Roadside Attractions – Blurb Hell

Roadside Attractions has been picked up for publication by Kyanite Press. It should come out sometime in 2020 or thereabouts. In addition to the text and the cover (both of which are undergoing modifications), I have to come up with a damned blurb.

Blurbs are one of those things that you have to deal with. I’ve written about how to do them a few times on this blog, but like a lot of things, they’re easier to write about than to actually write. I think I’ve got a decent one, but any input would be welcome.

A piece of Hell exists in a tiny town in southern Arizona.
During a not-so-routine investigation into a haunting, a pair of ghost hunters get a strange text message beckoning them to Dragoon, Arizona. The message promises them a ghost unlike any they’ve ever met and riches galore for investigating the entity. They find the ghost, but more sinister forces are lurking in the town and soon the ghost-hunters – and the ghost they were sent to hunt – find themselves caught between a renegade devil and the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him. With time running out and no one to turn to, they’ll have to dig deep into science, magic, and themselves to stop a great evil from awakening or the world will suffer an eternity of darkness.

Comments? Thoughts? More rotten fruit tossed at me while an angry mob chants at me to give writing and go back to whatever rock I crawled out from under?

Also, is this a dope-ass cover or what?

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When Is It Enough? Showing and Telling and All That Jazz.

the Witch, on Twitter, asked a very interesting question: At what point have you done enought showing? Or telling for that matter? When, for the love of all that’s holy, is it done?

Everyone knows the story is done when it’s done. It may not seem obvious in the beginning when a story will be finished, but as you progress down the road of writing it you’ll soon realize there’s a central conflict (renegade necromancer out to destroy everything because she’s pissed as hell) and perhaps some side issues (vampire with similar problems, but wanting to take over her people instead of wrecking the city) that the protagonist (gun-toting badass with a drinking problem who really just wants to be left alone) has to deal with. Once the primary conflict is wrapped up and the side conflict gets taken care of, the story is done. The denoument should tie all the parts together, slap a bow on it, and call it good. We don’t have to worry about what comes next; that’s stuff for the sequel.

The plot is a necessity, but it’s in the midst of the story is where the magic happens. That’s where you show all of the things that led us to this point and give readers insight into the why as well as the how. So, you could sum up my latest work in progress using the descriptions above and you’d have the basic plot of a book that still doesn’t have a freakin’ title because I can’t think of one even though it’s nearly half written. You could even summarize the ending by saying “Bullets with a side of throat ripping”, but four disconnected phrases does not a book make. Why and how are important. So is building the world the characters live in. Those are the places to spend your time. On the plus side, you could use those disconnected sentences to come up with a half-decent blurb.

In a city where life is cheap, someone is leaving corpses that won’t stay dead. There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening, but Ace Colton’s recently deceased on-again-off-again girlfriend just tried to introduce him to the business end of a knife. At her funeral, a vampire finds him and explains that she made a promise to protect him. While everything implodes around them, they’ll make their way through a city where vampires and magic are real, leaders are fighting to imprison every last magical thing, and regular humans are pawns in a deadly game that could decide the fate of a world.

Okay, so it’s not perfect. Sue me. It’s a first cut.

Anyway, back to the magic of the story. What makes a story engaging starts with the plot. If it’s a tale of some doof brushing his teeth, no ones going to care, unless it’s some avant-garde house movie where the audience can convince themselves they saw something that wasn’t there and look down their noses at everyone who missed it. Get a decent plot, make some memorable characters, throw in some sex with a vampire, and don’t be afraid to unleash a bunch of hot lead. That should be enough of a hook to get people interested.

It’s the world of the book that will keep people interested. I wrote a post a while back about why I thought writing urban fantasy was harder than regular fantasy because you have to make all the weird shit seem natural when it’s dropped into a mundane setting like Albuquerque, New Mexico or Tijuana, Regular Mexico. The world building requires more effort because you have to shoehorn in fantasy elements and make them seem like they belong there. And that requires description.

