Marcy Kennedy

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your Story

Top 10 Dialogue Mistakes that Kill Your StoryBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Awkward or boring dialogue can make readers cringe and toss our books aside to find something better.

A few months ago, I wrote a post called 10 Writing Mistakes that Kill Your First Chapter. Because of how much everyone liked that post, I decided to do a follow up. So today I’m sharing the top 10 dialogue mistakes that kill your story (in no particular order).

#1 – Too Much Direct Address

Direct address is where we call a person by their name or title (e.g., Mother, Doc).

“Bob, would you pass the peas?”
“Of course, Mary.” He turned to look at Frank. “Frank, I heard you got a new job.”
“Yes, Bob. I’m liking it a lot.”

Almost no one talks this way, and the people who do are considered strange. You can use a name or title once in a while in your dialogue, but make sure you’re doing it strategically (for example, people will often use names during an argument).

#2 – Allowing a Character to Speak Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!)

How much do you enjoy being around a person who talks for five or ten or fifteen minutes (or more) without letting anyone else get a word in? Probably not that much.

Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just four reasons why allowing a character to talk uninterrupted is a problem. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead. The forth is that it can hurt the likeability and believability of your windbag character.

Even if your character is giving a speech of some kind, you need to interrupt them with body language, actions by other characters, or internal dialogue from the point-of-view character.

#3 – Dialogue That’s Too Formal

This could be someone who uses multisyllabic words when a simple word will do, it could be a character who always uses perfect grammar or doesn’t use contractions, or it could be a character who always speaks in complete sentences and never uses a sentence fragment.

You might have a good reason for wanting to do one of these things, but most readers will find it awkward. We don’t talk this way in real life, and the rare people who do are considered stuck up.

#4 – Dialogue That Repeats What’s Also in Action or Internal Dialogue

This is also known as redundancy. It can happen on a small scale.

He shook his head. “No.”

Or it can also happen big-picture. If, for example, we’re going to have a character cracking a safe, we don’t need to have them explain the whole process to another character before it happens. That makes it boring for the reader to then have to sit through the description of our character actually cracking the safe (even if something goes wrong).

#5 – Creative Dialogue Tags

A creative dialogue tag looks like this:

“I’m going to kill you,” she hissed.

When you have a character hiss, growl, beg, demand, or (insert another descriptor here) their sentence, you’re violating the show, don’t tell principle. It’s usually a sign of weak dialogue. And if they’re used indiscriminately, they can give your writing a cartoonish feel.

They’re also impossible. Go ahead—try to hiss or growl an entire sentence. Or try to laugh or snarl an entire sentence.

#6 – Not Making It Clear Who’s Speaking

Do not make your reader guess who’s speaking or count back through your lines of dialogue to figure out who said what.

If we have more than three lines of unattributed dialogue in a row (dialogue without a tag like said or an action beat), we can risk the reader losing track of who’s speaking. If we have a scene with multiple speakers, we need to be certain it’s clear who each line of dialogue belongs to. An unattributed line of dialogue could belong to anyone present.

But the sneakiest of all is when we write about two characters in the same paragraph and then tack on a line of dialogue at the end.

Ellen waved her arm above her head, and Frank sprinted towards her. “I’ve missed you.”

Who said “I’ve missed you”? It could be Frank or it could be Ellen, and the reader has no way to tell which one it really is.

#7 – Too Much Filler Dialogue

We don’t need to hear our characters say hello, ask each other how they’ve been, and all the other small talk we make on a daily basis because it’s the polite thing to do. Those don’t forward the story, and they’re boring to read.

We also shouldn’t fill our dialogue with a lot of umms, ers, and ahs. Every word needs to count.

#8 – As-You-Know-Bob Dialogue

As-You-Know-Bob dialogue is when one character tells another character something they already know. It’s done purely for the reader’s benefit (because we’re trying to give the reader some information we think they need to know), and it’s unnatural.

If it’s common knowledge, it won’t come up in conversation, and real people won’t say something that isn’t relevant to the conversation.

#9 – Dialogue That Sounds the Same No Matter Who’s Speaking

If you’ve been told your characters seem flat, sometimes the problem isn’t that you haven’t fully developed your characters. Sometimes it’s the way you’re writing their dialogue. They might all sound like you or like each other.

