Mushy dialogue sucks. It’s nothing space in your story and sometimes it’s nothing space in your life. You know what I’m talking about, right? You meet some cool human at a coffee house and talk to them and it goes like this:
“How’s it shaking?”
“It’s shaking well, thank you.”
“Yeah. Weather is nice, right?”
“It’s quite sunny.”
“Yes, it’s lovely.”
Random bad dialogue that I just made up
One of my writers in the Writing Barn class that I’m teaching for the next six months, directed me to a blog post about the Five Biggest Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them and one of those mistakes according to James Scott Bell is marshmallow dialogue.
Bell believes that dialogue is one of the best ways to make a story better or make it absolute trash. He advocates fast-paced dialogue full of tension. Blah dialogue he says is ‘puffy,’ and ‘overly sweet,’ and everyone sounds the same no matter who is speaking.
Bell kindly gives hints about how to make characters sound different from one another.
Making documents written solely in one character’s voice.
Keep working on it until every character sounds different and you can distinguish them at a glance (I added that)
Make sure there is tension going on. What do people want? Why are they talking? Do they want the same thing?
Make your dialogue simpler. Get rid of extra words. You can cut and copy dialogue into another document and then hack away at it.
He uses the following example of compressed dialogue.
“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.
“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.
“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”
“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?”
“You angry with me?” John asked.
“Damn straight,” Mary said.
“You got no reason to be!”
Mary felt her hands curling into fists.
I’m annoying and I send my apologies to Mr. Bell, but that example is wonderful at compressing dialogue, but those people? They still sound the same to me. In the first example, they both sound like middle class people who are having a hard time expressing their feelings. In the second example, they sound like people who are expressing their feelings in exactly the same way and are probably are still the same social/economic/education background.
Look at what happens if you keep one character’s original lines and one character’s new lines.
“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked. “Damn straight,” Mary said. “But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!” Mary’s hands curled into fists.
“You angry with me?” John asked.
“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.
“But why? You have absolutely no reason to be?”
Mary’s hands curled into fists.
I’d argue that’s even better. For more about how language and dialogue changes with the speakers, check out our Dogs are Smarter than People podcast from last year. And good luck with your dialogue!
Links that go with the podcast (the important words are here and here.
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A long time ago, I thought that when my books made a bestseller’s list my life would suddenly be SUPER glamorous and certain things would happen.
What kind of things?
1. I thought my hair wouldn’t need an entire bottle of conditioner every morning so it wouldn’t be tangled.
2. I thought my eyebrows would magically pluck themselves.
3. I thought weird people wouldn’t make up random rumors about me.
Note: I have never been to a party in Las Vegas nor am I the actual devil.
4. I thought my books would stay on the bestsellers list forever and ever or something cool like that and I’d never have to worry about money again.
To be fair: I am pretty much incapable of not worrying about money. There are deep-rooted psychological reasons for this. Those reasons are called, ‘my mother.’
5. I thought I’d suddenly be a really good driver who wouldn’t almost kill my agent.
I thought wrong.
One Saturday a few years ago, my agent of awesome magical agenty things and I actually got to see each other at the New England SCBWI Conference. We were both panelists/speakers. So we went out to lunch off site. I drove my MINI.
1. I live in Maine. We don’t have multi-lane traffic really.
2. I had never driven in Mass before.
3. I was used to other drivers being nice.
So, we’re on the highway in the slower lane and there were cars EVERYWHERE and we’re all zipping along when I noticed a long line of traffic waiting to merge. A big old tractor-trailer truck was at the head of the line. I worried about this truck. I have no idea why.
I decided to get into the fast lane so the cars could merge into my lane more easily. I looked over my shoulder to check the blind spot.
My agent gasped.
The big truck had cut off the car in front of me at a high speed of like 10 mph. AND the car in front of me had COMPLETELY STOPPED MOVING! This meant I was about to ram into the car at 60 mph.
I slammed on the brakes.
Slamming on the brakes made the MINI spasm and jerk. The tires created this cool squeal noise.
I did the Mommy Move. Do you know the Mommy Move? It’s when you slam your arm in front of the person sitting in shotgun because you think:
1. That person is going to die.
2. That their seatbelt is not as effective as your super powerful mommy arm.
3. That you don’t actually need both hands on the steering wheel in this dangerous life or death situation.
So, yes, I mommy-armed my agent.
*Shakes head at self*
But, to be fair. He did grab my arm at the same time in his agent move to try to save me.
You can now imagine everyone in the car screaming.
You can also imagine me thinking, “Oh. We aren’t dead. I did not kill my agent before the panel. Okay. Good. Okay… Good author. Good author.”
