Since 1980 Lorina Stephens has worked as editor, freelance journalist for national and regional print media, is author of seven books both fiction and non-fiction, been a festival organizer, publicist, lectures on many topics from historical textiles and domestic technologies, to publishing and writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Canada’s acclaimed On Spec, Polar Borealis, Neo-Opsis, Postscripts to Darkness, as well as several anthologies. Her book credits include: The Rose Guardian, Five Rivers Publishing 2019 Caliban, Five Rivers Publishing 2018 Stonehouse Cooks, Five Rivers Publishing 2011 From Mountains of Ice, Five Rivers Publishing 2009 And the Angels Sang, Five Rivers Publishing 2008 Shadow Song, Five Rivers Publishing 2008 Recipes of a Dumb Housewife, Lulu Publishing 2007 Credit River Valley, Boston Mills Press 1994 Touring the Giant’s Rib: A Guide to the Niagara Escarpment; Boston Mills Press 1993 Lorina Stephens is presently working on a new novel, Hekja's Lament, and putting together another collection of short stories, Dreams of the Moon. She lives with her husband of four plus decades in a historic stone house in Neustadt, Ontario.

Writers’ Craft 13: Marketing and Promotion

A tricky subject

There’s a reason I’ve left the subject of marketing and promotion to one of the last articles on the subject of writers’ craft: it’s a tricky and often highly individual decision, dependent on personal preference, budget, and influence. I don’t think there’s any one perfect strategy. Sure, there are alleged experts who are going to sell you there version of the holy grail of marketing. But I’ve been at this for 40 years, not just in literary arts, but as a business partner in the home renovation industry, and having experience in both the construction and arts, I can assure you marketing is essentially a crap shoot.

So, should you market?

Well, yes. Because even though there’s no one perfect strategy for marketing, the flip side of that is no one will buy your widget if they don’t know you have a widget for sale. So, when devising your marketing strategy, it’s important to understand what makes up your market. Who is interested in what you have to sell? What age group? What income bracket? What related interests? What geographic region? All of that goes into the mix.

But what avenue to choose?

Certainly today there are myriad choices available. Myself, I opt for what’s going to cost me the least, allow me the greatest exposure to my target market, and take up the least amount of time and effort on my part. Allow me to list some of the tools in my belt:

Website

I think this is an essential tool in this age of global telecommunication. The website should be clean, optimized to operate across all platforms (desktop, tablet, mobile), an user friendly. However, having your own website is another whole world to explore and learn, and can be fraught with unexpected frustrations, like when your site gets hacked, or spammers discover you’re a target, and the way to deal with any of that is by dumping a another load of cash into apps and services to protect your site. After awhile you start asking yourself, just how economically sound is having a website? Am I actually selling more because I have a website? And with 4 million books published last year worldwide, you start to realize your voice is just one very small blip in the noise of our universe.

And aside from having a blog and putting out blasts of periodic pontification, news and features, are you then going to use your website as a shopping portal? Ecommerce, anyone? And then what kind of secure payment gateway to use?

You see what I mean?

But even so, despite the funds I plough into this website to keep it secure and free of hackers and spammers, little say the lack of sales through the site, I still think it’s an important tool. That’s why I keep it going. Should you? Only you can answer that.

For what it’s worth, I use WordPress, host through GoDaddy, and use PayPal for my payment gateway. I run a theme called Tilt, which I like because of its ability to allow me lots of diversity. I don’t allow unmoderated comments on my blog. I also pay for a security system through GoDaddy. After my initial sticker shock, I was pleased because the hackers and spammers pretty much disappeared. Previous to that I was getting hacked on a regular basis, and spammers were hitting the site on a daily basis.

Reviews

I would say gaining reviews, and reader awareness through reviews, is a good idea, because if nothing else it boosts your signal. So, best and easiest is to offer ARCS (advance review copies) or freebies to people and writers you know of influence from whom you can beg a favour. It also helps if those individuals have some influence in the genre in which you’re writing, which hopefully is an obvious sort of statement. And then take those positive reviews, or at least steal a few positive key phrases, and use them on jacket promotion, interior reviews, on your website, blog, social media, and so and thus.

I have regularly used LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewer program to garner reviews. Helps somewhat. But you do have to bear in mind you often get pretty stupid, ill-considered reviews whether good or bad. Helpful things like: this book sucked; or equally helpful: this book was great. Having said that, there are some very good reviewers on the site, individuals who post their intelligent, considered reviews not only on LibraryThing, but Goodreads (which is owned by Amazon now), Amazon, and other bookseller sites.

If you can manage it, only send out digital copies. Saves you a ton of money.

