Thursday, February 1, 2018

February 2018 - Taking Dictation for Dialogue

For 2018, all the monthly topics have been
 submitted to me
 by writers and readers of this blog.

The question posed for this month is "Like most writers, I'm shy, and an introvert. Is there a way to learn to write good dialogue that doesn't involve having conversations with people?"

 Yes, there's a very good way to learn to write good dialogue — it's by listening. 

That's right, not talking but listening for the diction, syntax, and vocabulary of people who are talking and then write down what you overhear.

Okay, so you cannot go around with a stenographer's pad in hand, and unless you're trained in one of the shorthand methods of taking dictation, you're at a disadvantage of getting all the words down. However, you can improve your ability to listen and take notes by using videos and watching movies. 

Screenwriters rely heavily on dialogue to flesh out and make characters realistic. They have honed dialogue to an art. Which means, you can train your ears and inner ear to hear the cadence and rhythms for various types of characters by watching movies that have a specific character you need for your story. For instance, whenever I need a high IQ, arrogant ego, I watch reruns of M*A*S*H and concentrate on Charles Emerson Winchester III's dialogue. 

When I write my story, I do not use his exact words. After all, my character is not Charles Emerson Winchester III.

But there's a trick to listening to videos, movies, etc. That trick is not to watch but to turn off the TV or monitor and listen. Pause the recording and replay the words of the character you most want to emulate in your story. And do write down the passages so you can go back and compare lines, determine the pattern of the words, the arrangement and length of the sentences or fragments. Concentrate on the syntax, the vocabulary, the length of sentences.

Do listen for what transpires in the voice of the speaking character when they are under stress, are frustrated, are angry. How does the syntax, vocabulary, diction, and emphasis change? How does a female's voice differ from a man's? What is the educational level (or lack thereof) revealed in the dialogue?

So, instead of talking to people, listen instead. And while you're listening and evaluating, listen for unique turns of phrases, one-liners, odd and mild-tempered expletives, specific jargon, etc. and record those in a file for future stories (my file is called WHO SAYS).

So, give the TV-video idea a go and let me know what you discover.

***March's topic will be — Pantser Rhetoric?

Connect with Catherine by joining her Writers Cheat Sheet Bulletin list and get notices when this blog updates or news of her upcoming workshops and courses HERE
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Monday, January 1, 2018

January 2018 - Who should you believe?

For 2018, all the monthly topics have been submitted to me
 by writers and readers of this blog.

This January post addresses Janet Well's "Please give advice on sorting through writing group feedback. What puzzles me is getting opposite advice. I've heard "your character is too perfect" and "your character is too wacky" about the same character. I've also received "I love the opening. You hooked me on the first sentence." from one reader and "This opening is weak. You failed to hook me." from another. I'm confused. (WCS Comment - October 2017).

In today's publishing world, it's necessary to get feedback from a critique group or from one or more critique partnerships in order to test the merits of a story before submitting for (or committing to) publication.

Notice that I used the word feedback not critique. You see, when you ask someone to "critique" your work, you are, in essence, giving them carte blanch to criticize your work. 

When you ask for feedback, the critiquer changes their mind-set from criticizing to wanting to provide helpful suggestions and reasons why something works or doesn't work. 

Perhaps what would be helpful is to know that feedback comes from Type I or Type II Critiques. A person who gives Type I feedback is objective and deals with the technical aspects, the mechanics, and craft that makes for a marketable story. The person who gives Type II Critiques is highly subjective, dealing with the emotional impact and their feelings toward the characters and the story. Type II's read between the lines and see motifs, personalities, allusion, metaphors, etc. For a comparison of the two types, go to

     - Please note that the Type I and Type II Critiques cheat sheet will only be available until March 1, 2018

Of course, a person might seem a blend of the two types, but their editing strengths and knowledge of storytelling elements, as well as craft techniques and devices, will lean them toward one type more than the other. This also applies to contest judges, authors, editors, and agents.

