Oh my Lucas! Star Wars sold to Disney! Episode VII in 2015!

This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of George Lucas owning Star Wars and marks a new beginning (without a reboot) for the franchise.

I don’t know what to think or feel. Considering Disney has done so well after acquiring Pixar and Marvel, I’m hopeful . . . but Episodes I – III taught me not to go overboard with that New Hope.

Episode VII comes out in 2015? That’s just three years from now! What is the story? Will they stick to the continuity established in the Star Wars novels or not? When is it set? –I’m assuming it is still “A long, long time ago,” but how long after the events of Return of the Jedi? Will we see Luke, Leia, and Han? Will they be recast? Who will write it?

How much influence does Lucas still have? — With respect to the man who created this wonderful universe, I’d love to get some new voices in the drawing room. Disney has a wonderful set of writers on staff.

Who will direct? — Joss Whedon is an obvious choice but he’s doing Avengers 2 in 2015. Christopher Nolan is too dark. Spielberg has gravitas with the older fans, but does he with kids? Who else?

I can’t take it! I won’t sleep for a week!

Dialogue Tags

DEFINITION: A Dialogue Tag lets the reader know which character spoke/is speaking. These are words like: said, asked, yelled, demanded, screamed, mumbled, etc. The “tag” can go before or after the quotation.

You can download a PDF list of Dialogue Tags here: www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson…/dialogue_tag.pdf.

My advice with Dialogue Tags is simple, straightforward, and easy.

The tag should usually (but not always) come AFTER the quotation. It just works and reads better that way. Read a few dialogue passages (by different authors) and see how what you like/what works for you.

Putting a tag in the middle of dialogue spoken by one character can also be effective, though too much of it will slow the story down and give the sense of “too many interruptions.” I like the tag in the middle because it adds a pause and makes sure the reader knows who is speaking before the speaker is too far into the monologue. EX: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Beth said, “or else the reader may not know which one of us is speaking.”

Do not use adverbs. Adverbs are the call sign of a lazy writer. If the character was angry, make that anger evident by what he said—not by writing, “Stop!” he said angrily. Instead, write: “Do that again and your index finger will bend in all the wrong places,” he said.

Keep tags short! This is just a personal preference—in no way a rule—but I get annoyed when there is always additional information “tagged onto the tag.” There’s nothing wrong with it exactly and I do it myself sometimes, but I just don’t think the dialogue tag is really the place to provide any information other than who was talking.

When possible, SKIP the dialogue tag altogether. If you don’t need one, don’t use one. You won’t always need a tag if only two people are in the conversation: once we have the rhythm, you can drop a tag here and there. Also, the reader might be able to tell who said “it” based solely on what was said, the tone, etc. Be minimalist with the tags.

Use “said” or “asked” 95% of the time. “But why?” you ask. “Those words are so common that no one will notice them!” And to that, I say, “Exactly.” The beauty of the words “said” and “asked” is that we do not notice them—they are like punctuation—they serve their job but do not call attention. That’s the way a tag should be.

All of the above go to one main point: we don’t want to notice the tag. We want to know who was speaking and concentrate on what was said. The tag is there for functionality—not to show off your prose. If you are showing off your prose with your dialogue tags, you might actually be showing that you can’t write good dialogue. I find tags like “yelled,” “shouted,” “screamed,” “pined,” “retorted,” “exclaimed,” etc. to be distracting and annoying. Again, the dialogue should carry the message of HOW it was said. Try changing all of your tags to “said” or “asked” and see how much better it flows (you’ll still want to use those other tags occasionally though). Make sure your dialogue does the work instead of the tag. Really. Give it a shot.

Some Great First Sentences

I read somewhere that authors should take an afternoon to waltz into a bookstore or library and read as many “first sentences” as they can. I did this a few years ago and think it was a worthy exercise: I learned quite a bit about what makes an effective first sentence. As an added bonus, I found a few great novels. While you might stay in the section containing your genre, I’d suggest moving around the store/library a bit.

The following is a list of “first lines” from books lying around my house and some of my favorite short stories. You’ll notice great variety in “what the sentence is about or says,” but the key element is that the sentence is interesting and makes you want to read on (or should).

Which of these is your favorite? What makes it effective? If you don’t like one, why doesn’t it work for you?

“It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” – Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

“Then there’s the time I went as Hitler for Halloween.” The Littlest Hitler (from the short story of the same title) by Ryan Boudinot.

