Monday, February 29, 2016

Prose Blip – Dialogue Tags

Exclaimed. Whispered. Interjected. Said. Shouted. Ejaculated.

These words have one thing [besides a similar tense] in common with one another.
They’re all dialogue tags. Each one - in stories - would follow, precede, or interrupt a snippet of dialogue. They are used to clarify who is speaking, and how they are speaking it. These little words are rare outside of books, but they’re some of the most useful little [or large] words in the history of words.
However, not all dialogue tags are created equal. They don’t all deserve the same rights, the same prominence in literature, nor the pursuit of happiness.

No, some dialogue tags are better than others. Some deserve to be on a lower plain of existence than others. And some… some just shouldn’t be used at all.

The Power of a Tag

Why use dialogue tags? Well, there are several reasons, but the simplest is for clarification:
“Hey there.”
“What’s up?”
“Not much, you?”
“I thought maybe we could hang out or something.”
“Okay sure.”

Was that confusing, or was that confusing?
If I told you there were three people in that conversation, could you pick them out? Probably not. First, it’s rather vague and poor dialogue in the first place, but the problem also lies in the lack of tags:
“Hey there,” Judy said.
“What’s up?” Mark asked.
“No much,” she responded, “you?”
Mark shrugged. “I thought maybe we could hang out or something.”
Jane snickered. “Ew.”
Judy frowned, then she smiled and said, “Okay, sure.”

It’s still the lamest bit of dialogue ever, but it illustrates my point well enough: without dialogue tags, you’ll never know for certain which character says what.

Less is More

An interesting, little known fact about dialogue tags: they’re supposed to be invisible. Dialogue tags are only there to clarify who is speaking. If they become the point of themselves, they’re doing it wrong. See, we don’t use dialogue tags in real life. Because in real life, we can see who is speaking. We can tell by tone, inflection, and body language who is speaking what, and how. We see their mouths move, hear the words that result from the following vibrations in the air.

In stories, we don’t have the luxury of watching people’s mouths move. So instead, the author gives the reader a fleeting indication of who is saying what.

The power of the dialogue tag is its invisibility. I read a dialogue tag and move on, with the picture painted properly in my head of who is saying what. The thing is… I don’t care about the dialogue tag. If it wasn’t there, I’d be disgruntled and confused, but when it is there, I don’t care. It’s only purpose is to keep me from being confused.
Shorter dialogue tags are better. If you spend more than two words to say “Judy said”, you’re doing it wrong. There may be one or two exceptions, such as “Judy whispered hoarsely”, where your adverb is the only option to describe her voice as hoarse, but otherwise… two words is the key.

Problematic Interjections

Some dialogue tags were created by English teachers to help their budding writers “spice up” their research papers and homework “stories”. These tags are – in essence – good for research papers and awful for real stories.
“Okay!” Sally ejaculated
“But what about this?” Mark expostulated.
“I don’t care,” Sally retorted.
Mark responded: “Yes you-“
“No I don’t!” Sally interjected.

The thing about fancy dialogue tags, they sound painful. I mean… what does expostulating look like? It sounds like a painful dismemberment.

The shorter the dialogue tag, the less your reader will notice, and the more your reader will enjoy your story. When the dialogue tag causes me to stop and go “what?” it’s the wrong tag. I don’t want to have to stop and dig through my brain for a definition to “ejaculated”. That’s not the point of dialogue tags.
Keep it short, keep it simple.
Contrary to what your English teachers have said in the past, the word “said” is okay. In fact, it is your best friend. You see, “said” is invisible. It is so well known to your readers that we won’t even read it, really. Instead, it will blend right into the name [or pronoun] that precedes or follows it. I will read “Mark said” as “Mark” and suddenly I know Mark is talking. It might not even register consciously that I know that. But I will, and that is the point.

The Power of Tag-less Tags

What if your dialogue tag wasn’t a tag at all?
These are the action tags, and are, in my opinion, the best kind. This is, quite simply, attaching an action to your dialogue:
“What is it?” Stephen poked the rock with a stick.
Barty shrugged. “Probably a rock.”
Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not a rock, it’s a dragon egg.”
“No it’s not,” Humphrey said, “it’s a large bug.”
“Or a rock.” Barty snorted and walked away.

Shortly thereafter, the rock hatched into a dragon-bug and the world ended. Er… that is to say, I only used one dialogue tag in that horrid little story, but at the same time, you know exactly who said what. There is no doubt who said what.
Instead of invisible words, I used actions to paint the scene and attach emotions to each piece of dialogue. Now you know not just who said what, but how they said it.

