An excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe's Cask of Amontillado.
Proper dialogue enriches a story; written improperly, it weakens. An obvious separation between dialogue and narrative should be shown to readers. These “splits” engage and entertain. Quotation marks aren’t enough. Here are some tips to improve the art of speech within a piece.
First, and foremost, read authors who have mastered dialogue and dialect: James Joyce (if you can cut through the Irish dialect), Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Walter Conan Doyle, and Mark Twain are but a few. Contrary to popular belief, reading these great pieces of literature rubs off. Read enough of these legendary masters and writing well becomes a habit. The once awkward division between story line and rhetoric will engross the reader.
Another useful pointer is being aware of one’s surroundings. Listen and make note of how people talk to one another in the grocery store, the post office, the neighborhood service station, local bars, etc. If we’re constantly on our cell phones or listening to music on our iPods, we’re missing it. There’s an abundance of chat and banter at any place, our city, USA. One need only listen and remember, or jot them down in a trusty notebook—like I do.
Notebooks come in all sizes. Keep one in the car, one in the bathroom, one in the bedroom for late night ideas, and one in a purse or pocket. How many times has an idea blown into our thoughts and disappeared within the whirlwind of our day-to-day grind? It’s happened to me more times than I care to count.
I know most everyone has an iPad, a tablet, or a laptop; but how often is writing in it convenient and/or appropriate? Most ideas pounce at the most inopportune moments: a business meeting, at the gas pump, in one of the lines we find ourselves stuck in every day.
Don’t let life get in the way. Think of the daily goings-on as great material.
Lastly, reread what’s been written multiple times, and read it out loud. How does it sound? Does the piece flow without any distinction when a character(s) speaks? Can readers tell there’s a break in the continuity? Can readers tell who’s speaking?
Using “he said; she said” continually is boring and distracting, but leaving it out for too long gets the reader lost, and eventually they become disinterested. Timing is key. Balance is essential.
Following these tips will have you writing good dialogue in no time.
If time allows, leave a comment telling us a little bit about your experiences writing dialogue.
After our edits, we explain most of our corrections to our authors: omissions, rephrasing, bad flow, etc. From time to time, someone asks “why?” After all, isn’t it a steadfast rule that sentences shouldn’t end in a preposition? It isn’t written in stone that the use of exclamation marks should be few and far between? Or that foreign languages and footnoting should be avoided like the plague?
Yes and no.
In order to break the rules, you must know the rules – know them with a capital “K.”
If writing is a dream—a passion—what wouldn’t we do to succeed? Wouldn’t we be willing to do anything to ensure our success—fulfill our desire? Of course, right.
Learning the proper use of the English language is no picnic. I should know. For years, I’ve stood in the shadow of precision and flawlessness. I am blessed with a husband who has read over 3,000 books (Many are classics), learned writing from some exceptional instructors, and can mine the depths of his soul for material that is sure to amaze, inspire, and stimulate. It is here that I learned most of my lessons. Hell, I’m still learning. I have a long way to go, but I know it. So, I strive to better myself with every piece I write. It is this knowledge—this knowing—that keeps me trying.
I don’t know it all. But I want to. (There’s that pesky preposition. Is it used correctly?)
I want my writing to sing! I want my writing to make the reader sing!
“How can I do it?” the writer asks.
One could write for a predetermined amount of time every day, as most authors advise, but if the writing is incorrect to begin with, one succeeds only at reinforcing bad habits. Recognizing one’s mistakes and correcting them is a much better way to proceed and progress. Good writing instills more good writing.
And good writing only comes from the full knowledge of the English language. It’s that simple.
So, where do we start?
With a good book.
When we immerse ourselves in great literature, we can’t help but recognize what goes into a great sentence or paragraph. There are great authors in every genre.
Horror: Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, Peter Straub, T.E.D. Klein, and Clive Barker.
Science Fiction/Fantasy: Frank Herbert, C.L. Moore, Robert Silverberg, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
General Fiction: James Joyce, G.K. Chesterton, Edith Wharton, Rudyard Kipling, John Steinbeck, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, Victor Hugo, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. These authors merely serve as examples—a starting point.
Naturally, if you’re a westerner, you should ground yourself with the classics. After all, it’s part of your heritage.
Acquiring technical proficiency in the English language will teach you what to do. Reading the best authors will give you a clearer idea of how to do it.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
By Maggie Bean
I must admit that making a living by doing what one loves to do is an appealing prospect. But with respect to the arts -- sculpting, painting, writing (which includes a playwright as far as I'm concerned), etc. -- is it realistic?
Why do we write? To see our names in print; to tell people that we're writers? Or could it be that without a pen in it, our hands are incomplete; without clicking words, phrases, and sentences onto a blank screen (Not to be mistaken for social media), a computer is of little or no consequence? Whatever the reason is, keep in mind that history's great writers spent years honing their natural talents. Some (Joseph Conrad and Ayn Rand, for example) struggled exhaustively to learn how to write in English. While others, without any noticeable gifts in the writing department, began without any clear knowledge on the subject and ended by creating great works of literature.