The best part? As soon as we started up again my agent was like, “Um. Carrie? I drive back from the restaurant, okay?”
The other best part? The agent was still alive and he didn’t die before the panel. And also, he totally paid for the food. Score!
But I guess the bigger point is that while a couple of my books made the New York Times bestseller lists they didn’t stay there forever, which is such a total bummer in terms of money and making a living and all that stuff.
I was so lucky that it happened, right? Lucky and I worked hard. I still work hard. And it was super cool. But it didn’t completely change my life and make my eyebrows better. Here’s why:
I don’t know how not to write.
“Wait. What?” you’re probably saying.
Here it is though:
Being successful didn’t inspire me to write more or to slack off or even make me feel like less of an imposter sometimes. It’s just a thing that was, a weird metric of what our society claims is ‘success.’
Even if I never was traditionally published again – even if I self published and nobody ever read another one of my books – I would create stories. That’s just all there is to it: I really don’t know how not to write books or communicate through blogs or art or social media or news columns.
I don’t know how not write. Are you like this? Because it means something. Whatever it is that you don’t know how NOT to do? That is what you’re meant to do.
So, while having the tag – NYT bestselling or internationally bestselling (Thank you, France, for starting that) – is super cool? It doesn’t matter. What matters is doing what I love and surviving.
And that’s the thing. It doesn’t matter what you are as an occupation, you have to find something you are passionate about, something that you can’t imagine not doing – and do it. Do it over and over again. Hone your skills. Craft your crafty craft. Love the people or dogs or cats or manatees that you love. Do the work. Enjoy it. Feel blessed that you get to do it. Because you are. Blessed. Choose to be blessed.
My mom wanted to be a teacher all her life. She never got to college. In New Hampshire, they don’t let you teach if you don’t go to college. She never got to do what she loved even though she was so smart.
One of my favorite friends is an emergency dispatcher for our town. She’s not super into that. What she’s super into is baking, taking nature photos and making people happy and look at what she’s building – this perfect business that combines all those passions. That is a huge risk for her, but she’s taking it. Why? Because she loves it. And by doing it she’s making herself and so many other people happy.
That’s the thing – this life is so short. If you have an opportunity to pursue your passion, do it. You are so lucky to have the opportunity to do that. And you have to make the opportunity to do that. Don’t let your feel of failing keep you from trying or going after your goals.
If you enjoyed this post, I’d be so super grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook or Pinterest. Thank you! I know it’s a super small thing, but it means so much to me.
The podcast DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE is still chugging along. Thanks to all of you who keep listening to our weirdness. We’re sorry we laugh so much… sort of.
THE CLASS AT THE WRITING BARN
The awesome 6-month-long Writing Barn classthat they’ve let me be in charge of!? It’s happening again in July. Write! Submit! Support!is a pretty awesome class. It’s a bit like a mini MFA but way more supportive and way less money.
PRAISE FOR CARRIE JONES AND WRITE. SUBMIT. SUPPORT:
“Carrie has the fantastic gift as a mentor to give you honest feedback on what needs work in your manuscript without making you question your ability as a writer. She goes through the strengths and weaknesses of your submissions with thought, care and encouragement.”
I swear, I did not pay anyone to say that. I didn’t even ask them to say it. The Writing Barn just told me that the feedback had intensely kind things like that.
FLYING AND ENHANCED – THE YOUNG ADULT SCIENCE FICTION SERIES
These books are out there in the world thanks to Tor.
What books? Well, cross Buffy with Men in Black and you get… you get a friends-powered action adventure based in the real world, but with a science fiction twist. More about it is here. But these are fun, fast books that are about identity, being a hero, and saying to heck with being defined by other people’s expectations.
This quick, lighthearted romp is a perfect choice for readers who like their romance served with a side of alien butt-kicking action–School Library Journal
TIME STOPPERS THE MIDDLE GRADE SERIES OF AWESOME
Time Stoppers’s third book comes out this summer. It’s been called a cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, but with heart. It takes place in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. I need to think of awesome ways to promote it because this little book series is the book series of my own middle grade heart. Plus, I wrote it for the Emster. Plus, it is fun.
And finally, I’ve added a contact form in case you’d like to be on my email list. If you subscribe to my posts via WordPress then those come to your email whenever I post. To do that click on SUBSCRIBE, but this is to sign up for my random newsletter, which I basically only do when something big happens like a book is coming out or I’m going on tour or something or I’m giving away a story for free – so basically two to three times a year.
Share this if you want and also because it would be super nice of you!
