:

  1. Outlines: so far I’ve got an outline for the first 8 chapters of Book 3 and I’ll be adding to that the more I write. I use my daily walks to brainstorm (aloud, since I live in a pretty isolated place and I like to talk to myself :))) and then type up what I’ve worked out into scrivener.
  2. Timed Writes: these are invaluable! I set the online timer for 30 minutes and start typing in scrivener. I can’t do anything else while I’m on a TW except write (this means discipline, no checking social media, no responding to facebook IMs, no reading, nada) and I try not to check my word count until the timed write is over. I find that as long as I’ve got a general idea what needs to happen in the scene, I can bust out anywhere between 700-1000 words per timed write.
  3. Take Breaks: I break my timed writes down into 30 minute blocks and I take breaks between each block to read, check-in with my writing partner and check twitter. The key (and I don’t always do this well) is to keep the breaks to a reasonable amount of time–e.g. 20 minute break not a 60 minute break.
  4. Start Early: The day’s I’ve met my word count goals I started early (by early I mean 2 PM, or early afternoon). The day’s I’ve struggled to meet my goals or failed to meet them, I didn’t start writing until 9 PM or later. You don’t have to wake up at 6 AM and jump right into your story, you just have to give yourself enough time to write comfortably.

That is all for this week. If you have questions or comments leave a comment down below or feel free to email me ( liacooperromance AT gmail DOT com) I always love hearing from you guys! And come hang out on twitter @LiaCooperWrites 😀

Buckle up guys; week two is about to begin!


Preparing For Camp NaNoWriMo: Outlining Your Book

Preparing For Camp NaNoWriMo: Outlining Your Book

There are two primary approaches to preparing for a new novel: outlining and discovering. People use many different words to describe these two terms but they all boil down to the same spectrum–and don’t get me wrong, writers definitely fall on a spectrum between these two extremes. I know that I do for sure.


seattle mapOutline means you create a map or a timeline or maybe a traditional outline or a beat outline just something before you start writing. You make a roadmap for your book before you write. Maybe this is really detailed where you write a paragraph or half a page or a whole page for every chapter. Maybe this is as basic as writing down the Beginning, Middle, and the End of your book in bullet points.


photo By Gandydancer
By Gandydancer

Discover writing is the opposite–big shock, I know. Maybe you start with a character or a place and you just start writing. Maybe you just give yourself some time to freewrite and see what grows out of that freewrite. The point is, pure discovery does not involve outlining. It involves writing your novel and seeing what happens, following rabbit trails without predetermining where they lead.

Most Writers Write On A Spectrum

I generally start all of my books with the protagonists–usually there are 2. I know who the story is about but not what it’s about. I might have an overarching theme, but not the plotty details. I will begin writing, a scene or two, then I’ll stop and outline the plot. I don’t really feel that I discover plots. I have to pull them out of a earth that I’ve discovered but they rarely present themselves. I spend a lot of time throwing plot ideas at my writing partner and asking: does that sound interesting? does this sound plausible? And from our discussions I begin to outline a plot.

Generally, I know the last scene in my book before I know what the plot will be, because to me the most important parts are character and character themes.

The more I write, the more I have to outline, otherwise I tend to have really bad writer’s block. For my own sanity, I cannot discovery write the middle of a book because if I left myself to do that nothing would ever get written.

writer's notebook outline
Original outline for The Source & The Wire circa 2011

My outlining methods have changed over the years as I’ve written more and as my writing programs have changed. Back in 2011 when I started writing regularly again I did all of my plotting by hand because I wrote in gdocs. I kept a notebook and I wrote the big plot outline in 1-2 pgs (sometimes with post-it notes overtop when things changed) and then I wrote chapter beats in the margins of the pages where I also hand wrote the story.

Now that I use Scrivener to write all of my stories I use Scrivener’s corkboard feature to lay out the story. I often brainstorm by hand but then I put all of those notes into Chapter and Scene files in Scrivener where I flesh them out, rearrange, and sometimes even re-write them.

Preparing For Camp NaNoWriMo 2014

An important part of NaNoWriMo is to start the event with a new project. Something that you haven’t written anything for yet and I actually think this is a good rule. This does not preclude me from planning for camp.

When I wrote The Duality Paradigm I didn’t have much planned. All I knew was that I wanted to try writing a romance novel, that it would be m/m because I hadn’t written het in a while and I often find het romances very problematic. I wanted to write something that would be quick without an eye for anything “literary,” I just wanted to write something fun. So I went with a few of my favorite trope flavors:

  • soulbonding (this link to Tv Tropes is the closest I could find though it’s not 100% what I mean by soulbonding)
  • werewolves
  • magic

I had those tropes in my head but nothing else planned. I had to discovery the characters, the plot, and the emotional arc. Suffice to say, The Duality Paradigm was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written.

