Then the next workshop in the 2016 series of Christchurch Writers’ Guild workshops is just what you need.
The Writer’s Toolbox
Sunday September 25, 2016, 10:30am – 12:30pm
South Library, 66 Colombo St, Cashmere
(Parking is across street by river outlet)
$10 (CWG members), $15 (non-members)
Places limited to 25 people.
- Nuts and Bolts
Brush up on your basic punctuation and grammar. Get a refresher on colons and semi-colons. Learn the differences between the dashes. Remember the differences between different sentence structures.
Presented by Joan Gladwyn (Editor with Proper Words)
- Work Gloves a Must: Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get Active
Remind yourself about the differences between active and passive voice. Get it straight in your head the differences between show and tell, and when it would appropriate to use each.
Presented by Shelley Chappell (Author of BEYOND THE BRIAR)
Whether you are a new writer, just starting out, or an established author, it can always help to have a reminder of those common tools of our trade.
Preregistration is now open. Please note that preregistration does not guarantee a place within workshop. The places will be strictly limited to 25 people. Door sales only.
Members must have membership code with them to receive discount.
Not a member of the Christchurch Writer’s Guild? Not a problem. There’s no time like the present. Join here.
This workshop is proudly sponsored by:
What is Exposition?
Narrative exposition is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (wikipedia)
Exposition is an important part in any story–we’ve got a lot to tell, and a limited time to tell it–and thus it is occasionally necessary to give the reader decent chunks of information or backstory. However, excessive exposition can lead to what is known as an Infodump, and is something that many critiquers and beta-readers can be very harsh on. It can also be off-putting to many readers.
Why don’t I like Infodumps?
- They distract from the narrative flow by delivering a history lesson.
- Too much information, given too densely, is difficult to process.
- They reiterate what the canny reader has already inferred.
- I’m more interested in the characters than the level of world building or research the author has done.
- They are a prime example of Tell, not Show.
- They can ruin the flow of action if placed inappropriately.
How do you know if you’re Infodumping?
Generally the best way to know if you’re committing excessive exposition is to ask your beta readers. They should be able to highlight points where the prose has slowed, or even halted, to deliver information, be it world history, character backstory, or other. Also, if you have delivered information that is not actually relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. Whilst you may have created an extensive world, with a dynasty stretching back five generations and encompassing the seven kingdoms, this may be better kept to a companion encyclopedia. Likewise, we don’t need to know your character’s entire life history, not if we can infer it by their interactions and relationships with the people around them.
When writing the first draft, don’t be afraid to throw in as much backstory and exposition as you like, especially if it helps you to develop the world and the characters in your head. You can always edit it out later and store it in another file. Then, when you’re a successful author, you can publish them as part of a companion book!
Upon revising your draft, take the opportunity to look for places where you have actually shown through actions, dialogue or other, the information you’ve previously explained. If you’ve shown it, you don’t need to explain it as well and can safely edit it out.
Explore the world through your characters’ eyes
Show your world building skills by sending your characters on an epic “road trip” that allows them, and by proxy the reader, how wonderfully you’ve developed your world. This is possibly why the Quest narrative works so well. However, try and keep their interactions and adventures somewhat concise and focused.
This is also why novices and apprentices, or the “innocent outsider” is so popular as a main character in Otherworld fictions. It allows other characters to explain things that the character —and the reader— need to know.
Hint at backstory in conversation and interactions
I have created many, many characters, and a lot of them have fairly developed backstories. However, as they are not major players in my stories, the reader doesn’t really need to know all the details, just enough to make them unique and give them a life outside the book.
Here’s an extract from my (very old and incomplete) Furritasia web-series:
“How ya been, lad? How’s Leif? Still playing the harp?” Julius greeted his old friend.
At the mention of the name, Titus’s face seemed to crumple in on itself. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I doubt it somehow. Last time I was permitted,” and there was real bitterness there, “to see him, he could barely string two words together.” He paused and shrugged. “Head injury.”
And that is all we ever hear about Titus’s ex-boyfriend, Leif.
Be aware of the “Maid and Butler” dialogue trap.
