Friday, February 27, 2015

Stuck for Speech?

Stuck for Speech?

Tackling the Difficulty of Writing Realistic Character Dialogue eon ago or so, I went to one of my first ever writers' groups and, despite being petrified of sharing, I got up and read my extract aloud while everyone in the circle was doodling comments all over my paper. My hands shook and I almost lost my place a fair few times whilst being distracted by wondering why the fella in the blazer was frowning so sternly down at my poor, quaking paper?? Was it really THAT bad?? Happily and surprisingly, I got some alright feedback for my first time - with one person liking my descriptions of surroundings and a few people sticking up for my ability to make a character likable and nearly everyone wanting to know what happened next... BIG sigh of relief and I sat down ready to melt back into invisibility. Then the guy in the blazer wearing the catastrophic frown spoke up and asked me, "Are your characters friends or not? They don't seem to be speaking to each other at all. Why don't they speak?"

First ever criticism received and a dagger to my heart!! But, after a few rereads, I realised that the astute fella in the corner wasn't out to destroy my precious fledgling novel but instead was absolutely right! I had apparently avoided character interaction and active dialogue as much as possible without even noticing it and the more  I thought about it, the more I realised that I sucked at writing life-like dialogue between characters. Everyone has stronger suits and weaker areas - realistic dialogue is my writing nemesis. In life, I'm a pretty gregarious person once I know you, but I swing between silently hoping for someone to fill the awkward silence and spewing babble at people to overcompensate when I first meet new people. I noticed that my characters were doing the very same thing in my getting-to-know-you novel. They were speaking very little because of my fear of dialogue and being overly described instead OR speaking in longer speeches and overcompensating with long, drawn out sentences. And neither of these felt very realistic or like human speech.

I'm going to share some hints to tackle this and to de-robot your dialogue. I'm no expert - more experienced in being very flawed in this area - but here are some ideas to try along with me!

(1) Read some plays!

A bit obvious I know, but whether you write short stories or novels, you need to read some plays even if they're not "your thing." Plays are the ultimate challenge in writing good dialogue! There's no escaping dialogue because there are no distractions of paragraphs of description and paragraphs of thought processes of characters - pure dialogue! I could never do it! The idea horrifies me! But you have to admire the people that can and they are the best people to learn from, as a good playwright has honed the ability to reproduce dialogue in such a way that it powers a whole story. Two of my favourites have to be Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," because these playwrights manage to convey SO much and SO MANY different characters' voices in such clipped sentences.

(2) Watch some tele!

This is THE perfect excuse to get into your PJs and watch some Grey's Anatomy! Guilt-free tele because it's research!! Screenwriters too know their dialogue better than most and you might as well learn from the best. Think back to shows where you've been hooked on certain characters and why you gravitated to those characters and watch them again! Some personal favourites of mine to be inspired by would be Mr. Omar from "The Wire" and Captain Mal Reynolds from "Firefly." The first character saying so much with so few words and the second character being a bringer of banter and that (for me) is REALLY hard to write. Go revisit some of your beloved TV friends.

(3) Be a nosy-parker!

My granny would not be proud of me for this one, but I 100% support being a bit nosy and eavesdropping in a caf or on the subway or wherever. Listen to some real people talk and you'll find out that most people don't talk the way they (or you) write. In most scenarios, they don't brainstorm and then think about what they're going to say and then review and edit their words. Take a sampling of the people around you for inspiration. I wouldn't go so far as to record them or anything, but just let them wash over you and notice some of the next few ideas:

(4) Stick to shorter sentences!

There are a ton of blogs and books on writing that support this idea of "Short and sweet." In some of my nosy sessions in a cozy cafe, I noticed that it's true. People say an awful lot with very little. We have a ton of shorthand in conversations and we don't typically explain everything in paragraphs or info-dump in speeches. Saying a lot is NOT the same as writing long sentences. Keep your sentences for dialogue shorter than the sentences you would use for description and setting the scene. Monologues and speeches are rarer than Shakespeare would have you believe, so let your characters interrupt each other and interject and speak in a different way to the author's descriptive voice.

(5) Don't create perfect speech!