Whether or not feedback comes from a contest judge, editor, agent, author, or fellow writer, strive to avoid a manuscript by committee. In other words, never let someone rewrite your words or, heaven forbid, tell you that you MUST do this or that. Nothing about storytelling or writing is ever totally black or white and there are countless shades of gray in between. So if you are ever in doubt, educate yourself. Whether searching online for blog posts or going to your local library for a how-to write book to clarify a craft element, the more informed you are means you'll make better decisions for what's best for your story and characters. 

In other words, take those sour-lemon critiques and get sweet lemonade feedback for your story.

Now as we begin the New Year, I offer you this—  


It is Reality not Illusion

It is a Setback, not Failure

It is Achievement not Success

Every hurdle provides Knowledge.

                                                                — C.E. McLean ©  1999


Coming next month:  February 2018 — Taking Dictation for Dialogue?

************** Don't miss out on this online course Feb. 1-28, 2018 

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Friday, December 1, 2017

My belief is you have one chance to make a first impression. - Kevin McCarthy

Would you eat off a plate that still has spaghetti sauce residue on it because it hasn't been washed? Yuck, right?

Well, that's equivalent to what happens when you write a story and the presentation fails to capture the reader's attention from the get-go and flow effortlessly like a movie in the reader's mind. That's why it's said that you have about eight sound bytes (or one sentence) to catch a reader's attention.

So, what's involved in capturing the reader's attention? It amounts to:

1. A "hook" opening. Such an opening is the "grabber" that creates curiosity or raises a question that the reader becomes curious enough and reads the next word, the next line, the next sentence, the rest of the paragraph, the first page, and even that first chapter.

2. Action. But what exactly is meant by action? In truth, action can be many things. It can be dialogue – one with a speech tag attribute to the reader know if a male or female is speaking. It can be a character facing a decision. It can be a matter of life and death. It can be drama, urgency, or tension from something about to happen. 

3) A problem or dilemma. The problem can be a character frantically dealing with a problem (like being attacked) or it can be the hint of a problem brewing (like being stalked or a dam reaching critical a stage from flooding rains). A problem can be as simple as needing to get a new job or as complex as a group of crooks planning a heist.

Determining what makes a good hook or an intriguing enough story beginning isn't easy. However, determining what turns readers off the quickest is. 

Here are 15 elements of how not to start or open a story:

1) Do not start with spelling errors, grammar errors, paragraphing errors, punctuation errors (no semicolons or colons), or pronoun reference errors 

2) Remember that if you write genre fiction for the masses, the readability scale should be sixth to eighth grade level

3) Avoid starting with a description of the setting

4) Avoid starting with background information on the character's life (the writer needs such information to write the story, but the reader doesn't need it at the beginning of a tale)

5) Do not open with a dream or nightmare

6) Do not open with an alarm clock going off

7) Avoid an absence of dialogue (and avoid wall-to-wall words)

8) Avoid using dialogue from a character the reader has no idea who that character is (or how important to the story that character is)

9) Do not start with the weather

10) Do not start with a description of a character's physical being or attire

11) Do not start a story with a premonition or blatantly telling the reader "She had no idea how bad her day would become." or that "Death would be waiting for him before he had finished his morning coffee."

12) Do not start with a prologue (chances are the writer needed to know the information in that prologue in order to write the rest of the story. However, if anything—anything—from that prologue is in the text of the story, ax the prologue.) 

13) Do not start a story with a minor character. The reader expects the first named person to be an important person, who is usually the protagonist.

14) Do not introduce a cast or group of characters (Start with the main character (the protagonist) interacting with one other character. Then, one by one introduce other main characters.)

15) Do not start with a character thinking (however, if they are planning murder or some other interesting or intriguing course of action. Even so, keep the internalizing to a minimum.)

If you've looked over your manuscript and scrubbed all fifteen of the above from it, good for you. Only doing so is no guarantee the rest of the story is as polished as it needs to be. 

It pays to take the time to learn better storytelling craft and skills, ruthlessly self-edit, and even pay for the best editor you can (one who understands voice and your genre).

Wishing you all the best with your writing this holiday season.