“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.” – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is that you have to die.” – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

“This book begins with a plane crash.” – Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

“When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place.” – Mercy by Jodi Picoult.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

“It’s hard being left behind.” The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

“Patrick’s house was a ghost.” – Shine by Lauren Myracle.

“They took me in my nightgown.” Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.” Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg.

“My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups in chronological order:

1. Alison Ashworth   

2. Penny Hardwick   

3. Jackie Allen   

4. Charlie Nicholson   

5. Sarah Kendrew.”   

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.” The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

“It’s hard to stop looking for something without simultaneously giving up hope.” “Zero” by Erica Krouse.

“When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas Texas and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were names Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life.” From “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis.

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” From “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.

BONUS ENTRY: My father emailed me his favorite first line and though I have not read the book, I agree it is rather catchy: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” War in Heaven by Charles Williams.

The First Sentence

The first sentence is the most important one in your novel. Your first sentence must entice. If it fails to do so, no one will bother reading your second.

Readers (and agents) make quick judgments about whether a book is right for them. They can afford to be picky and they won’t simply dive into your book to take a nice swim—they’ll read the first sentence. If it doesn’t grab them, that’s all they’ll read.

You must strike hard and fast.

There is no rule regarding what should be “in” that sentence. It could be an interesting detail, some dialogue (though most people prefer some context before a conversation begins—at least in chapter one), an original perspective, a joke, a fear, a voice that is fresh and profound, a metaphor, an image, a question, an event, or none of those things. The only rule is that it must compel the reader to continue reading.

That being said, the reader subconsciously wants to know: “Am I in good hands with this author?” So although there isn’t a simple checklist for how to compose a great first sentence, you at least need to prove that you are a good storyteller.

Try getting to your conflict in that first sentence. Did I do that in my novel? No, but I can think of some good books that did (and they are published whereas mine is . . . awesome anyway, damn it!). I’ve written several hundred different first sentences for my one novel. In one of my favorites (the first example below), I gave my main character some personality with some witty dialogue that also helped set the scene, foreshadow some danger (that we would later find out was connected to the main conflict), and hint at genre. All of those things are good to “get out there” as quickly as possible.

Here are a few of my “first sentences” I’ve come up with for my novel. Of course, I only get one first sentence in the manuscript.

  • “Wait a bloody second,” Alanna said, “You mean you got zapped by lightning doing this? As in, you were setting up this same contraption we’re working with right now, then Boom! God went Old Testament on you?”
  •  Alanna O’Connor spun around, her long auburn hair taking sudden flight, and planted her thin palm against the castle’s sandstone wall, blocking Zoë’s path.
  • When Alanna declared that Zoë’s being struck by lightning was, “Wicked cool” and “Brilliant,” she meant it in the best possible way.
  • Alanna O’Connor was in no mood for this.

Each of the above is okay. Which is the best first line? I don’t actually know. Feel free to leave a comment.

Style, Voice, and Sentence Variety

I hate it when people mention my “style” or “voice” because one commenter will inevitably disagree with the last. Style and Voice drive me crazy.

How does one create a personal style? How does one cultivate a unique voice?

As far as I can tell, the answer is “through time and practice.” Eventually, you will settle into your own style and voice. The more you write, the more your voice will develop and shine through.

That being said, we can probably all agree on some basic guidelines regarding style. The one I want to mention today is: You should vary the types and lengths of sentences in your prose.  Don’t only write simple sentences. Don’t only write compound sentences, complex, or compound-complex sentences. If you don’t remember those terms, have no fear! It just means that you should write sentences of different lengths and that use different patterns of phrases and clause combinations (okay, you can review some grammar if you want to).

This lesson was driven home for me years ago when I read Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work (a creative writing book with plenty of solid advice). I won’t bother paraphrasing because Provost nailed it.

“This sentence has five words. This is five words, too. Five words sentences are fine. But several altogether become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing gets boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And when I’m certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals, and sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” – Gary Provost, Making Your Words Work.

There will be times when you want to repeat a sentence type (using parallelism perhaps), but generally, you want to change it up so that the reader doesn’t fall into a rhythm or spot a pattern. Additionally, you want to show that you have complete control over your prose—and that means being mindful of your sentence variety (or lack thereof).

Coincidence Kills Good Fiction

Nobody likes coincidence in fiction. This is because coincidence rarely—if ever—works in fiction.