Which, finally, takes us back to The Witch’s original question: When have you shown enough? There’s actually an easy answer to that, but it’s not the easiest thing to understand. It’s done when it’s done. Let’s say I’m describing magazines on a coffee table in a weird sorcerer dude’s house:

The table was covered with half-formed rings of spilled coffee, the kind of thing you only see with people who either drink too much coffee or don’t give a shit about cleaning up anymore. In the middle, staring up from a leaning pile of crusty, dog-eared, and tattered “Big Butts” magazines, a girl in a bikini looked over her shoulder, shoving her ass into the camera. Someone had drawn an eye patch and a fake scar on her face with a cheap ballpoint pen and the ink was smeared from recent use. On the corner of the table, neatly aligned and staring at me with a smirk on its face, was a pristine copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly with a cover depicting the latest in the military application of magical weapons.

There’s a lot of information built into that paragraph, even if it’s not obvious. That’s what I like to call information density. You don’t have to have spell out every little thing to have the world building work, and you definitely don’t have to tell the reader what you want them to realize. That’s showing in a nutshell.

You’re trying to accomplish a few things with world building:

  • Describing the world (duh)
  • Laying out the important points
  • Fleshing out a character

The trick to it is figuring out the important points and that’s the key to understanding The Witch’s question. What’s important? What does the reader need to know to understand where this madcap tale of guns and sorcery is heading? That is something only the author can answer. If your book is about a half-assed sorcerer who’s never done anything important with his life and is catching shit from his parents and the general world around him, the description of a coffee table shed a lot of light on both him and his world. We know:

  • He’s probably an obsessive coffee drinker and that makes his hands shaky
  • He likes to punch the bishop on the couch.
  • The world not only has magic in it, but someone’s working to weaponize it.
  • Our sorcerer has a thing for degrading women and possibly mutliating them.
  • He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

While some other brothers might deny, our sorcerer dude is probably a messed up individual on track to get himself and everyone else in a lot of trouble. If that’s the description of the character you’re going for, you’re good to go. If not, replace the magazines or clean up the coffee table. Or whatever. Just realize when to stop. The table might also have a half-empty box of Kleenex, or a cold mug of coffee, or any number of other things. He might also have a half-empty box of ‘Nilla Wafers in the cabinet and some Chinese noodles in the trash, but you don’t need to say that. In the case of the Kleenex and the cold coffee, we already know he likes coffee and boxing the clown on the sofa, you don’t need to hammer the point home – no pun intended. In the case of the ‘Nilla Wafers and Chinese noodles, who cares? All we know is he likes vanilla wafers and Chinese food and everyone like vanilla wafers and Chinese food. It’s junk information just like saying he owns a pair of pants or breathes air.

All the information in our world building needs to have a valid reason for being there. It needs to describe a character and how they’re different or what their motivations might be, explain some aspect of a world that’s not what’s expected in our world, or leave clues and reasons for plot points that will happen later on. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories or doesn’t help breath life into a world, let it go. And if you’ve already shown it, there’s not much reason to beat that dead horse some more (also no pun intended). Leave some space for the action that drives the story forward and don’t overload the reader with details that aren’t important. Bored readers put down books and that’s not what we’re shooting for here.

So, to answer The Witch’s question: The showing and telling are done when they’re done. And they’re done when the pertinent information has been presented. Everything else is icing and remember, while sitting on the couch with a jar of chocolate mocha icing and a spoon sounds like a good idea, it gets old pretty quickly.

One final thought on world building: Realize we learned an awful lot about a character from describing his coffee table. Not all character building is obvious.

Follow The Witch on Twitter. She’s worth your time.

No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

Serve Your Sentence With Aplomb

There have been several claims about what the longest sentence in English is. They range from over a thousand words (1,288 in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) to nearly 14,000 (13,955 in Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club). Even though Coe’s apparently got the record nailed down tight until new sentence technology is discovered, 1,288 is freakin’ long sentence. Especially when most sentences range between 10 and 20 words with outliers on both sides.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 word average sentences because as the author, Martin Cutts, explains, “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish has this to say on the subject: “Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.”