How did they do it?
They read! Then, read some more, and more, and even more.
Constant reading was the advice given to me two years after landing my first writing gig for a North Carolina magazine. Within that couple of years, my writing hadn't improved at all. My style was nonexistent. I stumbled every time a blank screen stared back at me. And I truly wanted to improve. I wrote every day; sometimes three or four times for multiple hours. But my writing remained stagnant. My editor often sat me down and slapped me in the face with my very own words. Once home, I would cry for hours all the while pounding those keys in the hopes of molding something amazing. I often wondered why they ever gave me the job in the first place. Bleeding hearts, every one of 'em, no doubt (said smiling). I thank God every day for the chance they gave me, though.
Finally, someone told me to read, and to read often. Oh, I didn't take that advice to heart right away mind you. I'd read (a little), type some more, read a little more, and type again. To my astonishment, years later, I was able to recognize my errors: When words didn't flow, when a rhythm wasn't struck, for starters. Now, I try to improve on a daily basis. How? By reading. It truly works.
It is impossible, to my mind, to become a better writer -- a great writer -- without reading; without reading classics, history, fiction, non-fiction, anything one can get his hands on.
Currently, I'm reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because I'm writing a first-person narrative for pleasure, and about Socrates because philosophy has always interested me.
Oh, I'm far from where I want to be. My husband and a dear friend help with the edits for our company, and both are devoted readers. First, I strive to write as well as they do. And, second, I strive to write as well as those I enjoy reading. This could take me my entire life, mind you. I am well aware that these are dreams and lifelong pursuits. But, oh, what fun I have.
Whereas before I wanted to do well for the companies for which I wrote. I, now, want to do well for me; for the sake of writing. It's rather astounding what good literature can impart into one's way of thinking.
I don't make a good living from this passion called writing; if what you call a good living includes money. I have surpassed that want. My great life includes perfecting my technique. Each day that I learn something new about my writing fills me with unprecedented joy. Each day that my husband looks at it and says "good job," is one of extraordinary accomplishment.
Therefore, when others ask "How can I become a better writer," first and foremost I answer "Read. Read the best things you can get your hands on."
I'd like to close with a few quotes about reading from some of my favorite authors:
"I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
"There is no friend as loyal as a book." ~Ernest Hemingway
"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." ~Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)
Who are your favorite authors?
Guest post by Nanette LittlestoneGrowing up I read all kinds of stories and never bothered with point of view. I didn’t care who was telling the story, just as long as the story was well told. When I started writing, when I decided to become an “author,” I used multiple narrators, the same way the authors did in the stories I had read. My critique group frowned on that. A serious mistake. Stick to one point of view, the writers informed me. So I did, with grave concern and earnest effort. And in my zeal, I passed along my newly imparted information to others until I became an expert on point of view, catching all kinds of hints and nuances that suggested omniscient and transforming them into singular viewpoints.
All was well, I thought, until it came time to offer up my own writing to the masses. Before I queried agents I studied newly published authors and what did I find? Horror of horrors, many of them are writing in omniscient point of view. But how can this be? Don’t they know it’s wrong? Has the world turned sideways and backwards and upended on its ear?
The answer (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing) is:
Sigh some more, ladies, sigh some more;
Authors are deceivers ever;
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
I recently finished reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, a debut novel by Rita Leganski, which combines a unique and imaginative story with lush words and lavish descriptions that will soothe you, excite you, and draw you in from the very first line. And she uses the omniscient point of view. Darn her anyway. But the story was so good I didn’t care.
So what have I learned? Maybe omniscient isn’t so bad after all. Maybe omniscient has a place in writing. Maybe I should be a little less judgmental and a little more accepting.
How do you write? Do you use singular or multiple points of view? Do you care? Would you avoid reading a book because of the author’s choice?
Let me know what you think. All opinions welcome.
A Girl Scout troop visits our first garden (We have three) -- the herbs.
"I love the name BeanPods Press," John Austin, a LinkedIn acquaintance and writer extraordinaire, wrote. "How did you come up with the handle?"
My reply: "We garden for our food, and we believe that every story, if written properly, is food for thought." In retrospect, however, the roots go much deeper. Allow me to elaborate…
I went back to piddling with gardening and writing ten years ago. As a result, I excelled at neither.
Oh sure, I landed a job writing for a magazine, patted myself on the back for ingenuity, and stayed the course. I, also, grew a few strawberry plants and the usual greens. If, by some miracle, they happened to push through the unconditioned soil, my talented green thumb received all the credit.