The ever popular “classroom lesson”
A popular way of telling the reader about world history is by sitting the main character in a class room. Whilst this can be a successful technique, it is also one that can come across as rather contrived, especially when the students are being taught about things they should already know. To be used with caution.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs of information throughout the narrative
Vague references to things such as “the rubble left by the 30-day war” or similar, can be great for rousing the reader’s curiosity in your world’s backstory. For example, instead of saying your world is post-apocalyptic, you could sprinkle the landscape with remnants of human civilisation –things the readers will recognise, but the characters may not. Let the reader infer what has happened in your world’s history. Drop hints. Tease them.
There are more alternatives, of course, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment below!
Placement is key
If you must insert exposition, chose the position wisely. Firstly, it must have relevance to characters or events and secondly, exposition slows prose and can be a useful tool. If you are writing a high-fueled, adrenaline adventure, it may be necessary to occasionally give your characters, and readers, time to breathe and relax. This is a good time to give expository information.
Having your character think about their past, especially in detail, feels very forced. If you are going to do that, have something trigger the memory, keep it fleeting, and keep it appropriate to the tone of the narrative at that point: if the character is fleeing for her life from a giant tiger, she might have a brief deja vu moment, but she’s hardly going to suddenly remember, in great depth and detail, seeing a similar beast in a zoo.
Likewise, don’t break the tension with an infodump. If the farmer has just pulled an ancient sword from his attic, so that he can run to aid his wife, who’s holding off raiders, we’re not going to want to know how he happened to have such a weapon. We might be curious, yes, but we’re more interested in whether he’s going to make it to her in time.
Please don’t start your book with an infodump (unless it’s contained within a prologue). If I pick up a book and it is an extensive world history, I’m going to put it back on the shelf. Start with your characters, then deliver — carefully abridged — exposition.
Some genres are more forgiving to exposition than others: epic fantasy, being immersive, the reader will be more open to it; crime thriller or fast-paced action, not so much.
Dialogue is not easy to write, and it can take practice to make it feel natural, especially if the characters are not clearly in your head, talking. So how do you go about making your dialogue less stilted? Your characters feel more real? Below you will find a few of the pitfalls that I have observed, as both a reader and a writer, and practical advice on how to make the dialogue clearer, and feel more real.
Remember, these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your story is your own, and how you choose to write it is entirely up to you.
The best advice on how to write better dialogue: Practice, read it aloud, then practice some more!
Note: All extracts are taken from my current WIP, Tail of Two Scions.
He said/She said
Dialogue tags are important to establish who says what but, so saying, when two characters are having a conversation, it is not necessary to establish this every line. Generally, you need to indicate it the first time either character speaks, and then can manage several back-and-forth exchanges before having to remind the reader again.
Note: it may be appropriate in your story to leave in the “he said/she said” for every line, especially if you are writing for younger readers, who may not be fully aware of the common conventions and thus become confused. Do not feel obliged to remove them.
“Care to make your report, ranger?” Riana teased.
“Trees,” Aurelia replied. “Lots of trees. A few crows.”
“Care to try again?”
“Give me a moment.” Aurelia scooped up the water flask, downing the contents in great gulps. She stiffened, drawing herself fully upright, as Simone sauntered over to them.
When more than two characters are involved, this becomes somewhat impractical to easily manage, and attribution tags will be required.
“As you know, Jim” (aka Maid and Butler)
Yes, it is a great idea to push the plot along and supply backstory or deliver clues via dialogue. However, you have to do this very carefully. Characters should NEVER have to straight out explain to each other what both characters already know.
“Remember how we met?” Riana asked. “In the hopitaly.”
Aurelia nodded. “Oh yes,” she replied. “You’d given yourself a concussion, flying on that funny glider thing. And I’d cut my hand, trying to climb the tsingy.”
“Why were you doing that again? Weren’t you showing off or something?”
“No,” Aurelia protested. “Not showing off. I was watching for Lanitra.”
Fixing this from stilted and awkward can be as simple as rearranging it to fit into context (in this case, Aurelia’s just tried one of Riana’s flying devices, with unfortunate results).
“Maybe I need to go back to the glider skeleton.” Riana sighed. “But we both remember what happened last time I tried that.”
Aurelia nodded. “A concussion,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t concussed yourself, then we’d never have met.”
“True, true,” Riana agreed. “And if you’d never gone all bravado, tried to climb the tsingy and cut your hand to pieces, we wouldn’t have been in the hopitaly together.”