Sentence length and ease of reading

  • 8 words or less: very easy
  • 11 words: easy
  • 14 words: fairly easy
  • 17 words: standard
  • 21 words: fairly difficult
  • 25 words: difficult
  • 29+ words: very difficult

While there’s evidence that the average sentence length has shrunk 75% in the last 500 years – it wasn’t uncommon to see 70+ word sentences in the 1600s – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea (or good writing) to go for the long sentence. The reason for that has to do with readability. There’s evidence that the average person reading a 14 word sentence will pick up +90% of what they’re reading; that number drops to less than 10% at 43 words.

All this sentence length and reading comprehension stuff is something that’s been pinging around in my head ever since I wrote that post on words back in June. The gist of that post was understanding average vocabulary size with a brief foray into reading levels in prose and why writing to a 7th grade level wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While that post spent more time with the number of unique words in a book, it touched on the idea of sentence length impacting readability and that idea stuck in my craw. After all, even a short sentence filled with words like fustian, byzantine, and polyglot can make a minefield for some people:

The polyglot’s mind was a byzantine mass of competing ideas and definitions that led to her fustian speech.

Okay, so at 18 words that was slightly over the standard sentence length, but not so outside the norm that it should be hard to parse. On the other hand, most people don’t regularly use words like polyglot, byzantine, and fustian, so those will be speed bumps on the superhighway to comprehension. Other than that, there’s nothing untoward about the sentence. A simple parsing, even accounting for the odd word choice, should reveal she has a whole whack of ideas and definitions and that does something bad to the way she speaks. If you want to go full information density on it, we can also assume she’s probably smart since she knows multiple languages, but her thoughts are jumbled since she sometimes gets lost juggling all those languages and that reflects in the way she talks. Basically it’s an excuse for what seems like pompous oratory.

Parsing is the key element here. While there can be multiple types of sentences – declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative – all sentences come down one key thing: relating words into a complete, coherent idea. Or, if you want to get all fancy with it, according to dictionary.com, a sentence is “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc, and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate, as in John is here. or Is John here?

So, really, a sentence is a bunch of words meant to convey a singular idea, no matter how complicated that idea might be. The kicker is, in order to understand the idea, you have to get through the sentence. That usually entails finding space in your head to store the words and brain CPU time to parse and process the words. All of this has to happen in the background as you’re reading and, in some cases, even moving onto the next sentence.

And you thought you weren’t smart. Shame on you. Even reading this post is requiring you to brain and brain hard.

By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to break Coe’s longest sentence record, go for it. According to linguists, there is no functional top end in how long a sentence can be in English. Because of the way the language is structured, it’s possible to keep adding recursion (He said that she said that her grandmother said that Cthulhu said that guy over there did something…) or subordinate clauses or semi-colons or iterations or enumerations until the end of time. Even with just enumerations, it’s theoretically possible to write an endless sentence: She started counting to herself, never intending to stop: One, two, three, four, five, six… That sentence will only end when she runs out of numbers and I have it on good authority that there are a lot of them.

Does all this mean you should never go full Coe and write two short-stories’ worth of words into one sentence? Not necessarily, just realize longer sentences are harder to parse and, therefore, less likely to engage your reader. 15-20 words should be enough to convey the message you need to get across with a sentence. If it takes longer than that, or if you find yourself going balls to the wall with recursion, subordinate clauses, and whatnot, you might want to consider breaking longer sentences into shorter sentences. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if no one can load and parse them.

A quick addendum to this: As was pointed out in the comments, vary the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences read faster which allows you to speed up the pace; longer ones slow reading down, which allows a reader time to rest.

Just try to avoid the 1000+ word sentences. No one wants to read those.

What are your thoughts on sentence length? Leave me a comment.

Show Me The Stuff

Here’s an interesting factoid for you: The cast of the original Star Trek were among the last actors that were trained by picture. Apparently, when they were learning to act, part of their training consisted of showing them pictures of people doing particular faces to represent various emotions. This is what a scared person looks like. This is what a happy person looks like. So on and so forth.

Better than his Spocked face.

In a way, it makes a certain kind of sense. As a TV actor, part of the job is making sure the audience understands what’s going on. If you make a particular face, everyone knows you’re shocked. Then we don’t have to expend additional energy trying to decide who’s shocked, who’s got ennui, and who’s blasé about about life; we can focus on the antics of Spock and Bones.