#10 – Dialogue That Requires a Rosetta Stone to Decode

“S’pose we must be resigned; but oh Lord! how ken I? If I know’d anything whar you’s goin’, or how they’d sarve you! Missis says she’ll try and ’deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! nobody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills ’em! I’ve hearn ’em tell how dey works ’em up on dem ar plantations.” (From Chapter 10 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe)

Dialect written out phonetically like this is a bad idea for many reasons. It’s frustrating to your reader. You don’t want anyone to have to work that hard just to understand what your characters are saying. It pulls them out of the fictional dream. Beyond this, dialect used in this way sounds forced and can even border on demeaning to whatever group you’re trying to imitate.

Do you have any other common dialogue problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing? Or when you’re reading?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide. (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Image Credit: FreeImages.com/Samuel Alves Rosa

Creating an Author Business Plan: Professional Development

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Janice Hardy Fiction UniversityThis week marks the final installment in the series I’ve been running at Fiction University about writing our author business plan. I think this final section is one of the most important for independent authors.

Self-published books still have a bad reputation among many because too many independent authors put out their books before those books are “ready.” The professional development section of our business plan helps make sure we’re less likely to be one of those authors. It’s where we set improvement goals both in the writing craft and in the business side.

I hope you’ll join me today for Creating an Author Business Plan: Professional Development

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You also might want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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5 Creepy Sea Animals You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my unbelievable real life feature. Usually I focus on a single weird place or creature in our world, but today I thought it might be fun to give you a list of five incredibly strange underwater animals.

#1 – The Red-Lipped Bat Fish

Red-lipped_Bat_fish

This odd-looking fellow hails from the Galapagos Islands, and he’s such a terrible swimmer that he actually walks along the ocean floor instead. I suspect that’s why he looks so grumpy. The other fish probably tease him.

#2 – The Goblin Shark

Goblin Shark

Goblin sharks average 10-13 feet long at maturity, but they’d probably send any swimmer heading straight for shore even if they were half that size. Fortunately, they’re a deep sea shark, preferring to live 330 feet or more under water.

#3 – Japanese Spider Crab

Japanese_spider_crab_(15340536895)

“What’s so cool about this one?” you might ask. Well, you can’t tell from this picture, but this spider crab stands as tall as a man, weighs around 42 pounds fully grown, and if you made him stretch out his legs (good luck with that), he’s 12 feet from claw to claw.

#4 – The Blue Dragon

Blue_dragon-glaucus_atlanticus_(8599051974)Glaucus_atlant.

I had to include extra images of this one because it’s just so beautiful. It’s also called a blue angel or a sea swallow, but officially it’s categorized as a sea slug. A rose by any other name I suppose. Unfortunately, along with being beautiful, the blue dragon is also venomous.

#5 – Sea Pig

Sea Pig

I couldn’t find a better image to use here legally, but you can see a real-life image of the sea pig at this link. Sea pigs have tubes of their top and their bottom that they can inflate and deflate. Technically, they’re a sea cucumber, which sounds even more strange than calling the blue dragon a sea slug because these sea pigs definitely look more like uncooked sausages than they do like vegetables. They’re one of the few underwater creatures that uses the sense of smell to locate food.

Which one of these five is your favorite? It’s probably no secret that mine is the blue dragon 🙂

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IMAGE CREDITS:

Bat Fish
By Rein Ketelaars (Flickr: DSCN1938.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Goblin Shark
By Dianne Bray / Museum Victoria [CC BY 3.0 au (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/au/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Spider Crab
By Takashi Hososhima from Tokyo, Japan (Japanese spider crab) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Dragon
By Sylke Rohrlach from Sydney (Blue dragon-glaucus atlanticus) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Imtorn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sea Pig
By Lindberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Q & A: What Type of Editing Does Your Book Need?

Image Credit: Willemijn Simonis (www.freeimages.com)

Image Credit: Willemijn Simonis (www.freeimages.com)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’m starting a new monthly feature here on my blog where I answer your questions. If you’d like to submit a question for a future episode, head over to my contact form to send me an email.

To inaugurate this new venture, I’ve decided to answer a question I receive a lot.

This one comes from Rachel Funk Heller:

What’s the difference between a developmental edit and proofreading?