"Oh! what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," comes to mind; especially if one practices deceiving oneself. His endeavors could resemble that of the determined garden spider: One long, fat snare leading from his "perch" while the other strands are placed scrupulously in order to nab anyone within easy reach.
This was definitely me.
Those in my direct path believed me to be talented and witty; those with whom I was simply acquainted followed their lead. My web was perfect, or so I thought.
Then I met Dave.
Ironically -- I say "ironically" because of our current two-beans-in-a-pod existence -- our relationship began with an argument. He disagreed with one of my posts, and I, well, I'm a woman.
Women detest disagreements when they're in the wrong. When it's someone else's goof, we love 'em.
To make matters worse, although I didn't know it at the time: my writing was merely mediocre. His, on the other hand, was, to my mind, beyond reproach. His pieces were the prom queens; mine the druggies. At any rate, I toted my words all the way to "you have no idea what you're talking about!"
Knowing Dave as I do now, I'm surprised he held his tongue for so long. There's very little, in my opinion, he doesn't know, or isn't, at the very least, well-informed about. It's entertaining watching his replies fill the screen when someone's called him out on a fact, or two. I relish these moments.
But, six years ago, he let my gobbledygook slide.
It didn't take long for me to see the error of my ways. Among the many things this man has taught me, is the fact that the English language has an age-old system, one we can trace back for centuries. By employing its methods correctly, words embrace the ears of their listeners and the eyes of their readers. Poor usage has the opposite effect. Those within earshot grimace, or worse, depart from the conversation. There are others who view distorted compositions, then close books and turn under pages so they're out of sight. I've seen people even slam books shut, crumple manuscripts or professional papers, and toss them in the trash.
Most assuredly, mine were avoided in this fashion a time or two (winking).
As my years by Dave's side multiplied, I saw the wonder in his every undertaking. Nothing was left to chance. Everything was researched; then, researched again. It was a time-consuming and tedious process. Nevertheless, he didn't stop; not even after mastering the basics. He'd push forward, learn the various nuances, and explore the unseen.
This is his way of things…Even when gardening.
He knows the scientific names for all our plantings, trees, and shrubs. Knowing when to plant and how are but a fraction of his talents. He cares for each thing sown as though he'd physically fathered them all. Actually, come to think of it, he does. Furthermore, hands that I've seen break boards and pound into heavy bags, gently handle each newborn sprout as if it was a wisp of silk.
We've worked side by side, twenty-four seven, for almost six years. There's never a dull moment, and every day is filled with wonder and surprise.
When we decided to combine two of our passions, writing and gardening, and were ready to incorporate a business, BeanPods Press, "our handle," came naturally. It doesn't hurt that our last name is Bean, either. It just sounded right.
After all, both undeniably share similar characteristics. One cannot arbitrarily sow seeds. Some plants do not do well beside one another. Conversely, there are many types of vegetation that make great companions. Confuse the two, however, and you'll end up with nothing but withering stalks and stems.
It's the same with words, is it not? Some words are meant to be together; others are not. A sentence rots in the untended row of incompatible verbiage.
Thankfully, both -- gardening and writing -- can be corrected through knowledge and perseverance. Furthermore, through diligence and proper care, both become food: The former for the body; the latter for the mind.
It seems that at least one person agrees with me.
John Austin, my LinkedIn acquaintance, wrote this reply after reading my response: "Ah, food for thought -- most apropos, and I do like it."
Dear readers, and writers, how do you nourish your soil?
“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” Mark Twain
How much difference can one letter make? A lot.
English is a tricky devil. You start picking up language from your parents, siblings, relatives, and friends. School and teachers become a big influence. Then radio, television, politicians, famous authors. Everyone you hear and read subject you to different phrases and nuances. The more you learn, the more you know. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Here are five examples of commonly misused words that could cause problems:
Flammable means capable of burning quickly. So if something is flammable (like hairspray), you want to keep it away from flames. Inflammable sounds like it means the opposite—incapable of burning. But that’s a dangerous assumption. It means the same as flammable. The two words are interchangeable. So if something is combustible, avoid confusion. Use the word flammable.
Ensure means to make sure of something, to guarantee it. Insure has two meanings: 1) to make sure of something; 2) to provide insurance for. It’s correct to say He ensured/insured the package would arrive on time. But it’s incorrect to say He ensured the house against fire damage. Woe to poor Henry when he finds out he has no insurance on his house that just burned down.
Credible means to be believable. Credulous means to be gullible. “Few people are credible enough to be trusted” can easily be confused with “Few people are credulous enough to be trusted.” Believable or gullible? Which one do you mean?
Carat is a measurement of weight for gemstones.Karat is a measure of purity for gold. If a ring is 24 karat (usually written as 24K), then it’s pure gold. But if a ring is 24 carat, that would mean the gemstone (diamond, ruby, sapphire, etc.) is a certain weight (or size). So remember K for gold purity and C for weight.