Dialogue tags are easy. Well, except the grammar. I don’t feel like explaining all the grammar surrounding them, so find the nearest fifth grade grammar book if you don’t know.
These little snippets of dialogue can make or break a scene, which makes them incredibly important.
Despite their invisibility.

Related posts:

Featured Post:

Friday, February 26, 2016

5 Reasons You Need to Stop Being Your Worst Critic

I know a lot of young writers.
It sorta makes sense, because I’m a young writer myself. So, when I talk about young writer problems, I fit the requirements to be talking about the problems with young writers.

Oh, I’m not talking about problems that young writers have, I mean problems with young writers.
And when I talk young writers, I’m not drawing an age line. There is no line in the sand, no “cut-off” age where any writer above or below the line belongs to a respective group.
See, I know a “young” writer who is in her late thirties, and an “old” writer in her early twenties.

I’m attributing “youth” to “experience”, or the lack thereof.

The problem with young writers I’d like to try and fix today [or at least address, I know I can’t fix it] is the critical way we view our own writing.

I’m part of a writer’s group. Like, one of those face-to-face, meets-in-a-library kind. Sure, I’m also on those online forums (and they’re great places), but I mean the real kind.
We meet once a month in a little library in a small town. I (at 17) am the youngest writer by twelve years or so. Of the thirteen or so people who meet every week (I think the total membership of the group is eighteen or so), I am always the youngest and the “least represented” type of writer. There are five fiction writers, writers who write fantasy or sci-fi or any kind of non-non-fiction. We’re an oddity.

It’s an interesting chance for me, as a writer, to experience others who write poetry, memoirs, non-fiction, devotionals, articles, and the like.
And I’ve learned something that many writers on forums seem to forget: your writing is okay.

Yes, that’s an odd thing to forget. Especially because it might not seem true. Maybe you just started writing and you’ve been told in critiques that you have stiff dialogue or flat characters or a massive plot hole and everything seems to be falling apart.
“My writing is bad,” you think.

It’s not.
Your manuscript may be rough, your characters may be cliché, your plot may be insubstantial, your prose may sound as appealing as a textbook on the composition of human hair, but it is not bad.
Writing is a learn process. It’s about getting better.
Every writer has room to grow. Even C.S. Lewis learned to write better over time. He didn’t just have the gift of writing beautiful things.
He started like you did:

The princess kissed the frog. It turned into a prince. They were happy.

(That is not a quote from Lewis, just an illustration.)

So. How did writers forget this fact?
Well, it may be that they joined communities where they don’t have experienced writers to learn from. They just jumped in and made friends with the same experiences and never had a chance to get better at what they want to do: write.
That’s why I enjoy my real-life writer’s group. There’s a woman there who’s been part of the group since it formed twenty-two years ago. She writes the most wonderful poetry. There’s a man who writes comedic little short stories with wonderful little gems of hope and joy buried in them.
A woman who writes journal-entries that pack more emotion than a funeral and a wedding smashed into a food processor and blended. A man who writes flash fiction about people he knows. A woman who writes abstract poems to describe concrete ideas.
Every single time I go I grow. I learn not just about writing, but about life and about emotion. Even though few of them are into the kinds of fiction I write, they’re still willing to offer their opinions, well-formed and encouraging.

There’s this policy that they have: anyone who apologizes for or puts down their own writing has to put a quarter in the box. We have this little purple box with quarters in it. If you talk bad about your writing, you have to put a quarter in. If you try to apologize for something being rough or bad, you have to put a quarter in.
You’d be surprised how well this works. I mean, it’s just a quarter. I don’t even carry quarters on my person. But at the same time, you rarely ever hear someone talking bad about their writing.

So. Five reasons you need to stop bashing your own writing:

1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Sure, you may not be Edgar Allen Poe yet, but even Edgar wrote a few bad poems before he wrote good ones. Quoth the Raven wasn’t his first attempt at rhyming.
Good storytellers grow. They don’t start at some place of ‘success’ and stay there. Sometimes the steps are small. They fix a specific problem with their stiff dialogue and keep going.
So if your poem doesn’t sound like the wind through the trees, if your novel has a cliché stuck right in the middle, if your characters sound like robots, don’t worry. If you’re bad at something, that means you can only get better at it. It takes time to learn how to do something.
Take me.
I can’t write poetry. It’s not that I don’t know how to rhyme; it’s that poems just aren’t my style.
And that’s okay. It’s a writing weakness I want to learn to overcome. Because poetry is beautiful. Until I fix it, however, I’m not going to go around shouting at the top of my lungs that I’m an awful poetry writer.