Writing doesn’t have standardized terms like some other industries, and this leads to a lot of confusion among writers. (This actually came up in the comments on the guest post I wrote last week for Jami Gold about internal dialogue.)

So to answer Rachel’s question, I’m going to explain the different levels of editing. And remember, if you’re not sure what’s included in the type of editing an editor is offering, ask. You have the right to know what you’ll receive in your edit before you agree to hire the editor.

I’m putting these edits in order from big picture to small details. The order is important. If the foundation of your house isn’t solid, it won’t matter how pretty your living room drapes are.

Developmental Edit

You might have also heard this called a comprehensive critique, a substantive edit, a structural edit, a content edit, or a macro edit. (No wonder everyone is confused, right?)

This doesn’t involve correcting your punctuation and grammar or smoothing out awkward sentences. It’s about story issues—characterization (including likeability), setting, plot, too much/not enough backstory, showing vs. telling, dialogue, point-of-view problems, pacing, and goals, stakes, and motivation.

Most writers on a budget skip this step, but this is usually the type of edit we need the most. We might be able to copy edit or proofread our own work, but we’re not objective enough to developmentally edit our own book. And a fantastic story can cover over a multitude of other writing sins.

Line Edit

A line edit will cover things like word choice, paragraph flow, smoothing out awkward or wordy sentences, eliminating repetition, catching clichés, and other style issues. During a line edit, your editor will also point out areas where you need to clarify what you’ve written and suggest spots where your transitions are weak.

Many editors will flag POV errors or small scale showing vs. telling during a line edit, but they will not do it to the degree that a developmental edit does.

Good line editors are rare because they need to be mimics. They need to enhance our voice rather than stamping their own voice on our writing.

Copy Edit

A copy edit is about making your manuscript follow the rules of grammar and punctuation such as comma placement and homonyms. Editors will also trim unnecessary words, change passive sentences to active ones, and catch typos or missing words. Usually they’ll correct your formatting.

For fiction, a copy edit includes catching continuity errors as well—for example, your hero has blue eyes on page 10 but green eyes by page 100. For non-fiction, your copy edit might check and flag potential factual errors. (Be sure to ask if continuity checking is included.)

If you have big issues still in your book at this point, your copy editor is going to leave them there. It’s not their job to fix them. A good copy editor might brave your wrath to suggest you should have a developmental edit or a line edit done first.

Proofread

A proofread corrects typos and overlooked errors in grammar, punctuation, capitalization, etc. No big changes are made at this stage. It’s your last minute check because no edit ever catches everything.

Do you need to go through every level of editing?

In a perfect world, we would. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Few of us have the money to pay for all the levels of editing.

Take an honest assessment of where your natural skills lie. Focus your money on bolstering your weaker areas.

I’ve also written a post for Janice Hardy about How to Save Money on Editing Your Book, and Jami Gold has a great post on her site about how to find beta readers.

If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember these things:

The lines between each type of edit are blurry rather than clean. That’s why you need to be certain what the editor you’re talking to will include in that type of edit. Don’t assume.

Friends don’t let friends send their babies out into the world without some sort of editing. Poorly edited books make us all look bad. I know you’re worried about hurting their feelings, but it’s better to be honest than let them be eaten alive by the reviewer sharks or to let a book with great potential fall short.

A man (or woman) who is his own editor has a fool for a client. Even though I edit as part of my job, I still need a fresh set of eyes before my book goes out. Do something to get your book looked at by eyes other than your own.

Any other questions about editing? What forms of editing have you had done?

If you have a question you’d like me to answer here, make sure to send me an email!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available. (You might also want to check out Description or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Helpful Ways to Deal with Dream Crushers

Dream Crushers

Image Credit: Len Nguyen

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Definition of a Dream-Crusher: A person who attempts to discourage or stands in the way of someone else pursuing their dream.

This isn’t a post about The Fantastic Four movie (which was mediocre at best), but I started thinking about dream-crushers because of a scene at the beginning of that movie.

A young Reed Richards gives a presentation to his elementary school class about the scientific break-through (teleportation) he wants to invent when he grows up. When he finishes, his teacher tells him he didn’t do the assignment properly. He was supposed to write a report about a real career.

I felt that reprimand.

I’ve been that kid.

No, I never dreamed of inventing teleportation, but I can still remember sitting in the guidance counselor’s office in high school for my “career counseling session.” I already knew then that I wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t see the point in lying about it.

