Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Beat Goes On: Writing Fiction Dialogue

When I aspired to become a published writer, I didn’t know the “writing experts” used different definitions of the same words and phrases. Or that their definitions wouldn’t always be listed in a normal dictionary.

Beat is one such word.


If you check a dictionary, you’ll find an extensive list of definitions. Since I took lots of piano lessons as a kid, I tend to think of beat in relation to music. Like in maintaining the correct beat which had been hammered into me by several piano teachers.


Thus, to me beat had to do with the tempo of a piece of music. The rhythm.


During my journey to published novelist, I went down the screenwriting rabbit hole. Imagine my surprise to see the word beat used interchangeably with plot points and turning points. Then I read Robert McKee’s Story and he had yet another definition: “A beat is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.”


Oddly, I can’t find a dictionary that defines beat in any of those screenwriting terms.


Frankly, none of the screenwriting definitions of beat clicked with me. I think my primary definition of beat kept getting in the way. Not that I worried about it, after all, I wasn’t writing a screenplay.


When I was editing one of my novels years ago, I was introduced to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It's a great little book that keeps you on track while editing your way through a final draft.


It also gave me a definition of beat that completely changed how I wrote dialogue. Their definition was easier for me to grasp because it married well with music.


In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a beat is a descriptive sentence or sentences inserted before, after, or during the dialogue section. It is not a dialogue tag such as “said,” that establishes who is talking, but instead comes into play after the reader knows who is talking and describes a character’s response or action.


If dialogue is the audio, think of beat as the video.


The reader not only “hears” the character, but can also “see” the character. In this context, a beat is a well-timed pause in the dialogue, a succinct but descriptive sentence filled with deeper meaning, that expands the scene.


Revisiting the dictionary, we find a definition of beat: it contains a rhythmical flow or pattern. Using beat in this fashion makes it easy to see how a well-written dialogue beat helps the rhythm of dialogue flow.


To me, beats are key components of writing dialogue. For decades writers used overworked descriptive dialogue tags (loudly, determinedly, sweetly) in order to show characters’ emotions. Beats offer a much better way to do this.


I love using beats for two reasons:


They make descriptive dialogue tags unnecessary. They reduces the number of times I need to use the ubiquitous “said.”


Here’s an example from a scene in my short story “The Courtship of Serena Smith.” The heroine is petting the hero’s dog.


“It’s in her face and coloring,” Serena said sadly. Her fingers slid from Mollie’s head to the distinctive ridge of hair running down her spine. “And the ridge. She looks a lot like my Bandit,” she said in a choked voice. “He was honey color, too. With four white paws and a white tipped tail.”


But I wrote:


 “It’s in her face and coloring.” Her fingers slid from Mollie’s head to the distinctive ridge of hair running down her spine. “And the ridge. She looks a lot like my Bandit.” The woman’s words caught in her throat, coming out a little ragged. “He was honey color, too. With four white paws and a white tipped tail.”


I dropped the descriptive “said” tags in favor of focusing on what Serena is doing and how she sounds as she speaks. My goal is to keep the reader in Serena’s point of view by using descriptive beats that best connect the reader to Serena’s emotional state.


Dialogue can be used in multiple ways to enhance storytelling–everything from advancing the plot to revealing goal, motivation, or conflict. (I actually have over two dozen uses of dialogue in my She Said, He Said: The Power of Dialogue ebook) Dialogue coupled with beats offer a variety of ways to deepen the emotional connection between the characters and the reader. If you’re a novelist whose exposure to beat is trying to fill out a Beat Sheet, keep in mind, beat has more than one meaning.


Once we assign the word “beat” to the job of enhancing dialogue, it a short step into understanding, as Browne and King wrote, that a beat is the “literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business.”

If you’re a novelist whose exposure to beat is trying to fill out a Beat Sheet, keep in mind, beat has more than one meaning.


Once we assign the word “beat” to the job of enhancing dialogue, it a short step into understanding, as Browne and King wrote, that a beat is the “literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business.”


A deeper dive which we’ll take in an upcoming blog.