Now whether you decide to outline anything before Camp starts is a personal choice. I’ve found–through trial and error–that I write more quickly if I have a goal in mind (e.g. some plot or series of points to hit). So I’ll be doing progressively more outlining as Camp approaches. I suggest trying both methods and then see where you fall between those two methods that makes you most productive.

Do you enjoying outlining or do you find it stifles your creativity? Let me know in the comments.

3 Tips For Writing Your First Novel

3 Tips For Writing Your First Novel

Saint_Mary_Magdalene_at_her_writing_desk_-_16th_cThis week I planned to talk about the process I went through writing my first novel, but I think I’ve covered that particular story—most notably last week during my overview of Camp NaNoWriMo—enough on this blog. Instead I’d like to offer the three most important pieces of advice I learned from writing The Duality Paradigm.

  1. Finish It. You’ll hear this sentiment from a lot of advice columns and that’s because it’s true. A lot of people “aspire” to be writers and in some regards anyone who tries to write a novel can call themselves a writer. But until you actually finish something—a novel, a novella, a short story, a screenplay, whatever—you will only be aspiring. And let me tell you something, you can aspire to something your entire life without ever achieving it. If you want to write a novel, write a novel and finish it.

    This is key to writing a novel for NaNoWriMo. The daily word count may be difficult to meet and it’s easy to become discouraged if your word count starts to fall behind. It’s important if you decide to try Camp NaNoWriMo next month that even if you miss a day or a couple of days, you must not give up! You might have to kill yourself and write 5000 words in a single day to make it up, but let me tell you, the feeling you get when you finish your novel is intoxicating and worth it.

  1. Be Disciplined. I think the most important decision you can make if you want to take your writing to the next step (from “aspiring writer” to “writer”) is to be disciplined about it. Something I hear from aspiring writers all too often is the expression: I have to wait to be inspired. Once again, you can spend your entire life waiting for Mistress Muse to stroke you. Writing is like anything else—painting, music, building something, playing a sport, making a scientific breakthrough—if you don’t pursue it, you won’t ever catch it. At one point or another, every writer who ever wrote a book had to sit down and write the damn thing and so do you.

    You don’t have to write thousands of words a day right out of the gate, but set yourself a goal. Decide that you’re going to write on X days and aim for X words. Just 100 words a day consistently is enough to get your momentum going. Along this same line of reasoning: no one was born knowing how to write the next great novel. If you want to write a good book, you have to learn how to write good. And the only way you’re going to improve your writing is to—you guessed it—write more!


  1. Let Go. At some point, once you’ve made yourself write your novel and write the end you’ll move onto the revision and editing stages (I’m a big advocate for extensive self-editing. Learn good grammar practices and familiarize yourself with the basics of Chicago Style, but always get a second set of disciplined editor or proofreader eyes on your work! No matter how good you are at self-editing you will miss stuff, probably a lot of stuff. This is something I’ve learned the hard way). The revise-and-edit stage can go on forever. At some point you’re going to have to just release your work either into the wild or into your own archives and move on. If you only want to write 1 novel then fine, stop there. But if you’re serious about writing, storytelling, or making a living from your writing it is key that you keep writing.

    I wanted to add to this that if you do self-publish your book it’s important to market but don’t get hung up on marketing to the exclusion of writing your next book. I see a lot of new writers—and don’t get me wrong, I’m a baby writer too—asking on forums like the Kboards what they should do to get their book to sell more copies and they only have one book published. Well, hate to break it to you, but in this market the best thing you can do is write your next book.

This advice really goes for any book whether it’s your first or your fifteenth.

What’s your number one piece of writing advice? Tell me in the comments.

Next week I’m going to talk about outling vs pantsing and how I approach writing a new book as our Countdown to Camp continues. Happy writing!

Is The Pen Mightier Than The PC?

Is The Pen Mightier Than The PC?

Writing In The 21st Century

Writing is a craft, it’s an art, and as a writer, you are an artist. That being said, the tools that you choose to use are ultimately going to be the ones that best compliment your style of creating. My intention this week is not to advocate one way or the other for writing by hand or writing directly into Microsoft Word, but rather to address some of the hipsterish and/or regressive sentiments I see floating around writing communities.

