dialogue

Reading as a writer: how to be inspired, while staying true to your vision

Cross posted from John Robin's Blog

I'll admit that I don't read nearly as much as I wish I could. Since I write all weekend and during the week I’m immersed in editing projects, I often find that my brain wants anything but words by the end of the day. It is for this reason that I always turn down requests to beta read or to read anything that isn't the one thing I am compelled to commit to.

However, I do make a point of reading. In fact, time to read is as fundamental to my day routine as taking a shower or brushing my teeth. While I've experimented with best times to make this happen, at the very least I read for half an hour before I go to sleep, even if it means going to bed half an hour later.

I don’t read fast, though this is by choice. I know of many who can read fast but they admit they don't take everything in. One friend who I know is a fast reader once told me he reads fast and notes where exciting things are so he can come back to them later. I can definitely relate to reading this way -- I do it all the time for non-fiction articles or research (especially online), but not for fiction or books I've chosen to read in their entirety.

When it comes to reading a book for my dedicated reading time, I don't feel I'm adequately experiencing the book unless I'm truly reading it, and that means reading at a speed that allows me to be immersed in every single thing that's happening, live-time.

I don't press 3x-play when I watch a 1-hour TV show so that I can get through it in 20 minutes, and likewise, I don't rush through reading.

Should every writer read?

For writers, reading is an act of professional development. By reading, we are studying what our contemporaries are doing or what the greats who have gone before us have done. Even if we pick up a particularly bad book, we receive an education in what not to do.

It's also wise to read beyond the genre you write in. While there's great value in studying authors in your genre, being limited to specific genres is a sure way to risk putting blinkers on. For example, though I write epic fantasy and, as you'll see if you study my Goodreads shelf, I've read more fantasy books than any other genre, I read a lot of non-fiction, science fiction, and general fiction. I keep lists of books to help me remember titles I hear of, but when it comes to deciding what to read next, I believe in the power of intuition: in fact, many times I have experienced the phenomenon of how the exact book I need just ends up in my hands at the right time.

There is something meditative to reading. It's not just about professional development, but broadening your mind as a human being. In fact, this is the more important part for storytellers, in my opinion, because while it's great to analyze fiction and fiction techniques for inspiration in your own storytelling, this is just the surface layer of what can be gleaned from being open to the far deeper layers of meaning and inner transformation that reading can bring about for us.

Beware the urge to jump ship (otherwise known as managing your influences)

There is also a real danger to reading if you are a writer, and it's this danger that often is the background excuse for those writers who claim they must not read lest they get influenced. I am no stranger to this one.

In fact, I have a fresh anecdote to share. This last weekend I nearly gave up on A Thousand Roads. This was due in part to reading Stephen King's On Writing and realizing, as I immersed myself in his early life stories, how, after discovering Tolkien at the age of 13 I all but forgot about my previous love for horror stories -- one which goes back to the age of 6 when I'd sneak to my friend's place after school and watch horror movies.

In fact, I had my first story published when I was 11. It was called The Shack, a horror story about a boy whose brother turns into a monster and hunts down his family after a possessed egg from some other dimension takes him captive. I'd submitted it for a school contest and came in second place, which meant I didn't win the 1st place prize of getting published by one of the local presses. However, the principal liked the story so much that, unbeknownst to me at the time, she went home and typed it all up, then had it printed and bound. A few mornings later, we were called into the library and she took out this little book and read it to everyone in place of regular story time, much to my shock (and embarrassment).

I still have this story and, as I read about Stephen King's childhood and found many parallels with my own imaginative early years, I fished out this little book and read it again.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. Reconnecting to this abandoned path made me doubt what I'm doing now. When the weekend came and it was time to work on A Thousand Roads I wanted to write something else, saw my plan to stay the course and learn how to finish a book as misguided. Heck, I could use a break, work on something fresh and different.

Without realizing it at the time, my free creative space was being influenced by what I was reading.

You might relate to this as a writer if you've ever gone through this vacillating story idea effect. I don't know about you, but I find this usually happens after I see something I absolutely love where I can just tell the author is brilliant and has found true gold to share. Usually, not long after this experience, a new story idea appears, and it doesn't take long to trace the derivative lines.

How to read and be open without be swayed

There's nothing wrong with being inspired and influenced. The key, in my opinion, is discerning the difference between knee-jerk inspiration and inner inspiration that is as strong -- and slow and inevitable -- as the shifting of tectonic plates.

In the case of A Thousand Roads, the knee-jerk response passed when I relied on the much deeper muscle of my years'-long discipline to come back to the same story and discover it in its pure form. Interestingly, after persevering and having an amazing writing weekend wherein I got more fully invested in the potential of the story, I arrived at the part of King's On Writing where he talked about Carrie and how he'd nearly abandoned that book but his wife's persistence pushed him on to write a story that he was convinced wasn't worth it. He pushed on and learned about the importance of going the extra mile, of going on even when he felt like he was "shoveling shit from a sitting position" (love that line).