You can also take advantage of Publisher’s Weekly Canadian indie book galley tracker platform. However, it’s important to remember that in 12 years of operating Five Rivers, I only ever once had one of our books reviewed, and that was Joe Mahoney’s A Time and a Place. Kind of a disappointing return on investment, even if the book received a glowing review. Did that help with sales? Not so much.

Blog tour

Another good step is to see about setting up a blog tour, or at the very least a few guest appearances on other writers’/reviewers’ blogs. There are services which will set this up for you, charging escalating scale, with varying degrees of success. Being a really cheap individual, I baulk at paying for this service, because the few times I did invest cash into a credible service, it resulted in little to no follow on sales or interest. So, again, your mileage will vary. Which is why I choose free whenever possible, because while it’s very important to get the word out there, you also don’t want to lose your shirt paying for promotion. No point selling two books that cost you hundreds, even thousands, in promotion.

Promotional placement

Paid promotion/placement through ebook sellers can be another avenue for you. Kobo is the best of these through their Writing Life platform, and usually in the give your book away for free category. You can sell hundreds of books for free (I know, I know, I’m aware how ridiculous that sounds) through these placement campaigns. Do they result in follow on sales? Not so much. But, again, it does get your name out there. And if you’ve been very clever, you’ve placed several pages of advertising in the back of your book, promoting your other works, even having the first chapter to read. It’s a good strategy, Or at least it’s supposed to be. Again, I’ve rarely been able to track follow-on sales.

Amazon offers this sort of thing as well, but only if you sell your soul to them and publish exclusively with them. I know a lot of authors do that. I never have, because it strikes me as not a good idea to give everything to such a huge monopoly, because in the end they own you. There are many indie authors, however, who do this sort of narrow marketing and seem to do well with that strategy.

PPC

Then there’s PPC (pay per click) advertising. It’s a lot more expensive, and for it to be effective you have to be willing to set a considerable budget for the lifetime of the campaign you’re going to run, with little to no expectation of return. So, if you have some cash you really don’t need, then go ahead.

The best of the PPC strategies, I feel, is through Facebook, believe it or not. They have the same dynamic, targeted marketing tools as Google, but focused within Facebook’s platform, so you can tailor your demographic quite specifically not only by way of genre, but age, interest, geography. Just be sure to set your parameters to clicking through to a targeted site where they can purchase the book, otherwise you’ll burn through your budget in no time at all. And you can set your daily spend limit as well.

Google is the king of this sort of marketing. I have used Google for our glass business, with some very modest success. But it is very cost prohibitive, so I have only ventured into those waters a few times. Thousands of dollars for Google as compared to hundreds for Facebook.

Podcasts and vidcasts

Again, worth the effort if for no other reason than to get your name and product out there. I’m only just beginning to break into that strategy, having done an interview for MinddogTV, and for Gordon Gibb’s Kawartha Oldies radio podcast. So, researching those is a good idea. Can’t hurt.

Awards

Awards as promotion: basically that’s what they are — a promotional vehicle. There is a perceived aura of gravitas that comes with having been shortlisted, or winning, a literary award. Does that mean your book is going to sell more copies? Most likely not, unless that award happens to be one of the really prestigious awards like the Booker, or GG, or Giller, and even then that can backfire. Five Rivers had quite a number of books shortlisted for various awards, the most prestigious of those being the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and that was for A Town Called Forget, by C.P. Hoff, which was longlisted. There were zero bump in sales, despite promoting the stuffing out of those accolades.

Virtual Launches and readings

And of course that brings us to a new and developing strategy: the virtual launch/reading. That seems to be gaining interest, and strikes me as a potentially good strategy to get your name out there for very little cost and effort. Basically the idea is to create a venue through any of the social gathering platforms such as ZoomGoogleMeet, and such. This is a strategy I am going to explore further in 2021.

Staying organized

I have found setting up a spreadsheet so I can track what promotion for what book of use, as well as keeping track of promotional venues. It can get as complex as a submission spreadsheet.

And that’s about the extent of my playbook. Hope there’s some information there that’s useful.

Writers’ Craft 10: Revision

So, you’ve written a thing

You’ve just keyed in the final word, placed punctuation, and the sense of accomplishment that settles over you is profound. You’re done.

Or are you?

At this point it’s all too easy to think there isn’t another thing that needs doing to that piece of writing. You’ve been careful throughout, not only with the mechanics of good writing — punctuation, spelling, grammar — but with plot, literary devices, character development, research. It would be all too easy to pull the trigger and fire it off to an agent or publisher, or the editor of that magazine you’re trying to crack, or hit the upload button through a self-publishing portal.

Don’t.

