Posts Tagged Dave Morris

Dialogue special part 1: how do we get characters talking?

Dave-Jamie-BBCThis weekend I guested on John Rakestraw’s Google writing hangout. He sent me a bunch of questions about dialogue, and I wrote so much in preparation that I got an epic post. Then when we got nattering on air with his co-conspirators, we delved off into other questions anyway. So I thought I’d run a dialogue special in the next few weeks. If you’d like to watch the hangout the link is at the end of this post.

(That pic is not Mr Rakestraw and friends, BTW. Tis Husband Dave at the BBC, pretending to read the news with his writing partner Jamie Thomson.)

Meanwhile, here’s today’s topic -

How do we get the characters talking?

Some manuscripts I see have no dialogue, or very little. There will be plenty of description, back story and even action, but the writer won’t have allowed the characters to step out of the narration and express themselves and interact with others. If there are conversations, they will mostly be reported instead of shown ‘live’ -

‘he told her that the best thing he’d ever done was to buy that log cabin in the woods – especially now they needed somewhere to hide until the stalker stopped watching the house’

Of course, sometimes there are good reasons to report a conversation. It’s by no means forbidden. But if all or most conversations are reported it can feel like the characters are being shepherded by the book and never acting independently – and so they don’t seem as real.

Dialogue makes characters real

Dialogue scenes let characters come to life. We see them acting, responding to other humans, experiencing events. For the reader, it’s like the difference between reading a report and being an eyewitness. They feel a personal, vivid connection with the moment.

And it’s a rich connection. Dialogue scenes allow you to demonstrate human complexity – what the people feel about each other, what their innate responses are according to their personality. (This can often create trouble for the writer, as I’ll discuss in a moment.)

What about first-person narration?

First-person narratives might need less dialogue because we already feel the character. Every piece of description, back story or other prose will be seen through the filter of that person’s psyche. So will their encounters with other people. But it will seem odd if there are no scenes where other characters are allowed to breathe, act, emote and be real.

Readers often look for dialogue before they decide to buy

Some readers flick through a book and are put off if there isn’t a good proportion of dialogue. Dialogue is easier to read than screeds of prose. But that’s not just because the paragraphs are more spaced – it’s because good dialogue is vivid.

So why do writers find it hard?

Some don’t of course. And if you’ve been reading this with a halo of confidence, could I ask if you find non-dialogue prose difficult?

This difference is usually where the problem lies.

Writing dialogue requires a specific frame of mind. When you’re in the flow of setup, action, back story or description, it’s tricky to switch to dialogue. In every other kind of narration, you control the camera, the voice of all the in-between stuff. For dialogue you have to let other minds in. That’s quite a gear-change. Especially if you have to inhabit several people, with different agendas and personalities.

2013-06-17 15.02.32Sometimes you realise, as you put yourself in their shoes, that they don’t see things the way you do. The lines you want to give them feel false. Or they run away with the story because of their responses. You have to let them find their own way, and maybe adapt what you wanted them to do. You realise a plot event is impossible because the characters won’t do it and you can’t work around it. This sense of frustration rarely happens with other types of scenes.

How to get your dialogue scenes running smoothly

Write dialogue scenes on different days from narration. Give your brain time to adjust.

Don’t put too many characters in the scene. In novels, it’s hard to manage more than three people who are all talking and responding. In fact, three’s a crowd because someone usually has to take a back seat. I’ve often seen writers try to emulate the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs where seven characters are sitting around a table. In the movie it works, but in prose it usually becomes an unmanageable mess.
Be prepared to rework a dialogue scene over and over. I’ve often had to spend several days on a dialogue scene, trying to get it truthful and authentic (not to mention interesting). Some characters can be particularly stubborn; Gene Winter in My Memories of a Future Life was exciting to use because he was unknowable and unpredictable – but this made him a devil to handle. He sounded wrong until I found something he’d agree to do. This struggle, of course, made me write better scenes.

This is the great challenge and reward of dialogue. Because you’re taking a step into the characters’ psyches, you find out what they’re really made of.

rake2Next post: dialogue is more than talking. Watch the full discussion with John Rakestraw here.

Thanks to Budd Margolis for the pics of Dave and  Jamie

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

Do you have trouble writing dialogue scenes? How do you approach them?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

Double trouble: two authors in the house

owlsThe other day Porter Anderson at Writer Unboxed examined the popular notion of the lonely writer hammering out a novel in solitude. It provoked some interesting discussions about the way we do our work or accommodate our hobby in a busy life.

Chez Morris there are two writers. With no children. When you’ve read this post you’ll agree that’s for the best.

I realise some of our routines and habits must look peculiar to outsiders. But maybe they’ll also look familiar too – especially if you are similarly afflicted.