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Gestation of a Novel

I’m frequently asked how long it takes me to write a book and I’m never sure how to answer because I’m not sure what the person is asking. Do they mean the actual physical act of writing? Or do they mean everything involved from conception to finished product? Conception to finished product covers a lot of time because the imagination is triggered in countless ways. 

What kind of things trigger a writer’s imagination? They can include song lyrics, historical events, a sentence in a book or magazine, a casual conversation, a new recipe or even a dream. Once an idea takes hold, I start a file. This is normally a physical file, but I also use computer files. I come up with a working title and when I run across photos, newspaper articles, reference books, possible character names, research about possible jobs for a character or snippets of information about the time period, I put them in the file. 


During this phase, I collect possibilities that may be used to tell that story some day. The truth is, I have more files than I have time to write, but it’s comforting to know there is always another story gestating. 


Gestation 


I like the word gestating because it means the development of something over a period of time and that’s what a book does. It develops over a period of time. Time that cannot be easily calculated because much of it takes place in the imagination where there are no clocks. 


I’ll use Lady Runaway as an example. The book started with a dream scene that lodged itself firmly in my brain. I couldn’t forget it. The scene involved a young woman hiding in a 19th century London alley. She is pulling her hand, sticky with her own blood, away from her chest. 


At the time I dreamed this, I was writing a Victorian era novel, but I’m an avid reader of Regency romances. I love the wit and humor of the short traditional Regency and use these books as a writing reward. I’d read one or two every weekend to give myself a refreshing change from the Victorian time period. 


Once the scene in the London alley got stuck in my brain, I started mentally fleshing out a story line. Trying to figure out why this woman was in the alley, why she had been knifed, and what was going to happen to her next. I had read a lot about 19th century medicine so I knew a Regency doctor would be in this story. Who else could take care of her knife wound? Eventually, I outlined a possible story, but the real impetus for writing Lady Runaway came from the rejection of my Victorian era novel. 


Rejection, Request, Success


An editor who read that submission (which would go on to be my first published historical romance–Stealing Destiny) liked my writing style, but couldn’t use that particular manuscript. She asked me if I had any Regency manuscripts because they were hot and she needed manuscripts. I pitched my idea for the book that would become Lady Runaway. She liked it so I wrote furiously, submitted the manuscript, made the suggested revisions, and resubmitted it, but in the end that version of Lady Runaway was rejected. 


While the basics of the story were there, I don’t think that version had gestated long enough. During the next year, no longer under the pressure of trying to write a book before an editor forgot who I was, I tweaked, poked and prodded Lady Runaway into a better story (and better title). That’s the story that Twilight Times Books published. How long did it take me to write Lady Runaway? I really don’t know. I didn’t mark the calendar the morning I awoke from that dream scene, but it was probably a year or so later when I pitched the idea. Then I had to write it and revise it. 


I also seldom work on one writing project at a time. When I was working on Lady Runaway, I was also writing a humor column for the local newspaper, writing and editing an aviation newsletter, and trying to break into the magazine scene. Trying to cage the creative process with time limits isn’t easy and that’s why I tend to hem and haw when someone asks me “how long” it took me to write a book.


Thursday, September 15, 2022

Why I Like Reading Genre Fiction

I recently realized I’m a genre snob. Literary works don’t do much for me. I realized this when I read the reader discussion at the end of a book I had just finished. The author admitted he has no message in that book. No message? No take away? Nothing that makes reading the book worthwhile for the reader?


Actually, this pretty much summed up thoughts I’ve frequently had about literary fiction. Many “literary” books don’t seem to have a worthwhile message, some stories just meander from scene to scene without really going anywhere.

Yet in all my years of study of how to improve my own writing, we are constantly told to have some sort of takeaway for the reader. That most people read a book to help them make sense of the world.

Through the years, I have read countless fiction books written by countless authors. It may be shallow, but I often veer away from literary fiction because I have learned the stories often have an unfulfilling ending. At least to me.

It took me awhile to realize I preferred genre fiction. It hit me over the head after I joined a library book club. The books we read were selected by recommendations from the members. The group would vote on whether or not to read recommended books. Once the members agreed on a book, whoever suggested it became the moderator for the book.