Time develops perspective

Good writing is like good wine. It needs time. What you really should do at this point is close the document, walk away, go do something else for a week, or four, or a couple of months. Do something completely different. Even write something completely different. But whatever you do, do not pull the trigger on the freshly-finished manuscript. Why? Because, and trust me on this, when you do come back to the piece you’ll come back to it with a fresh perspective. It always astonishes me, in my own work, how much tighter, cleaner, cohesive I can make the story by simply allowing myself time. I get to review all the plot inconsistencies, all the opportunities for development, all the missed conversations or descriptions or research which would have furthered not just the plot, but character, tension, the entire foundation of what I’ve created.

And if I can benefit from the boon of time and perspective, so can you. So walk away.

Create a new document

You don’t have to, but I have found it useful to save my revision as a new document. Not that I’ve ever had to go back to the original draft, but it just strikes me as a good failsafe in case things go awry. And they can. Mr. Murphy, who always likes to exercise his law, may just pull up to your document have tea.

Once that bit of housekeeping is out of the way, then you can set to your revision. What you’re doing at this point is coming at it from a distance, as an editor with a critical eye. Some writers set about their revision through Track Changes in Word (or whatever equivalent tool in your word processing program). Myself, I don’t bother.

Other writers print out a hard copy of the document and make their changes pen to paper. Again, this is something I don’t do personally. But if you find any of these methods works for you, then do it. As I’ve said before: there is no single, correct way of writing. You have to find your own method and your own rhythm.

But what I do know is that a second or even third revision may be called for, because after each pass you should again step away, allow yourself time in which to think about the story. When you are utterly comfortable, when you can’t think of another point or opportunity you’ve missed, then go back over the manuscript once or twice with a spelling and grammar check. I would caution you not to hit the universal change button. I’ve done this a few times, much to my despair, only to discover some horrendous changes which took me days to undo.

Will my manuscript ever be perfect?

Probably not. What in life is? When I was publishing other authors’ work, I can remember agonizing over errors we’d let slip through, even after two, sometimes three different editors, plus the author, would have a look. One of my own novels is out there, and I still grit my teeth because I know there are spelling errors I didn’t catch after nine — yes, nine! — revisions and edits.

But do take encouragement and pride in the fact you’ve done your level best to polish your story to the best of your ability. Sure, you can churn out six novels a year. But do you really want to? Will those six novels be works you can look back upon with pride? If you’re writing just to create pulp, then fine. But if you’re writing because of a different calling, or as a journalist who cares about correct detail, then time and an exacting nature will stand you in good stead.

Writers’ Craft 9: Research

A good writer is an informed writer

I remember interviewing biographer and historian Marian Fowler for The Canadian Author and Bookman, back when the Canadian Authors Association published that wonderful writers’ periodical. She was particular about her research, always digging for accuracy and primary sources, and because of that her work rang with truth, a fact which sometimes garnered her a bit of trouble as was evidenced when she wrote her history on Blenheim. Seems the Duke of Marlborough took umbrage to Marian referencing some of the interesting escapades and traditions established by Consuelo Vanderbilt, who became one of the legendary American heiresses to marry into British aristocracy, and thus the Duchess of Marlborough, and rescue heritage estates. Marian had a love of discovery, of unearthing facts and history around the subjects about which she wrote. I remember her saying she was so very glad not only for her extensive education, but the fact she had a lifetime of immersion into reading, often esoteric reading, and thus a broad knowledge. She said something to the effect of having a head full of interesting trivia. That paradigm stuck with me. And while I’d always had a love of discovery, I realized it was important to encourage and cultivate that love in order to enrich the articles and stories I wrote. The fact it has always been fun for me was an added bonus.

Blenheim: a Biography of a Palace, Marian Fowler

So if you’re going to venture into writing, whether as a journalist or creator of fiction or non-fiction, the love of research is a work-paradigm you need to embrace. Sure, there are lots of writers out there bashing out novel after novel, book after book, spouting pseudo expertise and consumable, forgettable work. In and of itself there’s nothing wrong with that. Escapism is perfectly fine. However, if you want to write a really good book, or a memorable fiction, then you need to gather around you an arsenal of information which will allow you to write with authority. Do that, and your work transcends because it is believable. You have infused your story with plausibility, and it’s that plausibility which will have readers returning to your stories both familiar and new.

How far do you take that research?