What does all this have to do with price of tea in China? Funny you should ask. But first, allow me to digress.

Back when I was still teaching Kenpo, I learned more teaching than I did learning. The reason was I had to not only be able to teach the techniques as I learned them, but be able to explain why the technique worked. It required an in-depth understanding to do it well.

Editing can change things.

Editing a book is kind of like teaching. It forces you to look at things differently. While I’m editing someone’s book, I’m also mentally editing my own works and noting what works and what doesn’t work when I’m reading it instead of writing it.

I’ve recently been editing a book for some folks. While it’s not a bad book, there are a few things in there that had me scratching my head and a few things that could really be expanded. In the writing world, we love to say “show, don’t tell.” The things that needed expanded fell into the “show, don’t tell” category. It wasn’t that they were bad lines, they just needed some expansion.

I’m not going to reproduce their lines here. Like I said, they’re not bad lines. But you see bad lines all the time. Little throw-away lines that would be easy to turn from bland to interesting.

Take this:

“I could tell she was upset.”

It’s a classic example of tell, not show. It’s also boring and feels half-assed. To make it interesting, look back to the way the original cast of Star Trek was trained and start asking question. How could I tell she was upset? Well, she looked upset. What does that look like? If you were to paint a picture of someone who was upset, what would it look like?

Steam always comes out of ears when people are upset. Seriously, watch a cartoon sometime.

That’s the essence of showing instead of telling.

An upset person can scowl, furrow their brow, snort, frown, grimace, narrow their eyes, glare, yell, blow steam out of their ears, and break things. Think about a person you’ve known and what he or she looked like when they were upset. Then write that.

Instead of “I could tell she was upset” how about:

“Her glare could peel the paint off a battleship. Those expressive brown eyes I love so much wouldn’t meet my gaze. She was completely focused on the bent spoon in her hand when she said, ‘I can’t believe you cheated at Street Fighter 2. I had that match and you know it’.”

Without ever saying “she’s upset” we know she’s upset. If in doubt, toss in a line about steam coming out of her ears.

Show it, don’t tell it.

Got any tips for showing instead of telling? Drop ’em in the comments and let the world see. In the interim, keep writing.

Writing Process

 

I type like the wind.

Stephen King has repeated said he writes every day. I saw him when he was in Albuquerque being interviewed on stage by George R.R. Martin. Martin, at one point in the interview asked, “How do you write so fast?” Or words to that effect. I seem to remember him asking “How do you write so fucking fast?”, but that may just be my unrequited love affair with the word ‘fuck’. Either way it was asked, King’s response was “I write six good pages a day. Every day.” Again, words to that effect. I don’t seem to remember King saying, “I write six good fucking pages a day”, but he might have.

At any rate, this was not new information. I think everyone knows Stephen King writes every day. He’s been forward about that for years. After all, it’s his job and you don’t blow off work just because you don’t feel like doing it. On the other hand, George R.R. Martin is famous for taking years to knock out a new novel. In Martin’s defense, let’s face it, A Song of Fire and Ice is some crazy complicated shit and each scene has to work with every other scene that has come before it. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the TV series will likely end before the book series.

So, what does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? I’m of the opinion that writing every day is a good thing. It could be a couple lines, it could be a few hundred, but I write something every day almost without fail. For me, it’s just become something I do out of habit and I feel bad if I don’t do it. Writing is my way of unwinding and I feel a bit lost if I don’t get some in every night.

House is on fire, but I’m almost done with this chapter.

But that’s not necessarily for everyone. A couple days ago I came across a Twitter thread about exactly that thing. The general gist of the thread was that feeling like you have to write every day is bullshit. Life, it seems, oftentimes has other plans for our free time. Be it work, play, or a new Star Wars movie coming out, sometimes you simply can’t find time every day to put words on pages.

Besides, as I’ve repeatedly said, I didn’t start writing to follow everyone else’s rules. The world is already full of people following everyone else’s rules. My rule is trying my damnedest to write something every day, but it’s not for everyone. Rules are for suckers, anyway. Make your own rules.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post about the magic of writing. Now that the year is coming to a close, I’d like to reiterate what I wrote then: If there’s something you love to do, find time to do it. It doesn’t matter how far you go. It doesn’t matter how fast you go. It matters that you go.