Yes, coincidence does occur in real life. We can accept it (though it is sometimes tragic) in real life. We cannot accept it in fiction even if you are trying to show that coincidence happens in real life. Just don’t do it. NOTE: I can only think of one example when coincidence “worked” in a story: the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film, Magnolia. You can watch part of the opening scene here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah-_35R1ZqY ) to see what I mean.

If you have coincidence in your MS, change it. This is probably easier than it sounds. You just have to find a way for whatever it was to NOT be a coincidence. Seed the idea or event earlier so that when it happens, we will say, “Yup, I saw that coming,” or, “That figures.” Those reactions are much better than our saying, “Well that came out of nowhere and is just stupid.”

Of course, if you seed the idea well enough, we will NOT see it coming, but when it happens, we will accept it or even say, “Oh! I should have seen that coming!”—and that is always what you want. This is tied to foreshadowing: if you seed the “coincidence” event somehow, it won’t seem like coincidence because you tipped us off to it earlier.

My Blog Got an Award and I am Passing It On!

Fellow fiction writer Emilyann Girdner(anythingimagined.blogspot.com)  nominated me (this blog) for a Liebster Award–one given out to new and upcoming blogs with fewer than 200 followers. Thanks, Emilyann! “Liebster” is German for “favorite,” so this is considered a Favorite Blog Award.

So my blogpost today is my response to the 11 questions I had to answer as part of the Liebster rules. This post is less about writing than it is about me. I’m also “passing it forward” to eleven other blogs in hopes of creating a better network of great new blogs.

I’ve nominated 11 other blogs and included 11 questions for them to answer on their own blogs.

So, my answers to the 11 Questions I was given:

1. What is your favorite song?

“One Way” by The Levellers. No, you’ve probably never heard the song or the band, but you should listen to both. “There’s only one way of life—and that’s your own.” So true.

2. Cats or Dogs? Why?

Cats are fine, but dogs bring joy.

3. What is your favorite book from childhood?

I read comics, mostly. My favorite monthly was Uncanny X-Men, though I have to give props to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. The first novel I read on my own was David Morrell’s The Brotherhood of the Rose (by then I’d been assigned And Then There Were None and To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which made me realize that reading prose could be worth my time). I didn’t start reading novels for fun until high school.

4. If you had to pick a different occupation, what would it be?

I’d like to be one of those guys who taste beer for a living. This is a real job, by the way. Budweiser has a few guys who sample each vat of beer to make sure it is exactly right. And I think the pay is pretty good!

5. Do you have a favorite flower?

I am not a flower guy. They look nice. That’s about the extent of how much I’ve thought about flowers.

6. Mac or PC?

I prefer a Mac simply because I’ve never had a single virus or computer issue. It just works.

7. Who would you pick if you had the opportunity to interview a historical figure?

I’d probably interview Dick Cheney. I want to know what or who was in the “man-sized” safe in his office. Actually, I have a lot of questions for him. That would be a fun interview . . . unless I ended up in the safe.

8. Do you believe in love at first sight?

Only for the blind. Just kidding. I’m suspect of love at first sight because Romeo and Juliet were such idiots. Now, I was certainly interested in my wife when I first saw her from across the room at the Galway Arms Irish Pub in Chicago, but the love thing grew as I got to know her (and I guess she grew to love me, too . . . or so I tell myself). I believe in infatuation at first sight and lust at first sight. True love seems like it takes more time than a glance.

9. What is your favorite genre of book and why?
I love science fiction/speculative fiction because these stories tend to be creative & imaginative, but more importantly, they tackle important issues in entertaining and thought provoking ways.
10. What are you most proud of in life?

I’m proud of my family and happy to be part of that wonderful group of people. I’m also proud of the novel I’ve written (unpublished). Whatever happens with it, I know it is good. It may not win any awards. That’s fine. But you have no idea how hard it is to write a good novel until you spend years trying and revising. I did it and I know it is a fairly entertaining read. Come what may, that’s something.

11. What obstacle has been the toughest for you to overcome in your life?

Compared to most people, I have lived a charmed life: no major tragedies, financial woes, etc. I am probably the happiest person I know. When I was growing up, we moved several times and that wasn’t easy. I didn’t have any control over what was happening and I certainly didn’t like saying “good-bye” to friends. My family stayed together and we were always okay, but moving to a new spot was depressing and frightening. Eventually I learned to make the best of it, go in and make new friends, etc. By the time I got to college, making new friends was easy and normal, but in elementary and high school, moving felt a lot more like an ending than a beginning. That being said, I wouldn’t change anything. Moving helped me discover who I was . . . and despite all my faults, I like who I am.

