Should I Quit My Novel and Start a New Project?

You just found out a major plot point doesn’t make sense. Maybe the second act has stalled. And your antagonist somehow needs to leave Tahiti for The Gobi Desert.

Do you try to make it work or is it time to move on to another project?

Starting a novel is like getting married.Untitled design-5

That guy or gal is all rainbows and bacon at first. But somewhere along the line life goes askew. He leaves his toenail clippings on the coffee table, she nags about fixing the dishwasher, his mother comments on the cleanliness of the house, her father gets drunk every Christmas and defecates on your manicured lawn.

Suddenly Gertrude in accounting and Hans the Zumba instructor are the new rainbows and bacon.


Because you don’t know the problems yet. Gertrude will sell your dog while you are out with your friends and Hans will wear Speedos at your daughter’s pool party.

Just like a relationship, that new story idea seems so much better than your current novel.

That new story doesn’t have any difficulties. Yet.

The plot holes haven’t emerged. But they will.

The characters and the plot work in harmony. But not for long.

I encourage you to work through your current novel’s problems. Finish it before starting a new one.

And don’t cheat on your spouse.

One Essential Practice for Writing Good Dialogue

One SkillLet’s play a game.

Read the following real conversation and guess where it took place.

Female: Ow, that hurt. You hit me in the muscle.

Male: Well, you always pinch me.

Female: I haven’t touched you today.

Male: Yes, you did. You pinched me this morning.

Female: You lie!

Did this happen on a playground? Or maybe in an elementary school?

You’d be wrong. I heard this conversation in the workplace.

No, it wasn’t “Take Your Brat to Work” Day. Yes, these were my coworkers. Yes, I know this would cause anyone who works in HR to poop bricks.

Real life dialogue isn’t boring. Your fake dialogue shouldn’t be either.

But how do you know when your dialogue has gone from wildly interesting to totally unrealistic?

You need to listen to people’s conversations. Write down what you hear.

I own two books about writing dialogue. Both are great. Both have bad reviews on Amazon. My suspicion is many of those bad reviews are the result of the readers not being willing to do the exercises suggested. The reviewers probably wanted simple plug and play advice, but learning to write good dialogue requires work.

And guess what? Both books suggest listening to people and then writing down snippets of the conversations.

It’s essential. And it gives you an excuse to eavesdrop.

One Simple Trick to Make Modern Dialogue Sound More Realistic

When practicing English, my ESL students will ask questions like this:

“You like monkeys?”

By inflection, I understand the student is asking a question and I hesitate to correct them. The hesitation comes because this is the way modern speakers ask questions. ESL students struggle to understand the importance of the word “do”. It sounds like a load of “do-do” to them.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with this lame joke, but the word droppings extend to other words like helping verbs and subjects.

Look at the following:

“I am going to the store. Do you want to come with me?”

 “Going to the store. Want to come?”

 The second one drops a ton of words. And it sounds realistic.

At least it does for modern dialogue.

Word dropping doesn’t work if you’re writing a Victorian era drama or an epic fantasy.

Also, you may want to vary the amount of word dropping you do from character to character. Some people simply have more formal speech patterns.

And, to answer the first question in this post, yes, I do like monkeys.

How to Avoid Writing Melodramatic Dialogue

In last week’s post, we worked through a piece of dialogue between Jack and Jill.

We moved that bit of dialogue from unrealistic and tensionless to realistic and tensionless to realistic and tension-filled. Today, let’s mess it up and make that combo UNrealistic and tension-filled (As much as that is possible).

Here’s where we left the dialogue last week:

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

 Jill: I didn’t move it.

Now let’s mess it up:

Jack: You’re always moving stuff around. I’m tired of your busy-body ways and I feel suffocated by it. Where did you put that stupid pail of water?

 Jill: You’re an oaf and don’t appreciate me. I didn’t move the pail of water.

Ridiculous, yes?

Melodramatic dialogue spells out the reason for tension in the scene.

Real people don’t spell out their issues and often don’t even know all the underlying reasons for their conflict.

Ever had a problem with someone and didn’t know why? I know I have.

Sometimes it takes serious soul searching to even figure out why you don’t get along with someone. I’ve discovered I had issues with someone because he or she reminds me of someone in my past who hurt me.

People are complex creatures. Allow your characters to be just as complex.

Let your reader deduce all the underlying issues between characters. Your fiction will be better for it.

The Number One Rule for Writing Good Dialogue

I teach English as a Second Language one evening a week. Communicating with someone of limited language skills proves difficult. Cultural differences make it even harder.

When the students ask questions, I ask myself “What is this person getting at?”

But the ugly truth is we all ask ourselves that same question subconsciously when talking to friends, spouses, and coworkers.