My guidance counselor pulled up some numbers for average writer income, and strongly advised me to go a different route. With my grades, I could do anything I wanted. He made it clear that writing wasn’t a good career choice.

I know he meant well. He was a kind person. As graduation drew closer and it was time for university applications to be sent, many of my teachers—from my Calculus teacher to my history teacher—kept me after class to recommend I go to university for whatever their subject was. And their disappointment was clear when I told them what I intended to turn into my career.

When I was younger, those types of reactions to my career choice hurt me and made me angry. I felt judged and criticized.

The older I got, the more I understood that this wasn’t a personal attack, even though it felt personal. Anyone who wants to follow an unconventional dream seems to provoke the same reaction from people. I’ve heard people say that they’d never allow their child to go into a creative career.

I started to wonder what causes these reactions. Millions of people enjoy the fruit of those creative professions. They watch TV, read books, listen to music, attend plays, visit art galleries, and watch shows like So You Think You Can Dance. Yet when it comes to the creators of those fruits, they’re so often viewed with disdain.

I’m only one point of view, but I think the cause lies in three different reasons. And when we understand those reasons, hopefully we can start to find productive ways to deal with them.

Cause #1 – Misunderstandings about the profession and the people in it.

There seems to be a misconception about creatives that we’re lazy. That we sit around all day, excusing our lack of output with claims of waiting for the muse to strike or writer’s block. They think we simply don’t want to put in the effort a real job requires. We’d rather play than work.

They see us as slothful addicts, prone to drinking too much of our beverage of choice and unhealthy eating that leads to unhealthy bodies.

Or they think we can’t make good money. (True, some creatives don’t. But some creatives do.)

They think anyone can do it, and they talk about how someday they’d like to learn to paint or play an instrument or write a book. When they retire. When they have more free time. Because those things are really more of a hobby.

As a creative myself, I can’t claim to know or understand all the misconceptions out there.

What I can do, what we all can do, is tackle them when we run into them. We’re partly to blame for these misconceptions. We can take care of our health. When we talk to non-creatives, we can make sure they understand that this is a business as well as an art. We work hard. We put in long hours. We all know of creatives who’ve been successful and can serve as good examples even if we’re not there yet ourselves. We can share the hours of education and training that actually go into what we do. We can treat our dream career with more respect and confidence and fewer apologies.

Cause #2 – The feeling that creatives are judging them or looking down on non-creatives.

Let’s be honest here. It’s easy to (incorrectly) think that people in more standard jobs aren’t living their dreams. And when we have that mindset, it comes across to people.

Non-creatives have dreams that are just as big and just as valuable. Two of my best friends are perfect examples.

One wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and homeschool her children. That’s her dream. That brings her fulfillment and joy. It’s her dream, and no one should belittle her dream.

My other friend is a teacher. She started out her university years with the intention to become a doctor, but what she loved, what she really wanted to do, was to teach young children. So she chased after it. It’s a beautiful, valuable dream. She makes a difference. And she’s happy.

For some people, their dream doesn’t involve a job at all. They’re happy with going to work simply to make money because their dream involves being able to spend their off-hours at their cottage or creating pottery in their garage.

We, inadvertently, sometimes convey the idea that we’re “better” somehow because we’ve bucked tradition and chosen to walk our own path as creatives. We expect people to show interest in and support for our career, but we don’t always show the same for their passions.

Here’s what I’m trying to do instead. I’m trying to ask people what they’re passionate about and what they love to do, rather than what they do to earn a living. It levels the playing field, and it allows me to invest in them before I expect them to invest in me. My dream might be different from theirs, but it’s no better.

Cause #3 – Failed dreams of their own.

This is the saddest. The most troubling.

Some people try to crush us and make us conform because they gave up on their own dreams.

At times these people are so easy to spot that I want to cry for them. Talk to them for very long and you’ll be able to learn about that dream they didn’t chase because they use it as an example of why you shouldn’t chase yours. Their reasons for giving up their dream are varied. They don’t even always recognize their motivations for giving it up. Maybe they were scared. Maybe they truly weren’t capable of chasing their dreams—the need to eat, the need to put someone else first, or the lack of talent became an impenetrable barrier.