A week before one meeting, the woman who had suggested the upcoming book selection asked me to be the moderator. She had unexpected company coming and was going to have to miss the meeting.

Reluctantly, I agreed.

My reluctance stemmed from the fact I did not care for the book. It was sad and I don’t like to read sad books. In fact, often the books chosen by the members of this book club were either sad or didn’t have satisfying endings. Since I had joined the group to widen my reading habits, I faithfully read the selected books.

Problem is, I’m an avid reader of the news which usually reeks with sadness, especially these days with so much turmoil in the world. The real world sort of turned me off of reading sad fiction for entertainment.

I think that is why I prefer genre fiction. I prefer the villain be caught and pay a price for their wickedness. I prefer the mystery be solved and justice served. I prefer the hero and heroine end up in a successful relationship.

Thus, I read fiction for entertainment. And my fiction preference is usually genre fiction where I know the promise of a good story with a satisfying ending will be met.

Obviously, I’m a genre snob.


Thursday, August 25, 2022

Zooming into Writing Presentations

I gave my first Zoom class in the spring, “As You Wish: The Power of Dialogue,” for a writing group in California. Since I have two writing skills ebooks on that subject, I had resources for the script I wrote. That was a plus because I needed two hours worth of something intelligent to say about dialogue.


I also needed a slideshow.              


Hmmmm. My slideshow expertise rests solely on a long ago attempt to showcase my dogs in five slides. Since I used photos I already had, all I did was add the captions. This recent attempt needed witty captions that matched pertinent images that fit the content about dialogue.


Whew!


Script writing for a presentation and designing a slideshow was a new writing experience for me. My background is more of the “in person workshop.” I’ve presented at all types of writers’ conferences from local to national. In addition, I’ve given presentations about writing to every age level from first graders to senior citizens, book club groups to the Rotary Club.


When the Internet hit, I expanded into online writers’ conferences and workshops. This was done with email lectures and I became comfortable with this format.


I wasn’t eager to appear online because an experience in the early days of video chats with authors was not positive. Our librarian invited an author to join our book club session via the Internet. For some reason, the Internet connection kept freezing and the weird frozen faces of the author killed any desire I had to try the process.


Still, when my friend asked me to do a Zoom class, I thought, it’s been a decade since the fiasco at the library, surely Internet connections work better now. Fingers crossed, I took a chance and hoped my face wouldn’t freeze into a grotesque mask at any point.


Then face freeze became a moot point when I realized it’s all about the lighting.      


Like lighting your area without creating unattractive shadows on your face. And if the lighting isn’t right, it will glint off your glasses’ lenses when you move your head. Removing my glasses isn’t an option. I’d have to hold my notes about an inch from my face if I needed to read anything. Then again, if my face froze no one would know because my face would be hidden behind my notes.


Like the trooper I am, I watched the rerun of my “As You Wish: The Power of Dialogue” Zoom show. While I didn’t do extremely well on the lighting, I did get most of my first Zoom class right.


Two sources indicated to me the content of the presentation was well received. I remembered to include the class in some discussion. And I only suffered the occasional “duh” moment as I tried to share information and register the disappearing and reappearing class attendants.


My positive experience with a Zoom presentation was aided by my dear friend who invited me to speak. She graciously sent me examples from past Zoom presentations she had made. They proved priceless as guides for how to create a Zoom presentation.


The tech guru who ran the slideshow portion contacted me prior to the big day with helpful information describing his part in the process. He also offered some general suggestions on making the Zoom experience positive for the attendees.


All in all, it was an educational experience.


One I’m apparently going to repeat in October.


Now if I can only figure out how to keep my glasses lenses from sparkling.


Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Joy of Writing

Several years ago, I wrote this essay for another blog I have called “Beneath the Midlist.” I’m not as familiar with all WP’s bells and whistles and tend to “forget” to post there. 

I really liked this blog and thought other writers might find it helpful to read so here it is.



While it would be nice to make a living at writing, I never have. If I hadn’t married a Renaissance prince–a patron who shelters, feeds, and encourages me–I would never have had the opportunity to write.


Sure, it’d be nice to rake in a lot of dough, but truth is, I’ve always written and I’ve never made a lot of money at it.


But I have experienced a lot of joy.


One of my favorite writing experiences occurred when I wrote a humor column for the local newspaper. I had a good friend who was an older woman who had worked tirelessly through the years to make our home town a better place. When I discovered, she had started the Girl Scouts organization in town and helped establish an arts alliance program, I decided to devote a column to her. 


After I lauded her accomplishments, I asked readers to thank her the next time they saw her. Well, they did more than that. They had the mayor proclaim a day in her honor and held a reception for her, inviting the town to come and thank her.


I got hooked up with newsletters right after I was married. My husband was in the Army and I volunteered with Army Community Services. Once the supervisor learned I had studied journalism in college, I got to write the monthly newsletter. The Army sent my newsletter to military installations around the world so I was internationally published way before the Internet made it easy. One of the wives who received the newsletter wrote to thank me. She didn’t live on post and felt out of touch with military life while her husband served overseas. My newsletter helped her feel connected to the military community that she missed. It was nice to know she read and enjoyed my newsletter and that it helped her endure the separation from her spouse.


To my delight, an article I wrote in an aviation company newsletter led to three mechanics in Alabama receiving the FAA’s Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. They read the article and realized they qualified. Of course, it took a little more than that for them to receive the award, but it got the process started.


As a fiction writer, it’s always satisfying to feel your characters have touched someone’s life. When Stealing Destiny was first published, my hair stylist begged me to write a sequel because “I want to know what happens to Billie and Grayson after they go to Colorado.” While I appreciated her desire to stay with them longer, their story had reached its happily ever after conclusion.


The Internet has opened wider doors and it was great fun to hear from a reader in Australia who used my essay about finding ants in my iron to convince her “mates” that ants had been in her iron, too. And I doubt I’ll ever forget my husband’s co-worker who told my husband what I needed to do to get rid of said ants. It was quite a pleasant surprise to discover what I wrote interested men, too. 


I’ve met many writers during my journey. Some have done well financially, some have made a little money from one project or another, and some have published their own work and given copies to their friends and family. In my opinion, the size of the audience and the amount of money earned doesn’t make you a writer. What makes you a writer is the act of writing.


Only then can you experience the joy writing brings.


Friday, June 10, 2022

The Handy Dandy Occupational Outlook Handbook

Most of us have a general idea of many careers. Our paths have usually crossed those of dentists, nurses, bank clerks, car mechanics, postal carriers, and librarians, just to name a few. But we’re not always well acquainted with professions other than our own. This is where the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ handy dandy Occupational Outlook Handbook comes in handy for writers.

Never heard of this handbook? Well, if your main character insists on being a biological technician and you know nothing about this career, then this is the website for you. The OOH is stuffed with details about this profession and thousands of others.


First of all, what is a biological technician? According to OOH, biological technicians assist biological and medical scientists. They set up, operate, and maintain laboratory instruments and equipment, monitor experiments, collect data and samples, make observations, and record results. A biological technician may also analyze organic substances, such as blood, food, and drugs.


That’s not all the OOH shares about this profession. It also lists educational requirements, annual wages, and how many are employed in the field. There’s a geographic profile for the profession that breaks statistics down by state and even metropolitan areas.


The profile also provides estimates on how how fast the field is growing and future job prospects. The types of industries that employ biological technicians are also profiled. Some biological technicians work in scientific research while others might work in the pharmaceutical industry.


Using the OOH is relatively easy. On the home page you’ll find 25 categories of occupations. I chose Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations which led me to biological technicians.


Each profession has a menu bar: Summary, What They Do, Work Environment, How to Become One, Pay, Job Outlook, State and Area Data, Similar Occupations, More Info (links to further resources).