As far as I’m concerned, and this is only my perspective on the window of writers’ craft, there is no limit on how far you take your research. Myself, I’m often guilty of doing too much research, because I find myself frozen with uncertainty regarding what is sometimes minutia. But it matters to me, because if that Norseman in my story is spooning down a plate of rutabaga (neeps or swedes), I need to know rutabaga was available in the 2nd century. In fact, I’ve recently learned rutabaga wasn’t available until the 16th century, and is a hybrid cross between turnips and cabbage. So, no, that character in my 2nd century story won’t be macerating a mess of rutabaga. He would, however, chow down on turnip. And, yes, turnip is a different vegetable to rutabaga.

Why does that matter? Well, because there is assuredly some person out there who is going to read my story and come across this passing, one line sentence and nod with approval because they know I have my facts straight, and that, in turn, deposits further proof of plausibility of the story, and credibility of the writer. Which, hopefully in turn, will mean that reader will put me on their list of writers they want to read. So, in a way, good research is good marketing.

As an editor — and you will forgive me for reiterating an oft-stated example — if you’re going to have your character trekking about at night, be aware that unless it’s a brilliantly moonlit night, in open territory, there isn’t a hope in hell that character will be able to see colour, let alone details like, oh, that big mucking ravine in a dense forest they’re about to pitch into. Or, if you have that character going into an inn there isn’t going to be some great massive beastie roasting over the fire in the main room. Inns, in any time period, in any culture, were the masters of fast food. So the fare would range through soups, stews, pottage, pies both savoury and sweet, bread, cheese, cured meat, fish either fresh or salt, and small fowl. And no there isn’t going to be peacock, because in most European cultures that was a royal bird. As was swan. Even venison, rabbit, pheasant, grouse or other game procured by the common folk could have you either mutilated or executed. The royals were mighty particular about what could and couldn’t be taken from their land, and they owned most of the land. So you, as a weary traveller, had to rely upon what was readily available in the common market, legal for trade, and easy to keep, prepare and serve. Unless, of course, this is some sort of underground inn serving the illegal and perhaps even dangerous. That’s another whole interesting story.

And you also need to be aware of what was available in season. So, you won’t be having fresh asparagus served with roasted potatoes, because the former is a spring vegetable, and the latter an autumnal. Unless you’re dealing with a culture which has access to food preservation in the modern or future world. But those methods of preservation have to be plausible and credible.

If you’re looking for some excellent visual examples of, say, British Regency, there are some superb British films in which the details are perfect and delightful. Comes to mind one of my personal favourites, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion done in 1995, staring Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds. From the salt stains on the naval uniforms, to the mustard seed crust on a baked ham, the correct shoulder seam treatments in garments, to furnishings in homes from peasant through gentry, it is an intimately researched film which remains utterly true to the time period and the author’s vision.

These details matter. Always.

But what kind of research?

Primary source is always your first, best reference. What do I mean by that? From the horse’s mouth, as it were. If you can find it, an extant text from the period, and it doesn’t matter whether that text is a print book in your hand, or available digitally through a well-annotated Wikipedia entry or website. Secondary sources are fine, but you want to reference the bibliography to see if the writer(s) used primarily primary sources for their research.

For example, in my current novel in progress, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to access, and be in correspondence with, archeologists who are curating and researching the sites about which I’m writing. So, wow. I’m in historical writers’ nirvana.

If you’re writing science fiction, then you want to be sure you have solid research regarding whatever subject you’re discussing, whether that’s space travel, an alien invasion, or alien world. It has to be plausible. And it’s plausible because you have the research right.

The Expanse, by Amazon Prime

To refer again to film, one of the most startling and plausible science fiction series I’ve had the pleasure to view was The Expanse. Not only was it great writing and world-building, but it was utterly plausible because the research and science were so tight. Sure, the series isn’t going to be everyone’s bliss, but the fact they made space travel difficult, that they made living in space have physical consequences, that the political intrigue had the ring of humanity’s truth, all went toward giving the series absolute credibility. This is no Star Trek, “Give me warp nine,” let’s sit in comfy theatre chairs science fantasy. This is good science fiction, because the science is real and credible.

Do my homework?

So, yes, do your homework. Get to know the world about which you’re writing, not just the characters. Make that world come alive, and you infuse life into that work because you understand all the minutia of that world and how it functions. Cultivate an encyclopedic mind and let that spill out into your story. It is my belief it will make a better story. And the adventure you have along the way may turn out to be something completely engaging and rewarding, because, after all, what is art but an expression of self and vision?

Writers’ Craft 8: World Building

Creating the believable environment for your novel

Doesn’t matter what genre of fiction you’re writing, it is imperative you create a real and believable environment. Do this successfully, and your reader becomes further immersed in the story you’re telling not only through excellent characters and point of view, but through the world you’ve created.

Geography

Oxford Dictionary describes geography as: the nature and relative arrangement of places and features.

Simple enough.

