I was talking to a friend yesterday about the rules of writing. Specifically, the rule regarding dialogue and “s/he said”. Apparently, writers are no longer supposed to use adverbs here, we’re supposed to stick firmly to “s/he said”, perhaps the occasional “asked”. Apparently readers don’t want any clues as to how the speaker is speaking.
This isn’t a rule I’ve made up, it’s one I’ve seen repeated many times. For example:
Points 3 and 4 here: Elmore Leonard’s Rules
Point 4 here: Stephen King’s Rules
Point 1 on this list: Common Writing Mistakes
My friend baulked at this. “That’s ridiculous!” she said. (Do you see what I did there?) Now maybe she and I are freaks, relics of a bygone era when writers wrote descriptively and readers lapped up their prose. When I read I don’t especially want to use my imagination all that much, actually. I want the writer to transport me to another place, I want escapism. I want them to paint a world so vivid I can’t help but go with them. I want to be shown what a character looks like, how they interact with the world around them, and yes, how they speak.
When a protagonist says “I need you”, does she whisper seductively, or scream in panic? “Said” is bland, flat, emotionless. “Said” saps the energy out of dialogue utterly. Dear writers, if you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you’ve imagined that scene so many times and so clearly that it feels like a real memory. You know how she said it, you feel how fast her heart is pounding, whatever the reason, so take me there with you. Let me feel it too.
Apparently readers today just want fast paced, no frills, no imagination. Maybe it’s assumed they want to do all of the imagining for themselves, but then, wouldn’t they all be writers? I write to express my creativity. I read to let go and jump in. But I don’t buy it. I don’t think all readers have such short attention spans that they can’t handle the odd “he snapped”. I think that assuming so is detrimental to readers and writers everywhere. But even if attention span is an issue, surely it’s quicker to show the reader how a person is speaking, rather than leaving them wondering and having to pause for a moment to figure it out for themselves. Readers, what do you think? Think of your favourite book from when you were growing up. I bet it had a few whispers, screams, croaks and so on. Did you mind then? Do you mind now? Do you want your literature to read like someone’s Twitter feed?
I take no pleasure in this, as he is one of my all time favourite authors, but one of those lists I linked to up there was written by the legend, Stephen King. I have in front of me one of his epic tomes, The Stand. In the first few pages people speak “sourly”, “mildly”, and get this “weightily from the depths of his ninth-grade education”. These descriptions show us who these characters are. If they merely “said” what they had to say we would be missing these clues into their personalities and backgrounds.
I think what the experts mean when they say “just use said”, is “don’t overdo it”. Use “said” most of the time and then colour the occasional piece of dialogue with some description to keep the reader with you. They can fill in some of the blanks, but don’t leave them plodding along behind you on a string of “he said”, “she said”s. Take them into the world you’re creating, invite them in with some easy to digest descriptions and clues.
I love to hear from you, so tell me what you think in the comments below. Do you like some description with your dialogue as a reader? What rules do you follow as a writer and which do you throw out?
If you want to hear more from me, pick up your free copy of Seeds of Autumn and please follow me on social media:
21/11/2015 | Categories: Craft | Tags: author, common mistakes, craft, creativity, education, Elmore Leonard, escapism, favourite author, favourite books, learning, publishing, reading, rules, Stephen King, The Stand, writing, writing dialogue, writing mistakes, writing rules | 3 Comments
14/08/2015 | Categories: Book News, Promotion | Tags: Echoes of the Past, free ebook, freebie, giveaway, indie author, mailing list giveaway, Promotion, publishing, Seeds of Autumn, signup, writing | Leave a comment
The publishing industry is changing faster than ever before. Previous upheavals include things like…. paperbacks (gasp!), and online retailers (oh no!). Each revolutionary idea was heralded as the death of quality literature or the end of book shops. The cynics were wrong.
Some people have seen the tide turning and flowed with it, changing their business to keep up. So some book shops have survived, they’ve adapted to the digital age and are offering their customers something more, an experience. Many have seen that the future lies in the digital and have adapted their business model to accommodate that, such as Barnes & Noble putting out their own e-reader device, the Nook. The small independent book shop has been a dying breed for a long time now, which is a great loss, I grant you. But people are still reading.
The digital age spawned the single biggest change to the industry: self-publishing. People have been self-publishing for decades, but it used to be a costly business, with authors having to pay out a small fortune for thousands of prints of their book, which will have largely ended up sitting in boxes in their garage or loft. What most people never realise is that the vast majority of traditionally published books only ever sell a handful of copies. So ambitious authors would print themselves scores of books (often because they had no choice, as printers would only accept print runs far in excess of the number of books the author could ever hope to sell) and end up pulping them, just like the big publishers do.
Self-publishing had a bad reputation for a long time, it still does in some corners of society. The big publishers were seen as the gate-keepers, the guardians who were there to protect the public from “bad” writing. A book couldn’t physically be purchased from a book store without it going through the vigorous machine that was supposedly there to weed out the slush. A writer first had to find an agent willing to represent them, then a publisher, who would assign an editor and trusted cover designer. The marketing department would do their thing to get the books into shops and onto billboards. Then the royalties would come flowing in. Right?
Wrong. The big publishers never really cared about quality writing, they cared about selling books. That didn’t always mean the best quality writing, let’s be honest. We’ve all read a bad book that was traditionally published. We’ve all spotted typos in store-bought books. The big publishers have never been infallible.