1 Zombie face

When we’re both deep in writing, it is hilariously difficult for us to have a conversation. When we do, it’s as if we’re trying to talk over a noisy background of in-head chatter: story problems we didn’t solve and new ideas that are streaming in. The real person on the sofa seems to be at the far end of a tunnel.

2 Random outbreaks of notes

We are drowning in paper. Junk mail and envelopes must be binned immediately or they will start to grow a colony of notes. Once this begins, the notes must stay where they were born and may not be thrown away for months.

The most everyday conversation might trigger a sudden need to scribble. While in the car, Dave (who does not drive and therefore has his hands free) often finds himself instructed, like a secretary, to grab the notebook and take dictation. Of course we have a notebook in the car. Don’t you?

3 Other rooms requisitioned

We each have a study, but sometimes we need a change of scene to refresh, cogitate, read or pace with a busy mind.

Suddenly one of us will find we can’t use the dining table because husband is outlining his screenplay on index cards. Wife starts to rue the day she wrote Nail Your Novel. (But is also amused that husband uses it.)

4 Books

Our rooms would be 15% bigger if we didn’t have such a book-buying habit. Upside: no need for pictures.

…which leads to

rozmorris65 WIP shelves

With such a vast book collection, they have to be kept in organised places. Dining room for books on history and exotic locations; bedroom for SF, short stories and poetry; my study for fiction; Dave’s study for comic books, mythology and folklore. This careful organisation is banjaxed when a book is appropriated for a WIP. It will make its way into a mysterious pile whose order must not be disturbed. It might grow a fringe of cryptic Post-It notes saying ‘Anne’s sunrise’ or ‘part 2’. Apocalyptic fall-out if other partner wants to use it too.

6 Inability to make long-term arrangements
When a book is near to boiling point, whether there is an external deadline or not, making plans with friends is impossible. Do we want to go to a concert with x and y in three weeks’ time? Er, don’t know, is the answer, because the WIP seems to fill up everything. Even though when that evening comes we might knock off at 7 and open the wine.

7 Moral support

We both know that writing involves a lot of time despairing that our work is rubbish. And we also know how precious we sound when we agonise about it. And how writing is not truly hard like, say, brain surgery or bomb disposal or counselling traumatised asylum seekers. We know we’re soft and ridiculous.

8 Unflinching critiques

Yes, we critique each other, and the kid gloves are off. They were never on anyway. Dave is used to collaborating with writing partners. I’m used to editing and ghostwriting. We’re both too bothered by rough work to worry about ruffled feathers. So our manuscripts get tough love and there is grumbling. But it’s better to keep mistakes within our walls than let an editor, programme controller or a reader see them.

9 Self-publishing v traditional publishing

We’re from different publishing cultures. Which is interesting. Dave’s written more than 80 books (I had to google that) for traditional publishers and he’s worked for games companies. When he has an idea, he knows how it fits the market and which editors might like it.

Me, I write and then find I don’t fit any commercial editor’s needs. Thus I discovered the culture of entrepreneur indie-writers.

(Dave is now also publishing under his own imprints (here and here), but my books don’t even fit there. Did I mention tough love?)

And so we are a curious microcosm. In one room, commercial traditional publishing. In the other, commercially-challenged literary indie. In times of strife, the grass often looks greener.

For instance: when we both launched works of fiction.

With My Memories of a Future Life, I’d have sold my soul for an influential endorsement. When Dave launched his reimagining of Frankenstein with Profile books, he was phoned by the national newspapers, appeared on several BBC radio arts programmes and given a login to blog on the Huffington Post. While I was thrilled to see him get such major attention, there was a bit of green-eyed grousing. Several times he was treated to the speech that went: ‘no matter how good my book is, I could not get a start like that’ etc etc. (A lot of etc.) But a year or two on, he’s not as free as I am to make different editions, market it worldwide and do what he feels is needed to keep the book alive. Swings and whatnots.

Anyway: those books are done and more are incubating.

And so we return to #1.

Thanks for the owl pic DorteF

Do you live with another writer, or do you have a close relationship with one as a critique partner? How does it work? If you are the only writer in your family, how does it fit in with the other people in your life?

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 Comments

What if… 3 ways gamebooks teach us how to tell terrific stories

This week I’ve been proof-reading one of Dave’s gamebook series, which is due to be rereleased next year.

Gamebooks, for the unnerdly, are interactive adventures (sometimes called Choose Your Own). The story is printed in scene sections, out of order, which end with a choice – trust the blind beggar or not, decide whether to look for your enemy in the town or the desert. Although I’m not a gamebook fan (apologies to those who are), I’m finding the process rather interesting.

Choices and consequences

First of all, what happens in each thread depends on the character’s personality and previous moral choices. So if they’re captaining a pirate ship, in one version they’re jolly tars and in the other it’s mutiny.