Much like what we choose to read, we must choose what to write. If we read 20 books at once and bounce back and forth, our experience of any one book is going to be hampered, and no doubt a book we might have gotten a lot out of we might not even finish. Likewise, if we are fickle in which books we choose to write, we lose the opportunity to bring into realization a story that is our pure, unique vision.

Reading and writing are a symbiosis, provided out mind is rooted in our own vision

I'm learning every time I resist the knee-jerk influencing urge to trust the larger-scale call of the work I'm invested in, the work of my own unique vision.

As I mentioned last week, I saw the Fifty Shades Darker movie this week. What a fantastic movie! I'm not speaking as a critic, but as a storyteller going in and appreciating the unique vision of someone else whose heart and passion shines through in the story. Going into that movie and experiencing some of the brilliantly captured scenes and emotional moments presented me with a dichotomy, but I chose the right path.

The wrong path is to get inspired by what the movie does and then go and immediately try and recreate that in my own fiction. Jumping into such left-brain analysis closes me to truly receiving the lesson of those deeper levels of the story. It's kind of like having a conversation with someone and, instead of listening to them and empathizing, wandering off into thoughts about the plans for the rest of the day.

The right path is much like empathic listening in a conversation, and it made my experience of the movie wondering, and spared me conflict in my storytelling life afterward, because I found myself truly appreciating how one of my contemporaries brought out the gold in her story and how she made her unique vision shine. It inspired me not to copy her, but to listen and learn and appreciate, and try to cultivate that same passion in what is my unique yarn which only I can tell.

Writing Kick-ass Dialogue Using Fanfiction

Cross-Posted from Michelle Hazen's Blog.

Writing dialogue is important. Unless you’re doing a novel on a mute Russian burlesque group, in which case, all the luck to you. For the rest of us, even if you have the best worldbuilding ideas or the hookiest of book hooks, unnatural dialogue will be enough to make someone put your book down.

Dialogue must do three things:

  • Sound like a real person
  • Convey information quickly and naturally
  • Tell us something about your character (ie dialogue has to sound different for each character)

That’s a lot to ask of every line that comes out of your characters’ mouths, but lucky for you, I have a secret weapon.

No, not a chainsaw slingshot (I wish).

My secret dialogue weapon? Fanfiction.

Write fanfiction, preferably of TV shows, but books work, too. Every book and TV show out there already has a cast of characters with their own personalities, backgrounds and quirks. By watching closely, and then trying to emulate those patterns, you can learn a lot about what makes people’s speech sound different from each other. Now, grab a notepad and the remote control and get to work (you so love me right now, don’t you?)

As each character speaks, try to analyze HOW they sound different. Walter White from Breaking Bad doesn’t sound a bit like Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, but why not? Here are some potential things to watch for:

  • Unique words that one character uses
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  • Regional inflections or wording. Like y’all (apostrophe between the y and a, not the a and l’s, my southern belle CP informs me)
  • Sentence length (do they speak in long or short sentences)
  • Speed of speech
  • Patterns. Do they trail off a lot? Do they interrupt? Are they interrupted by others?
  • What about a character’s speech tells you their age? Is it their formality? Word choice? Pop culture references?

Now take your list of character-distinctive-dialogue qualities and TRY THIS AT HOME! Because believe me, all the pattern-noticing in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t put what you’ve learned into practice (just ask Dr. Frankenstein).

Another thing you can learn from writing fanfiction of a TV show is how to convey information in dialogue. You don’t just want your characters running around, thinking bulleted lists of things you need your reader to know.

  • Emily is bisexual
  • The coven of beaver-toothed witches lives two houses down
  • My mother ruined my self esteem by criticizing my shoe choices.

Instead you want them to get what they need to know by watching your characters go about their normal business. This makes it seem natural and doesn’t remind the watcher/reader that HEY THIS ISN’T REAL I AM TELLING YOU A STORY ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?

Some shows are better at information transfer than others. The Vampire Diaries, as much as I love them, are a great example of DON’T DO THIS verbal info-dumps. Info-avalanches. Mad Men or Breaking Bad can be good examples of subtle info transfer (sometimes too subtle), and shows like Better Call Saul are masters of using a prop or a conversation to show you what you need to know. Saul doesn’t say, “Well, parking lot attendant man, my law practice isn’t very successful.” Instead, you see an argument between him and the parking lot attendant over a few cents extra in un-validated parking time. A pointedly long argument. Saul doesn’t tell you he’s attracted to his friend, Kim. He just invites her over and then paints her toenails. In a self-deprecating, funny, totally manly way, of course.

Now that you’ve tried all this at home, test yourself (don’t worry, there will be cookies at the end). Call a friend who is also a fan of the book/TV show you wrote fanfiction for. Read them a couple lines of your dialogue out of context. Do you get a long pause, like, “Who would ever say that, Michelle? Seriously? I mean, when was the last time you used the word ‘pernicious’ when ordering Chinese takeout?”

Did you pass the “natural” test? Good.

Now can your friend name the character who is speaking without you having to tell them who it was? EVEN BETTER!

Congratulations, you can now graduate to trying your newfound fanfictiony brilliance in your original fiction, using your new tool box to make all your characters sound distinct, unique and (obviously) witty as hell.

And because I promised: