And the Toaster Thought…

I read an article the other day about dialogue and blocking.  I have since lost track of it, but its premise struck me: dialogue in a narrative is not the same as dialogue in a movie.  It’s simple, but profound, and it’s something I often overlook since I experience stories so often through both film and book.

First off, a couple definitions.  Dialogue is the collection of words characters say— hi, how are you, where’s my cat, and so forth.  Blocking fills the gaps in the conversation, most notably answering this question: who is speaking right now?  The simplest blocking is a dialogue tag.  “Find me a stick,” he said.  “This is space, I don’t have a stick,” she replied.  But ending or beginning every line of dialogue with ‘[pronoun] said/cried/etc.’ can get boring.  As you seek to spice it up a little, or as your characters move while they speak, you can put action as blocking instead of a tag.  “By all my calculations, Sergeant Roberts actually needs a stick.”  The robot scratched its titanium head.  “Maybe a candlestick?”

In a script, for film or stage, blocking tells the actor what to do, what emotions they should portray.  Here a frown, there a shrug, perhaps now it’s time for a tango?  You see that blocking on the screen as you hear the actor’s lines.  The two are simultaneous.

Books, on the other hand, can never achieve that.  You can only write one sentence at a time— even if you break the sentence in two parts to put some blocking in, the words and the actions don’t happen simultaneously.  The reader’s imagination, however, fills this in.  Many times, in fact, I’ve read along and found myself imagining faces or gestures the character should be making, based on the words she was saying.  Because the writer didn’t want to chop up the character’s words, that blocking never saw the page.

My point is, the dialogue/blocking mix in film is different from the dialogue/blocking mix in books.  But the simultaneous stuff isn’t actually the thing.  Books and verbal storytelling have another advantage that movies cannot use effectively: the character’s actual thoughts and emotions. Read the full post »

Early Productivity

I know I haven’t posted a lot of writing tips lately, and I hope to get back to that soon, but today I’d like to focus on my second favorite topic of conversation: productivity.  Writing is great, and all these techniques are useful and fun, but it’s useless if you can’t sit yourself in a chair and do something.  Productivity gets your story written.  Productivity dies when you get writer’s block.  An enormous part of learning how to do art is learning how to be productive.

My life has a lot of deadlines in weird places through the day.  I might spend six hours of the day out of the house, driving, meeting people, whatever needs to be done.  In all that time, I am physically unable to produce.  Those hours are black holes that devour the three-second flashes of inspiration that come with menial work.  I might be ready to write in the middle of the drive home, but when I get there, that urge is gone.

Doesn’t it make sense, then, to make the time at home extremely productive, and the time away my recharging time?  I’ll think a bunch, talk to people, glean ideas from my surroundings, and come back ready.  But that means the time at home has to use that creative energy, or else it goes to waste.  I need to be productive when I have the opportunity, and allow myself to rest when I can’t be productive.

One cool thing about productivity is that it breeds productivity.  You’ve experienced it before.  You have an hour until you have to leave the house, and you haven’t done any work yet.  You sit down, put your hands to the keyboard, start forcing words out, and suddenly you’re flying along.  You look up and you have five minutes, but you’ve never typed faster.  If you had three more hours, you could get so much work done— but the deadline comes in the way.  Productivity breeds productivity.

But it’s hard, isn’t it?  You get all your other tasks done first and clear your schedule so you can write, but when you sit down to work, you start procrastinating. Read the full post »


This is a regularly scheduled reminder.  Today, we’re multitasking, and would thus like to remind you of several things at once.

  1. There are many types of beauty.
  2. Anything in real life can be interpreted vaguely enough to apply to writing.

Thank you.

I was watching The Lego Movie recently, for about the fifth or sixth time, and something struck me about halfway through.  It’s a scene I absolutely adore, the midpoint and one of the biggest emotional impacts in the movie.  The bad guys have just attacked and the main character’s safe haven and most of his friends are destroyed or captured.  I love this scene every time I see it.  I consider it one of the most beautiful moments of all the movies I’ve watched.