Choices are crucial to good stories. Stuff happens – not because a god dumped events into the plot, but because characters did things, usually under pressure. In a gamebook these choices create a unique path through the adventure. But whatever kind of story you’re writing, the chain reaction of choice and consequence is an essential.

Experimenting with scenes

To proof Dave’s books, I’m not reading one thread at a time, but front cover to back – which is jumbling the story into random episodes. It also means I encounter each scene in many versions.

This was like an x-ray of my plotting and revision process. I make copies of each scene and write umpteen iterations looking for tighter tension, more resonant changes, more interesting (but honest) ways to keep the reader on their toes. In fact my outtakes are rather like my novel in gamebook form, with all its possibilities – what if she says this, what if the characters had met before in different circumstances, what if y had happened before x?

(In fact Dave said this experimenting was part of the fun – he could play each scene several ways instead of having to settle for a single one as he would in a novel. The pic shows his flowcharts. BTW, the print books are Lulu editions for proofing only. Yes, we know the covers are horrible.)

Exploring possibilities is something that writers are often scared by. Often they want to keep a scene the way they first imagined it. But the more we squeeze a scene to see what it can do, the stronger a novel will be.

Endings

Because the gamebook contains many journeys, there are also many ends – deaths that are daft or valiant, failures to complete the quest, heroic rescues, solutions where honour wasn’t fully satisfied. Usually only one ending hits the mark. (In gamebooks that’s traditionally the last paragraph, by the way.)

Finding the right ending in a novel usually takes a lot of false starts. But you don’t get there unless you try all the permutations of success or failure and the shades between.

Get the experimenting mindset

To get in the experimenting mood, grab a gamebook and read it in a way it’s not intended to be – from page 1 to the end. You’ll see the many ways an encounter can go, the options for a scene of dialogue, the possibilities for your ending. Once you’re loosened up, go back to your WIP and play.

(Here’s the titles that are currently available in the series I’m proofing for Dave, but gamebook fans can probably point you to other goodies.)

Thanks for the signpost pic Shahram Sharif

Do you feel able to experiment with your stories? If so, what helps you? Share in the comments!  

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments

Doctor Who and the infinite possibilities – how original ideas take time

Last week Dave had a piece in the Huffington Post about the day his father took him, age 6, to meet a Dalek at the BBC, and then to watch Doctor Who being filmed. That evening we dug out the DVD of the old black and white story he saw filmed all those years ago.

More riveting than that story, though, was a feature on the extras about how the series was originally devised – the forms it might have taken and how much refining it took to get to its distinctive shape. On and off, inventing Doctor Who took about a year.

Doctor Who: the quantum shifts

1 A sci-fi story about telepaths or time travellers, or a time-travelling police force, or scientific troubleshooters keeping experiments under control for political or humanitarian reasons

2 Characters are a handsome young male hero (Cliff), a well-dressed heroine age 30+ (Lola), a maturer man with a character ‘twist’ (no name yet). They are scientists with different skills operating from an HQ with a lab and a Sherlock Holmes-ish office where they interview people who need their help.

3 Scrap that, make Cliff and Lola teachers, and add a teenage pupil (Biddy) to get into trouble and make mistakes. Cliff is a hunk, because everyone likes a hunk. Maturer man is now 650 years old and called the Doctor. Their HQ is a time machine the Doctor has stolen from his people, an advanced civilisation on a distant planet.

4 Hey, what if the Doctor was a villain who wanted to travel back to the perfect time in history and stop the future happening…? (Stroke your chin now)

5 Hey, let’s call Biddy Susan and make her alien royalty. And Lola is called Barbara. Cliff is called Ian and he’s not so much of a hunk, more an average guy.

6 Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. And the Doctor’s a mysterious time traveller in an unreliable machine that disguises itself to blend in with its surroundings. Ian and Barbara don’t trust him, but they’re stuck in his ship. Conflict…. nice!

7 The ship won’t disguise itself. The series will be educational.

8 No, it won’t be educational, that sounds dreary and condescending. As you were.

We all do this

As those BBC dudes wrangled Doctor Who out of infinite possibilities, the questions they tackled were the questions all writers grapple with  -

  • who might we identify with?
  • what kind of story do we want it to be?
  • which of our ideas are in tune with that and which are derailing it?
  • what makes it fit in its genre (and therefore the audience) and what makes it distinctive? Are any vital ingredients missing or misused?
  • what will make it distinctive enough and allow us to take it in a new direction?
  • what will cause conflict and drama?
  • does it have enough mileage  – for a whole novel or a whole series?

Few ideas descend fully formed on a lightning bolt. All the writers I know spend time banging heads with their ideas, fiddling with prototypes that are discarded and even forgotten. Our stories start as experiments and hunches – and when you think about it like that it seems so magical and random.