Rather than answering people directly, we try to figure out what the other person is really trying to say.

That brings us to the number one rule for writing good dialogue:

Avoid clear and direct communication between your characters.

This piece of advice will guide you through almost all fiction regardless of genre or time period.

It also makes your dialogue both 1) realistic and 2) tension-filled.

Let’s work through an example of bad dialogue to understand this better.

Jack: Where’s the pail of water?

 Jill: It’s in the barn.

 Ok, this may sound like a realistic conversation on the surface, but if it went on with Jack asking questions and Jill answering them directly, it would sound stilted and fake.

But how do we make this better? Let’s start by changing Jack’s part.

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

 Jill: It’s in the barn.

Here, Jill understands Jack’s statement as an implied question and answers it. This is a little better. Jill subconsciously asked herself “What is Jack getting at?” and her answer was “Jack is asking me where the pail of water is”. The conversation is more realistic now, but it still isn’t quite tension-filled yet.

Let’s take our rule of avoiding direct and clear conversation and add an extra layer to Jill’s response.

Jack: I can’t find the pail of water.

Jill: I didn’t move it.

Jill asks herself “What is Jack getting at?” and understands the implied question and then also assumes an accusation: “What did you do with the pail of water?”

We don’t know what has gone on with Jack and Jill before this piece of dialogue, but we are intrigued. Clearly, they have issues we are unaware of.

This dialogue is both realistic and interesting.

You’ve likely even been part of or at least witnessed a conversation that went down much like the one above.

Communication between people is difficult even if you both speak the same language and are both from the same cultural background.

Show this difficulty through your characters.

And please be patient with people in your real life this week as you seek to communicate with them better.


What I Learned from Watching Two Homeless Men Fight

Fast FoodI wasn’t expecting a side order of excitement with my burger, but that’s what happened.

It was lunchtime at Jack-in-the Box and the place was full. A homeless man sat at a booth with his head on the table, likely asleep. Another homeless man walked the floor, holding a collection of ratty papers. He had gray hair and talked to himself.

Gray Hair then walked over to Sleeper and watched him sleep. I thought it odd, but I ignored them, sucking on my Dr. Pepper. Then I heard some loud noises and Sleeper yelled “My stuff! That’s my stuff!”

Gray hair was smacking Sleeper with an umbrella.

All eyes turned to the fight. No one ate.  The restaurant crew emerged from around the counter to see the ruckus.

A construction worker put down his burger and walked quickly and calmly over to the booth and grabbed hold of the umbrella.

“Sir, you need to step outside,” he said to Gray hair. He then pointed at the manager. “Ma’am, call the police.”

Gray hair stepped outside with the umbrella and Construction guy went back to his table to finish his burger.

Sleeper then said “But that was my umbrella.”

The kindly little manager replied, “I’ll get you another one.”

Everybody went back to eating lunch, but conversations turned to the event they just witnessed.

For me, the most extraordinary part of the story wasn’t the altercation itself, but Construction guy’s response.

Everyone else froze, wide-eyed and dumbfounded. Not him.  Totally unfazed, he was. The fight ended almost before it started because this dude acted instantly, maintaining his cool.

Best selling author Steven James says this about characterization: “Stillness, confidence, courage, and moral groundedness all raise status.”

All characters play out their “status” on the page.  James cites protagonists who smoke as a typical example of displaying status. The smoking gives the protagonist the opportunity to calmly drag on his cancer stick before answering questions. This raises status, shows he’s in control.

In real life, people also play out their status, one person being dominant or at least trying to be dominant.

In my story above, the construction worker had the highest status. He was in control. The people with “high status” are usually more relaxed, less fidgety than those of “lower status”.

I’d like to be like that.

 I want to be a person who thinks before reacting to criticism. I want to maintain my cool when people are in my face. I don’t want to be easily angered.

Often I’m too easily frustrated. I raise my voice and get worked up, but this only lowers my status.

It exposes my insecurity.

 Sometimes I get what I want when I throw a tantrum, but the person who calmly grants my demands provokes a feeling of shame in me. Even though I “win” the argument, I become the smaller person.

I should strive to be like the construction worker.

Who in your life can you look up to that has “high status”?

Balancing What You HAVE To Do with What You WANT To Do (or Why I’m Taking the Nanowrimo Plunge)

Untitled design-4“Sometimes I think all you care about is writing,” said the neglected family member.

While family and friends have been mostly supportive of my writing pursuits, they fail to realize the obsessiveness necessary to write a novel.

The non-writer may understand the difficulty of sporadic novel reading, trying to pick up in the middle of a book after a hiatus.