2. Being negative doesn’t fix your problems.
An interesting fact: complaining doesn’t solve issues. Sharing links on Facebook to articles that whine about a social issue doesn’t solve the problem.
Putting your own writing down doesn’t fix it.
If your writing is bad, it’s a good thing to admit it. Better to admit your faults than to ignore them. If you ignore problems, they never get fixed. But if all you do is talk about how bad a writer you are, you’ll never not be a bad writer.
That’s just how the world works, kids.
If you spend all your time putting your writing down, you’ll never make it better. So, instead of complaining, instead of making yourself feel bad, do something about your problem.

3. Your bad opinion of your work spreads to others. If I’m browsing an internet writer’s forum, looking for something to read and potentially critique, I’m looking for an idea or concept that sounds interesting. I want to read something written by someone who loves the idea. If you don’t love the idea, why should I?
If your topic title [or any part of the topic] says “COME READ MY AWFUL WRITING” in any way, shape, or form, I’m not going to read. A lot of people aren’t going to read. If you throw yourself a pity party with such self-demeaning comments, I and a lot of other well-meaning people are going to move on.
When you claim to dislike your own stuff, other people are going to assume it’s as worthless as you say.
I’m not saying you should be arrogant and self-conceited, but there’s a way to say “hey, my writing needs work”, without saying “my writing is awful and I’m a horrible person”.
There’s this thing called the middle ground, which works quite well in most situations. Admit your faults – and even ask for help with them – but don’t spotlight those faults as the main subject matter of your story.

4. Faking it really can make it. Confidence goes a long way in creating reality. Overconfidence is real, of course, but a genuine attempt to believe in yourself can –gasp- create real results.
Instead of constantly beating yourself up about your weaknesses, consider your strengths. When someone critiques your writing and points out a flaw, don’t dwell on it. Instead, thank them for their help and set out to fix your problem. The sooner you get rid of weaknesses, the sooner you become a fantastic writer.
On the other hand, however, take the pointing out of flaws with a pinch of the proverbial salt. Most people mean well when they critique, but their critique is their opinion. An opinion you should value highly when they’re an experienced writer, but still just an opinion.

Oh, and all those critiques which do nothing but praise your work? Take those with an even bigger grain of salt. You’re not Ernest Hemingway yet.

5. Give yourself permission to fail. Because you will fail. Sometimes you’ll fail so big it will make you want to weep floods (please don’t, I hate dealing with sandbags). If you’re constantly beating yourself up – whether in jest or not – you will crash and burn. It will be spectacular, in a slightly sad way, and I’ll applaud as the fireworks of your demolition light up the night sky. They’ll be nice fireworks.
But at the same time, those fireworks are bits of your soul floating off to become flecks of dust that other people inhale without even realizing it.
That’s a bit saddening, and I’d rather avoid it and use real fireworks, rather than your soul.
So. When you mess up big, how do you put off the soul-fireworks?
It’s simple: be willing to let yourself fail. Take a deep, deep breath, and fail. Then, when it’s all said and down, take another deep breath, and stand.
Rise up, Maurice.
Get up off your failure of a rear-end and get back to work.

Are you your worst critic? Why? Leave a comment and share!

Related posts:

Featured Post:

Monday, February 22, 2016

World Blip – Fashion for Science Fiction

Two weeks ago, I gave you suggestions for expanding the fashion of your fantasy world. Vibrant fashion makes a vibrant world.

But this extends beyond your average fantasy novel (of which I am a fan, to be sure), to other novels. Historical fiction, for instance, are often set in the rather overused Victorian England or Civil War America (with a few World War One Germany exceptions). These places had rather… boring fashion. Sure, the Victorian gentlefolk had ridiculous get-ups (those wigs, though…), but the common folk wore browns and grays and whites, all in very strict gender- and age-restricted sets of clothing.

What about other historical eras? Ancient Egypt, for instance, was much more varied in what it did and did not allow people to wear. India, on the other hand, was quite strict, but it was a different sort of strict.
People are looking for something new when they read. Fashionable English ladies in corsets and skirts more voluminous than their husband’s stomach aren’t new. They’re old hat (much like the well-rounded husband’s hat).

Now. What about Science Fiction? What about the daring fellows who fly through space or time or between planets or even just around this earth?
For them, I want to give you something special.