Language Evolves When People Use It In New Ways

raised hands by Izquierda UnidaRaise your hand if you’ve ever run into someone condemning internet chatspeak, tumblr tags, keyboard shorthand, emoticons, Doge, the use of the phrase “was like,” or social media in general? Raise your hand if you’ve run into people condemning ebooks because reading words is somehow not the same thing as…reading words. I bring this phenomenon up because it’s a piece of what I see as regressivism at work on the web. The same sort of people who say that your “online friends” aren’t really your friends. That anyone who communicates via the web is lying about who they are—obviously, they’re a 51 year old serial killer necrophiliac.

It’s 2014—and yes, I totally wrote 2013 at first and had to fix it—but we still have people calling computers soulless and people glued to their smartphones shallow. And if you use your computer for your art—well, is it still art?

Guttenburg printing pressJust like the printing press was the great equalizer of the 15th century, so too is the PC. For writers it means research at your fingertips, limited only by your googlefu. It means connecting with people all over the globe. Exchanging stories in real time. Exchanging ideas freely 24/7. It means collaboration across the globe. It means being able to pull up a Google Street View of a road that appears in your book without leaving your bed because we can’t all afford to take writing vacations or live in Paris.

Free Books

I read a lot, big surprise I know, but it’s important to say that I read a lot but I don’t buy many books. I read online, not news stories or blogs, but fiction (both fan and original) being posted by writers at no cost to themselves and free for me. And this is the power of the internet, the way it frees us from the shackles of traditional distribution institutions. If you only ever read things being published by the Big Six (or should I say the Big Five?), you’re missing out on a wealth of innovative, progressive and often radical storytelling that is unapologetic and beholden to no one’s bottom line.

I Can’t Help It, I Love My MacBook

I said I wasn’t going to take a stand for or against writing by hand or writing on the computer but it looks like I’ve failed at being impartial. Woops?

I keep several notebooks, I love writing notes or brainstorming by hand and writing in my composition book when I don’t have access to my computer. And when I have writer’s block one method I use to get past it is to freewrite in a notebook until I’ve got a good groove going. But everything I write will end up on my laptop eventually.

lia with her macbookI love running word counts. I love spellchecker. I love being able to google things. I love being able to post snippets for people on tumblr, facebook, twitter or my blog. I love having a plot-chat on facebook at 1 AM (a plot-chat is where I stream-of-conscious explain the idea for a story to my alpha reader and get her feedback, course corrections, answer her questions, etc until I’ve fleshed out a more complete story idea). I love pulling Scrivener up on my MacBook and finding all of my stories neatly(ish) organized and ready to be worked on.

Ultimately, it’s important that you choose a writing tool that encourages your own creativity. If that’s writing in pencil in a handmade notebook: go for it. But don’t ever try to convince my my computer and my social network are soulless. Because at the end of the day, I’ve come to recognize and appreciate the fact that my computer is the tool that works best for me.

☼ Do you enjoy reading ebooks or stories on the web? Let me know in the comments.

The Pros And Cons Of A Writer’s Journal

The Pros And Cons Of A Writer’s Journal

I’m sure if you asked a dozen different writer’s their opinion of keeping a writer’s journal you’d get twelve very distinct different replies. For example, in a talk given to the University of Massachusetts (watch it on youtube here), Stephen King warns against keeping a writer’s journal. I, on the other hand, will generally advocate for keeping a journal—especially a hardcopy journal. But what’s my word against Stephen King’s? Not much but I’ll stand by it. In the end whether you decide to keep a journal will probably come down to your own writing style.

Why Wouldn’t You Keep A Writer’s Journal?

ancient sift  Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)I think people usually start a discussion like this by listing reasons you should do something but I’m going to mix it up. I mentioned Stephen King who compared a writer’s own mind to a sieve—or in my own words, a colander. As a creative individual your brain is always taking in information and spitting back ideas. You overhear a conversation in Starbucks; you have a crazy, exciting dream; you have a challenging or eyeopening conversation with a friend. All of these things may inspire an idea for a story, a character, or a piece of a book.

Mr King tells his audience that you shouldn’t write these things down. Instead, you should let them rattle around in your brain for awhile and like someone panning for gold, all the detritus will fall out and you’ll be left with only the gems.

It’s a fair point.

Why Would You Keep A Writer’s Journal?

But what if you’re like me and you have a terrible memory?

  • Memory is the #1 reason I advocate for keeping a writer’s journal.

I’m a very young writer still working on my freshman books, I’m also unemployed and poor, so I do 95% of my own editing at this point. I have an alpha reader who does minor corrections and a beta reader who gives feedback on content and the typos she sees while she’s reading. But besides that I edit my own work over and over and over. I’m on my third read through and grammar correcting of The Duality Paradigm and I can tell you I come across scenes that I wrote a year or two ago that I have very little to no memory writing.