When writing in general, I'm a grammar pedant. I can't help it. It's compulsive. But when writing dialogue, I've learned to let that go and break the rules a litte! Just make sure that you're doing it on purpose ;)

In our spoken shorthand, we use short speech. In short speech, we butcher grammar left, right and center. You DON'T always need full sentences. You DON'T always need the BE verb for that gerund. You DON'T always need the right spelling. I teach ESL to Korean students and I spend hours telling students to focus on syntax and build sentences and there's always that savvy student who comes back at me with, "But... Miss! Why do we have to? You don't!" And they're spot on. Native speakers of a language can happily butcher their own language as they already know they can do it right.

(6) Trim your talk!

Get out your red pen now. Apply it to bits of dialogue that don't:
(a) advance your plot
(b) reveal character
(c) set atmosphere
Now, don't get me wrong - banter is great! But make sure it's adding either to character or atmosphere!

(7) Everybody talks different or differently!

Wouldn't it be a bit odd if everyone you knew spoke the same way that you do? I'd go so far as to say it'd be a little bit creepy. You don't want to accidentally give your characters the same voice or same speaking style. Even though I've just finished telling you to keep things short, boom...let some people speak more than others and in longer sentences and a hundred other differences. A good example of variety would be Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Go and have a look at the dialogue differences between the pompous Mr. Collins and the more down-to-earth Elizabeth. Contrast the frivolous Mrs Bennett and the more concise and sharp Mr Bennett. There are a ton of differences in dialogue and that's all within one small community of people.

(8) Get a world of feedback!

Helping with this idea of variety is the usefulness of getting a variety of different people to read your work! As many different types of people as possible! Maybe they're different in background or character or other ways, but it's good to get some fresh perspectives on whether or not the dialogue feels natural to them. I tend to show my stuff to a hardcore few. But I'm determined to get a greater variety of voices to look at my hopefully varied array of characters!

(9) Freestyle with a friend!

If said friends are willing or easily bribed with wine, give them a situation from your story and a role and do a little improv together to see how this might happen in a spontaneous situation. While not delivering perfect results, it may help you shake yourself away from overly-scripting your dialogue and you can borrow bits of it to make your dialogue seem more spontaneous. And if it fails, at least there'll be wine.

(10) THE MOST IMPORTANT FOR LAST! Read your work out loud!

When you finish a conversation on the page, READ IT BACK TO YOURSELF OUT LOUD! What seemed perfectly natural whilst writing might seem rather odd when speaking. So speak it. Record yourself. Listen back. Mock yourself when you've used vocabulary not natural for that situation. Push yourself when you realise that your characters all share one voice. And edit yourself when you realise that your dialogue has the same type of sentences as the rest of your writing. Because there really should be a difference.

Good luck and let me know if you have any tips for me on this! Still struggling with it!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What's in a Name

One day it happens. You're blessed with a budding idea of joy. That little character you hold in your hands, the pride you've spent months cultivating, stands before you. You test the waters with hair coloring, eye shape and the perfect lips by scouring pinterest. Eventually you settle on that perfect character, the one the masses will remember for ages. And then it hits you. What is his name? What will the people call her?

After all the careful planning, you haven't come up with a name.

Coming up with a character name can be difficult. The name you choose says a lot about what type of person your character will be. Will she be a Myrtle working in an eighteenth century dress shop? Is he a William who fights pirates to save his damsel in distress?

Choosing the name for your character can be as simple as using a friend or an acquaintances first name, or a name that you simply adore, to researching and choosing the perfect name, background and meaning in a baby book. The main character from one of my manuscripts is Evie because I fell in love with Rachel Weiss' Evie from The Mummy. Having the perfect name can transform your character. 

Here are my tips for picking the perfect character name.


It's that ugly "R" word again. The one that seems synonymous with being an author. Research. Research doesn't just begin when you decide to search for the perfect agent or publishing house. Research starts the moment that inkling of an idea tickles your brain. Names, much like setting, require researching the era your character belongs in. You aren't going to name your renaissance princess Sienna. It wasn't a name that was common during the time period. And you certainly aren't going to name your Japanese business man Caleb, unless he was adopted by American's or has some background that gives the name sense. You don't need to go out and buy a baby book to research meanings and time periods. is an excellent source, not just for searching names, but to also search by meaning. The meaning of the name can by just as important as the name itself. Spend a little time researching names and meanings. It will help in the long run.