“It wasn’t bravado,” Aurelia replied. “I was watching for Lanitra…”
In the latter instance, it’s still the characters telling each other what they already know, but it is integrated in a manner that feels more like gentle teasing/banter than a general info-dump. Other ways to avoid this can be: have only one character know and be training the other (teacher/student); use a mix of action and dialogue (ie: if you need to show how a machine works, have the characters fix it and discuss the process); have the two arguing about it.
Using Adverbs Excessively
Adverbs should, generally, be avoided, although there are times when they are necessary to establish the emotions of the characters via their tone of voice. They are a classic example of “tell, not show”. It is better to use an alternate verb if one is available.
But BE AWARE: overuse of said-alternates can also be extremely distracting in a story. Generally speaking, readers often overlook the word “said” and, whilst “raged” is far more concise than “said angrily”, one doesn’t want every dialogue tag to be a different verb. Also, sometimes the meanings will be different: “Raged” suggests a far more dramatic response than a simple “said angrily”, for example.
To test whether adverbs, or even verbs, are truly necessary, I remove them from the text and read the sentence asking myself: is the character’s mood/voice clear from context? Or do I need to keep it in? Does it matter if the reader interprets it differently?
There are some insane adverbs out there—J.K. Rowling is guilty of using some really extravagant ones. Generally speaking, the more syllables they contain, the more likely they are to annoy/distract the reader.
Use of non speech verbs as dialogue tags
“Smiled”, “yawned”, “sighed”, etc are not dialogue tags. Yes, you can smile as you say something, but the smiling is not what is causing the speech
Confusion about who is speaking
Describing action instead of using dialogue tags is a useful technique that can go wrong: You can avoid dialogue tags on occasion by having the character doing something instead. If this action follows on from dialogue, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the named character. Be aware of this, and always use a new line if a different character is physically (rather than verbally) reacting to the previous speaker.
Roland stepped forward, head bowed submissively. “Forgive her, Royal Advisor.” He rose his head to meet Mephistopheles’s eyes. “She is young and headstrong, filled with fire and rage. We were just surprised to find you here, in this dark, dank and desolate place.”
Mephistopheles snorted. “I am entitled to wander where and how I choose.”
In the above passage, the reader should automatically attribute the speech to Roland, even though it contains no dialogue tags. When Mephistopheles reacts, it begins a new line. If it did not, the reader might become confused about who is talking.
Hiding dialogue in prose
Try to avoid burying dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of non-verbal prose. You can precede it with a sentence, or even two, if they’re short and concise, but if it is too well hidden, or there is any confusion over who might be speaking, start it on a new line, and dialogue or action tag it appropriately:
A gasp, then her eyes narrowed. Simone let her hand fall slack to her side and Aurelia turned her gaze back at the ground. “So, you are the one then.” Rancid slime dripped and oozed from Simone’s scent. “Heir to the royal dynasty.” Her lip twisted back as though she had smelled something foul.
As you can see in the above paragraph, it is unclear who is speaking. The new paragraph should begin at “So, you…”
For more useful tips and tricks on punctuating dialogue, see Shelley’s post here from 2013:
After an enjoyable lunch and a quick stretch of the legs, it was back into the boardroom for our afternoon lectures on Developmental Editing: the Editing Skills Every Writer Needs.
Jenner Lichtwark, from Millwheel Press, was one of our sponsors, and also our third lecturer. She has worked as a journalist, and is a freelance editor, publisher and author. Her presentation was on Voice, Backstory and Staying on Track.
She spoke of the importance of choosing the right time in the narrative to begin—reinforcing the mantra of “start late, leave early”—and selecting the right narrator, and voice, to write in. If one character is the focus of your story, and appears in every scene, then first person is the best option for you: it allows the writing style to be more colloquial, and more personal, creating a greater intimacy. She also recommended that the writer stay open to changing characters if the plot demands it.
After Voice we delved into Plot and the importance of keeping the story on track. The plot must be structured so that the ending is the end of the story you started to tell, and that you haven’t meandered off on a wild tangent. Even for pantser writers like myself, it is best to have the skeleton of the story in mind although, like a skeleton, it will require bones to make it work. How to cope when you do feel your work has wandered away off into the wild woods (a common cause of Writer’s Block)? Go back to where you strayed from the path, and choose the trail that gets you closer to the end you had intended!
Backstory is a case of the “Iceberg Theory”: the writer needs to know everything, or almost everything, but the reader only needs to know what is relevant to the plot. Dripfeed it in early to foreshadow future events. Hint at it in conversations and action. Beware of info-dumping paragraphs of exposition, you’ll lose the reader’s interest.