The Freedom of Unknowns

One of the greatest things about writing a non-historical novel is the freedom you are given. People can wear whatever you want them to wear. It’s up to you. This can be a bit overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to come up with a completely new form of dress. I know the feeling. So I’ll give you three simple tips this blog post.
Because fashion is fun. Even if you hate shopping and don’t actually care much about fashion yourself (like me), designing what people wear can be really quite interesting. I never thought I’d be that one author fellow who likes designing clothes for his characters. 
What have I become? Ew.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

My parents are always talking about how something that used to be cool when they were kids is coming back. This hairstyle, that color of shirt, those pants, this or that. It seems that fashion from the 1970s is coming back to haunt the 2010s. I’m not sure I like it – I mean, I’ve taken modern history, I know what 1970s looked like… - but the weird things are coming back into style.

That’s the thing about style. About any kind of style, clothing, food, technology. Take audio devices. We started with the tape recorder, right? The boxy thing you clip so elegantly to your belt, and then buy a second belt to support the first belt. It got smaller as the Compact Disk came out, then even smaller as “IPods” came into being. These things got so small they started beating out Cheez-its as the smallest square thing people accidentally ate.
Now, all the sudden, our iPods are growing again. They’ve transformed into iPhones, now, and many of them are so big they don’t fit in our pockets. Instead we buy little belt clips we stick them on, then we go buy another belt to support the first one.

Oh, look, we’ve come full circle.
The same thing with fashion.
Sometimes, what comes around will come around again in forty years.
As you plan the fashion of your near-future (~200-500 years from now), keep in mind that fashion does evolve and change, but at a slow, circular pace. Things that used to be cool will be cool again, but they’re change in small ways. Eventually, they’ll be unrecognizable.

“All the Popular Kids are Doing It!”

One of the most common ways to make something popular is to give it to a famous person. In our day, give a Hollywood star a plaid shirt and converse, and suddenly every teen wants a plaid shirt and converse (of course, all the hipsters will be scrambling to find a new style, but I digress). Give that same star a different set of clothing and a new rush to the stores begins. Fashion is a fickle thing. It changes on the whims of a few influential people.

So as you design clothing for your near-or-far future story, consider the influential people. What do they wear? Obviously, what they wear will be more elaborate, shiny, and expensive than what your average Joe and Jolene can buy, but the products they purchase are often “dumbed-down”, cheaper knock-offs of the $2,000 outfit of the rock star.


As I stated in the last post on fashion, color is important. In fantasy, color can distinguish class and wealth. In the future, color makes a statement about your very being.
So what colors do people wear? Why?
As you pick these colors, don’t settle for your average futuristic colors: gold and silvery with lots of platinum and black. How about a few old throwbacks: violets and soft reds, with hints of brown and peach?

Fashion can help your story stand out. It can bring to life your characters by adding a spicy bit of color and realism to their world.
And hey, even if you don’t like worldbuilding, you might like fashion. It’s more of an art, in some ways. And you’re an artsy person, are you not?
What do you think? Do you have any science fiction novels you’ve designed fashion for? What do they wear? Leave a comment and share!

Related posts:

Featured Post:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Stagnant Worlds: Unchanging Fantasies

Before I begin the actual post, I want to quickly apologize for the lateness of this post, but I’ve been bedridden for the greater part of this last week and – to be completely honest with you – didn’t even think about missing a blog post. I didn’t have the energy to think about it. But here it is now, so please enjoy (and pardon any moments which feel like I’ve still got a head cold and am trying to describe something while under the influence of said head cold…)

How many fantasy books have you read?

Myself, I’ve read dozens and dozens and dozens of them. If I haven’t read the book, I’ve at least heard of it, and it’s on my list of “to be read” books. That list is… exhaustive, I don’t know that I’ll ever finish it. Exciting, isn’t it?

Now. Of the hundreds of fantasy novels (this can be any kind of fantasy novel which isn’t Urban Fantasy or Contemporary Fantasy, which you’ll understand why in a moment), how many boast of a History?
Some are more in-depth than others, but very, very few fantasy novels are without their histories. A few are like Tolkien’s’ with entire series of books dedicated to describing the history that comes before the two stories your average reader will know and love.
Others will be more like Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, in which the history is detailed, but it can be summed up in six pages, rather than six thousand.

Most fantasy histories will go back two-five thousand years.
That’s a wide range, yes, but in the grand scheme of fantasy novels, a thousand years is the blink of the cliché eye in the life of an elf or dragon or evil dark lord.

Of the fantasies you know – the fantasies with many thousands of years of history – how many show signs of advancing technology? How many have doctors who are beginning to understand how the human body works? How many have scientists and philosophers and inventors?

