Dude, it’s like, you know, the way they talk

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about writing dialogue and offers hints and tips for effective use

It seems there are two types of beginning writers: those who are afraid of dialog, and those who think they are great at writing dialog. Neither is completely without merit, and neither is completely wrong.

Writers who are afraid to write dialog, think that dialog is some sort of mystical feature of fiction, and are afraid that they will not get it exactly correct. Those beginners who think they are great at writing dialog, typically think writing dialog is just typing what people say, and they tend to overcompensate for weak description, or for a struggling plot.

Obviously, I am just making this stuff up, and I have not conducted extensive studies on the subject, but lets take the earlier descriptions as a point of departure.

When properly handled, dialog can do the following:

  • Reveal character
  • Advance the plot
  • Provide backstory
  • Control pacing

First I want to begin with using dialog to reveal character. The choice of words, the way a person talks use of slang, or proper grammar all help to reveal things about a character. For example, if a character uses profanity, or not, might inform readers a bit about the character. Does the character reveal bigotry in his or her word choice? Is the chracter excitable, or calm? All of these types of things can appear on display via dialog.

There are many ways to advance the plot via dialog. Two characters can make plans via dialog, they can confront bad guys, question suspects, learn of conspiracies, and all sorts of other things all via dialog.

Revealing backstory via dialog is something that calls for the utmost attention from the writer. Otherwise the story ends up sounding like a cheap cartoon. Pay close attention to “as you know Bob” kinds of things. For example, “As you know Bob, when you broke your leg skiing last summer, the Doctor told you to avoid stressing your knees or you could end up crippled for life. If you enter the pole vault, you might never walk again.”

This can be re-cast and still achieve the same effect.

“Pole vault? Are you stupid. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking how impressed Cindy will be when I bring home the medal.”

“Yeah, and will Cindy go to the dance with you when you are in a wheel chair?”

“Why don’t you take her skiing while you are at it. Only don’t come crying to me when you can’t walk anymore.”

Description slows things down, but snappy dialog speeds things up. Here is an example of how description slows stuff down.

Bob looked around the room. It was large and sparsely decorated. On the opposite side of the room, stood Charlie. Charlie was a mountain of a man, with a full beard, and long stringy hair. He was munching on something that reminded Bob of rotten fish. Perhaps it was, Charlie was not known as a gourmand. In fact, it was widely known that Charlie had the culinary discretion of a wild dog.

So the story stops while we get the description of an uncouth man standing alone in a large room. It does not advance the plot, it does however slow down the pacing. This may be needed, or not. If I want to speed things alone, show characterization, and maybe even advance the plot, I can use dialog.

Bob crossed the large room, “Damn Charlie, what are you eating?”

Charlie stoked his long black beard, “Sardines. I have a date tonight, and I am in training.”

Bob watched while the large man shook his long greasy tangled hair like a rutting musk ox.

My Secret for writing in the morning

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about how he begins writing in the morning

One of the things that used to be a problem for me was getting started writing in the morning. I would wake up early, maybe have a cup or two of coffee or tea, and dutifully sit at my desk. I would then check email, check my stocks, read through news group postings, and generally waste the morning.  After lunch I would do the same thing, and eventually, sometime near supper, I would get to work and begin writing. I might sit at my desk and work furiously until one or two in the morning, collapse, and then do the same thing the next day – always promising myself that I would be better the next day, and the next day would be a similar battle.

Two things changed that. The first was that I began traveling – a lot. I traveled the world for five years. During that time, I was in a different city every single week. During this time, I wrote three books, completely on trains, planes and automobiles. What I found was that I was amazingly productive. For one thing, there is no more boring place on earth than an air plane – especially transatlantic flights at night. There is not even anything to see outside of the windows. During the nine hour flight, I could get two, or even three chapters written. I put on my headphones, listened to classical music, and typed. No interruptions, no distractions. Because I had a detailed outline, and previously created chapter templates, all I needed to do was write – and write I did.

The second benefit was that because each work session was effectively timed – the plane lands at 0830, or the train arrives at 1120, there is no chance to “finish up this sentence, paragraph, or chapter.” Therefore the next time I had a chance to write, I always had a sentence, paragraph or chapter in progress – and within seconds, I was busy writing.

Here are the two secrets that I discovered during this process:

1. Eliminate all distractions. Isolate ones self from email, the web, facebook, and other people. If it takes hanging a sign on the door that says leave me alone I am writing, then let it be so.

2. Quit writing at the end of the day with work in progress. Leave a few sentences to finish a chapter, end on a sentence that is partially written. In this way, one comes back to the desk and immediately begins writing. This provides just enough work to prime the pump, and to let the creative juices flow.

Hey, it works for me. next time you are stuck, give it a try.

How to be an Effective Writer

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the number one tip to be an effective writer

I am not sure who said that writing was 90% perspiration ad 10% inspiration, but that seems to be correct. The inspiration part is “I would like to write a book about …” The perspiration part is all the writing, editing, re-writing, additional editing, submission, page proofs reviews, and subsequent publicity efforts. In short, the easiest thing in the world is to get an idea for a book. The hardest thing in the world is to actually write, and to get published.

Over the years I have mentored literally dozens of aspiring writers. Only one has actually had his book published. It may be that I am a terrible mentor, but I also think that there is a huge misunderstanding as to what it takes to actually get a book written, edited, and published.

One of the first things I tell an aspiring writer is this: “Are you willing to work every night after work, and all day on the weekend for six to nine months, with no hope of obtaining any return on your investment in time?” If you were doing consulting during that time, instead of writing a book, you could easily earn a significant amount of money. Writing a book is not a get rich quick scheme. At best it is an earn a little bit of money over a long period of time scheme. This fact by itself is often enough to dissuade the faint of heart.

So what is the number one tip to be an effective writer? The secret lies in the order of the work. Keep each step separate for maximum efficiency. So, while writing, just write. Don’t edit. This trick was, perhaps more important in the old days when I wrote on an old fashioned type writer. But it is still important today – maybe more so. When I am writing, I write. I do not check grammar, I do not check spelling, I do not look up facts. I do research all at once. I do a grammar pass all at once. I check spelling during a different phase of the writing.

In the old days, when I had a 45 pound of Webster’s New World dictionary, it might take me two or even three minutes to look up the spelling of a word. If I later, during the edit phase of the writing project, decide to use a different word, well, that two or three minutes was lost. But the impact is even more.

In computers we have a term, context switching, that refers to the performance hit to a computer when it changes from one operation to another operation. The computer unloads a portion of memory, and then reloads a different set of memory. Humans also take context switching hits. This occurs when switching from writing mode to edit mode. All of the efficiency gained through “getting into the groove” is lost when I change to line editing.

So, my secret for effective writing? When writing – write. When editing – edit. But do not combine or confuse the two tasks. Tomorrow I will give you my secret for staying on track.

No. It’s not a penologist

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the need for doing research when writing

MeInFrontOfAPirateShip.jpgSuppose I am writing a novel, and I decide that my main character has “a man problem.” So, he needs to go to see a doctor about his problem. Hmnm, having never had “a man problem,”  I am not certain what to call the doctor to whom my intrepid character is going to go see. I open up my Bing search engine, type in a few appropriate search phrases, and voila the answer comes back:

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