All posts by Alex McGilvery

Getting Conversant with Conversation

If you have more than one character in your story you will have to write dialogue. Even with just one character dialogue is possible. One of my favourite resources on dialogue is Dave King’s Self-Editing for Writers. Actually, it’s a terrific book all round.

Here’s a brief dialogue.

“Ayyoop, them stars shur is purty tonight,” said the grizzled old cowboy.

“Bah!” Bob snapped whitheringly, “Stars are just gas, like some people I could name.”

“Sorry,” said Cookie as he let loose another fecund cloud of gas. “Beans always gets to me.”

“Then why does you only cook beans?” Stan coughed. The fire burned blue as the three men held their breath. “Is that there star gettin’ bigger?”

Wait a minute, three men? I was sure there were four. The problem is that Stan and the old grizzled cowboy are the same person. It’s important in dialogue to keep the attribution consistent. If you are having an old grizzled cowboy talking, then he needs to stay an old grizzled cowboy through the whole dialogue. If you had, Stan, the old grizzled cowboy, then you’d be OK. The exception to this rule would be if the character is introduced during the dialogue.

“Just call me Stan,” the grizzled old cowboy said. And you can safely do so for the rest of the dialogue.

While I’m talked about Stan, let’s talk about dialect. Dialect is fun to right. We hear the character’s odd speech patterns in our head. This is just how he sounds. Just be aware that it may work differently for the reader. The reader may have no clue what Stan just said. I read a book in which one characters speech was translated as “scottish sounding noises” in my head. It was just too much work to translate. If that character ever had something important to the plot to say, it was lost on me. Dialect can be achieved with rhythm and a few subtle shifts in spelling.

So what’s Bob’s problem? First it is the snapping. Most people I read on dialogue suggest that you use ‘said’ unless you use ‘asked’ because the speaker is asking a question. The reason is that said becomes like punctuation. The reader only sees it to attach the speech to the right person. The habit some writers have of trying to come up with ever more clever ways of saying ‘said’ forces the reader to pay attention to the words instead of the dialogue. Always use the ‘he said’ order. “Said he” sounds archaic and forced. Only use this order if you want to sound archaic and forced.

The same holds true for adverbs that intend to describe how the sentence was spoken. Mark Twain is supposed to have advised writers to substitute ‘damn’ for ‘very’ so the editor will remove it at no detriment to their writing. I would expand that to remove just about every adverb that you would care to use. If you want to put emotion into the dialogue, put it into the words that are being spoken. Don’t write boring dialogue and try to spice it up with adverbs.

The last bit about attribution is using non-speech words to attribute speech. People don’t cough up sentences, or laugh them, or weep them. If you are writing about a certain age of boy, they may burp them. Stick with said and use a beat to add the coughing, laughing or weeping. The bit about the three men holding their breath? That’s a beat. A beat is action in the midst of dialogue that helps pace the dialogue. In this case it gives a break between the first part of the sentence and the second.

The punctuating of dialogue seems complicated, but it isn’t that difficult.

“Look,” he said, “only lower case for the attribution unless you’re using a name, or something that would normally be upper case.”

“Hey!” she said, “remember that exclamation points and question marks are treated like commas.”

“I was getting there,” he said. “How about those Yankees? You see how I used upper case since I was starting a new sentence in the second segment of the speech?”

That’s a primer on dialogue. I may put some more advanced suggestions up at a later date.

Comment from Cynthia Port

I took Alex McGilvery up on his recent promotional offer of $100 to content edit an entire book. I don’t have extra cash for my writing, so this was not an easy decision, but I was feeling mired down by this manuscript (that I love) and needed a boost. He made nearly 400 separate comments on the document, plus several pages of recommendations and observations at the end!!! By the time I have finished responding to his suggestions, both the book and my skills as a writer will have significantly improved. 

I met Alex through CIR and don’t know him personally. I believe he may still have this offer. If so, and if you can possibly swing it, take advantage. He is very skilled. I can pretty much guarantee his rates will not stay this low. Here is his website, or you can contact him through CIR. 