And, most importantly, you don’t need to resolve every bit of backstory. It’s always fun to leave a few threads hanging and the reader hungry for more —thus opening the path to a sequel, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination or, heck, who knows, you may even inspire fanfiction!
Our final speaker was Dr. Shelley Chappell. She has a PhD in literature and works as an advisor at the University of Canterbury. She spoke to us on Literary Criticism.
Literary Criticism, for those of us who have not studied it at university, is the analysis, interpretation, classification and evaluation of literature. And it proved to be quite an insightful lecture. First, she suggested that we look beyond the plot and into genre, setting, structure, characterisation, audience, theme and more. She then talked us through the process of close-reading, looking for insights into the story such as recurring motifs, metaphoric representations/imagery and into structure such as sentence length, use of words, repetition (intentional, or not?). We were then encouraged to practice close-reading on a sample she handed to us (or on our own work), which turned out to be more of a challenge than I would have expected.
Finally, we looked deeper into the subconscious messages we might be conveying in our stories, such as playing to clichés and tropes, as well as unintentially incorporating prejudices, or things that could be perceived as prejudices. This was a little disconcerting for me, as it illuminated some issues in my own novels, which I may have to be careful with.
After that, many of the attendees departed, with much to think on, educated and, hopefully, inspired. Those receiving critiques remained, to await their ten minute slot with the chosen editor. Overall, I felt enlightened, not just by new knowledge gained, but also by the feeling of connection and kinship with my fellow writers.
Our next workshop, Marketing for Writers, will be held on Sunday, May 22nd, 2016.
On January the 30th, we held the first in our series of 2016 workshops, Developmental Editing: the Editing Skills Every Writer Needs. This full day program offered four guest speakers, plus offered one-on-one critiques of manuscripts. We were supported by a strong attendance – the venue was full! – with writers coming from the Guild, the Hagley Writers School and the wider Christchurch community.
We started the program at 10am, with an introduction by Janine Lattimore, the Guild secretary. Then our first guest speaker, Barbara Arnold took the stage to discuss “Dialogue and the Traps”.
Barbara is an author and has previously tutored at the University of Canterbury. She is also published in various collections and has penned a series of historic novels available through Amazon and your local library.
She first talked us through the basics of dialogue and its role in narrative: how it can reveal information in an accessible manner (including backstory), show a character’s personality and relationships, and advance the plot, amongst other functions. Any dialogue that does not fulfil any of the above is nothing more than filler, and should be reconsidered or removed from the narrative.
Dialogue should also be realistic, but not real, and every character needs a “voice” of their own. And, I’m sure many of you will be pleased to note: bad grammar is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, as are cliches (although please do not overdo the latter).
We also discussed dialogue tags – the overuse of “said”, when to replace it with other adjectives, and when not to, as well as alternatives to using tags at all. For a bit of fun, we got to list adjective alternatives, which could change the shape of the story somewhat dramatically. Best bit of advice: alternatives are powerful tools, to be used sparingly and to the best impact. And an adjective is better than an adverb. (ie: ‘”stop!” he shouted’ VS ‘”stop!” he said loudly.’)
Second presenter was freelance editor, Judy Mohr, speaking on “What is Editing? Why and Who?”
Beginning first with the “who needs an editor?” (answer: anyone who intends to share their book with the world), she educated us on the various types of editors available and various stages of editing: from developmental editor to the final copy-editor and proofreader. Also, sharing with us a few tips and tricks to make the way easier – and cheaper – for self-publishers.
Her lecture was particularly useful because it highlighted how many different stages there are to the editing process; finishing the first draft is a huge achievement, but it is really only the first step upon your publishing journey. Finding beta readers, compatible critiquing partners and a good editor are all necessary in transforming your story from a manuscript into a strong and polished novel. And yes, I’m afraid that does involve a lot of work – and several exhausting rewrites!
You can read a little of her lecture here.
We then parted for a short lunch, before continuing on with the afternoon lectures.
Deb Donnell, of Keswin Publishing and Writing Diamonds was one of our sponsors for this event. She set up a lovely display with Keswin Publishing’s Christchurch-themed books: Responders, and Christchurch, NZ 2015, as well as her introductory books to the Writing Diamond Publishing System.
She also provided her services as one of our Editors in the Critiquing Program.
The workshop was sponsored by:
The Workshop Report will continue next week.