So, get out there and go.

What about you? Got any thoughts on writing every day? Drop ’em in the comments; I love comments and am usually fairly good at replying to them.

And now, your moment of Zen.

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Let Me Dialogue With You

This is the full text of a guest post I did on Rebecca Cahill’s blog back in September. If you get a chance, drop by and say, “Howdy” or whatever floats your goat. She’s got a great blog and it’s worth checking out.

Back in high school, I had a buddy who thought outside the box. I’ll call him CD to protect his identiy. CD used to write random thoughts, some of which were funny, others thoughtful, and try to sell them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. In his mind, if they were going to try to sell copies of The Watchtower to him, he was going to sell his own magazine to them.

He never did manage to sell any magazines, but he’s been a wealth of stories for me.

One day during a college break, we were sitting in the McDonald’s in the local Walmart and shooting the breeze. It would seem he had a lot of free time on his hands in college and decided on the ultimate way to pick up women at the bar. He was going to buy an Armenian Air Force uniform he’d found somewhere and try to convince people he’d flown Harriers during the Falklands War.

Yes, this was a long time ago. Thanks for asking.

Since he couldn’t do a British accent to save his own butt, he’d come up with some non-distinct, but vaguely foreign-sounding accent. He’d been observing the foreign students at UNM and had discovered a way to really sell his story. If someone were to ask him a question, he’d pause briefly, like he was translating the question from English to whatever language he was pretending to be fluent in, before answering.

“You really flew Harrier jump jets during the Falklands War?”

Pause. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

<Swoon>

I don’t know if he ever tried it in real life, but I’m guessing probably not. However, if you ever come across a guy in a bar wearing an Armenian Air Force uniform and claiming to have flown Harriers during the Falklands War, tell him I said hi and remind him he’s got a wife at home who may or may not know about his past life.

I’m not sure what Armenian Air Force uniforms look like, so this will have to do.

CD’s attention to detail in building a character for the sole purpose of picking up women at dive bars in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows the level of effort that should go into writing characters and, more importantly, the way characters interact with the world you’re creating. It’s the little things that sell characters. Little vocal quirks, like pausing before speaking, add a depth of realism that you just can’t get by slapping some words on a page.

Now, this little diatribe of mine is less about character creation and more about dialogue. Unfortunately, those two things are very intertwined with each other. Also unfortunately, the dialogue aspect of character creation is one of the easiest things to completely screw up. How many times have you come across an excellent narrative only to have it nosedive the first time a character talks?

“I would never do something like, for in doing that, I have forgone my something.”

Seriously, who talks like that?

Writers tend to be introverts. Not always, but there’s definitely a trend that way. You can’t spend the day hammering away at a typewriter, smoking, and swilling whisky like it’s fitness water if you’re extroverted. Don’t get me wrong, introversion can be a good thing. It’s hard to craft worlds and create things to put in those worlds when someone wants to, you know, talk and do stuff.

I’m talking to my characters, thank you very much.

And now, for no reason, Captain James T. Kirk wearing a green woman instead of an Armenian Air Force Uniform.

When we spend too much alone – whisky doesn’t count as an interactive friend – we start to forget what people are really like. Before you yell, “So what?” and start throwing things at the computer, remember this: regular people are the ones you’re trying to sell books to. And regular people like to see things that look real to them. As we’ve already established, one of the best ways to make a character look real is through the way they talk.

But dialogue is more than just character development, it serves other important purposes in a book. Everyone loves to say, “Show, don’t tell”, and dialogue is one of the best ways to do that. If you’ve got exposition to handle, try letting the characters talk about it. If there’s a complex plot substructure or twist, let the characters explain it rather than resorting to a few paragraphs explaining why something happened.

“You mean the minions of Hell aren’t really bad guys so much as misunderstood folks that have been the victims of a multi-millennium smear campaign propagated by a group that had a profit motive?”

“Exactly! These guys aren’t the real bad guys, those guys over there are!”

“My God! It was Old Man Jenkins leading them all along!”