Thanks Alex! (and thanks Lia London Author for CIR)

Endorsement by Harry Hobbs

I have been privileged to work with  Alex McGilvery over the past couple of years as I enter the final editing stages of my new novel A Circle of Roots  Alex spend a lot of time reading and critiquing my novel in depth. His comments covered everything from grammar errors, sentence or syntax problems to a great analysis of my plot and character development, and my handling of point of view. Alex asked all the tough questions and made me most accountable particularly in areas of the novel that I had “glossed over.”  He was accessible for questions and helped me work out problems that were not obvious to me or where I was looking for a difficulty when some minor editing is all that was needed.  Alex graciously agreed to read my book again after I had completed my rewrite.  He made further comments on where things were smooth now and gave advice on areas still requiring work.

I feel fortunate to have Alex as my editor and know my novel is stronger as a result.  I would recommend Alex to anyone who is looking for an editor to give critical and honest feedback.

Sincerely

Harry Hobbs

Email [email protected]

 

The Swamp in the middle of your story.

The beginning of your book is exciting. You’re meeting new people, new relationships form. Stuff is happening! As you get past the beginning, all the people who are going to populate your book, with a few minor exceptions have been introduced. You know who likes who and who is hoping to do the bunny hop with who. It’s like October in High School, routine.

If you are drawing a graph of excitement in your novel it starts out high. If it doesn’t you need consider how you are going to draw your reader in. But, as the thrill of introductions wanes you go downhill to the lowest point of your novel. This is the swamp. This is where everything looks the same, there is no clear path and the bugs are eating you alive. You don’t want to stay in the swamp, but to get to the mountain on the other side ,which is the joy of completing your story and making sure that everyone gets what they deserve, you have to cross the swamp. There are no short cuts.

The problem is that the swamp is a dangerous place. If you aren’t careful that tuft of grass you are standing on will disappear and dump you into the murk. Some of that beautiful green turf is a lie and cheat, you will fall through and vanish. There are creatures here that eat novels whole. Writer’s block watches you from stagnant water waiting for you to show weakness. Unnecessary characters sit like vultures in the tree ready to enter your story and weigh down your plot. Real life buzzes around your head whispering that you’ve failed, again, and why don’t you get a real job. Will-o-the-wisps try to entice you away from your plot line.

For all the danger, there is treasure to be found in the swamp. Scattered islands of golden apples. Here is where the relationships that you created are tested and reforged. Strange beings give odd advice. Your characters learn to discern what they are about. What they are really about. This is where their false hopes and perceptions are stripped from them. This is the abode of that oddest of creatures – the talking donkey.

The talking donkey is the thing that comes from out of the bounds of the story and changes everything. It may be a car accident that forces someone to face their mortality. It may be an infestation of rats that eats everything a character owns so they realize that they valued none of it. It might be a midnight conversation with a stranger in a cemetery. The point is that it changes things. This above all is what makes the character different when they climb out of the swamp.

Every story has to have its swamp, its low point. It isn’t fun to be a writer in the swamp. It is messy, frustrating, and saps your energy, but this is where you can shine as a writer. Paying attention to what you do in the swamp will make your conclusion that much brighter. It takes discipline and courage. Sometimes you’ll get lost and have to retrace your steps. Sometimes the swamp dumps you onto a foreign shore and you have to decide whether to stay there or go back.

The longer your work, the more important the swamp is, and the more likely you will encounter it more than once. False peaks abound, but eventually you will prevail and the final mountain will rise out of the mists. It is then, scratching your bites and scraping of the mud from your feet, that you will make the exhilarating climb to the end.

How to write a book.

This is a poem I wrote for National Poetry Month – April. 

How to write a book

Write
Write some more
Write until you get to the end of the story.
Do a little happy dance.
Tell people that you wrote a book.

Read your book.
Crawl under your desk and weep and bang your head against the wall until the sound makes the neighbours crazy.
Re-write the book adding some annoying neighbours.
Get pulled into the story again.
Rant and rave at your characters.
“Behave,” you say, “or I’ll kill you off.”
They laugh and run off to dance in the moonlight.
Bang your head some more.
Apologize to the neighbours, again.
Tell them you’re writing a book.