My writing continually surprises me. I’ll be reading a passage and be sort of blown away by passages that I can’t quite believe I wrote. But I did. And it isn’t just writing I forget, I forget things I say, advice I give, things people tell me, dates, deadlines, locations, peoples names. My brain is a leaky tub—unless it has to do with an actor’s name and IMDB page.

Composition book or Writer's NotebookI do a lot of brainstorming in composition books that I always carry around with me in my messenger bag. Everything goes into these notebooks: outlines, beats, dialogue, entire stories, character descriptions, conversations I’ve overheard, and story ideas. And I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been flipping through a notebook looking for something and discovered the barebones of a story idea I wrote down a year or three ago that I had completely forgotten about. That I never would have recalled if I hadn’t written it down.

The great thing about being the creator of your own worlds is that nothing is ever set in stones. I found a very early note I’d written outlining the plot for The Convergence Theory, written on a stickie on my Macbook that held very little resemblance to the plot now. Did the process of writing down what was actually a bad idea keep me from developing the story into a better one? Not at all. It did give me a good laugh in hindsight though.

The Lisa Frank Notebook Hunt Of 2013

I have a terrible habit of harassing friends over Facebook IM chat at 1 AM. So about a month ago I had this great—slightly drunken—idea to buy a notebook strictly for story ideas to save my friends from having to listen to me ramble about my latest Hawaii 5-0/Hockey infusion plot bunny. In my rum and eggnog induced state I decided that only the most perfect notebook would suit to hold all of my plot bunnies: a Markie the Unicorn notebook from Lisa Frank.

I’m a child of the 90s/00s and when I was a little girl Lisa Frank was the shit, so I thought, why the hell not go all out? Get something vibrant and beautiful and charming and keep it forever, fill it up with all of my craziest ideas.

You might be surprised how difficult it is to find a Markie notebook. A search through every store in town that carries school supplies turned up nothing and even eBay was a bust. My sister knew about my search though and she’s very eBay savvy and she found the notebook I was looking for sale literally the week before December 25th. I’m pretty psyched to have my Lisa Frank writer’s journal (pictured above).

How do you keep track of all of your writing ideas? Do you journal? Do you keep notes on your computer? Tell me about it in the comments!

Sounds Like Part III…The Pros And Cons Of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

Sounds Like Part III…The Pros And Cons Of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

To wrap up this month’s discussion on how to write good dialogue I want to talk a little bit more about how to give your characters individual voices. Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that “you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.” That is what you are trying to do with your dialogue. Rarely do two people sound alike, and I don’t just mean in an auditory sense, in that their voices sound alike. I am, of course, referring to more than that, I mean their word choices, speech patterns and natural vocal rhythms.

I had the audacity last week to suggest that phonetically spelled dialogue was the by-product of a writer cutting corners. That’s a pretty harsh statement but I’m going to stand by it. Because the thing is this: writing phonetic dialogue is just the surface layer.

Are You Listening To Our Conversation?

cafe interior photo by joe mabel

Remember when I said that every writer eavesdrops? They listen to people talk at parties, at work, at coffee shops, on their cellphones, on the street. If there are people speaking, you can bet a writer is listening—they may also be silently judging the speaker but that’s neither here nor there.

Phonetic dialogue is the product of a well trained ear transcribing the sounds that the writer has heard, clipping and truncating words to visually represent the rhythm of someone’s speech. This method of writing dialogue may be effective in small doses, but I think it fails at carrying a character’s voice through an entire novel. Why? Because the way people talk, our voices, and your characters’s dialogue are more than just sounds and regional accents.

Mark Twain Wrote Dialogue Like That, It Must Work

The #1 thing phonetically spelled dialogue has going for it is immediacy. The second you read, “I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely,” you know you are reading the words of someone who is different, who is other. Phonetically spelled dialogue slaps you in the face, the words yell at you that this is DIFFERENT, did you notice it was DIFFERENT, have you caught on to the DIFFERENTNESS YET? That immediacy is not intrinsically bad, however, for a reader it’s exhausting.

  • How many readers want to spend 400 pages of your novel being punched in the face?

But Lia, My Character Isn’t American!

Literature would be pretty boring if every character was American and spoke like me—I’m from the Pacific Northwest, we’re generally considered one of the blandest North American accents. So, the question is how do you write good dialogue so that a character’s accent, dialect, culture and nationality is transmitted to the reader naturally, without literary violence?

The answer is WORDS.

