Some Basic Questions

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
Welcome to the Friday Writing Post! Today it’s a short one, because yesterday was the last day of school. So of course the Princess’s best friend stayed the night, and I have promised them cookies. They are champing at the bit to get to the cookies. There is a double batch in the works, between the toffee pieces I bought and and the propensity of Certain People in the house to snitch bits of dough.

I, of course, am innocent of such things. (Yeah, right.)

Today I’ll be answering some questions from my Worldbuilding and String post. Reader Tanya had some questions, and I thought they were reasonable. I realize I don’t talk a lot about nitty-gritty process, and these very simple questions are a good place to start. So, away we go!

1) when you write dialogue…how do you format it while writing the 1st draft. Do you include formatting during the first go round?

Want to know something embarrassing? I didn’t know about commas and dialogue tags all the way through my first two novels. “Hey Lili. When you have a dialogue tag–he said, she said, etc., you need to put a comma before the last quotation marks,” my editor finally said. (Notice how I slyly slipped that in there?) I’d been putting in periods. *facepalm* I have to keep learning about punctuation, or she will bite me.

Anyway. Here’s the rules for formatting dialogue:

* Remember those commas if you’re using a dialogue tag.

* Though I don’t advocate dialogue tags, because they’re deadweight. “I don’t think you want to pull that trigger,” Avery said. It’s okay, right? Serviceable.

But look how it could be better, with action tags. “I don’t think you want to pull that trigger.” Avery yawned, showing white teeth. “It could be very unhealthy for you.” You see? Action tags don’t need that comma.

* Say you have two people speaking, George and Amy. Whenever the speaker changes, you need a new paragraph. DO NOT, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, PUT TWO DIFFERENT SPEAKERS IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH. That’s a junior mistake and will get your manuscript tossed.

“I think she’s wrong.” George peered over Amy’s shoulder.

“You try being an editor.” Amy sighed and shut the laptop.

New speaker, new paragraph. It’s that simple. (Can you tell a few “writers” have argued with me over this one? While I was a submissions editor? Can you guess if they got tossed in the slush pile? You betcha.)

* Kill the exclamation points and dressed-up dialogue tags. An exclamation point is like the word “that”–mostly unnecessary and overused. Think very hard about either of those things wherever they show up. And don’t use dialogue tags like “George grated” or “Amy yelled,” unless you have a very good reason to. Action tags first, dialogue tags when necessary to avoid confusion, and exclamation points and dressed-up dialogue tags almost never. Stephen King pointed out that “said” is good enough most times.

2) do you outline or use index cards?

I, erm, actually am a pantser. I don’t outline OR use index cards, though I’ve heard of people using both. Sometimes I’ll do a list in a separate document of characters–names, vitals, statistics.

About halfway through a book, though, the story will grow a sort of halfass outline down at the bottom with big plot events in [bold and brackets]. This lasts from the halfway to the two-thirds point, where the story invariable veers away and I erase everything bolded and bracketed. I find that too much structure kills the story–I need it loose enough to breathe, loose enough to be surprised. Trusting the work is my big thing.

I’ve seen a lot of writers with beautiful detailed outlines…and no story. Outlining can become a timesuck and a way to avoid the actual work of writing. HOWEVER, I also know a lot of productive writers who outline almost obsessively and it doesn’t hurt them any, it’s all part of their process. The acid test is whether or not you’re producing work and finishing things.

3) if you outline – how deep do you go?

See above. I generally know where the story is going in the very first line. The story that I don’t have at least a vague idea of where it’s going is very, very rare. I call the Big Events in the story “wickets” like in croquet, places the ball needs to go through on its journey to the final hoops and a finished game.

4) what type of software do you use, if any? preferences? im a techy so tech is always a consideration for me. (I have a mac and am trying to use scrivener.)

Here’s where I’m sure I’m going to piss some people off.

Novel-writing software seems like another big timesuck to me–a pretty thing whose actual usefulness is outweighed by the “playing with it instead of writing” factor. I think a basic word-processing program is all you need. I can see needing a separate program for scripts–scriptwriting is a totally different beast and you need different formatting tools to do it–but “novel-writing software” looks like a waste of time and money to me.

I use MSWord because I’m familiar with it and the MSOffice suite is good value for my money. I write in 12pt Times Roman, single space, first line indent, print layout, no spaces between paragraphs. Before I send the finished draft to a beta reader or editor I do a global double-space and add page numbers and the title and my last name in the header. But while I’m writing it’s just me and the page. The frills and furbelows on every piece of “novel writing software” I’ve ever seen just look to me like ways to avoid actually writing. I am sure some writers use it and it works fine, but I really think the less furbelows, the better. You can get OpenOffice or a basic office suite and have spreadsheets (I know a couple writers who use those) for keeping track of characters, and all the formatting options for getting your piece into submission-ready shape that your little heart could ever desire.

Plenty of the “tools” I see listed on the packages for novel-writing software are things you need time and practice to master. Themes and character development and structure will come as you get more practiced. You won’t be able to get away from your personal themes–as long as you’re telling the truth on the page, they’ll follow you around like puppies. Character development will happen as you learn to trust yourself and the story. Structure also comes after you’ve finished writing a few books, read many many books, and acquired a feel for what works and what doesn’t inside the confines of a particular form, whether it’s short story or novel. There is no substitute for hard work and practice when it comes to this, and I think the “tools” in novel-writing software might possibly be training wheels for some but are most likely shiny toys to distract from doing that hard work and getting your ten thousand hours in.

Your mileage may vary. But for me, it’s basic word processing. That’s the only tool I need. I am, however, very glad I no longer have to use a manual typewriter. Yes, that’s how I started out writing.

But that’s another blog post.

Keep writing!

Keep writing!