Start to wonder how any one person could have made so many mistakes in one book.
Fix mistakes, make new ones.
The book takes on a life of its own.
No longer just words on a page, this is your baby and you want it to grow up healthy and strong and maybe be a bestseller someday.

Allow the neighbours to read your precious child.
Gnash your teeth when they point out that the scene with the talking donkey really just doesn’t work.
You love that scene; you wept tears of happy abandon writing that scene.
Can’t they recognize brilliant writing?
Cut the scene.

Start to hate the book, again
It’s horrible, mindless drivel, but it isn’t the book’s fault.
So you keep working,
Cut more scenes that you love,
Let a few stay in,

One day think:
This whole thing may actually work out.
It isn’t going to change the world.
No one may even read it.
But it’s time.

The story has to stand on its own now.
There are still things you can do, but you don’t.
Instead, you hold your breathe and send it off with a backpack filled with sandwiches and a change of underwear.

Look, there it goes.

Isn’t it cute?

When is your novel good enough to publish?

I see variations of this question on writing boards all over the internet. It is tempting for me to read a few lines of the book and answer the question for them. “No, it isn’t ready. Go back and fix these issues.” After all that’s really what I’m doing when I’m editing for people. I’m showing them the parts of the novel that make it not ready for publication.

But that is just my opinion. I’m one person with one set of ideas about what constitutes a well written novel. One of the things I’ve learned in my years of reviewing is that there aren’t many rules that can’t be effectively broken. I probably would have sent 50 Shades of Grey back for more editing.

I’m not going to tell you if your novel is ready for publication. I will tell you what I think are the strengths and weaknesses of that novel. I will push you to polish and make it as ready as possible.

So, how do you know?

I use beta-readers. Those are people who don’t know me and have had no part in the creation of the book whom I ask to read the book and tell me what they don’t like about it. It may seem harsh to ask only what people don’t like, but I find it is a very effective way of getting the most out of my beta-readers. If they don’t like something, the chances are very good that other readers won’t like it either.

I fix what the beta-readers don’t like. If there was a lot of things they had problems with, I might find a second set of betas and turn them lose. When I start hearing that the book works well -they finished it without a struggle, they didn’t have major issues with the plot and/or characterization in the book, then I know that it is close.

I have my content editor go through the book before I send it to beta. The line editor I have look at it after. I’m not longer going to make huge changes, but just make certain that I’m consistent, that I don’t use the same word too many times (unless I have a good reason to do that).

I make the changes suggested, then I sit down one more time and read the book from cover to cover. I don’t use a pen to mark it up. I just read. I want to see if the story pulls me in. Does it evoke emotion at the right places? Do I like this book? If I hadn’t written it, would I buy it?

Now I’m ready to answer that question. Is my book ready to be published? Not only can I answer it, I can answer with confidence. That is very important when you are marketing. You need to know that you’ve put out a quality product. If you’re apologetic or uncertain about your own book, you won’t sell very much.

I’m still learning. I can see the difference in my two books and I’m working to create as big a difference in my third book. That doesn’t mean the first two weren’t ready, though I’d do things differently now. It means that I’m getting tougher on myself and raising my expectations.

That’s why you need to ask yourself that question each time you finish a book.

I get my ideas under cabbage leaves: the creative process.

I see lots of writing sites that are driven by giving people help with their writing. I can understand needing help. Lot’s of people tell me that I need help, but that’s a different post. The problem is the way many people need help is not very helpful. What I see writers asking more and more for others to help them with their titles, their characters, points in the plot, even the core idea for the plot in the first place.

It is time to talk about the creative process. That is, the means by which we come up with the ideas that we later turn into stories. Ask any writer where they come up with their ideas and you will get either a blank stare or a sarcastic answer. This is because everyone has their own way of generating concepts for writing stories. I know authors who never leave the house without a little notebook in which they write ideas down about characters, situations, dialogue etc. It is a little disconcerting when they pull the book out in the middle of a conversation, but at least you know that you may be immortalized in their next book. Others research trends and try to find concepts that haven’t already been addressed.  They place their stories in the cracks between other people’s stories. All my books have started with a single image or scene; a princess who didn’t get enchanted, a girl who befriends a tree, a devil who gets a chance at redemption. I read one author who when asked said that he found his ideas under cabbage leaves.