When owls gasp

Okay, not exactly my best dialogue, but you get the point. Let the characters do the heavy lifting when explaining things. It makes for more interesting writing and, let’s face it, it’s a time-honored tradition. Just ask Aristotle.

Now we’ve got a couple good reasons to work with dialogue in a story: character development and showing rather than telling. The problem is, if your dialogue isn’t realistic, no one will read it and all your time spent putting your characters in Armenian Air Force uniforms and letting them explain the dynamics of your world will be for naught.

So, how do you write realistic dialogue? Well, fortunately, that’s the easy part. It does require a modicum of effort, but it’s effort well-spent. Go back to that idea that regular people read books and they want to read about people that seem real. Then go listen to some real people talking. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got the makings of good dialogue.

The real world, no matter how irksome it may be sometimes, is full of examples of how to write good dialogue. The first thing you have to do is toss aside all the rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to adhere to when we’re writing. Follow the rules in the text, but realize people don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. People talk over each other, they use contractions and colloquialisms, conversations wander, points don’t always go where we think they’re supposed to go. Sometimes people forget their points entirely.

My buddy in college and I could spend all night talking. This was back before texting and when Geocities was still a thing, so talking was a good way to pass the time waiting for the damned modem to connect. Our conversations went all over the place and outsiders had trouble keeping up. One night, he, his girlfriend, and I were all out by the fountain chatting and looking at the stars. As per usual, the conversation drifted all over the place like a drunken frat boy and his poor girlfriend was feeling a bit lost.

“You guys shift topics constantly,” she said, “how do you do that?”

“Yep,” I replied, “We shift gears so fast…”

And then I lost my witty retort and ended with the lame-ass “we go really fast.”

“We shift gears so fast…we go really fast.”

I swear, I actually had something for that and lost it mid-sentence. Poof. Gone. Vanished. I want to say my buddy wrote that whole scene into a book of his own.

When your real life hits a book

People do that kind of thing all the time. Conversation is rarely linear, sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and almost never follows the grammatical rules that govern writing. If you want to make your dialogue more realistic, listen to people talking and use what you learn. Toss aside the monologuing, kick the perfect sentence structure to the curb, and revel in all the things you don’t get to do in the main part of the text.

You’re not supposed to use “ain’t” in good writing because it’s not a word? People use it all the time, so stuff it into dialogue. Do you love thinking in run-on sentences, but worry about getting tagged by grammar Nazis? Let a character babble away. Give them linguistic quirks like pausing before talking or saying “Okay” a lot at the end of sentences. Christoph Fischer did an excellent job with this in his book In Search Of A Revolution. In that book, Fischer had a character repeat words when he was stressed or otherwise out of his element. “No, no, no. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.” Things like that.

The trick here is that the dialogue must fit the character. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have an aristocrat use the word “ain’t”, but it ain’t outside the realm of possibilities if you develop the character that way. This is where you embrace the character with all his or her flaws and really dig into their head. Remember, just like real people, characters reveal their natures through not only what they do, but what they say, so the dialogue has to fit the psychology of the character. Since you created the character, you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether a line of dialogue fits a character’s development. As long as you as a writer don’t look at what your characters are saying and think it’s out of character, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.

One gotcha here: a character’s linguistic quirks and dialogue have to remain intact throughout the whole of the book or story. I had a character in a recent book who I decided shouldn’t use contractions. The last few pages of the story explained why, so it became important that none of his dialogue had a contraction. It was nightmarish looping through the whole text and verifying Chan never shortened his words.

In the end, it might pay off or it might not. It’s possible, that was something most people will ignore or not even notice. That may be a perfect example of taking a linguistic quirk too far, but it did differentiate his dialogue from the rest of the characters who cursed and used contractions with reckless abandon, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Let your characters live and breathe. Sure, dress them in Armenian Air Force uniforms and let them claim to have flown Harriers, but if you want to make them real, it’s their dialogue that will do that. Pay attention to how people really talk and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t be afraid to copy conversations from your best friend in high school or the quirks your boss gets when she’s mad that the project still isn’t done. Take all those things and weave them into the story. Observe the world and use what you find to enhance your writing. Your dialogue will be that much more realistic because it’s based on real conversations.