My New 11 Questions for the Blogs Nominated Below:

  1. What is something you regret? (no need to get too personal)
  2. What was the first thing you remember writing?
  3. Who was your favorite actor or actress when you were growing up?
  4. What is your favorite television show that was cancelled before its time/too soon?
  5. Can you think of a time when you were “pleasantly surprised”? What was it?
  6. What is your least favorite type/genre of music?
  7. Which disappointing revelation of a fallen star/celebrity had the biggest effect on you and why?
  8. If you were to recommend one vacation spot, what would it be and why?
  9. What goal are you most focused on right now?
  10. What is on your bucket list (things you want to do before you die)? *List just one or two.
  11. If you were to write a “Thank you” note to someone you’ve never actually met, who would that be and why?

New Blogs:












Dialogue – Even Better Than the Real Thing

Great dialogue is not realistic dialogue. Great dialogue is better. We all know that realistic dialogue is boring. People just aren’t that clever on the spot (especially when saying “Hello” and normal pleasantries). So don’t write that stuff. Skip it. Nobody wants to read it.

Great dialogue seems real though it probably isn’t actually realistic. Consider the “what I should have said, was _______” moments in your own life. What you actually said was okay, but later on, you realized the perfect comeback or response—and that’s what your dialogue should be: the best version of what your characters could say.

I’m not suggesting that every bit of dialogue be a zinger or end with an exclamation point. Each scene needs highs and lows. If every statement has a “this is life or death” tone, then none of them will actually carry that tone.

Listening to real people talk is good because it will help you pick up on different speech styles and rhythms, but don’t mimic it exactly. Make it better (more witty, more subtle or dramatic, etc.). Like everything else, this comes with practice. Have fun!

NOTE: Some authors are better than others. I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s dialogue. If you’ve never read A Long Way Down or High Fidelity—do yourself a favor and pick one up.

How Reading Can Hurt Your Writing

Reading AND writing are vital for anyone who wants to be a writer. There are so many reasons to support reading that I won’t bother going into it—I am sure you can make your own list.

However . . . reading while early in your writing process might be a bad idea.

Why? Because you don’t want what you are currently reading to shape what you are writing.

Ever since I became serious about writing, I pick apart every novel I read: examining how the author achieves whatever he/she creates. I look at how much description is there, where it shows up, the use of imagery and figurative language, the dialogue, how we learn about the characters, how the setting, tone, and point of view are established, etc.  These are all excellent things to analyze and will give you (as a writer) plenty to consider.

But if you are doing this as you write, you will be tempted to follow the cues of the book you happen to be reading. This might be subliminal but it can just as easily be the thought, “he/she did __ well and I bet I could do something similar in my own book when ___.”

Particularly in the early writing stages as you put your story together and map it out, you must guard yourself against outside influences. Reading and/or talking to someone about your story will result in stifling your creativity. There will be time for discussion and revision—but if you want to create something new, you must listen to your own muse and no one else’s.

Query Tips – The Cycle of Querying and Feedback/Rejection

I mentioned in my last post about Query Strategy and Feedback that I was recently rejected by a nice and respected literary agent. I also mentioned that I was fine with that.

Being “fine” doesn’t mean that I wasn’t disappointed. I would have been thrilled if she had offered representation. But being rejected isn’t a bad thing and it really is bound to happen . . . a lot.

The thing to keep in mind is that this is a cycle. You send out queries and wait for agents to say, “Send more!” and then you do, and then you wait even longer, and then the agent will probably decide to pass on your amazing story. But that isn’t the end. That’s when the cycle starts over again.

Take in point: Yesterday! Last week, I received a rejection. This week, I’ve had two people request my novel (one was a request for the first three chapters, the other requested the entire manuscript). So rejection isn’t the end of the story. It is simply a part of your story. If you keep at it and keep working on your writing, you will eventually get published in some fashion. Yes, you can expect disappointment and frustration but you can also expect happiness and fulfillment.

When you get rejected, take it in stride. Give yourself some time to reflect, do some more research on agents, and pick a few more agents to query.

Keep on ‘truckin.’