Merry Christmas & have a Happy New Year!

***********January 2018 — Who should you believe?

Give yourself a Christmas Gift -

     Revision is a Process   Barnes & Noble

     144 Aspects of a Novel Online Course (Feb.1-28,2018)

     1 on 1 Courses with real-time feedback

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

November 2017 - Never Assume

You can never guess or assume what anyone is going to think.
— J. J. Abrams

Touching the mind of another person, especially with the written word has many pitfalls.

The major one for writers is that what you meant isn't necessarily what you wrote down on the page. For example:                     The mirror winked back.

Did reading that make you stop and think about what was going on?

Did you laugh at the impossibility of a mirror actually winking?

Well, this is a prime example where logic trumps creativity. And remember, logic always trumps creativity. Besides, readers are logical people and when they see something like this, the writer's credibility nosedives.

The fix is simple. Just show and convey that a character looked in the mirror and winked at themselves, like–

Marsha paused before the hall mirror. Seeing her flawless makeup and hairdo, she winked. Yeah, kiddo, you're stunning. John is in for one helluva surprise.

Yes, showing always requires more words. However, in the above example, the reader will easily believe what's going on.

Here's another example, which is my all-time favorite:

                            He put his head through the door and knocked.

How do you put a head through a door if you're not a ghost?

Okay, how about you rewrite this to show what was actually meant. Feel free to share your version in the comment section.

******Topic for December will be "First Impressions Count"

Second Notice ...............


Are you struggling with some aspect of writing fiction? Well, here's your chance to get help. I am opening the 2018 Writers Cheat Sheets monthly blog posts up to your questions or topics. 

You can state your question or state your problem with a comment at this blog site or, if you wish to remain anonymous, email your question to me at —

Deadline is December 5, 2017.

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Sunday, October 1, 2017

October 2017 - It's Not Dialogue But Written Standard Dialogue

Pay attention, please: the reader has only the words on the page to go by to form a movie in their mind and to HEAR the voice of the narrator or character.

Whether writing spoken, internalized, or telepathic dialogue, you are not writing exactly what a character says or thinks but what's been termed "Standard Written Dialogue." That's to avoid such things as: "Ah, you know, George, I—I—think, um, he's dead." Instead you write: "George, I think he's dead." or even "George!
The guy's dead."

Pay attention, please: the rules of grammar and punctuation go out the window when writing dialogue.

Why? Because to follow the formal rules of English nets stilted and unrealistic sounding characters or narrative voice. For example: To whom are you talking? That would suit a character with a lofty attitude and education but not an ordinary Joe. So just simply state: Who are you talking to?

A lot of problems with dialogue can be fixed by paying attention to the punctuation and using ones that convey the meaning, the voice of the speakers (or thinker), and provides the correct rhythm for the voice (the pause of silence). 

As you read the following, LISTEN for how you hear the word when you see it and its punctuation mark—

    Stop . . .    
    Stop (or Stop)


Notice that there is no colon or semicolon among the above. That's because colons and semicolons are symbols that do not instantly convey the rhythm or sound of silence. 

Okay, so it might be correct grammar and proper English to use colons and semicolons, but in fiction, using them actually hinders a reader's enjoyment because it's a rough spot in the text. Those colons and semicolons take the reader out of the story world. On a subconscious level, that grates. Do it enough times and the reader finds your five-star story worth only two stars. 

Need to hone your skills with dialogue mechanics?
For a limited time, I'm offering a one-on-one online course on DIALOGUE MECHANICS. You can find information here.
Of course, if you want to know more about dialogue and dialogue mechanic do's and don'ts, read Sections 9 and 11 of REVISION IS A PROCESS.) 

Your input is needed for 2018's blog topics.

Are you struggling with some aspect of writing fiction? Well, here's your chance to get help. I am opening the 2018 Writers Cheat Sheets monthly blog posts up to your questions. 

You can state your question or state your problem with a comment at this blog site or, if you wish to remain anonymous, email your question to me at 

Deadline is December 5, 2017.

November's blog topic is
Never Assume

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