You can often spot these people because they chose their career for practical reasons, and now, a few years in, are disillusioned and dissatisfied with their work. They live for their vacation days and complain about their jobs regularly. They’re jaded with the work they do. They can’t wait to retire.

And the only way to make themselves feel better about their choice is to make sure no one proves them wrong. Seeing someone succeed at their unconventional dream hurts them deep inside, in a place they’re not brave enough to admit to or face.

We can’t change these people. All we can do is pity them. Pity them and show them more kindness than they show us and hope that, someday, they’ll find something that makes them happy too.

Have you run into dream-crushers before? How have you handled it? What do you think makes people try to crush the dreams of others?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Three Surprising Writing Problems Solved By Understanding Internal Dialogue

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Today marks the end of my summer blogging travels, where I have some fun by guest posting at other sites. While I still guest post a little during the rest of the year, it’s significantly less than in the summer months. Next month, my regular blogging schedule returns.

For my final summer guest post, I’m at the site of the wonderful Jami Gold. Not only does Jami have one of the best sites for writers, but she’s also a super nice person.

So please join me over a Jami’s blog for Three Surprising Writing Problems Solved by Understanding Internal Dialogue.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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Creating Our Author Business Plan: Book by Book Marketing

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

The marketing section of our author business plan is unique in that we need to think about our overall marketing strategy as well as the specific marketing activities we’re going to use for each individual book we produce.

Last month I talked about developing our overall marketing plan, and this month I’m going to suggest ways we can create a successful plan for marketing each individual book.

Please join me at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University for my regular monthly guest post!

P.S. Every summer I try to travel around and guest post a bit, but now that the summer is drawing to a close, I only have one more guest post (for the fantastic Jami Gold), and then it’ll be back to business as usual here on the blog 🙂

Janice Hardy Fiction University

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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5 Techniques for Amazing Internal Dialogue

InternalDialogueMarcyKennedyBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

If I took a survey asking writers what the most important elements of fiction were, I’d probably end up with a few consistent answers—plot, characters, dialogue, showing rather than telling.

We might not automatically think of including internal dialogue on the list, but we should.

Internal dialogue is the heartbeat of fiction. It serves practical purposes, like helping us control our pacing, but it serves deeper, more subtle roles as well. Without enough internal dialogue or without strong internal dialogue, our fiction can end up confusing and emotionless. We have people randomly acting, like we’re watching a TV show without any sound.

Unfortunately, too much internal dialogue or poor internal dialogue can make our fiction feel immature, slow, or claustrophobic.

So to help you develop the right kind of internal dialogue, I wanted to share a few of my favorite ways to make sure my internal dialogue is enhancing my story rather than detracting from it.

If you’d like to read the rest of this post, please swing by Writers in the Storm where I’m guest posting about internal dialogue!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Internal Dialogue is now available from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.. (You might also want to check out Grammar for Fiction Writers or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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7 Ways to Make Yourself a Better Writer in 7 Days

7 Ways to Make Yourself a Better WriterBy Marcy Kennedy (@marcykennedy)

I wanted to take a quick break from posts on writing craft topics and instead give you a list of fresh techniques to help you become a better writer.

Do one of these each day in the coming week, and you’ll improve as a writer in ways that can’t be learned through a book or a writing course or even by writing.

#1 – Go someplace safe and allow yourself to cry.

We all have pain inside us that we’ve never really dealt with.

The problem with this is that, unless we face our own pain, we can’t give authentic emotions to our characters. When we’re trying so hard to hide or manage our pain, we’ll shy away from strong emotions on the page. We’ll be too nice to our characters. Our writing will feel shallow. Or we’ll go too far in the other direction and our writing will become melodramatic as we use the page as therapy.

The solution is to give yourself the chance to feel all the pain you’ve bottled up inside.

Cry for the disappointments that you minimized at the time because you didn’t want others’ pity or you didn’t want your loved ones to feel bad.

Cry for people you’ve lost, whose absence you still feel, who will always be missed. Cry for all those times you wanted to grieve and couldn’t because you had to be strong.

Cry for your regrets, for the shame of your past sins, failures, and mistakes—the ones you hate to face because you’re afraid of repeating them, afraid of someone uncovering them, afraid that they’re the person you truly are.

Face the pain.