Almost as magical as a grainy production still from nearly 50 years ago, where there might just be a small wonder-struck face.

Thanks for the pic Machernucha

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 Comments

‘Two pieces of music; two essential sides of the human self’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dave Morris

My Undercover Soundtrack guest this week is unusual for a few reasons. One, his book isn’t on paper at all, it’s a digital interactive app. Two, it’s a critically acclaimed reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that allows the reader to dig into the story’s emotional and social questions. In writing it, author Dave Morris says he ‘wanted to reach out and drag the modern reader right into the text’ – and he used music to reveal the tragic misunderstanding at the core of the monster’s story. (And if you’re wondering about the match in surnames, reader, I did indeed marry him.) Do join us at the red blog for Dave’s Undercover Soundtrack

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

How to write great guest posts about your book – keep your stories about your stories

‘Do you know how I came up with the new ending for my book?’ said my client. ‘I dreamed it.’ She went on to describe a wonky version of what finally went into the draft I was reading.

‘Keep this anecdote,’ I said. ‘Write it down.’

‘Pah it’s just a dream,’ she said. ‘I was also inspired by this strange thing that happened to a friend…’

‘Write that down too,’ I said.

She thought I was mad, and no doubt you do too. But there will come a time when you will be scratching for things to say about your book and you need something beyond a story summary or a sketch of your main characters.

Awkward moments

I first realised this years ago at a friend’s book launch. I’d just finished My Memories of a Future Life and I got chatting to a publisher. I gave my prepared spiel and he nodded eagerly, wanting more. I’d run out of pitch, so I bumbled on about my favourite bits, aware that I was getting obscure, but I was so mired in the book I couldn’t see it as an outsider. What I needed was a crisp anecdote or two to keep him relating to it – perhaps about its influences or what inspired it. (He still asked to see it, though, so no harm done.)

Publicity is a long game of guest posts, interviews and maybe personal appearances. (At the moment, Dave is gearing up for the launch of his Frankenstein book app, and is grappling with interview questions. ‘What on earth do I tell all these people?’ he frequently says to me. ‘I thought it was enough to just write the story.’)

Blah blah blah

There’s only so much you can say about the novel without giving spoilers. And you’re going to be asked the same questions time and again about the writing of it, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same answers. In fact, you shouldn’t. In each case you might reach a new audience, but the chances are, readers will see you several times before they decide to check you out. The more different – but congruent – stories you can tell about your book, the richer it will seem and the more ways you have to reel readers in. And the less you’ll bore everyone, including yourself.

And people who like stories also like stories about stories. I recently added an ‘inspired by’ anecdote to my Amazon listing for My Memories of a Future Life and sales have trebled. This experimental sample of just one seems to prove somethingorother.

What makes a good story about your story?

The very best are specific but don’t give too much away. It could be

  • novels that influenced it
  • favourite fictional characters that spurred you to write it
  • real-life experiences that fed into it – anything that gives you an insider view of the subject or events
  • real-life people who inspired it or helped with research – although be careful of libel
  • issues the novel raises

Or it could be something left field, like my series The Undercover Soundtrack on the red blog, where writers tell a tale about their book in the context of music that inspired them while writing.

But thinking of all this stuff – unless someone gives you a specific exercise like my Undercover Soundtracks – is time consuming. And, depending on how complex your novel is, you may not be able to name all its influences at the drop of a hat. I’m still becoming aware of forgotten seeds for both of mine. They emerge by chance in conversations, revisited films and novels I dimly remember. Now I realise I might have a use for these insights, every time I stumble on another, I write it down.

Keep your stories about your stories. You’ll be surprised how easily they’ll slip your mind, but they’re as useful to you as the ideas in the actual novel itself. And you’ll never have enough.

Thanks for the pic Ben Chau

Do you have a tale about your novel? If you can tell it briefly, the floor is yours…

Sign up for my newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

39 Comments

Well I’ll be Twitterviewed! Big questions answered on a bird’s toenail

I just got Twitterviewed – interviewed on Twitter, asked enormous questions to which I had a titchy 140 characters to reply.

Twitterviews are the brainchild of Novel Publicity, which has a helpful blog and a website that offers marketing services to authors. You can find out more about Twitterviews here, including how to request one for your book or as part of your blog tour.

But get in training to be snappy – I was asked all the big questions -  why I write, what Nail Your Novel is, what my novels on submission are about …  answers on a postage-stamp…

Also, the other half of the Morris writing clan has been out and about in interviewworld today. If anyone’s curious about Husband Dave, he just did a considerably less squeezed, but lovely interview at Dorothy Dreyer’s We Do Write.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,178 other followers