But as I watched it this time, I realized it wasn’t all that beautiful.  Yes, there were a couple exquisite shots that really tugged at the emotions, but it wasn’t the cinematography or animation that made it beautiful.  It wasn’t, essentially, the way the writers told the story at that point.  It was the story they were telling. Read the full post »

Heart-Pounding Pride

Books don’t usually get physical reactions from me.  Tears are hard to come by.  I rarely grip books in terror.  While audiobooks have me making faces along with the characters, that too is pretty restrained.  Only the best of books can get a physical reaction out of me— The Book Thief almost made my eyes leak, The Way of Kings had some suspenseful moments, and The Raven Boys has such emotions (and such a great performance on audiobook) that I couldn’t help but make faces.  But there’s one physical reaction that keeps coming up.  It’s a heart-pounding feeling of suspense as I read.

For a long time, I had no idea what caused it, only where it happened.  The first time I remember was actually in my Warriors days.  (Animal fiction is still one of my favorite genres, honestly.)  Early on in the series, the main character makes a promise to bring his nephew into the clan.  Without going into too many details, the rest of the clan is already skeptical about the main character’s worth, and bringing his nephew along was not a good idea.  The scene where the main character fulfills his promise hit me really hard.  I was on the main character’s side, I knew his reasoning, and I still wanted to tear out my hair as I waited for the clan’s reaction.

That series is one of the ones that really drove me to write.  I think that scene, and the emotional and physical impact it had for me, definitely affected that. Read the full post »

How to Title Stuff

You walk into a bookstore.  A promising book peeks out at you from a shelf.  You take it out and look it over.  Intriguing cover art, thick enough to really enjoy, and the synopsis looks great.  You look at the title again to memorize it for next time (you don’t have the funds this time to splurge on unknown books), and wince.  Despite all its promise, it has a generic title.  White Lie, a contemporary novel.  Dark Kingdom, a fantasy.  My Perfect Laddie, a romance.  Everything else sounds so promising, but someone didn’t know how to title their book.

For me, I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic.  A title that brings nothing new to the imagination doesn’t promise much for the rest of the book.

On the other hand, some writers produce brilliant titles.  The title gives a piece of the book which, combined with the cover, synopsis, and everything else, produces curiosity.  The Scorpio Races, for instance, is rather cryptic in terms of the contents of the book.  However, you know immediately it’s about a race, or a series of races.  Scorpio isn’t very easy to interpret— it has a couple different connotations, but none of them apply to racing.  It seems to imply a bit of danger and some other stuff that means more to people who have read the book.  Combined, the words leave more unknown than they clarified.  They create curiosity, and if you’re trying to figure out what the book is like, you’re still stuck.

I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out.  Sneaky author.

You know what a good title does: it makes you curious, it gives you a taste without shoving it down your throat.  But I think you also know how to create a good title.  I’m pretty sure I just explained it. Read the full post »

How to Write Epic Poetry

John Milton is as good as his writing.

He grew up wanting to write poetry, but held off on writing anything spectacularly huge until later in his life.  When he had succeeded in his career, had a family, and gone blind, he finally decided to write some epic poetry, the kind he always knew he could write.  He dictated Paradise Lost, and we still praise him for it.

But was it some act of genius?  Was it a lightning-strike of a Muse, a moment of inspiration unparalleled before and since?  Of course not.  He spent time on this thing.  He thought long and hard about how he was going to write it, who the characters were, and what story he wanted to tell.  He weighed the options of language— should he write it in English, or a more epic language of Greek or Latin?  (He was fluent in all three, and probably several more.)  Should it rhyme?  All of these deep, difficult questions plagued him, but he knocked them down one by one until he could produce the masterpiece we have today.

My point?  There’s a process, my friends, to writing epic poetry.  Homer, Virgil, Milton, all created amazing, lasting works— and you can too. Read the full post »

Enjoying Genre

I sincerely hope I never write literary fiction again.

Literary fiction is, when done correctly, gorgeous.  It explores deeply the complexities of a character, showing in a different light all the disgusting glory of human existence.  It insults, weeps, and delights itself.  Again, when done correctly, literary fiction is gorgeous.

I don’t want it.

A couple days ago, someone presented me with a visual prompt: the sun behind a pair of mountains behind a grove of trees, all frozen solid.  So I wrote a piece of flash fiction, and since I was on the spot and currently reading Thomas Wolfe, I wrote it in that style.  I wrote about choices, and change, and the affect of beauty on the mind.  It sounds so pretentious here, but it was only 200 words, and I showed as much as I could.  It was good practice for description and emotion.

