Can We Talk? It’s Time for Dialogue

Dialogue is the fabric of our stories. . .

I recently began a collaboration with a wonderful pro editor to look over my manuscript in hopes of improving it for submissions.  Her feedback was incredibly helpful and, if you are in querying hell right now and not seeing results, I definitely encourage you to seek out the insight of a pro editor.  There are so many talented editors who freelance through their own blogs or websites.  If you are looking for a big pool of editors to pick from (who are all talented and already vetted), check out the list of editors who participated in PitchtoPub.  So . . . much . . . talent!

So, what did my editor have to say about my manuscript?  Lots of tweaks and fresh ideas for making it even better, but one that really hit me once I started editing was the dialogue.  Oh my gosh, the dialogue.  I’d written most of the conversation scenes like my characters were competing for some High School Speech & Debate trophy–nothing about them was natural.  And then I hit my head to my desk wondering how I couldn’t have seen something so obvious, despite all of my wave of edits on my own?  That’s why you need an editor.

There I was, totally recognizing that my dialogue needed work.  Next step was figuring out how to fix it and, boy, that was an entirely different journey.  I like to think I am a fairly competent conversationalist–at least my friends and family seem to enjoy talking with me and once or twice I’ve even been called witty (not Jane Austen-level wit–think more garden variety pun-making).  But trying to translate that into my characters’ dialogue was evading me.  How do you take something most of us do so naturally and write it out such that it advances the story, evolves and fleshes out our characters, and is also just entertaining on its own?

Luckily, there is a treasure trove of help in our boundless online writing community.  A few suggestions to get started include:

1) Nanowrimo’s helpful worksheet

2) Have you seen this?!?  Writing tips from the masters in easy-to-digest lists (many of them mentioning dialogue tips).  I read P.D. James’ list and it made me love her even more.

3) Two books proved their weight in gold for me:  Your First Novel and Fiction Writer’s Workshop.

“Now get to it,” she said.


Writer’s Mantra: Manners Matter

Many, many writers have engaged in two recent writing competitions: #PitchtoPublication and #pg70pit.  Both offer excellent (and FREE) opportunities for writers to work with professional editors and prospective agents.  These two competitions are lighting up many writers’ Twitter feeds with evaluative teasers from the participating editors, where submissions are described in a way that protects the writer’s privacy while also offering feedback on the submission.  If you haven’t don’t so already, go through and mine the teasers posted by @LaraEdits, @ekbuege, @RFaithEditorial, and @OnlyCassandra (just to name a few).  They offer insightful advice in 140 characters that, if you attend to it, can hone your manuscript into its best possible version.  Oh, and did I mention. . .they are all offering their advice and time for FREE!  

Of course, with these teasers and advice comes criticism.  Constructive, supportive, or pithy.  Always helpful, never nasty, but sometimes (especially if you think it’s your manuscript that’s being critiqued) hard to take in without becoming defensive.  And true to fashion, a few entrants (emphasis on ‘a few’) have responded to the critiques with a tinge of combativeness in the online universe.  A few other entrants have demanded more information or feedback, faster posts, quicker turnaround for submissions, or split second confirmations.  

Similar situations have occurred with @LZats and her #500queries, which she does in addition to her official agent responsibilities just for her love of the publishing world and to help submitting writers.

Add to that the too common “Dear Agent” letters, the complaints about agents not responding to queries soon enough or not responding at all, and the general sentiment of many prospective authors that “agents are mean”.  Just Google “rude agents” and you’ll see.

And while I certainly identify with the punch in the gut you feel when you read a post or receive an e-mail telling you that someone didn’t like your submission, or with the carpal-tunnel inducing refreshing of my e-mail and twitter feeds waiting for updates on submissions to agents and/or contests, I find it impolite and also counterproductive to criticize professionals who are simply doing their jobs, especially those who are donating their time to help would-be writers.

Despite the many errors I made when first venturing into the world of querying, every single interaction I have had with an agent has confirmed their professionalism and their impeccable manners.  They have apologized for delays in replying to an unsolicited submission to their slush pile.  They provided thoughtful, and sometimes very detailed, feedback on my manuscript even if they were passing on it.  They have offered encouraging words, requests to learn about future projects I undertake and, most importantly and consistently, they offered their best wishes for my success as a writer.

And this is in spite of the fact that their inboxes are exploding with query submissions (again, its #500queries, not #50queries) while they manage their regular responsibilities for existing clients and also have a personal life outside of work.

Entering into the role of writer expecting only glowing approval and praise for your work is a fool’s errand.  Even worse is taking the bruises to your ego and flinging them back at the very people who want you to succeed and indeed hold the keys to your success.

We need to check our egos, approach this road to (hopefully) eventual publication with humility and respect for the industry, and remain open to feedback that will make our work better.

So keep writing and, perhaps even more important–keep listening!