In today’s post, the second of three, I’m sharing four basic writing tips for authors polishing their manuscripts, and especially for those currently preparing their first round entries for the 2020 Strelitzia contest.
1. Correct Dialogue Punctuation
I’ve seen an increasing trend lately amongst beginner authors to get the punctuation for dialogue wrong. Since it may have been a few years since high school English classes, I thought I’d offer a quick refresher.
Most importantly, punctuation goes INSIDE the speech marks.
Good: “He went that way,” she said.
Bad: “He went that way”, she said.
Good: She laughed. “I never thought I’d see that.”
Bad: She laughed. “I never thought I’d see that”.
Whether you choose to use single (‘Yes, that’s right.’) or double speech marks (“Yes, that’s right.”) at least stay consistent throughout. Many publishers have their own preferences but they’ll usually re-format for you according to their own style guides.
To show interrupted dialogue, use an m-dash: “But what if—”
To show a trailing, incomplete sentence, use an ellipsis: “But what if…”
2. Dialogue Tags
In high school, our teachers taught us to mix up our dialogue tags for variety. Instead of ‘said’ they advised us to use whispered, queried, shouted, averred, admonished, murmured etc. Forget everything your high school English teachers told you!
‘Said’ and ‘asked’ tend to disappear when we read them. They don’t draw attention to themselves, unlike all those other dialogue tags. Use those other words only when they’re applicable, and use them sparingly. They lose effectiveness if they’re in every other line. Nothing looks more amateur than a conversation that reads like this:
"Which way is the bank?" she inquired.
"Down that road," he answered, pointing.
"But I've just come from there!" she whined.
"Then you'll have to go back there again," he retorted.
"I suppose you're right," she sighed. "Thank you."
"Sure, no problem," he mumbled.
And please, please be careful with using words like ‘scoffed’ and ‘quipped’! These words tend to be very popular with beginner writers who seem to force them into almost every page of dialogue. But these words are so distinctive that they draw the reader’s attention - and guaranteed, the third time you use one of those in a chapter the reader will be moving from eye rolling to throwing your book against the wall! My advice would be to limit these words to not more than twice in a 50k word book.
Ensure you know what these words mean before you use them!
When a character scoffs at something it means that they disagree with what another character has said. Effectively they’re mocking what the other character has said, so having your MC frequently scoff at other people is not a good look!
‘Quipped’ means to joke, so it is not appropriate to use in serious contexts.
Absolutely not: “He had a stroke and died,” she quipped.
That line won’t just make your character look bad, but you too, as it’ll be obvious to the reader that you had no clue what the word means.
Which brings me to my next tip…
3. Big Words
“You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket…. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” – Stephen King
You might have a big vocabulary and want to show it off, but as the saying goes: all things in moderation. Feel free to use the occasional big, unusual word, as long as it’s used in a clear context where the reader can work out the meaning without reaching for a dictionary. Sure, Kindles and other eReaders have built-in dictionaries to help readers, and all they have to do is right click on a word to find out what it means, but every time a reader has to click away to understand what you’re saying, the story is broken for them.
The opposite of that is trying to use big words you don’t ordinarily use. Don’t use words you’re unsure of. If you’re not 100% certain, Google it. (This is what second drafts are for.
Rather than impressing the reader, it can look pretentious, and you need to be extra careful to ensure you know what the word means, because using the wrong word in the wrong context will achieve the exact opposite.
In genre fiction, the story is more important than beautiful prose. If you want to create erudite prose to impress readers, then you might want to consider writing literary fiction rather than genre fiction.
4. Limit introspection. Please!
Lastly, limit how much internal monologue / introspection your characters indulge in. In genre fiction, readers read for action, dialogue and a forward-moving story, not for pages (or even paragraphs) of characters thinking about how they feel or reminiscing about their pasts. Small chunks interspersed amongst the action and the dialogue will be far more ‘digestible’ for readers.