All this information helps your imagination as you build the backstory of your character. Keep in mind that education influences the way a person talks and will also influence the way your character talks. If we return to the character who trained to be biological technician, OOH tells us a person training for this occupation would typically need a bachelor’s degree in biology. Biology programs include subfields such as ecology, microbiology, and physiology. Throw in a little math and physics seasoned with laboratory experience and you’re brewing up a biological technician.


Not only will this character’s dialogue be influenced by having a college education, the actual day to day activities inherent in the profession will also color their dialogue. For example, for a biological technician, the word “lab” will conjure up a well-lit, sterile environment that features microscopes, vials, and latex gloves.


To me, the word “lab” conjures up a big, friendly family dog.


I’ve never been a biological technician, but OOH certainly helps me get a good handle on the basics of the occupation such as the education required, the way a character might speak, their work environment, and even their socio-economic status.


All in all, not a bad place to start building backstory and getting to know my character.


Best of all, this information comes to you free from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you want to check out this handy dandy handbook visit 

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/


Occupational Outlook Handbook, career descriptions, character backstory building


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Let’s Revisit the Ripple Effect

On May 25, 2015, I posted a blog titled “The Ripple Effect in Storytelling.” I wrote about consequences in setting up a scene. I was reminded of this blog when I recently watched Ryan Reynolds’ latest Netflick movie, The Adam Project. As a longtime Reynolds fan (Two Guys and A Girl!), it was fun to follow his adventures as a pilot from the future who goes back in time and encounters his younger self.


Reynold’s character is wounded while stealing an aircraft to travel back in time. Although the bullet supposedly exited, its path was through his body, not a graze mind you, a bullet hole through flesh and organs and blood vessels–and he bleeds a lot.


While he spends some time early on tending the exterior of the wounds, he ends up in several physical encounters with no visible problem of an untreated bullet wound in his side. In The Adam Project, the screen writers forgot about the ripple effect.


What’s the ripple effect, you ask?


Well, once something is introduced into the story, it has consequences that ripple out. Imagine a pebble tossed into a pond, it hits the water and then ever widening ripples reach out to touch more area than the pebble itself touched.


Let’s look at the word consequence. It has two meanings. Consequence is something that can be the result of an action or condition. Think outcome or repercussion or aftermath. The second definition of consequence is importance or relevance. Used in that sense, words such as significance, substance, or value comes to mind.


The consequence or result of being shot is a bullet wound. What is the importance of this wound? Its relevance? We feel it has significance when we watch Reynold’s character pull his blood soaked hand away from the wound.


Thus, the writers dropped in the pebble of a gunshot wound, but they failed to truly widen the repercussions. They erased the effects of the wound.


What happened?


In the beginning, Adam the pilot is profusely bleeding as he escapes capture. He needs to find medical supplies to treat the wound. He even tells his younger counterpart that the bullet exited so he doesn’t need to worry about fishing it out. Then the remainder of the movie, it’s as if he has no bullet wound. There are no consequences. No infection, no fever, no bodily weakness from blood loss.


According to Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia:


“Gunshot wounds that pass through the body without hitting major organs, blood vessels, or bone tend to cause less damage.”


I guess this is what the writers intended, no major organs hurt, no ricocheting off a bone. But bullets still destroy tissue and blood vessels. Gun shot wounds hurt! They cause damage to the body which needs time to heal. Without the proper care, they become infected.


Wouldn’t that hurt?


At the very least, the wound would be a source of pain when someone whacked you in the side.


Yet, Reynold’s character fought valiantly against a slew of opponents, including the villain’s henchman who engaged him several times in one-on-one physical battle. Ryan’s character never flinched or displayed any disability while being pummeled, or leaping around, or bopping the bad guy.


While this lack of the ripple effect may be all well and good for an established actor, the average writer might want to think about the ripple effect’s consequences and how they impact characters when building story scenes.


The screen writers failed to give the wound a true ripple effect. It was the result of an action, but it failed the second definition when its important role in the beginning of the story fizzled out. The ripple effect of this injury never reached its true dimensions.


Don’t leave your readers wondering why a character fails to react when someone lands a punch in a body part that was penetrated by a bullet only hours earlier. Think of the ripple effect as you write your story.




https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000737.htm