Now that you’ve faced it, you’ll be able to give it to your characters in an honest way, and you’ll be less afraid of putting the emotions they need to feel onto the page. You won’t be as afraid of hurting your characters because you won’t fear facing the pain that comes afterward anymore.

#2 – Go to people in your life and ask them to tell you your weaknesses, especially the ones you’re unaware of.

Congratulations. You’ve just experienced what it will be like to blog or have any published work available that people can review.

You will receive cutting comments. You will receive negative reviews. People will insult you and point out errors and weaknesses you didn’t know you had. Some will even call your integrity and character into question.

And it will hurt. You can pretend it won’t and doesn’t, but it will and does.

Too many authors damage their careers by lashing out when they receive negative comments or reviews. Preparing yourself beforehand will teach you how to deal with your hurt feelings in a constructive, rather than a destructive, way.

#3 – Give yourself a deadline for a big project. Don’t work on that project at all until shortly before it’s due. Now force yourself to finish it no matter how late you need to stay up.

When you wake up the next day and feel like a troll tap-danced on your face, you doze off while sitting on the toilet, and your significant other wants to know when you swapped your personality for that of Oscar the Grouch, commit this moment to memory. When you re-read what you wrote and some of the sentences don’t even make sense, commit this moment to memory. This is not your best work. It’s certainly not your best self.

Write a letter to yourself about how awful you feel right now. File it away with the drivel you wrote while rushing to meet your deadline. Any time you consider procrastinating on a project in the future, read those pages. This will teach you to plan ahead and leave yourself the real amount of time you need to do something well.

#4 – Spend a day researching topics you know nothing about.

Keep a notepad beside you and jot down story or plot ideas that pop up as you read. You’ve now discovered an unlimited well of new story ideas. You might think you’ll never run out of ideas, but after you’ve been writing for years, you will hit a point where all your ideas seem stale, old, and trite.

Developing this practice not only gives you a way to breathe fresh life into your work, it also gives you a fool-proof method for beating writer’s block. If you’re blocked, pick a random topic and go research it. Maybe you won’t use those exact ideas in your story, but it’ll jumpstart your creativity.

#5 – Carry a notebook and jot down specific details about the world around you.

The grain in the wood paneling that looks like the ripples in the sand on a sand bar. The way the rain sounds like steak sizzling in a pan. The smell of burnt flesh in the dentist office.

The body language of the couple on the park bench across from you—she’s picking at her skirt with her gaze downcast, and he has his head thrown back, laughing.

The woman with the gap between her teeth, who whistles every time she pronounces an “s” sound.

Details are what bring your story world to life. Today you’re training yourself to pay more attention and to find fresh, interesting ways to describe your settings and your characters.

#6 – Attempt a completely new skill. Now observe someone who is excellent at it (or the results of their excellence).

Pick up a musical instrument. Take a ballroom dancing lesson. Ride a horse. Paint a picture. Try to surf. Bake a soufflé.

What you choose doesn’t matter as much as the fact that this is new ground for you. And that you’ll be terrible at it. If possible, have someone video your attempt. Compare your results to someone who has worked on this skill for years.

Here’s what this teaches you—you won’t be an awesome writer the first draft of your first book. It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, you’ll think you’re ready to publish long before you actually are ready to publish. I know. I thought so too.

And that’s okay. Remember this moment. Remember what you learned.

Don’t rush to publish. And don’t stop either. Mediocrity is easy. Excellence takes time and hard work.

#7 – Pick your three favorite movies. Or pick your three favorite books. What do they have in common?

These need to be the three movies that you never tire of watching or the three books you never tire of reading. You can quote lines from them.

They might be from different genres, and at first, it might look like they have nothing in common. Look deeper. Look past the fact that one’s a romantic comedy and the other is a high fantasy. Don’t be blinded by surface elements.

Are there similarities between the main characters? Is there a common message or theme?

When you find the thread that ties them together, you’ve taken the first step in defining your personal brand as a writer. This is what you love. This is what speaks to you. This is what you need to do.

Instead of denying who you are, embrace it. The world is full of people like you, needing the same things you need and loving the same things you love. Forget about trying to please the ones who hate what you love. They were never going to read your work anyway. Trying to make everyone happy means we make no one happy, including ourselves.

Today you’ve learned to write for you and the people like you.

