Friday, July 17, 2009

Not At Nationals - Common Romance Writing Mistakes Pt 6.


Missed Part Five of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.

  • Mangling Dialogue:

Remember that Harlequin (if that’s the publisher you’re aiming for) is a world wide publisher. Even if Harlequin isn’t your publisher of choice, think about the kind of people who will be reading your story. Will they all be the same age, have the same amount of time to read a book and most importantly of all, will English be their first language - and even if it is will they understand colloquialisms? The world is a much smaller place now. And if you want your book to have the widest possible audience (and therefore the broadest possible market when you try to sell it to an editor or agent) then you need to keep that in mind when it comes to dialogue and the words you use to describe things. For example, where I grew up kids referred to soft ice cream on a wafer cone as a ‘poke’. The ice-cream vendor who drove around in a little van playing tinny music to get our attention was therefore the ‘pokey’. If I hadn’t explained that to you would you know what I meant?

Some writer’s try to give their story more of a sense of ‘place’ by making the characters speak with an ‘accent’. They can do it successfully with a Greek or an Italian or a Spaniard by peppering in a few words of Greek, Italian or Spanish (usually endearments). But sometimes they do it by butchering the English language, writing the words the way they would sound and believing the reader will read them ‘phonetically’/ out loud so they get an idea of how the characters sound. This can not only look like a gimmick and drag the reader out of the story as they ‘translate’, it’s also pointless – because these days the editing department of any publisher is going to run a computer spell check. And guess what they’ll do when they find those words?

Now that’s not to say you can’t use abbreviations or words associated with Pop Culture. We’re writing Popular Fiction after all. Unless you’re writing a historical romance, the story is set in the modern day – the action is happening now – so the words the characters use in their dialogue will reflect that. There are more cases of ‘gonna’, ‘cos’, ‘wanna’, ‘uh-huh’ and ‘yup’ in dialogue now, because that’s how people speak. We live in a fast paced world where text abbreviations and internet speak are part of our everyday language, but those are extremes, and they’re in the ‘written’ form; they’re not spoken. The thing with abbreviations or ‘slang’ is that you need to use them sparingly, and even then you have to be careful which ones you use. Your story is set now. That ‘now’ is timeless. The minute you add a year or an event in recent history you date the story – you place it within a certain time frame. In romance writing we tend to avoid that because books can be reprinted decades after they first come out. Not only that, but it takes up to a year for them to appear in print after they sell, so the ‘now’ of the book already makes when the writer write it a time in the past. What was ‘cool’ might now be ‘awesome’ – what was ‘awesome’ is known as ‘phat’ in some places. And just as you don’t want to restrict where your book goes or who reads or how long it can continue to be reprinted, neither can you expect one generation of readers to automatically understand the slang of another generation. It’s not a case of never, it’s a case of tread carefully, and when in doubt – use proper English. (
The only exception to this is if you're writing a romance set in the future or an alternate reality of some kind. Then you can obviously add words and a timeline of your own, but your book may require a Glossary of some kind at the beginning or the end to help the reader out.)

By the same token, another thing that some readers find jarring – and a complaint I’ve had myself over the years (leading to the editing department keeping a close eye on me at one point) – is the over-use of swear words. Now in a category/series romance there are already certain words we can’t use. But even over-use of the basic ‘damn’ or ‘bloody’ or ‘go to hell’ can be considered jarring. The basic rule of thumb in this case would be that having a character use them in dialogue mid-argument is acceptable so long as it’s not every other word – that way it becomes an outburst in the heat of the moment. Even in a book where you have a military hero, the chances are you won’t see that many swear words. And you tell me how many military men don’t have a colourful vocabulary! At then end of the day this isn't really a biggie. If the editing department considers the book to have 'too much' then it will pare it down. But that's not to say you can have swear words ever three lines...

Task Fifteen: Have a look at the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and study the dialogue more carefully. Is there much use of abbreviation or slang as they speak? How often do they use swear words? And when it comes to ‘dating’ the book to particular year or time, what clues were there to help you figure it out?

There’s a reason why the first piece of advice given to all beginner writer’s is to read as much as they can from the line/category/genre they would like to write for. And it’s not just a ploy to get you to buy more books. Reading it once for sheer enjoyment will give you an idea if it’s the kind of story you would enjoy writing. (STORY FIRST) Reading it a second, third or fourth time with a more critical eye will tell you about the structure and themes and a million other little things. (Everything you’ll be looking for when you’re EDITING).

Task Sixteen: When you look over your own manuscript at the editing stage, take a look at your dialogue and ask the same questions about abbreviation and slang and swear words. Have you mangled their speech? If you speak the dialogue out loud does it sound like a conversation you might over-hear?

One of the tests I always use on my own work is whether everything but the dialogue can be taken out and it can be read like a script. Because remember a script has very little instruction beyond location and basic movement – it’s the actors who breathe life into it. Dialogue should flow in the same way any conversation in real life does.

  • Sense Impressions:

This goes back to some of the stuff we talked about earlier: The five senses and inner POV. It’s about the characters REACTIONS to their environment. Just as having too much of those things can stall the storytelling, a lack of it can make the story one dimensional and flat. That’s why adding these things to the story is part of the process we in the romance writing business call LAYERING. It adds depth and richness. It sparks the readers imagination and helps them to step into the story and become part of the world the characters inhabit for the time it takes them to read from cover to cover. Every scene in a romance novel will be sprinkled with layers that tell us what the character can;

See – Like surroundings, the details of a room, colours, the expression on the other characters face and how they move, their physical reaction to him/her.

Hear – Like music, crowd noise, street noises, footsteps that indicate someone’s approach, the tone of someone’s voice when they speak, the sounds they make…

Smell – Like the scent of food, flowers, cut grass, fresh coffee, perfume, shampoo, etc.

Taste – Like particular foods as they eat, drinks, a hint of salt on skin…

Touch – Rough or smooth? Baby soft or slightly coarse? Cool or warm?

Feel – The emotions that may be backed up by physical movement or the ones that are hidden underneath the surface; fear, excitement, nervousness, arousal, suspicion, need, happiness, sadness, regret, determination…

Think – The inner though process that explains to the reader why they do the things they do, why they say what they do and what their goals are.

Not every scene will have everything from this list but it will have a combination of some of them to add to the dialogue that will appear in 99.9% of the scenes. As The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “… you can’t ask your reader to play blind man’s bluff. Just because you see and hear details in your imagination as you write the scene does not mean that the reader will by some magic guess the same details. You have to give her enough hints to go on.”

Task Seventeen: Go back to that romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and pick a random scene. How many of the five senses are used in the scene? How often do you get inner POV in the form of thoughts or feelings? Now imagine how the scene would have red without them. Would you have formed as clear a mental picture in your imagination? And how did the author use them – did she describe things the reader might have experienced so that she could add her personal experience (COMMON UNIVERSAL TRAITS) as another layer to the story? Then look at your finished manuscript at the editing stage. Remember those trusty highlighter pens, markers/coloured pencils of ours? Pick a random scene and see how many of the senses you used. Then highlight every time you used inner POV to show us what the character was thinking or feeling. If your page is still looking very white then we’re in trouble. It doesn’t have to look like a rainbow, but there should be a good range of colours on there…

  • Saying 'Said':

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best; we don’t need to reinvent the wheel - and we’re not just talking about the use of the word ‘said’ here. There are plenty of verbs we tend to ignore in favour of a wordier description. Replied, demanded, sighed, shouted, screamed, asked – remember those? Sometimes we don’t need anything at all. So long as it’s clear who is saying what in the flow of conversation, a line of dialogue can be left all on it’s own.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “If you’ve been guilty of using every synonym in the thesaurus, using the simple ‘said’ will worry you to death for a while. It’s one of those ‘author worries’ that readers just don’t think about. Believe me: If you use stage action and thoughts, and the simple verb ‘said’, readers will be totally happy. Why distract them and wear out your thesaurus when it’s not required or even smart?”

Hands up who obsesses about over-use of a particular word and spends hours trying to find different ways of saying the same thing (my hand is in the air). Uh-huh. Writers tend to be an obsessive bunch. And thanks to computers we have handy dandy little search tools that will tell us how many times we use a particular word in our manuscript. We take a look at twenty ‘gazes’ and immediately groan and dig out the thesaurus. Yes, sometimes there are superfluous words. I’m having a big problem with the word ‘that’ at the minute, and I start entirely too many sentences with the word ‘and’. We all know our individual ‘sins’. But if a reader is able to tell you there were twenty ‘gazes’, it’s not the twenty ‘gazes’ that were the problem – it’s the fact the story didn’t hold their attention. Just like we can forget to tell the story first and worry abut the editing process before the writing part is finished - readers who become writers tend to lose the simple joy of reading and allow ourselves to leave the story to pick out things like structure, conflict, pacing, descriptive passages, etc, etc, etc… It’s an occupational hazard. But the majority of readers aren’t writers. They approach a novel with the expectation of being told a story. They want to care about the characters and become emotionally invested in what happens to them. Every time they see one of those twenty ‘gazes’, do you know what they think? They think the character is looking at something. If there are twenty ‘gazes’ in two pages or three of them in five lines? Then they might notice. So stop obsessing. Yes, Trish Wylie… I’m talking to you!

So yes, there will be times when you can substitute a verb with a thought or a feeling or one of the five senses, but sometimes it’s fine to take the simple option. Remember – restricted word-count – why use twenty words when two will do the same thing? I’d ask you to check the romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for to see how the author dealt with this subject. But I can guarantee you, there’s hardly an author out there who isn’t guilty of this one at one stage or another (me included).

Task Eighteen: (Without feeding your obsession) When you go over your manuscript at the final editing stage, have a look at the number of times you could have used a simple verb – where two words could have done the job of twenty. Look for places where a line of dialogue could have stood alone. Not every line of dialogue needs to be propped up, particularly in a scene where the dialogue is fast-moving – like an argument or an emotional outburst or a moment when words have to be dragged from a reluctant character in the same way you might get blood from the proverbial stone.

Oh, an if you need alternatives for the twenty ‘gazes’, I bet I can supply a good half dozen. I have the best Synonym finder in the whole wide world and it's more than well used, trust me.


  • CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to the sidebar! Got questions about anything in the Blog then just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Seven of this Mini-Workshop here.)

2 comments:

Susan Rix said...

TRISH!!!! Oh my goodness, I've only just stumbled on these posts - they're FANTASTIC!!!

I'm going to study them over the weekend - I can't tell you how useful all this is as I'm just about to start revising my manuscript for the new Romance.

Love ~Sue~ xx

Btw I've tried sending you a direct message via twitter but I can't coz you're not following me.

Trish Wylie said...

Glad you found them Sue :) Hope they prove useful and GOOD LUCK with the MS!!! Keep me posted, k?

And I think I've fixed the Twitter DM thing ;)