Put another way, you as the writer, must understand what land and water features there are, how civilization has adapted to those features, where those populations lie, and what those civilizations look like. I know, I know, I can hear you groaning again: another outline? Yes. Another outline, perhaps even a map, or several outlines and several maps. Why? Because you need to understand this world intimately so that you can write with absolute authority about this place.

If you’re writing about Earth, certainly Google Maps and Google Earth allow you excellent, current visuals about all of these parameters. Equally, if you’re fortunate enough that you’ve travelled to these places, or will be able to once this pandemic is over, that physical knowledge will stand you in good stead, bring a veracity to the geography you describe. However, if you’re writing about a non-Earth geography, this is where your imagination needs to take over, and that means you need to create that world from rock to sky, plant to animal and insect, and most of all the species of character you’re dealing with and how they interact with their world. Trust me on this, it’s far better to create too much background information from which to draw, than not enough. It’s in that research, or development, you become comfortable with your subject, and that comfort then lends authority to what you write.

Geology, climate and environment

You’re going to say, “Why is she repeating herself here?” Well, strictly speaking geology, climate and environment are separate from geography. Geology deals with how your earth was formed. Why is that important? Well, in the case of N.K. Jemisin’s stunning science fiction series: Broken Earth, it’s all about a remarkable and foreign geology. Jemisin understands this alien world so intimately there isn’t a single moment in the story that doesn’t ring with the reality of what she’s created. The same could be said for J.R.R. Tolkien’s unforgettable opus, The Lord of the Rings. It is a well-known fact Tolkien wrote an enormous volume of backstory for this trilogy, and because of that the world of Middle Earth leapt off the pages and inhabited the imaginations of generations of readers.

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien from New Statesman

Which brings me to climate. Why is that important? Again, because climate affects everything from how your characters interact in their world and through their civilizations. Climate affects mood and movement. And all of that can and should be essential tools you use to develop character, plot, and overall tone of your story. I think back to Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of DarknessThe novel is set in the jungle of The Congo. The story itself is one of mystery, oppression, anxiety, and dark, brooding tale. And Conrad’s description of the climate of the Congo River is executed with such intimacy that it permeates everything. We feel the heat. We feel the monsoon rains. And in turn the protagonist, Charles Marlow, tells his story through the lens of this humid, foreign, fearful climate. There is an implacable inevitability which results from Conrad’s descriptions of climate.

And climate inevitably leads to environment, because environment is utterly fused to climate. One creates the other. As in Conrad’s classic novel of tropical climate, the environment is shaped by that hot, humid climate. Thus we have the jungle of the Congo, an environment which creates a breeding ground for all manner of reptilian, insect and mammalian life which to those early Western explorers seemed as foreign as the Moon to those first astronauts. And, again, the environment Conrad relates is fused to Marlow’s mood and actions. There is utter authority here, truth.

Social structures, language and mores

It could be argued, and I would say successfully, that social structures, language and mores are shaped by geography, geology, climate and environment. And all of that affects how your characters, and how your plot will unfold. So, what social structures are there in your society? Is it based on a feudal system, or an oligarchy, and where does your protagonist sit in that structure?

Language? Certainly language reflects the customs and mindset of a society. Take, for example, the Spanish term for: I really like this, which is: le gustó mucho. Quite literally translated from English to Spanish, the phrase refers to taste, as in: this tastes good. So, that reveals something about Spanish society and the historical importance of good food, and how good food makes you feel.

And language also reveals a society’s mores. So, in your story, what are the unspoken, accepted social conventions of your society? Is a handshake an acceptable and respectful form of greeting, or is physical contact anathema?

All of these minutia are paramount to creating a believable, immersive story for your reader, especially when these elements are revealed through the actions and thoughts of your characters.

How to do all that? Well, to put it in perhaps simplistic, facile terms: let’s pretend. Just play that game we all played as children. I don’t know about you, but I was very adept at playing Let’s Pretend. I’d build worlds and customs. How many of you, for however brief a moment, believed the floor was lava, and you had to jump around the furniture, much to your parents’ chagrin, to avoid being horribly incinerated by the deadly floor? You believed it. Now you’re going to write about that with the same intimate detail and conviction.

We’re dream-makers, we writers. We either virtually visit our own world and relate that to our readers, or we create new worlds and invite our readers to come along the journey. When you write through the eyes of your character, that world blooms in your reader’s imagination, and thus we create this remarkable, silent communication which no one hears, but we all witness. Magic.