Off the top of my head, I can only think of a few.
Today, I want to address the issue of fantasy worlds that never change, never advance. They feel stale, in many ways, because they are similar to the pools of standing water in a marsh.

The Problem with Stagnancy

It took people in our world several thousand years to figure out how to harness electricity – the power of lightning. It took us (including the Chinese) thousands of years to understand how gunpowder works and the many uses it has.
Even now, as we probe the deepest and most complex parts of the human brain and body to understand then, we don’t know everything.

So. Why do I find fantasies that don’t have technological advancement wrong?
Because it’s unrealistic.
A world that never changes – that never makes breakthroughs in science and medicine – isn’t real. It’s a copy, a farce.

I’m not saying your fantasy has to take place in a world where skyscrapers are sprouting everywhere and telephones are in common use (although that would be interesting), but I am saying your world should be realistic in fantastical ways.

Every civilization of the past was known for some particular advancement. The Assyrians used advanced military tactics; the Egyptians were fantastic healers and architects. The Babylonians and Greeks were philosophers and warriors and poets before it was cool to be all three at once (the little hipsters). Romans built sewer systems and aqueducts and laid out cities and roads and an empire so efficiently that it took decades of corruption and outside attack to bring them down. The Chinese built the largest wall in the world – a wall so large it can be seen from orbit – while most civilizations were discovering that sticks floated (I exaggerate, okay?).

The point is, technology happens. Advancement and invention and learn happen. If a fantasy world never, ever changes, then how can your reader see it as real?

The Vibrancy of Change

Now there are many fantasy stories told quite successfully wherein no real technological or medicinal or philosophical or scientific achievements take place.
And that’s okay.

At the same time, however, we don’t want to settle for “okay”, do we?
The “stagnant world” has been done before. A few hundred fantasy worlds have been created which involve total Dark Ages. Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and many others come to mind.

We want to be different, do we not? Each book should stand out from others. “I’m different,” your story should say, “I’m special.” That’s how you grab the attention of a reader, an agent, a publisher.

For example, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy takes place in a fantasy world that has been kept under harsh submission by a foul Lord Ruler for a thousand years. It has a slight steampunk feel, if steampunk was covered in ash and permeated with magic.
A follow-up trilogy that takes place 300 years after the events of the first book illustrate the exact point I’m trying to make. In this next trilogy (the first book is Alloy of Law), technology has leapt forward as discoveries are made. The first skyscrapers are being built, electricity is being harnessed, motorcars are being invented, trains crisscross the world, and everything is changing. Sanderson’s world reached – as our world did – the industrial age.

It’s a beautiful world, with a wonderfully intricate story told within.

Stirring Stagnancy

It can be hard to overcome a “stale” history, the stagnant tale of an unchanging world. But at the same time it can be liberating to do so. I want to give you three simple things to consider. It’s often best to pick one or two areas for your world to advance in, so as not to overwhelm yourself, and so as to avoid distracting from the story.

-Advancements in medicine.
Perhaps your world has discovered the theory of bacteria. Some doctor realized that people get sick when they interact with other sick people, with things sick people have touched, things sick people have coughed on, and so forth.
Or perhaps doctors have learned how to sterilize their instruments. Or surgery has replaced amputation.
Medicine is an easy route to go for, because it doesn’t take much time and can often have an effect on your character’s potentially life-threatening wounds.
It’s an easy way to show a gentle advancement of a world into a modern age. Worlds don’t stay in the Dark Ages forever.

-Science and technology.
Perhaps people have learned how to use steam to work for them. They have begun to experiment with pistons or gears or pulleys.
Inventors play with fire and lightning and chemicals and fry their hair.

Science is a fascinating subject. Our world changed drastically when science leapt forward. Every day, now, science is changing. It’s advancing so quickly we can’t keep up.
Even if your world is just beginning to enter that stage of “oh look, science is a thing”, it’s a worthwhile development.

-Education and Philosophy
Does your world have universities?
I talked about education a while back, and showed how much of an impact education can have on your story. This is true in this case as well.
As knowledge increases, more and more people will attempt to learn, if it is made available to them. When you let people learn it allows your world to become colorful in new ways: intellectually, artistically, philosophically.

Much as religion and government should be diverse, so should the advancement of your world.

Just as your characters vary widely from one another, let your world be difference from those other worlds out there.

Let your story and your world be different.

What do you think? Do you have any fantasy worlds that are beginning to enter that “industrial” age? Leave a comment and share!

Related posts:

Featured Post:
Emotional Outlining (Brandon)