The point of all the different methods is that they imply an openness for the story to come and take up residence in the writer’s consciousness. So the real question is not “Where do ideas come from?” but “How do I open myself to the ideas?” If you only read one kind of book, you are only going to write one kind of story. If you only talk to a select few people, you will only have a certain kind of dialogue. I think you get the idea. The broader your experience and the more different people you encounter, the richer ground for ideas you will develop.

So how do you move from that initial idea to a full blown story?

Some people are outliners – they carefully set up each plot conflict and character point and arrange the time line to work best with the story. This is good. It means that you are in control of your plot, you aren’t likely to have holes for trucks to drive through and you can manage plots and sub-plots of great complexity.

Other people just start and they keep going until they stop. They have no idea how the book is going to turn out until they reach the end. Then they go back and try to find the inconsistencies and holes to fix them. This is good. It means that the story is fresh and exciting and can take wild turns at a moment’s notice. Character grows in an organic way.

Some people use a bit of both.

The important thing with however you plot your story is that you make the story and the characters your own. This isn’t about originality, or not completely. It is about taking the time to be open to what your story is telling you. How is your blond bimbo different from all the other blond bimbos? What does that difference mean to the story? That difference may become the fulcrum of the story upon which everything else balances. The same thing is true of setting and culture. The more you can own the setting and the people of your story, the richer it becomes.

So why is asking for plot ideas, or character ideas not helpful? It isn’t that it is bad. When I’m writing I will sometimes use random generators to give me words or names. The difficulty comes in that it is very much harder to use someone else’s idea to create a story. It is a stranger to us. We have to woo it and get to know it, maybe buy it drinks before it starts to blossom in our minds into a story.

If you are having a hard time writing your idea, spend some time with it. Play with it. Turn it around and twist its sides like a Rubix cube. At some point it will tell you what it wants you to do. Talk to your characters, push them and see how they push back. If your story is stuck, you may be in the Swamp, or you may have taken a wrong turn. Go back and read your story and listen for what it is telling you.

If you are desperate for an idea, any idea, go look under a cabbage leaf, there may be one waiting there for you.

Writing Articles

Over the last couple of years I have been on and off active at Wattpad. I have a fair collection of stories there, but I also have a large collection of articles on different aspects of writing from dialogue to character to avoiding cliches.

I am going to port them over to this site since much of the material is useful in looking at your writing to work on it before you hand it over to an editor. If you have a specific area that you would like me to write about I will look at it and post something here.

So you’ve finished that novel…

You accepted the challenge of National Novel Writing Month and came out of it with a novel. Everyone told you that first drafts were rough, but you didn’t believe them until you went back and read your book. The first time you read one of your first drafts is always a traumatic experience. The good news is that your novel doesn’t have to stay in that rough shape. There are ways to make it better.

The first thing I do is let the writing sit for a few months. I always have several projects on the go, so put the book on the shelf and do something else for a while. Then come back and read it. For this first read through I like to print it and use highlighters and a pen. I have a red highlighter for stuff I’m deleting. It’s terrible and it’s going. I use a green one to mark stuff that I like. I want more of that, but for now I just mark it so I know it’s there. The pen is to make notes in the margins. Comment about gaps in the plot, descriptive needs,  characterization, anything that you want to add to the novel.

When that is done, I go back to the computer and work through the draft with that marked up copy on my desk. At this point I rename the file so I’m not saving over the draft. I may need that someday. It’s a good idea to start a new version for each major revision. I delete stuff, move things around and add what I need to add. If you aren’t sure you’ve got everything at the end of the first read through. Do it again.

If you think you’ve got a decent quality draft, it is time to get someone else to do a similar process. That’s your content editor, me. I will not only focus on the good, the bad, and the missing, I will talk about structure, plotting, voice and a lot of other things.  If you pay me to look at your book and comment on it. Expect to work hard when you get the book back. You don’t want me to send it back saying “It’s great.” That doesn’t help your story improve. I may tell that parts are great, but I’ll also suggest ways and methods of making them better.

If you aren’t sure about what I can offer you. Send me a chapter and I will comment on it free of charge.