Do you have any other non-writing tips to help us all become better writers?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue, Description, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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*Image Credit: freeimages.com/Viktors Kozers

How to Use Your Logline, Tagline, and Pitch to Create a Stronger Story

Logline and PitchBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Most of us think of a logline, tagline, and pitch as marketing tools we write after we’ve written our story so that we can use them to land an agent or as our book’s cover copy.

We’re doing it backwards.

If we wait until we’re done with our book, any problems our logline, tagline, and pitch reveal could mean major re-writes. By creating them first, we’ll save ourselves a lot of unnecessary work.

Pantsers – this is especially true for you! Even though I’m a hard core plotter, I’ve co-written a novel with an equally hard core pantser, so I know how much you hate planning. Using these tools before you start to write can make sure you have a strong idea and still give you the freedom to discover your story as you go.

And I’m about to show you how.

A logline is a one-sentence description of your book that captures your main character, the conflict they’re going to face, and the stakes if they lose.

It contains the three most important ingredients in a strong story. Leave one out and it’s like leaving the chocolate chips out of chocolate chip cookies.

In a logline, you don’t use your main character’s name, so you’re forced to figure out what makes them interesting and unique. Plotters, this forces you to distill down what’s most important about your main character from the pages of description you’ve no doubt created. Pansters, this allows you to have a clear picture of your main character without writing out the character sketches you likely find tedious. For both, your logline helps you figure out who the story belongs to.

Conflict boils down to what your main character wants and what’s standing in her way. No conflict, no story. I don’t care whether you’re writing a romance, a thriller, a fantasy, a memoir, or a work of literary fiction. If you can’t clearly state what your conflict is, you don’t have a story.

Plotters, because you write detailed outlines, you can sometimes lose sight of your main story among the subplots. Pantsers, knowing the main plot keeps you from getting so distracted by bunny trails that your first draft is a tangled knot you don’t even know how to begin untying. (Or worse, you end up without a main storyline at all.)

Usually when you hit the conflict portion of your logline, you’ll include your antagonist/villain. You do have one, don’t you? If you don’t, you don’t have a story.

Stakes are what your main character stands to lose if she fails. Why should they care what happens? If they don’t care, then the reader won’t care.

Seeing your stakes on paper this way forces you to ask if they’re big enough. Will they change your character’s life forever? James Scott Bell is fond of saying the stakes should always be death. I agree with him. Physical death. Emotional death. Spiritual death. Your character needs a reason to fight to the very end.

So a logline tells you what your book will be about. Your tag line is a catch phrase. (Don’t confuse them.)

The tagline captures the tone or emotional essence of your book. It also hints at the genre. It’s what you see on the front cover or on a movie poster.

Life is like a box of chocolates – Forrest Gump

You know you’re going to get a story that has moments of humor and yet manages to be profound. You could guess this is going to be a drama.

Don’t go into the water – Jaws

It sets the tone for a story that’s going to scare you. You know it’s going to be either horror or a thriller.

One ring to rule them all – Lord of the Rings

This is going to be an epic fantasy. Whole countries will be at stake. Maybe even the whole world.

Behind every great love is a great story – The Notebook

Romance. Probably going to be tears involved.

By writing your tagline, you know tone you’re going to use when writing your book. Will your story be dark? Funny? A real tear jerker? A consistent tone is essential. Knowing it will save you from a million rewrites because you switched your tone three times during your first draft.

Which leaves our pitch, the six- to ten-sentence summary of our book.

Your pitch should only cover the first third of your book, with emphasis on what I call the Commitment Point.

The Commitment Point should happen 25% of the way in. It’s the point from which your main character can no longer turn back. The main conflict of the story is introduced, and your MC commits to their goal. This is the important part of it—you identify what’s going to make your main character commit.

Your Commitment Point isn’t your main character being wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder. It’s his decision to escape when his bus crashes and to go on the run to catch the real killer. (From The Fugitive, one of my favorite movies.)

Knowing the Commitment Point makes you answer a key question–how are you going to convince your main character to take on a task that looks like it can only end in failure and death? If your main character could escape from their quest at this point, they would. They would take an easier road. So you need to know what’s going to make them go forward anyway.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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*This post originally aired at Writers in the Storm. They’re a fantastic blog for writers, and if you haven’t checked them out yet, I strongly recommend you do.

*Image Credit: freeimages.com/Takis Kolokotronis