Writers’ Craft 7: Dialogue

A tricky art

One of the common problems I see as an editor is clumsy dialogue. So often a writer feels the need to explain the dialogue with all manner of cues and instructions, as though they were writing a screen play, or giving notes to an actor. Writing dialogue for general reading is quite different. It requires that you, as the writer, remove yourself and instead choose your words, and how you employ those words, with precision, allowing your reader to interact and fill in the surround. Go too far, and you have those actor’s notes. Don’t go far enough, and you leave your reader in a void.

How far is too far?

Good question. In my experience, and to my aesthetic — and remember, art is subjective — using dialogue identifiers and notes is going too far. For example:

“I’m going to the store,” he said grumpily.

“Again?” she whined. “You just went out this morning.”

“Well, someone forgot to add milk to the list,” he growled.

She softened her voice and said, “Couldn’t you use cream?”

He shot back, “Like hell.”

Yeah, pretty pedantic and plodding, wouldn’t you say? But you’d be surprised how often I’ve seen dialogue like this.

There’s an opportunity missed here to not only create excellent tension, but character development through tighter dialogue. Perhaps like this:

He knew he allowed his anger to show, perhaps unfairly, but before he could stop himself he said, “I’m going to the store.” And immediately he saw his anger hit her like a blow, and watched her brace for defense.

“Again? You just went out this morning.”

“Well, someone forgot to add milk to the list.”

That one landed full force, and he had to strain to hear her when she said, “Couldn’t you use cream?”

“Like hell.”

Now there’s heightened tension. We now know something more about the main character, have established point of view, and allowed the dialogue to flow along naturally, much as it would in an actual conversation.

Generally, once you’ve established the speakers with the first two exchanges, there’s often little need to identify the speakers thereafter. And by eliminating all the stage directions, you’ve allowed your reader to better interact because of the rapid fire flow of the dialogue.

In the first segment of dialogue, we are allowed inside the head of the main character. We know he’s angry, knows he’s being a jerk, and apparently is either so exasperated, or too much of a jerk, to control his anger. We then see the other character’s reaction through his eyes, thereby further establishing point of view.

In the next segment — her reply — there is no need to identify the speaker, because that’s already been established in the previous segment. By doing that, by just allowing her words to sit on the page, we allow tension to build because there’s nothing else distracting us from what she says. The same result occurs in the third segment of dialogue. After that we establish a pause, a further opportunity to develop the scene and character by not only allowing us to see the situation through the main character’s eyes, but to hear her subdued response through his senses. Then the full blow of the conversation is delivered in a short, sharp response of just two words, no descriptors. Bam.

Information dump and long narratives through dialogue

Sometimes we use dialogue to convey background information in our stories. That’s perfectly fine. But you should be mindful of keeping tension tight and not arresting the action by waxing poetic about some thing, or adventure, or parable. It’s important to remember that throughout your story you’re constantly working to keep you reader’s attention. There are a lot of things to distract that reader: social media, household, coffee, that walk. So, in order to keep that tension, break up your information throughout the dialogue, have your characters interact just as they would in real life. Let’s face it, that’s what we’re trying to do in our stories, or should be: creating a verisimilitude of life.

I remember clearly reading a naval historical novel by a well-known author of the genre. There was a section in the story where the crew and ship were soon going to face battle with an enemy they’d been chasing, a plot point which had been developed throughout. But just as they’d sighted the enemy’s sails on the horizon, the author decides to wax poetic through dialogue about a particular knot a seaman had developed and employed, and went on about it for about three pages, as I recall. By then the entire sense of the chase and breathlessness and danger had spilled overboard, and certainly left me fuming. While it’s wonderful to include detail, in this case the conversation that had been so rife with tension regarding their strategy and battle plans was entirely eclipsed and assassinated by a knot.

Don’t do that.

Break up your information throughout your dialogue, as I’ve said.

Allow me to use an example from my novel, From Mountains of Ice.

“The harvest looks bountiful,” Vincenze said around a mouthful of bread.

Aletta cast a glance over the fields, perched as they were on a small rise. “Bountiful, yes. The land has had an opportunity to rest, and all that firing did the earth good, despite our feelings on the matter.”

“It would seem the same could be said for the spiders?” Sylvio said.

Vincenze nodded, swallowing. “The tree spiders are back, yes, spinning webs the likes of which I’ve not seen in many years.”

“Big?”

“Big? There were some webs so large they spanned trees, some as big as two hundred metres.”

“You exaggerate,” Sylvio mumbled.

“He tells the truth, amore mia,” Aletta said, setting down the wine jug and watching Vincenze carefully. “Two hundred metres.”

Sylvio kept his astonishment under control, wondering what it could mean that the spiders spun such large webs. “Well, at least we’ll be able to make angeli strings.”

