Dialling Up Your Dialogue

•November 19, 2011 • 2 Comments

This post was created by Allan Douglas.  If you’d like to read more about his hints and tips for writers, you can visit his blog too!

For a long time, I’ve been trying to explain to young writers that real people don’t just stand around ‘saying’ stuff.  Most people do language, rather than just speaking it.  Allan’s blog post summed up my thoughts beautifully, so I decided to re-post him (with his permission, of course 🙂

Now, onto dialogue:

A good way to draw your reader deeply into your story is to use a variety of non-verbal cues in your dialogue.  Try the following techniques to dial up your dialogue.

Facial Expressions

When a character raises an eyebrow or furrows his brow, this action gives the reader an additional clue beyond dialogue that indicates a change in the character’s emotional state. As the scene progresses and the emotional intensity rises; the character’s dissatisfaction grows into anger, for instance, the character might clamp his jaw, his nostrils may flare, or eyes narrow to a squint, his face may redden and so on. These are all commonly understood signs of anger.

To learn effective use of these cues, read classic works containing emotional encounters or watch good dramatic films with the sound turned off.  Study the facial expressions of the actors and take notes of how they signal emotion.

Talking With Their Hands

Characters can point or jab to intimidate, steeple their fingers during thoughtful reflection, clench their hands into fists or pound a table in anger.  Crossing their arms in front of their chests indicates resistance, throwing up their hands in resignation or despair (this gesture is often overused) or holding their hands up to surrender.  Rubbing the temple or forehead with their fingers often accompanies stressful thoughts, and pounding a thigh self-recrimination.

Use Movement

One character may cross the room, gaze out a window or push back from a table to get physical and emotional distance from a heated conversation or intimate moment with another character. Moving in closer they can become more threatening or intimate, or drive a point home by occupying the others entire scope of attention.

If a character puts a piece of furniture or some other object between himself and another character, that’s a clear cue that he’s blocking the other character; emotionally, physically or intellectually. Use movement to support and enhance your dialogue, and the scene will be rendered more clearly in your readers mind.

Displays of Emotion

Depending on your character’s personality don’t be afraid to have him take big actions—throw a fit, throw an object, or throw a punch. If your character has a hair-trigger temper, bypass eyebrow raising and go straight to breaking the furniture.  If more reserved, use the cues to indicate a slow build-up of anger, passion, fear, hopelessness or joy.

The actions you choose must be consistent with your character’s traits. Every cue action should reflect the character’s personality and emotions, and clarify the scene. Even if your character rarely shows emotion, using small details to show his true feelings leaking out: a tightening around his eyes, a tight grip on a pen, deliberate or forceful steps as he walks around a room.

Show Don’t Tell

Avoid using adjectives and adverbs to tell your reader what the character is feeling, describe the character himself.  For example; instead of “He turned angrily on her.”, try “He turned on her, anger flashing in his eyes.”  Instead of “The amorous man reached for her.”, try “With passion swelling within him, he reached for her.”

Physical cues like these make it easier for your reader to see and feel your character’s emotion, even when their words belie that emotion.  Craft your characters’ words with care—and back up the emotions with physical cues to telegraph their true feelings to your reader.


And The Winner Is….

•November 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The winner of the cover art competition is image number two!  This came in with fifty percent of the vote, closely followed by image four.  Thanks very much to everyone who voted and also to all the clever artists from Deviantart, who agreed to participate.  Cover art is now decided!

The winning artist is Kerem Dogus, a graphic artist from Turkey (isn’t the internet wonderful?).  I’ll mention him in the book when it’s produced and if you’d like to see more of his art, just head on over to Deviantart.com.


Decisions, Decisions…

•November 14, 2011 • 6 Comments

My new book UnEarthedis almost ready to be released as an ebook.  One of the most enjoyable parts of this preparation process, is selecting cover art.  At the moment, I’ve narrowed my choice down to the following images.  Now I can’t choose.  Because I can’t choose, I’d really like some feedback.

Which of the images here, best represents my blurb (also still a work in progress):

If you’re going to colonise a planet, you’d better be willing to fight for it…  

Within Anphobos, there grows a new race.  The first generation of humans never to set foot on Earth.  They are pale skinned, large eyed and worship no god but science.  They possess technological skills and processes Earth has refused to acknowledge.  Until now…

Now there is a movement for Martian independence and The Fearless are willing to fight.