My dog Scotty had the unique ability called UNLOCKING THE DOOR WITH HIS MOUTH AND THEN TURNING THE KNOB OF THE DOOR AND THEN PUSHING IT OPEN SO HE CAN FROLIC OUTSIDE.
In the dog world this made him a superhero.
But, it could be occasionally unnerving to his human (Hint: His human is me) in that I got all stressed out and frazzled about book edits and would suddenly hear him barking…. FROM OUTSIDE! Which is what happened one December.
Dogs here in Maine aren’t supposed to randomly roam around outside, plus it was hunting season, plus Scotty thought one neighbor of ours was the antichrist and he thought the only way to stop this apocalypse involved him running in front of her Toyota truck and barking at her.
So, I would worry about him.
He thought my worrying about him was silly. He thought his job was to worry about me. He was wrong.
Anyway, this one December day, a couple of years ago, I heard him do the end-the-apocalypse bark, and I threw on some ballet flats and jumped in the MINI, zipped up my driveway hill and there was Scotty barking and protecting the driveway from a car that was not the Toyota. It was a car that had fallen into a ditch and there was a man trying to shovel the car out.
I jumped out of my MINI, put Scotty in the car and said, “Can I help?”
The man was Joe, an older guy who has some major health issues and lived down the street. He was like, “Oh yeah.”
A white-haired lady inside the car looked at me and said, “Please.”
It was a front-wheel drive car. It had no super cool, studded tires like the MINI. And the driver had tried to get up the snow-covered monster hill that is my road and the car then slid all the way down. Her car was tilted at this funky angle.
It was pretty bad.
Joe and I got behind it and pushed. We pushed some more. My ballet flat went in the snow. I fell down. Joe fell down. The car didn’t move. We tried again. We tried again. And again. I lost feeling in my butt because it was so cold. And yeah, I didn’t put a jacket on or anything and my hair was wet from the shower.
This whole time that Joe and I were fighting against the wicked machine that was Mrs. Austen’s unbudging car, I was thinking about helping people and books and writing and even politics because let’s face it… you get bored pushing cars that don’t move. It’s sort of like a story that refuses to be revised well.
What I thought…
So a lot of the time when people start to criticize books they get really… um… agitated… if they think the female character gets rescued too much. And people are sort of SUPER sensitized to it so much that they flip out if anyone helps out the female character ever.
And I get that.
I get that female readers need to know that they can rescue themselves, that they don’t need a boy to do it, and that if girls think that then it makes them dependent. I mean, I think about that all the time when I wrote the NEED books. And Zara (my main character) thought about that all the time. I thought about it when I wrote FLYING and TIME STOPPERS and pretty much everything.
But it also makes me worried. Because the truth is that we all need rescuing constantly. We all need help. Boys need help. Girls need help. Authors who are neurotic about their next book coming out need help. And I want a balance in books and in movies. I want different genders and ages to help each other, to respect help, to be able to receive help. It’s about balance and intention.
And the thing is that in real life? You just do it. You just help (hopefully, unless you’re in a reality show or something and think it’s all about you). I wasn’t about to ignore that older woman in her car because she was:
I didn’t think, “Hm…. Perhaps, I shouldn’t help her because she should get that car out of the ditch all by herself even though she does have a cane and a fake hip that hasn’t fully healed yet. If I help her I am actually oppressing her.”
And Joe who almost died last year from a heart issue didn’t think that either, I bet.
So, I guess that’s my point. Go help somebody today! And thank somebody who has helped you.
Here are my thank you’s:
Thank you to everyone who has rescued me from writer insecurity this year, who have saved me from sad when Scotty died, when Emily went away. Thank you to the people who have made me laugh. Thank you to the people who reminded me that there are people of hope, people who dream, people who are good. You have totally been my rescuers in a year that should be struck from the canon of years and I owe you! YAY YOU!!! xoxxo
Writing Barn Class
There is an awesome scholarship being offered at the Writing Barn for Write! Submit! Support! an awesome online class that I’m teaching in 2018. The class is for novelists of all genres, but the scholarship is for middle grade authors. Also, the deadline to sign up is super soon. SO SIGN UP! Give yourself a present for the new year!
DETAILS ABOUT THE AWESOME SCHOLARSHIP
Katherine Applegate, Newbery winning and NYT bestselling author, and good friend of The Writing Barn has created the Mary Carolyn Davies/Wishtree MG Write. Submit. Support. Scholarship to be awarded to:
either (1) MG writer for the full amount of a Write. Submit. Support. registration ($1800)
to be shared by (2) MG writers for half the amount of a Write. Submit. Support. registration ($900)
This scholarship honors poet, novelist and playwright Mary Carolyn Davies.
Share this if you want and also because it would be super nice of you!