The next day, I realized how much I loathed what I had written. Read the full post »

Writing as a Performance Art

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the concept of oral storytelling.

About a month or two ago, a friend sent me a link to some spoken word poetry.  It was fantastic.  The words themselves were beautiful, but the passion and skill of the performers made it better.  Around the same time, I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Worldbuilders readings of Jabberwocky and Green Eggs and Ham.  Anyone can read those stories, but he took it out of monotonous rhythm and made it interesting.  Plus, the accent.  Then I started on epic poetry.

If you’re at a party and they start passing around the Homer, just say no.

Last week, I found myself with the smudgy draft of a short epic poem, at nearly midnight.  It’s the short story equivalent of a real epic poem, and considering the inherent structure I’ve dissected and essayed upon since then, it’s doesn’t quite fall into all the parameters of epic poetry— but it has the basics.  I wrote a short poem in unrhymed blank verse, set in my current storyworld, about a mythic hero’s last sacrifice.  No, it doesn’t invoke the Muse.  No, it doesn’t begin in medias res.  Unfortunately, I skimped on both allegory and epic simile, because I haven’t created enough of this world to be that academic, and I still had a bit of a purple prose filter on.  But still, I consider it epic.

Probably the biggest reason is this: it’s written to be performed. Read the full post »

What’s Important? Artist Edition

Writing is hard.  At the beginning, everything is NaNoWriMo and instincts and blissful ignorance.  You begin to learn about the craft and get better, and while your first novel was truly terrible, you can laugh about it and move on.  You take pride in calling yourself a writer, among all those people who want to write but never do.  Then it begins to fade.  You keep making the same mistakes.  Words start coming slowly, and a bestselling author publishes two books in the time it takes you to get out of your slump.  The real world tries to pull you out of your fictional one.  Writing is hard.

Drawing is hard.  You start out doodling, and it turns out well, so you look into what else you can do.  It’s fun to experiment with colors, papers, and tools.  You start learning the glories of shadows, shapes, and (what a thrill!) crosshatching.  You’ve got your own sketchbook, and your doodles are getting more and more sophisticated.  Gone are the days of simple stick figures— you’ve got dragons and your friends’ faces and every good thing.  Then it begins to fade.  You begin to realize your circles are lopsided.  People look a little too noodly for your liking.  You’re still working on depth.  People want to see your sketchbook and start comparing you to other people.  You start drawings but don’t finish them because they don’t look right.  Drawing is hard.

Music.  Crafts.  Cooking.  All of it is hard.  Creating stuff is hard.  Words, sounds, sights, tastes, smells…  Well, anyone can make smells.  But good smells!  Creating is hard.  You have to think it up, gather materials, put stuff together to make different stuff, and throw it out for the world to judge.  When they get it, they might or might not like it.  If you don’t have to redo it, you get to start all over again, using none of the same things you just used!  Hurrah! Read the full post »

What’s Important?

A couple weeks ago, I stopped writing my WIP.  I had a fairly good beginning, but I was still unclear about the ending and middle— I wanted to do things intentionally, laying clues and weaving plot lines for the fantasy mystery I was planning.  After a couple false starts early on, I thought I finally had a solid beginning, and could begin to plan the rest, based on the promises I had already made.  For two weeks, I brainstormed.  With a blank piece of paper, a pen, and ambient productivity music from 99U, I worked out everything I wanted to do.  All the clues, all the reasoning in between, all the red herrings I needed.  I worked out everything.  After I finished, I began weaving all the different clues together into a timeline, outlining where characters needed to be and how they would arrive at answers.  It was humongous, but that’s what I expected— once written, it would be much tighter.

Then I looked at my beginning.  25k in, I was just getting to the choice, halfway through the first act.  That meant I was planning on having 8 times my current wordcount— 200k words.  For a fantasy MG mystery.  That’s not actually that bad, but considering the giant outline I had, even if I condensed it, that 200k wouldn’t be the maximum figure.  This novel was looking way thicker than I wanted it to be.  Not only that, but I had only outlined the first half so far, and the scene halfway through felt an awful lot like a denouement.  The entire thing felt wrong.

So I had to stop again.  While I like the idea of a complex mystery, there are limits to what a single novel can hold.  Glorious entanglements are one thing— confusing people and taking too long to tell a story is another. Read the full post »


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