But I feel ridiculous doing this, Niki. Yeah, I do too. My kids always look at me funny whenever I start reading anything out loud, but it helps. Your book may end up an audio book at some point. It pays to make sure that it's a name that's going to come across well out loud. Anita Dickinme may look good on paper, but out loud it's just plain silly.


Now, this isn't something I've used, but it something I've noticed in a few books, particularly Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, or Severus Snape in The Harry Potter Series. It also occurs a lot in comic books. The repeating initial seems to make the name more memorable, in my opinion. If you're having a tough time coming up with a name, try something with alliterative initials.


When you have a large group of characters, it can be hard to name them all. What's even more difficult? Characters with the same initials. Sometimes it works. I have a manuscript where the two secondary characters both start with T, Takeshi Sato and Tawny Saunders. For my manuscript it seems to work, but it may not for everyone. Same thing with giving characters middle initials. A good reason to avoid that middle initials? No one wants to name their character after a known murder or give someone a reason to sue them for having a name too close to their own. 

These steps, like many others in writing, can get overwhelming at times, but it pays off in the end. You don't want to name a Japanese character with a Chinese name and have your readers tell you you've screwed up after all is said and done. We want to have the Celtic spelling of Brynt make sense with our Russian character. These characters are our babies, and like with our real children, we want to give them names of their own that have meaning and reason.

What are your tips for choosing the perfect character name? Leave your best name in the comments and tomorrow, 2/27/15, I'll choose a winner for a $15 Starbucks gift card. Look forward to the winner and a new blog post tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

In Defence of Paper

I'm pretty certain it won't surprise you to learn that I'm a voracious reader - in fact, most writers I know read as much as time permits. And although I've long since given up resistance and bought an ebook reader, my favourite kind of book is still one that crinkles when I turn a page, that gets dark rings on the cover if I rest my cup of tea on it, and that gets that peculiar, nose-tickling musty scent when it's been sitting on the shelf for a while, feeling neglected. No kindle, nook, iPad or what have you can give you the same tactile reading pleasure as a real, physical, printed paper book. 

PILE OF BOOKS - ClipArt Best

So today, I'm going to give you ten reasons why The Book (Paper Edition) is a great thing, not to be forgotten...

1. You can hold it in your hands...

A paper book is a physical phenomenon that can be touched - you can stroke it, you can hug it, you can even throw it into a corner or rip it up and burn the pages, depending on whether it meets your approval or not. 

2. It sticks around...

We are a very technical society - so much of what we do and what we say is recorded in little noughts and ones somewhere on a circuitboard, invisible to the eye. I've heard it said that in a couple of centuries our time will look like the dark ages, because all that data will be in an unreadable format. I'm not sure if it'll go quite that far, but be honest, who (ok, who over a certain age) doesn't have the odd backup floppy disk lying around that will surely never be read again? This will never be a problem with a printed book, now will it?

3. You can browse in an actual bookstore...

I'm all for the convenience of shopping from your armchair, but I don't really want Amazon to be the one who decides what I might or might not like to read. I like wandering through a bookstore, picking up random books that catch my eye with a great cover, a good title, or perhaps just the way they were placed on the shelf by a well-meaning book store employee (and not sent into my mailbox by a you-might-like-this-algorithm). In fact, I've discovered a lot of new authors just like this. It's also nice to be able to read a couple of pages before you buy a book, to see if the author's style suits. 

4. You can show off your library...

And by show off I don't mean to anyone else, it's sufficiently satisfying (if you ask me) to show off to yourself all the great favourites and/or classics you've read. Bookshelves make a house cosy and more home-like, if you ask me - I'm fairly leery of people who have no visible books lying around in their homes. I mean, really, what do these people do with their free time? Maybe it's writerly curiosity, but I'm quite fond checking out other people's bookshelves. You can tell a lot about a person by seeing which books have creased spines, which are carefully dusted and what shelves are sorted by (are you an alphabet or a genre sorter?). 