Vincenze nodded. “I’ve a plentiful harvest. We’ll be able to fit a large percentage of the bows for trade with angeli.” He sipped from the wooden beaker of wine. “How look our goods for trade?”

“Good.”

“Good goods,” Aletta said. “Information, my love. It helps in conversation when you provide information.”

Sylvio grunted. “I was getting to it.”

Aletta let out a cluck of exasperation.

“We’re going to have grain to trade,” Sylvio said, throwing Aletta a frown. “That will be a first in two years. Should fetch a good price at market in Reena –-”

“And horses,” Aletta said. “The foals from last year are proving healthy yearlings.”

“And horses,” Sylvio agreed. “And it would appear we’re also going to have a good selection of bows, many with angeli strings – some with angeli strings.”

“Any decision on selling the arcossi?” Vincenze asked.

The arcossi. Debate among the bowyers and the villagers about selling the arcossi had been passionate and divided. There were some archers who swore there were voices in their heads when they used the bows Sylvio made, telling them how to draw, where to aim, when to loose. And when pressed Sylvio admitted there was something uncanny about them, of having images like memories swim through his head as he carefully sliced thin veneers from the bones, glued bone to wood, tillered and teased a laminated stick into a weapon of deadly, almost sentient, grace. It hadn’t been until he’d worked with Vincenze’s sister’s bones that he could attest to hearing voices. Now today’s occurrence. That disturbed him.

To offer the arcossi at market was to sell the bones of one’s mother, or father, one’s daughter or son. It was like peddling holy relics. Here, come own the finger-bone of the goddess Vitalia and protect yourself from infertility! Here, come buy this arcosso that was my brother and thwart your enemies!

“They’ve agreed,” said Sylvio.

“But it was bitter,” said Aletta.

“I can imagine,” said Vincenze and he looked out across the fields.

So here I was trying to impart information about the bows known as acrosso. I didn’t want a huge information dump. That information could be built upon in subsequent segments. But it was important to impart enough information throughout the dialogue here in order for the reader to find some footing. And it was also important to keep the dialogue flowing, allowing for what might be normal pauses in speech as a person reviews what they’re about to say and sorting the flashes of information in their head. It was also a great opportunity for character development. We know Sylvio is a bowyer, that he finds making the acrossi strange, even disturbing. We know he has a deep and easy relationship with his wife, Aletta, as evidenced in their banter. We know Sylvio is a reluctant, even reticent person. And all of that is established through hints in the dialogue, and the information around that dialogue.

From Mountains of Ice

Ellipses and em dashes

Ellipses and em dashes are excellent tools when conveying certain information. However, in my experience as an editor, they are overused. Think of using them like spice and seasoning. Too much salt, and the dish is inedible. Too many chilies and you’re gagging.

So, if you have a trailing thought, great, use ellipses (three within a sentence, four at the end, wherein the fourth becomes the period to close the sentence.) But make ellipses rare, otherwise it will lose effect.

The em dash is also an effective tool if used sparingly. I used an em dash in the dialogue above where Aletta interrupts what Sylvio is saying. That’s a perfect use of an em dash: to indicate an interruption or an abrupt ending. Em dashes can also be used instead of parentheses where you have a bit of information or dialogue that is, if I may, parenthetical to the main discourse.

But generally, use a light hand with ellipses and em dashes. Let your words speak for you, not gimmickry.

Paragraph breaks

Generally, you employ a paragraph break for every change in speaker. By doing so you create a visual clue for your reader. And each segment of dialogue must be accompanied by opening and closing quotation marks — unless.

Unless what your speaker is saying spans more than one paragraph, in which case there is no closing quotation mark at the paragraph break, but there is an opening quotation mark at the beginning of the new paragraph. By doing so, you establish that it is the same character speaking. Thus:

“I’m going to the store now. I won’t be long.

“Oh, say, could you just check to make sure the order is ready? I forgot to do that. Call me when you have.”

“Sure. No worries.”

So, here we have two speakers, the one who’s going to the store, and the one who’s not. The first two lines are clearly the first speaker, while the last is the second. There are no closing quotes at the end of the first line, establishing that the second line belongs to the first speaker. We know there is a second speaker by the third line because of the closing quotes at the end of the second line. Clear as mud?

Just write dialogue as you would speak it

I guess the brunt of it all is to place yourself in the situation you’re writing, and create the dialogue as if you were a part of it. Don’t tell the dialogue. Speak the dialogue. And after you’re done writing that scene, read it out loud. If it flows naturally, and makes you want to find different voices for the characters, you’ve probably done your job well. If it sounds clunky, well, maybe you need to revise.