In the face of the digital revolution, some of the major publishing houses have panicked, and ended up picking up utter trash to put out, because they know it will prove popular (mentioning no names, nor colours or shades). A book doesn’t always have to be well written to capture an audience and the old school publishers know that. Yet they have thrived on the reputation of being the ones to impress, the ones to protect the public and introduce them only to the very best writing.
It has always been the case that some excellent books never sell well, while some terrible ones do. It’s always been part luck, part vigorous marketing as to whether a book succeeds or not. A few years ago, even getting picked up by a publisher didn’t mean much for most writers. Even IF their book made it to launch and got into book shops, chances are their book would be one of thousands of spines on the shelves, not placed on a table in the doorway, or even face out on the shelf. Most writers with a traditional publishing contract could not reasonably expect their books to sell. Most would go to pulp and the writer’s contract terminated. Such was the life of the author.
So if quality never really mattered, why place so much respect at the traditional publisher’s door? Why assume that a self-publishing author isn’t able to do a better job?
I knew I would self-publish Echoes of the Past because I just wanted to share the story with people. I knew it was a powerful one that could move people and I didn’t want to spend years knocking on the doors of agents and publishers only to potentially end up not having a single other person share that story with me. I knew I needed to put it out there myself. It still might not sell many copies, but at least it would be out there for anyone to read if they want to.
Digital publishing means that self-publishing no longer requires massive outlays on boxes of books, now we can reach people relatively quickly and cheaply; it actually costs nothing to get an ebook onto Amazon. However, if an author wants to sell any books at all, and wants to be well-received, they had better make sure their book looks as good as possible. With no publisher to cover the costs, we have to hire our own editor and cover designer. Unless a writer also happens to be a whiz with image software, then outsourcing the cover design is essential. Because readers really do judge a book by its cover, and now all the covers will be seen, perhaps only as thumbnails, but they will be displayed on all of the websites that sell the book. Readers aren’t just seeing the spine when they browse.
I’ve come across writers who insist that they don’t need an editor, and even one who was scornful of any writer who did hire an editor! But I’m a realist, I know that editing is a very different skill to writing and accept that I am too close to my own words to see them honestly. The editor I work with assures me that my writing is very clean and that working on my books is an enjoyable experience, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t benefit greatly from her input. She notices if I overuse a phrase and can suggest alternatives; she spots any inconsistencies and typos that I missed during revisions; and so on. For any fellow writers reading this, I highly recommend Zoe Markham, by the way, she is a genuine pleasure to work with.
Then there are the other costs of running a business, which is what self-publishing is. Writing is more than a hobby to me, I am an author, this is my vocation. So I have a website to maintain, server costs, administration, marketing, and so on. It all adds up.
As I said, I desperately want to share Echoes of the Past with people. I want others to read the series, I want the books to be seen and devoured. That won’t happen if I don’t make the books as good as possible. It starts with my writing, of course, but it requires input from other professionals, whom I have to pay. I scraped the money together for the first two books in the series, but my circumstances have changed and mean that I’m no longer in a position to do that with the third book. So a few months ago I began to look seriously at crowdfunding.
I’ve contributed to several crowdfunding campaigns in recent years and really love the whole idea. So it seemed a natural step for me to run my own. For those new to the idea, there are various platforms, the most famous being Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. People with an idea who need to raise funds can do so on one of these platforms. They offer incentives/perks/rewards for contributors, who then pledge to support the idea. Usually, contributors only pay out if a target is met, though this does vary from one campaign to another.
It seems to me that people are very keen on taking power back right now. People want to share their ideas and can’t or don’t want to rely on old institutions, like publishers or banks, to help finance their ideas. Crowdfunding is a natural accompaniment to self-publishing. We’ve taken back our power from the big publishers, and now we’re freeing ourselves from the tight controls of traditional investors. People power has achieved some amazing things, and I believe that it can do the same for literature.
I chose to run my campaign with Pubslush, a platform dedicated to funding independent authors. Their name comes from the idea of the slush pile, the rejected manuscripts that should have made it to print. Money shouldn’t be a barrier to new authors getting started, a great idea should be shared. One of the great aspects of choosing Pubslush, aside from the expert support that they can provide, is their wonderful non-profit wing. The Pubslush Foundation works tirelessly around the globe funding literacy programs for the most disadvantaged communities. Illiteracy locks people into poverty, increases likelihood of them turning to crime and shortens their lifespan. One in five people in the world are illiterate, two thirds of whom are women.
Equality is something I am passionate about and most of my political and community activity is based on tackling that. So I’m donating 5% of the total I raise through crowdfunding to the Pubslush Foundation. My campaign launches on 1st July, so save the date and come check it out here: http://tidesofspring.pubslush.com/
I mentioned small book shops at the start of this article, well, to round off I wanted to mention two local book shops who both turned to their supporters on the internet to save their businesses. Bradford comic book shop, It’s A Trap, and Saltaire Bookshop were both bolstered by their supporters when in need. The digital age doesn’t have to spell the end of independent retailers, it can and should be a tool to aid them. So do please go out and support them with your custom, as well as supporting hard working independent authors. Thank you.
27/06/2015 | Categories: Book News, Publishing, Technology | Tags: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, book shop, crowdfunding, ebook, Echoes of the Past, ereader, illiteracy, indie author, indiegogo, It's a Trap, kickstarter, Kindle, literacy, Nook, poverty, publishing, pubslush, Saltaire Bookshop, self-publishing | 2 Comments