5. Physical books have character...

...or at least I like to think so. New books have a certain feel to them, a cleanness of uncreased paper, sometimes the vague scent of ink not unlike that which you get from a freshly printed newspaper (if you still read newspapers in physical form, that is...). With older books, you can sometimes get a feel for the previous reader(s). Are there many dog-eared pages? Did someone make notes, or highlight, or maybe just very faintly underline things in pencil with lines so light you have to tilt the page a certain way in the light to be able to tell? Are there coffee stains on some pages, or is there, perhaps, a squashed bug preserved in paper prison for all eternity? Did someone carefully fold the beautifully designed dust jacket of a hardback book and tuck it between the last pages for safekeeping? Or were the flaps used to mark the pages read? 

6. Books have great covers...

(link to Amazon) artists like Michael Whelan (my personal favourite). There's something to be said for a large, hard-bound book with a well designed cover. I know ebooks have the same covers, but still, I think the impact of art is bigger in physical form. 

7. Friends can share the joy...

You can give people your favourite book, you can wrap it up as a present, put a bow on it, write a dedication that will stay in the book no matter what. It's even possible to lend someone a book or give your books to charity once you're done with them.

8. Books make you focus your attention...

Occasionally I read ebooks on my mini iPad (which I adore, btw). While this is all well and good, though, and there are soooo many advantages to having thousands of books at your fingertip (no I don't have thousands of ebooks in my kindle library, but I do have a couple of hundred...), I do find myself flicking between books if one is a bit slow in a chapter, or skipping over to the Facebook app to check what people are up to, or...well, you get the picture. With a physical book, this temptation ceases to exist, and you can pay proper homage to the written word. 

9. You can write things on paper...

And yes, I'm one of those people who write things into their books. I even (GASP!) use a highlighter on occasion. Mostly, though, I stick post-its onto pages with my little notes (or even just plain multi-coloured post-its). And yes, I do know you can add notes and highlights to ebooks but I really, really don't like doing that. 

10. But really, what's important is the reading...

because reading is essential to the writer (there's even articles that say so - it must be true!). Reading teaches, inspires, wakes up the muse. Do you know any writers who do not read? I can't quite believe there are any. 

So go on, read. Buy a paper book if you're a tactile sort of person (like me), or download the ebook if you don't care about that, but buy a book, sit down and read. It'll make you a better writer, even if (worst case scenario) it only teaches you what not to do in your own book. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

In Defense of Hope

At my day job, I represent the Department of Family and Protective Services in cases involving abused and neglected children. Lately, my job has been harder than usual.

We see terrible cases, terrible facts, facts where it’s almost impossible to believe that one human being could treat another that way, never mind an adult treating a vulnerable child they should be protecting in that way. And lately, the after-effects of that severe abuse has been in-your-face apparent in my cases. 

It’s heartbreaking.

It makes it hard to go on, to keep fighting and trying the cases, when by the time I get to fight for these kids, the damage is already done. 

And sometimes that damage seems irreparable.

Don’t misunderstand me. 

We slap on the bandages, and the tourniquets. We have hospitals for the malnutrition and broken bones. We try counseling, and residential treatment centers, medications, and group therapy for the psychological wounds. We find new, loving families for these children who have never experienced that simple right.

But sometimes, (more often than I can bear lately) it seems that no matter what we do, no matter how much plaster we slap on the cracks of the psyche, we can’t heal these kids. We can’t shore up the injuries they’ve already experienced. We run out of options, we run out of ideas, and so we just keep plastering over the cracks as they appear—suicide attempts=a stint in the state hospital, self harm = medication tweaks and more counseling, perpetrating the abuse they experienced against other kids in the new home = removal and counseling for everyone ad nauseum.

But these children deserve the effort, no matter how hopeless it seems. 

And sometimes, against all odds, they eventually heal. They find a way to live fully, to be happy, to recognize the wrongs that were done and somehow move beyond. 

That’s why I keep fighting beyond what I think I can bear, bucket of plaster and trowel in hand.

So how does this relate to writing? 

It has to, right? 

After all, this is a writing blog.

It’s simple. 

Sometimes, I feel like my stories are children. 

And sometimes, I feel like I’ve performed a disservice in writing those stories, that they’re flawed and riddled with cracks. The black moment is misplaced, the characters aren’t fully rounded, the writing is simple crap. 

Sometimes, I’m right, and I want to give up on the difficult stories, to shove them into that desk drawer we all have for hiding things we don’t want to deal with because they’re to hard to fix.