Ingenious depicts something (or someone) that is intelligent, clever, original. Ingenuous means to be naïve, innocent, childlike. Be careful or mixing up the two. Is his plan ingenious or ingenuous?
These are just a few of the many misuses that occur in English. Don’t trust the spell check in Word to catch these errors. When in doubt, consult your dictionary or entrust Words of Passion with your editing.
My husband, Dave, has always said, "Being a writer is hard work; being a good writer is a lifetime of hard work," to which I'd sigh, shrug my shoulders, and bury my nose -- once again -- in my keyboard. Many years ago, I thought how could something I love doing be this difficult? Hard work? "Bah, humbug." As I continued to learn how to write, however, (and merely on an adequate level, mind you) I realized that truer words had never been spoken.
It is hard work.
As I compared the sentences I wrote to the ones Dave edited, the difference was astounding. His sentences were clearer, shorter, easier to read, and "pack more punch." It was rather amazing.
In those days, my darlin' husband would tuck me into bed with the chilling tales of Dr. England's "red pen of death" from his college days. They were similar to horror stories -- minus the monsters and evil demons -- to this wanna-be writer. He often said that the meticulous way his papers were graded, and the constructive criticism he received, were a foundation of sorts for his writing.
I should tell the reader, however, that the first time Dave met England's red pen, this is what was printed on his paper: "I like your rhetoric." Through the years, they grew to admire each other's qualities and accomplishments. They became great friends.
I've read his writings from these early years, and I can only surmise -- after reading a very small selection -- that his talent to turn a phrase was born long ago. The Literature and Composition courses merely honed an ability that he already possessed. At least, that's the way I see it: And perhaps, Dr. England saw this as well.
And this product (my husband) of Celtic/Anglo-Norman ancestry with his extensive and exuberant knack for words has been my teacher…
But it's far from the "Yellow brick road" I assumed it would be. It's more like the dark forest, in which the winged monkeys fly up my butt and strip me of my "straw."
To my mind, Dr. England's red pen doesn't hold a candle to Dave's expressions of displeasure: "You are no longer allowed to use split infinitives or the passive voice, under any circumstances. Both have their uses, but in your case, they're just habits." And, "It's never appropriate to dangle participles or mix tenses. That s***'s just wrong." By now, one may conclude that I have done all of the above, often, and you'd be one hundred percent right.
But that's neither here nor there…
During my quest for writing knowledge, Dave accompanies me (or is it the other way around?) to used book stores, and sales. The treasure trove that awaits us at each one is extraordinary: Dictionaries, thesauruses, do-it-yourself books, and table after table of history -- old and new.
One wonders why such resources aren't treasured and safely guarded, in some home, under lock and key. There are rows upon rows of these neglected prizes, for a pittance. When we arrive, we're like two kids in a candy store: $1.00 for that one, $2.00 for this one, and fifty cents for…no way. Fifty cents! Dave and I comb the tangled tables of bargains for hours. By the end of the day, it's as if we've "stolen" thousands of dollars worth in artifacts.
You can call us the "Bookstore Bandits."
On our last used book excursion, Dave found William Zinsser's Writing Well. As he read it, I heard laughter, many "ah-has," and "Honey, this guy really knows his stuff." He reached a stopping point and laid it aside. I picked it up and began to read.
I couldn't put it down. I've since read it cover-to-cover -- twice.
One thing that fascinates me about Zinsser's teachings is their "to the point" nature. He's very blunt. So much so, he writes like Dave speaks.
In the preface of Zinsser's book, he states, "My purpose is not to teach good nonfiction, or good journalism, but to teach good English that can be put to those uses. Don't assume that bad English can still be good journalism. It can't."
In Chapter Three, he writes this about clutter:
"I might add," "It should be pointed out," "It is interesting to note that," – how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting…
…Clutter takes more forms than you can shake a stick at. Prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything that you can throw away.
How is it possible that this book's asking price was a mere dollar? The information found in its 142 pages is priceless. In my humble opinion, no good writer should be without one -- no writer, period.
Now this piece of brilliant writing advice sits on my desk along with other writing references. And there it will stay (Well, until Dave comes to reclaim it for his own).
Perhaps Dave's coaching has finally sunk in and Zinsser's book drove the nail home. For, the last year or so, I have written my pieces with a clearer mind and a "steadier" hand.
How do I know?
Because the man who writes better than anyone I've ever known, the man who turns a phrase as easily as taking a breath, the man who makes the English language sparkle in every sentence he writes, told me so. And he doesn't hand out compliments unless they're truly warranted.
My hopes for the days that follow are that I continue to grow -- to gain knowledge -- as a writer for the rest of my days; that the smile I see on my husband's face, when he reads my work, shines often. ~ Maggie Bean
(This blog has been edited. It originally appeared on my personal page's Writing Lessons.)