Who was that guy? And why does he want to blow up the cheese factory? And what about the unicorn? How does she fit into the conspiracy to murder Freddie Mercury’s ghost? They then have to reread portions of the book to jog their memory.

The non-writer does NOT understand how much more difficult it is to write a novel in a sporadic manner.

Not only do you have to “hold” all the characters and plot in your head, but also the voice, mood, style, etc. Once the momentum is lost, it may take a full reread of the manuscript before you ever write another word.

How do you then balance your obligations with your passions?

Or more simply, how do you balance what you have to do with what you want to do?

I’m all for following your dreams, but anyone who says you should do so without regard to the people in your life is dead wrong. What would we say about the father who abandons his family to become a hamster juggler with the circus?

While this rodent tossing example may be extreme, where do we draw the line when it comes to spending time with the real people in your life versus the imaginary people in your head?

The answer: Negotiate a schedule with your friends and family.

Explain what you are trying to accomplish and discuss the time you need to get it done.

This is exactly why I’ve signed up for National Novel Writing Month of November (Nanowrimo). If you’re not familiar with Nanowrimo, the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. You can sign up at their website and have access to all their recourses and get encouragement from people pursuing the same goal.

What Nanowrimo has allowed me to do is tell the people in my life that for one month I am going to be live, eat, and breathe writing.

Just one month.

One month where I need to be left alone. One month of being locked in my office. One month where my facial hair may grow long and I might smell worse than usual.

After the month is over, life can go back to a more reasonable schedule.

The question is what will work for you. Maybe it’s Nanowrimo. Maybe it’s an hour blocked out every single day for writing. Maybe it’s a weekend.

Where is “the line” for you and your friends and family?

Common Mistakes in Crafting a Novel’s First Line

I just overheard a conversation that went like this….

Untitled design-3Guy #1- “I believe Andrew has a fatal flaw.”

Guy #2- “Oh, yeah. What would make you believe he has one of those?”

Guy#1- “Well….I feel a little awkward now. I don’t really like talking about people.”

Guy #2- “I don’t really want you to talk about people either. I just wonder what would make you say he has a fatal flaw.”

“Guy #1” knew how to come up with a compelling opening line. He had “Guy #2” interested. Heck, he had me interested and I don’t even know Andrew.

The first line of your fiction should be just as compelling. The reader should want to continue reading, but be ye forewarned: There are a couple rookie mistakes when creating a first line.

Mistake One- Not creating a compelling first line at all.

This may seem obvious, but much of our writing journey involves reading famous authors and learning from them. The problem is established authors get away with almost anything, including not having a good opening line. So before you push back with “such and such book doesn’t have a compelling opening line”, remember you’re likely reading a trusted author.

If you’re Brad Pitt and you want to pick up women, all you have to say at the bar is “Hey, I’m Brad Pitt” and you’d have women falling all over each other to get to you. Brad Pitt doesn’t have to have an opening line; He just has to be Brad Pitt.

Likewise, James Patterson and Janet Evanovich don’t need a gripping start to their novels. Their readers know they’ll deliver the goods. Unknown writers don’t have that luxury.

Mistake Two- Going Overboard with your First Line.

New writers will often start on a high note, then deescalate their prose with the second line. Imagine if “Guy #1” led with the juicy gossip about poor, unsuspecting Andrew rather than enticing us with the “fatal flaw” business.   He’d have nowhere to go. He’d tell the punch line and we wouldn’t care about anything that happened thereafter.

The goal of your first line is to entice us to read the second line. The goal of the second line is to entice us to read the third and so on till we are invested in the story.

The word for the day is entice.

You don’t have to start with an exploding building or a car chase to do so. Start with something that creates interest. Start with something that raises questions in the reader’s mind. Start building tension.


The Q4 Writing Pep Talk

Untitled designThe panicky Paul Revere of your mind is already calling out, “The holidays are coming, the holidays are coming!”

The house needs to be ready for judgmental Aunt Gertrude and her gassy new husband. Your company needs to sell 100 thousand more cheese wheels before January. Christmas presents need to be bought, but first the kids are whining about Halloween. You’re wondering where you’re ever going get a “Zombie Smurf” costume for little Billy.

Writing your novel has moved to the back burner or even the deep freeze of your priority kitchen.

It’s the final quarter of the year or “Q4” to you business types.

The “to do” list grows exponentially during this time and it’s easy to put off your dreams.


There’s a Biblical proverb that goes “Those who watch the wind won’t plant; those who look at the clouds won’t reap.”

 What does that mean?

For all you non-rural folk who live in the 21st century, it means if you wait for the perfect conditions, you won’t do anything of worth in life. It means your romanticized version of writing won’t happen, so you need to get started.

Stop waiting for the Zen writing conditions.