But these are my stories. They are an expression of the unique way I see the world, and because of that, they matter.  Your stories matter just as much. And really, stories are easier to fix than most things in life. We have all the tools. We have communities of wonderful writers willing to brainstorm, and spitball and beta read and help in every way they can. 

So I challenge you to drag out the story you’ve stashed. Pull out your mortar and your trowel and start fixing the cracks. Choose hope that you can make that story shine and get to work.

Your story deserves it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Top Ten Ways to Test A Writer's Patience (or How to Drive A Writer Crazy)

One of these things does not belong:

·         I am impatient

·         I am an extrovert

·         I require immediate gratification

·         I am an author

It is possible, given the traits listed above, that I couldn’t have picked a more ill-fitted career for myself than writing. In a previous post, it was duly noted that the publication process takes time, in fact, everything in the world of a writer takes time—lots and lots of time—and this got me thinking.
Here then, without further ado, are the:

Top Ten Ways to Test a Writer’s Patience
Or How to Drive a Writer Crazy

1.      The WIP

Writing takes forever.

2.      Blog Posts

Waiting for people to read your blog.

3.      Twitter
Watching your feed for retweets or replies.

4.      Facebook

Why doesn’t anyone share?

5.      Query Letters

Staring at an empty inbox.

6.      Partial Requests

Initial panic.

Followed by:

Staring at an empty inbox.

7.      Full Requests

Freaking out.

Followed by …
You guessed it:

Staring at an empty inbox.

8.      Signing a contract


Followed by:

How long till it’s published?

9.      Publication process

So. Many. Steps.

10. Publication

Sending your baby out into the world.

Followed by:

Your first interaction with readers.


Remembering why you started this journey in the first place.

If you like what you see, pop over to my website where I'm giving away free copies of my sexy, short story, Italian Delicacy, to anyone who signs up for my author newsletter!
But please, don't take too long. :)
In gratitude,
Marissa xo









Thursday, February 19, 2015


A few weeks may have passed and you haven’t written anything new.  It’s official – you’re in a rut.  Several times you had sorted through the stack of other stories in your drawer that are waiting for an ending or edit, but they still haven’t seen the light of day (or death) because there’s something about them that makes you flush with pride.  I bet you have a whole file cabinet drawer filled will unused forgotten characters and their stories.
They are so stale and bland even the dust won’t settle on them.  You would read each one again but it’s just one old dour waste of time. 
You ask yourself, “Where was I going with this?” or maybe “What on earth was I (not) thinking?”
Maybe they are all old, waiting for you to shut the cabinet door and let them stay asleep.  Before you tuck them into their cozy cardboard sleeve or feed them to a shredder or trash can – go take another look at that pile.
Take one out of the pile (or file cabinet), read through it and determine the main plot.  Then decide who the main character is.   Fish out another one from that pile and do the same, even if it takes three or four times. Now, do they all sound alike, the same point of view, same mood, same crisis, or same drama?  There’s one main problem.  You need to break out of your comfort zone and try something different.
Here’s a few things you can do to air out the cobwebs:

Flip it.  Just like on a reality show - gut it and rebuild.  Maybe the same characters can do the same hard work, but give it a twist.  Build a new wall and set a traffic pattern for your character to go the other way.  Have the characters change POV or even the sexes and watch the story drama change due to the different outlook and emotions.  Add a pool for someone to skinny dip in. 
For those who never finish anything try this: Start with a teaser – begin with the end.

Houston, CREATE a problem.  Time travel seems to be a pretty popular topic these days so it is a safe topic to try.  Maybe that techie guy who can’t peel his face from his phone for a minute needs a forced shutdown and left unplugged in an era a few hundred years ago?  Or some starchy old farmer who never travels past his town is given a laser gun, a 30 year forgiveness age-back, and wrecks havoc.  Make the character going through living hell NOW instead of in the past and take the reader through it with you.

Magnetize.  Either two magnets with latch and hold (opposite ends) or repel from another (same ends).  Apply that to your storytelling.  Have one female from one story meet and hate another male character in another.
Maybe it wasn’t the first two with a winning (or opposites attract) success, but you have other stories that can be entwined into instant magnetism, or they can hate each other.
Either way – you have a new story!