Can two teenagers from different worlds bring peace to their planets?  It’s unlikely.  Then again, space is possessed of infinite possibility…


So, if you just tell me in the poll which you prefer and leave a quick ‘I’ve voted’ or ‘pick me’ in the comments, I’ll pick a random response to win a free copy of the ebook when it’s released!

What I Learned Last Night…

•November 11, 2011 • 8 Comments

Australians are one of the largest consumers of magazines in the world.

Last night I had the great good fortune of sitting before a panel of freelance writers who were visiting the QWC. Better still, they let me ask questions!

Those on the panel were, Fiona Crawford, Chris Herden and Amanda Horswill, and thanks to the generous way they responded to questions, I have learned a lot.  Me being me, I now feel the need the need to impart knowledge, so here it is:

  • You are a solution – The editor of a very popular magazine last night said, “Pitch to me.  PLEASE pitch to me.  You are not an annoyance to us.  You are a solution to our problem.  You are filling a gap that would otherwise be blank space.  PLEASE pitch.”  Being a freelance writer for a magazine then, is vastly different from being a writer of books, for a publisher.  Writing for a publisher, you learn to ‘submit’.  You do not call, you do not question their decision and you never presume you’re important.  The process of having a book published, often feels a lot like subjugation (in my humble opinion, of course).  Apparently, when freelancing, your words are valuable.
  • How valuable? – The average price per word last night, was thirty cents.  That’s thirty cents per published word, not thirty cents per submitted word.  Keep count.  Of course this changes, many magazines pay per article.  Some pay more, others less, but find out and invoice accordingly.
  • Get an ABN – An ABN means you’re a business.  It enables the people who buy your work, to treat you like any other subcontractor.  That’s good for them.  An ABN also means that any expenses you incur in relation to writing articles, become business expenses and thereby, tax deductible.  That’s good for you.
  • Deadlines are trumps – When freelancing, you’re not creating a work of art, you’re producing a piece of work.  That work will be shaped and edited to fit the style and needs of the magazine for which you will write.  No matter how pretty you may be, there is no such thing as fashionably late.
  • Build a bridge – While your words may be valuable, once you’ve sold them, they’re no longer yours.  They will be cut, smushed, mashed and changed until they’re precisely what the magazine needs.  Don’t be prissy, count your words, multiply them by the number of cents you got paid for each one…and be happy.
  • Don’t give the game away – It’s a cold, hard world sometimes and not everyone plays fair.  For that reason, when you pitch, don’t send the whole article.  Send a headline, an outline and a sample paragraph.  Unlike so many book  publishers, editors will buy based upon a sample.


That’s it folks.  These may seem obvious points but they were a revelation to me.  The idea that I am not ‘just a writer’, but a solution, made me want to run home and write.  That my words need not be perfect but rather perfectly timed?  What an emancipating concept.  I really liked this idea of being a freelancer, even before I attended the presentation.  Now I’ve learned some things, I like it even more, and I hope you do too.

The Lost Girls

•October 25, 2011 • 4 Comments

The lost girls are everywhere.  If you’ve been one, you know.  They write poetry in the dark, crouched in corners, or sitting in the shadows of bus stops.  They watch, detached from the world.  They are, they think, forever apart.

The lost girls wear ferocious facades.  There is safety in numbers and reputation.  They have sex to make allies, to fit in, to feel and to be felt.  In a senseless world, any sensation has value.

I know these lost girls and they know me.  They sidle up after workshops and school visits, to talk, to touch me, to trust that I am real.  ‘Ahhh’, you almost hear them sigh.  ‘She survived”.  They bring glasses of water and thank me for writing ‘real’ girls.

It’s ironic that they like my ‘real’ girls, because I happen to think that my lost girls are unreal.  I see them and think Kaylin Neya or Katniss Everdeen, or Hermione Granger.  I hear warrior women when they speak with their loud voices and aggressive language.  “But they’re not real, are they?” Kohl rimmed eyes gleam with challenge when I mention these fantasy heroines.  “They’re not real.”  In the scary dark of their thoughts, their next, unspoken question is, ‘am I?’.  

What will they do then, I wonder, what will my lost girls do, when they find I’ve moved my real girls, to Mars?  Will they feel abandoned in space or, will they recognise sister spirits and be found?

The Hook

•October 21, 2011 • 2 Comments

When we teach writing, we teach about ‘the hook’.  The hook is the line that will hopefully drag readers into a story.  The hook is the sentence that creates such curiosity in an audience, that the simply must know more; they must read further for satisfaction.