Carve out time for writing. Aunt Gertrude can squawk all she wants about the dust bunnies under your couch.

Put the kids to bed. Worrying about their costumes won’t get it done any sooner.

Clear out the spot in the pantry; you know the one, next to the silverfish-infested bag of rice. Set up that wobbly card table. Place that outdated HP computer on top. Close the door.

Like most things in life, it ain’t perfect, but you can make it work.

Start writing.

3 Lessons about Story Tension Ripped from my Labor Day Weekend

all stories are tension-driven.I thought we were prepared.

Boxes sat filled in the living room. Conscripted labor, also known as our friends, came over to help us move. One friend brought a van for us to use. I went out to park our truck in front of our place.

“It’s all going according to the plan”, I thought. Then I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing.

What a day for my battery to die!

 One vehicle down, an evening spent retrieving a new battery, one less day to move into our new apartment.

Tension comes from characters not getting what they desire.

 I desire to move to a new apartment. Obstacles are placed in my way to prevent it. Understand? Great, let’s move on.

Lesson One- The thriller isn’t the only genre that can use the ticking clock to raise tension.

 All good thrillers have some aspect of a ticking clock – if the hero isn’t successful at a certain point in time the kidnapped child gets killed, the bad guys get away, the bomb goes off etc. This clock naturally escalates tension, which is your goal throughout the story. A good writer will keep the reader aware that time is running out.

My moving woes have a ticking clock and it’s not a thriller, but simply a “slice of life” tale.

In the same way, a romance can have a ticking clock. Stable hand Juanita loves Humberto, but he is marrying another woman on Sunday unless Juanita can show him the love he’s been looking for has been shoveling horse dung in his stables the whole time. The closer it gets to Sunday, the higher the tension. (Warning: Be careful not to be repetitive. The closer to the wedding you begin the story, the better.)

Back to the story.

It was Saturday evening and most of our boxes had been moved into our new living room.

My wife threw some towels into the washing machine before we left to get another load of boxes from our old apartment. When we returned, the laminate flooring looked oddly shiny.

When we turned on the lights, we saw our “new” apartment was flooded.

Water soaked the bottom of our boxes. I called the office. At that hour, all I got was the answering service. They called maintenance. We waited two hour.

In those two hour, I called two more times. I paced the floor. I questioned the decision to move. Was the maintenance man even going to show up on a holiday weekend? Had I doomed us to living in a hovel for the next year? Would we have to evacuate in order to fix this mess? How could I make such a terrible decision?

Lesson Two – Tension is best when it involves more than an external struggle.

The doubt and worry I experienced is more compelling than the setback of a flooded apartment. The external struggle needed to be wed to the internal struggle to get maximum impact.

Our little adventure would be EVEN MORE compelling if a third struggle was also introduced- an interpersonal struggle. For instance, if my wife became angry with me during this frustrating time, this would ratchet up the tension (Luckily, she didn’t. She was calmer than me during the situation, probably as a result of sheer exhaustion).

We heard a knock on the door.

 The maintenance man showed up in flip-flops. He checked the washing machine and it turned out the clamp on a hose was bad. After replacing it, he helped us clean up the water still on the floor. Foretunatly, most of the boxes that got wet were kitchen items and not electronics.

Lesson Three – Always try to ratchet up the tension.

 Having lived this story, I believe it had tension enough. But if I were writing it, would I have ended it with a dude in flip-flops changing a hose?

If this were the middle of the story, entreating the maintenance man or being at the mercy of a disgruntled answering service employee makes good drama.

But at the end of the story? I’m not so sure.

Maybe the protagonist should have been the main catalyst for resolving the tension. What if flip-flop guy never came? What if I had to roam the apartment complex to find him or go to his house where he was drunk and persuaded him to take care of the washing machine?

When considering your story possibilities, tension should be king.

Steven James says “…there’s no such thing as a plot-driven or character-driven story…All stories are tension-driven.”

In other words, plots and characters are propelled forward by the tension they create. Without tension, even the most action-filled scenes will become boring and the most unique characters will eventually cause the reader to yawn.

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightlyBonus Lesson – Don’t get upset over the inconveniences of life.

 This one is both life lesson and writing lesson. While you might consider a flooded apartment more than an “inconvenience” (I admit I didn’t handle it well), I certainly can imagine worse situations.

I spend way too much time raging against the little setbacks of life.

GK Chesterton had this to say about inconveniences:

“Did you ever hear a small boy complain about having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No, for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetic pleasure. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains…

 “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

 For the writer, I think his words are particularly poignant. Are we missing the adventure in life’s inconviences? Could we, as writers, instead be using the inconvenieces of life to spark our imaginations?