And as always, remember art is subjective. There isn’t actually any one correct way to do anything creative. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules. Just make sure when you do bend the rules you’re engaging your reader and keeping them turning the page because they’re positively entertained and enlightened.

You can follow me at my website: fiveriverspublishing.com

Writers’ Craft 6: Tense

What time is it?

Choosing a tense for your story usually isn’t a big deal. Most fiction and even nonfiction is told in past tense, as in: They went there, and then they travelled further.

Why writers do this is not entirely clear. Certainly the practice of writing in past tense has been around a very long time. Mallory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur in 1469, and it is in past tense. Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, even in the original Greek, was written in past tense, and that dates back to around the 8th or 7th century BCE.

It would appear employing past tense in writing is simply a comfortable, accepted form, perhaps because it most emulates how we converse. Most of what we discuss among ourselves tends to be in past tense, unless we’re speaking regarding future events. But for the most part, we recount events when in conversation. It’s usually how we tell an anecdote, recount our days among friends and family. Not that we don’t speak in future tense; certainly we do. But it’s not the tense we so easily and customarily slip into.

So, it only follows we naturally gravitate to past tense when writing. And that’s perfectly fine.

Unless…

You want to wake up your reader

If it’s a shove-your-reader-off-the-chair effect you’re going for, then you may choose to write in present or future tense. Both are arresting. Both require a sensitive hand else your work will end up so unapproachable as to be unreadable. Certainly there are some novels out there which have effectively, even brilliantly employed both present and future tense.

Present tense

Writing in present tense is just that: all the action happens right now, i.e: She picks up the newspaper and scans the headlines, feels frustration with the barrage of sensationalism, and tosses it back to the table.

Present tense gives immediacy and urgency to your story. There is nothing passive about present tense. And in the right hands it can be astonishing and brilliant; in the wrong it can be outré and unreadable. Novelist Anthony Doerr employed present tense in his novel All the Light We Cannot Seewhich went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Andre Dubus III employed the same technique in his widely popular novel, House of Sand and Fog. 

And the Angels Sang

When I wrote the cover story for my collection of short stories, And the Angels Sang, I chose to tell the story in present tense, because it is a deep character POV, that of Father Jean Brébeuf in his last moments of life. He is being tortured, horrifically, and I wanted to examine what he might have thought in those moments, how he might have slipped into hallucination as so often happens when we are thrust into extreme trauma. There is a sense of disconnect in those moments. And so the only way I could think to convey that sense of disconnect, was to write the story in present tense, because the story is happening right now. His pain is right now. And I wanted the sense of that to be right now for the reader. So, yes, present tense was chosen as much for shock effect as for a literary device.

Apparently it worked for one reviewer:

Lorina does a masterful job of summarising a lifetime of devotion to the cause in the final, frantic thoughts of Father Brébeuf. Delirious, near out of his mind with pain, he imagines the forest grove around him the pillars of a glorious cathedral. Similar fantasies transform his horrific death into a mystical rite of passage toward paradise. What strikes atheists like myself as an idiotic belief system here becomes very real, the key to salvation and transcendence, and his pity for his tormentors, utterly convincing. It takes exceptionally good writing to put you deep into the mind and thoughts of so alien a being.

R. Graeme Cameron

Amazing Stories

future tense

Even more difficult to write is a story told entirely in future tense. He will go down the road, meet a dog, and the dog will bark and then sniff his hand. He’s going to feel a pang of homesickness because of that filthy cur.

There is again a sense of disconnect and tension employing a tense other than past, in this case a feeling of inevitability, even futility, because the uncertainty and nebulous nature of the future now becomes a clear reality in the narrative. There is no ability to deviate from what is seemingly pre-ordained. And once again, this tense can be exhausting not only to write, but to read, so choose carefully.

Novelist Carlos Fuentes did so in his short novel, Aurawhich, by the way, is also told in second person.

There is a sense of the omniscient in a future tense story, perhaps because future tense, as Carlos Fuentes demonstrates, is most often told in second person.

What’s the correct thing to do?

Whatever suits you and your vision. That’s the correct thing to do. Sure, there are lots of people who are going to tell you to play it safe, to abide by some set of unwritten and uncanonized rules. But there are no rules. Not really. Art is subjective. Yes, you’ve heard me both say and write that previously. It’s true. Sure, you need to know the fundamental tenants of writing. But you also need to know how far you can bend them to create something astonishing, even transcendently memorable.

So, don’t be afraid to experiment. Write. And then write some more. Doesn’t matter if any of it is bin material or readable. Just write. Do like every other artist in every other discipline, and just create work. In the end that’s what it’s all about. Or should be. At least in my opinion.

You can follow me through my website: fiveriverspublishing.com