  • Look at your word choices. An American might say “cellphone” or “garbage can” but someone from England is going to use words like “mobile” or “bin” instead. People in other countries use different words for things, so your characters should as well.
  • Know your colloquialisms. People use slang, and slang changes depending on where you are.
    • “I’m shinnicked with cold,” he shouted, blowing on his chapped hands, backing his great rear up to the gas heater.”I love this line from The Shipping News which uses “shinnick” to describe how cold the character feels—consequently I have a bunch of family from Ireland named Shinnick, and here it is showing up in a Newfoundland dialect.
  • People say things wrong. Maybe it’s a cliché to say English is a difficult language to learn but it’s a cliché because it’s true. I’ve worked enough in online copywriting to know that even people who are ostensibly “native English speakers” still struggle to put words together correctly. If your character doesn’t speak English as their first language or if they speak more than one language they are going to make vocabulary and syntactical mistakes.
    • Word to the wise, use syntactical mistakes judiciously. Just like phonetic spelling and overusing italics, too much broken dialogue can alienate readers as well.
  • Research your references. Have you given your characters backstory? Even if the specifics don’t all make it to the screen—and let’s be honest, they shouldn’t, backstory being one of your most important off the page writing tools—every character came from somewhere, had different life experiences, and this will influence their dialogue, both in how they same something and what they say.

    Original_Starbucks photo by PostDLFI write about my characters getting coffee, talking about coffee and asking other characters if they want coffee. This is because my characters are often either from or living in Seattle and coffee culture is just that—the culture. It is In Character for my characters to discuss coffee, so that’s what they do, because it is their frame of reference.

  • What are your character’s individual frames of reference?
  • How does their backstory influence their dialogue? Think beyond how their dialogue sounds to the words and expressions the character would use.

Writing good dialogue takes practice. Read your dialogue out loud, re-write it, talk to yourself. It isn’t crazy if it’s in your pursuit to write a better novel.

Sounds Like Part II…The Use of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

Sounds Like Part II…The Use of Phonetically Spelled Dialogue

“Whyn’t you buy a san’widge? We got nice san’widges, hamburgs.”

“May soun’ funny to be so tight,” he apologized. “We got a thousan’ miles to go, an’ we don’ know if we’ll make it.”

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

ImageThe lines above, taken from The Grapes of Wrath, are an excellent example of two ways in which dialogue can be written phonetically to represent a character’s dialect: the first being the use of truncation to convey sound or rhythm (“an’ we don’ know) and the second being the way words may be misspelled or ground up to convey accent (“Whyn’t” and “san’widges”). Steinbeck is well known for this style of writing; Mark Twain and Margaret Mitchell are two other famous examples of writer’s who used it in their novels. Are we starting to see a pattern?

Put The ‘ack In The Accent

ImageI first encountered dialogue written like this when I was thirteen or fourteen, reading Buffy The Vampire fanfic, specifically Spuffy fanfic. If this doesn’t put a clear picture into your head what I mean let me elaborate: BtVS fanfic written about Spike by Americans trying so very hard to portray his cockney accent in the text. That’s on top of the excessive use of pet names, including “pet,” hackneyed, if well intentioned, attempts to use Britishism. This was, after all, before the rise of Sherlockian Britpickers. And don’t get me wrong, my meager forays into writing Buffy fanfic included some real gems of badly written dialogue too: the ubiquitously spelled “luv,” for example.

Whenever I see phonetically written dialogue, it brings me back to my tweens, a time spent reading hundreds of stories written by authors trying to transcribe language exactly as they heard it without a great deal of thought about the mechanics involved in writing good dialogue. Am I calling Steinbeck and Twain’s dialogue the work of hacks? Maybe, a little bit. At the very least the product of writer’s cutting a corner.

Many critics, and by critics I mean my University Creative Writing professors, laud Steinbeck’s portrayal of diverse lower class American groups as authentic and gritty. And in a strict sense it may be authentic, but I’m not sold on it being the best way to write gripping dialogue. Anytime a professor—because how many times has a teacher assigned Steinbeck, Twain or Mitchell in your life?–has to preface a book with the expression, “The language may be very hard to get into but keep trying. You just have to get through the first half of the book,” I think there’s something flawed about the structure of the novel.

No, I said ‘ello.”

Next week we’ll dive into the specific pros and cons of using phonetically spelled dialogue and alternative methods of writing good dialogue. But for now I want to challenge you to think about the books you’ve read, classics as well as books written more recently.

  • How many of them contain phonetically spelled dialogue?
  • When you read a book with a character with a phonetically spelled accent does it draw you deeper into the story or make it more difficult to access?