Change hats.  If you can’t take the heat stay out of the kitchen, right?  How about you take your story somewhere else, as in another section of the bookstore?  Trade in your civil war era romance epic for another genre.  That’s right – that entails major CHANGE, one you may not want to face.  But if Scarlett O’Hara is still sitting there waiting for Ashley (just like a spider!)  to come rescue her out of your file cabinet, then I think you need to put those amazing character to work somewhere else.      

Good Grief, Charlie Brown!.  What if you take that same story and change just one character.  That old farmer husband becomes a little boy.  Does his relationship change with the sour woman next to him?  Of course – that may be his mother now, and the little boy who is more psychotic than Norman Bates is telling the story.  Or maybe he grows up like Mr. Rogers or a rock star on an iron horse.  That one little ‘twitch’ changed the whole paradigm of the story, and you have a new POV.
You could end up changing both characters and your old tired farmer is completely unrecognizable.  Perhaps that girl is his mentally challenged sister that he grows old taking care of out of family obligation.  Or maybe he doesn’t take care of her well…………


I’ll give you an example I had used.  A few years ago, I wrote a story loved by many, although it was really an exercise for a writers group.   I wrote the story from 3 different points of view (3rd person, present tense), one after the other.  The pianist, Chloe, had a fan in the neighborhood who grew up listening to her become an expert in classical music.  Tom, the smitten baseball hero, took his dog for a walk just to hear her play and to see the slender elegant young woman play the piano through her windows.  The third character, the dog, even gave a shortened take on the story.  It was a fun exercise as I read it aloud to the group and we discussed the one plot with 3 takes on it.  A few in the group requested that I turn it into a real story.
I wrangled with it for years. Still, for some reason I never became too enthralled by it until another meeting with the writers.  A guest speaker gave us a challenge to write an opening scene with an intense immediate drama.   For some reason I remembered a weird old dog I had while growing up.
This is what I came up with using the same characters as the pianist story, but I changed the POV to first-person from the woman’s perspective and past tense (which completely changed it):
My Irish setter whined when I unwrapped the crinkly freezer paper and put the raw meat in the pan.  Something smelled familiar that he didn’t like and with tail between his hind legs he galloped out of the kitchen, leaving me alone with the newly married jackass I had dated last year.  I seasoned the red dense meat with a bunch of dried herbs and pepper.  David watched back and forth at the dog running out, then at the hunk of meat in the pan.  I hadn’t expected guests so I continued with my tasks as if he wasn’t there. Feeling the hunger waking up again, I really wished he hadn’t shown up.
            “Hungry, David?”
            David looked back where the dog had run.
That was a true story about the dog – Lucky – who used to do that when my mom cooked a certain cut of red meat.  If it were any other meat, the dog – ANY dog - would try to steal it.  I still told the same exact story of her serenading him to her love nest, but from the back door, starting with the dog’s drama instead.  Something unusual is going on here.  Not the part about a embittered and heartbroken woman who had an unexpected visit from the same bed-hopping ex-lover – now married.  But when a dog ran away from red meat? This is unexpected and puts a question and a fear in the man’s head.  Instead of a sweet lovey-dovey story of boy-finally-meets-mystery-girl-in-neighborhood-and-they-fall-in-love-yatta-yatta, I made her out to be a sociopath with a neurotic dog.

The best part is – the story rolled after that.  I stepped out of the comfortable smooch booth and added a dash of mystery. But it heated up the whole premise.  Once titled “Summoned by Song” then became “Roast Beast”.
Hey, whatever works for you – try it.  Just don’t throw it out or tuck it away in a drawer.  Bring out the best or worst in the characters or situation or swap the story teller and timing.  Or hop on a story-spinner and add some mischief.  When all else fails – add a ninja!  (just kidding!)
Rabbit’s hat. Some other ideas tried with success were to end a novel with a short story written at another time. A scene with a steamy bubble bath applied to the characters in the present novel, bowing out with a satisfying ‘happy ending’, but open enough to maybe explore sequel novel with these same characters.  In my own experience, I reused a nature piece, working it into a ghostly environmental nightmare story.

Point is - don’t waste anything – scenes, settings, intrinsic characters, those experimental pieces.  Blow off the dust, give it a makeover and wardrobe change - at least.  

You can do so much with them to liven up another snoozer.