I also teach kids that a hook can be an action sequence, a question or even a statement that enthralls us. Action sequences make us wonder how characters came to be in this situation, where they gained their survival skills and if there will be similar scenes later in the book.  Questions encourage us to seek answers within the rest of the story and statements cause us to ask questions of ourselves.

This kind of ‘statement hook’ recently captured my attention in a novel called The Unearthing.  I chose the book because its title is so similar to that of my own soon-to-be-released UnEarthed and I haven’t finished it yet, because I’ve been distracted…by the hook.

Actually, this sentence wasn’t positioned as the hook, but it was my hook (and doesn’t that return us to the issue of how texts are interpreted?), so now I’m in the weird situation of being both hooked on the book and distracted by my own thoughts.

The sentence?  Oh yes, here it is:

“But when they left behind their homeworlds and birth stars, they set out with hope of finding others, they set out with the hope that they were not alone in the vastness of the cosmos.”

Excellent sentence, well written and a great premise upon which to base a book about alien life.  It’s not so original in concept, after all, where would Star Trek be without this base, or Enders Game, or  for that matter, any other science fiction book based on alien life.

What makes this hook different is that it presumes to tell us, what was hoped…‘with the hope that they were not alone in the vastness of the cosmos.’…is that really what we hope?

When NASA talks about colonising Mars, when our telescopes and monitors are constantly seeking sound and vibration, is that what we’re hoping to discover, that we’re not alone?

Aren’t we really seeking to confirm the opposite, that we are indeed, alone.  Wouldn’t the human race like to know there is nothing to fear, no-one to find, that we are actually, the sole inhabitants of the entire universe.  Can we not then, proceed to treat our universe however we wish?

Recently scientists got all excited over the possibility of prototypes for bacterial life on Mars.  Were they excited because this might mean there could be others, or were they thrilled to think ‘we came from that and look how far we’ve progressed, if this is the best other planets have got, aren’t we the great sentient species!’ ?

All these questions, all these ideas, from just one good hook, but am I hooked on the book or the concept?  I’ll have to read further and let you know!

A Writer’s Toolbox

•September 18, 2011 • 4 Comments

All writers need a toolbox of skills.  I like to think of my toolbox as being one of those multi-level, multi-drawer deals that tradesmen have.  In the top drawer, there are things like creativity, curiosity and imagination.  These are the things that start stories.

Next drawer down, there are craft skills.  When I say craft skills, I’m thinking about characterisation, world building, plot and character arcs, all those things that give our stories structure and enable readers to imagine alongside us.

Lastly, on the bottom drawer, there are all the things people love to hate; spelling, punctuation and grammar.  Before you start wincing and groaning, imagine for a moment, a world without any of these things.  Envision a page from a book.  There would be long pages of continuous text with not a capital letter in sight.

Spelling is an obvious necessity.  If we’re guessing and sounding out words instead of instantly recognising them, we’ve regressed to ‘learner’ status, when reading was no fun at all.  For writers, spelling well does not simply mean knowing how to spell the word.  Nowadays spelling also means a wrestle with the spellchecker.  There are differences between American and UK english, and a writer should know them.

While I am not a grammarian, I do appreciate how much neater it is to read “Why are we waiting?” rather than “What are we waiting for?”.  I also like to see that a writer knows when to use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’.  Even though we may not always speak correctly, somehow, writing correctly smoothes out the whole reading experience.

Punctuation is something with which I’ve always struggled.  Anything above the line, I’m fine.  I dig apostrophes, inverted commas and question marks.  Get down onto the line though, and I’m lost.  Commas confuse me, and now I’ve worked with journalists, I seek always, to place full stops in their stead. Lord knows where a semi-colon is appropriate.  I’m embarrassed by my ignorance.

To remedy my humiliating lack of punctuatability, I’ve recently revisited Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation, by Lyn Truss.  I read it once, when I was in university, but somehow over the years, forgot what I should have learned.  So I re-read.  Sounds nerdy, right?  Well, I have to say, nerdy as I am, I giggled all the way through.  I read bits out aloud to hubby and I greatly enjoyed the entire thing.   Better still, I learned something!

My punctuation is still not perfect (as is probably evidenced by this blog) but it’s improving, and now I have a trustworthy, understandable reference, to consult when I’m confused.  I’m really quite happy with this new tool in my kit.  In fact, I think punctuation might be the allen key of the writer’s toolbox.  It’s not particularly attractive, but when assembling anything, it’s pretty much essential.

Have you ever discovered things either stolen or missing from your toolbox?  How did you remedy the situation?