Wow, I can’t believe it’s already been an entire year since MAMMOTH was published! I’ve done signings and readings. I’ve seen my second bookbaby shelved in bookstores and libraries. I’ve even gotten to hear someone else read my words back to me as an audiobook (which is an absolutely surreal experience).
And while MAMMOTH has been more polarizing than I could’ve expected—let’s face it, there’s no universal way to tell the story of a character learning to love, respect and assert herself in the face of bullying, sexism, and society’s constant message that you’re not good enough unless you’re thin enough—I’ve heard from readers who saw themselves reflected in fiction for the first time, and that means the world to me. That was my ultimate goal when I first drafted this book. I wrote the character and the story I wish I could’ve read when I was in high school.
(Plus, I got to hang out with paleontologists and learn to dig for fossils! My inner child still isn’t over that.)
I’ll never write a post about how to plot. It’s not my strong suit. My attempts at plotting typically involve letting my characters run all over the place and hoping they do something coherent at some point.
But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to write decent dialogue. I love the flow of it, the rhythm, the pauses and the beat. Good dialogue always serves a purpose. It reveals little things about your characters in slick and subtle ways. A passage of skillfully-written dialogue is like a dance between the speakers, measured and justified.
Obviously, everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s a ramble, and it’s all based on my own experiences as a writer and a reader. It’s what I offer when I’m asked for dialogue advice. You might disagree with some or all of it, and that’s cool! It’s subjective. Having said that, here’s what I’ve learned about writing dialogue . . .
To write good dialogue, you need to listen. Listening has always come naturally to me because I’m a super-quiet introvert who would rather let others dominate the conversation, but anyone can learn to listen more effectively.
Eavesdropping is a great way to do this. Yes, I’m suggesting you be nosy. Go somewhere fairly busy, like a coffee shop, where you can hang out for a while. Get a flat white or a frappuccino or an iced tea, park yourself at a table, and listen. Without being obvious about it (pretend to read a book or play with your phone), pay attention to the conversations going on around you. Imagine those people as characters in a story. Notice the cadence of each comment, the tone, the pauses. Feel how the dialogue ebbs and flows. Is it snappy or slow? Are the speakers happy? Impatient? Upset? Indifferent? Distracted? What can you infer from listening to them for a minute or two? How would you translate those inferences into words in a manuscript?
You can practice with movies, too. Before watching a movie you’re not too familiar with, look up some quotations and dialogue online (you might even be able to find the entire script). Read portions to yourself and picture them playing out on the screen. Then watch the movie and see how close you were. Notice how much more information comes across through the actors’ performances. Writers don’t have that advantage, so we need to include enough nuance to let the reader visualize and “hear” the conversation.
After writing a passage of dialogue, I always find it helpful to read it out loud. Some lines sound so different out loud. A line might seem to work fine on the page, but when you hear it, you’ll realize the rhythm is a bit off, or the phrasing sounds unnatural.
When I’m reading a book with especially good dialogue, sometimes I’ll read passages out loud simply because it’s enjoyable to do so. I want readers to enjoy the dialogue I write that much, and I bet you want the same for yours.
Finally, a few things to look out for when writing dialogue:
–Characters using each other’s names too often. Again, listen to real conversations and notice how seldom most people use names unless they’re trying to get someone’s attention or really emphasize a point. This can get tricky when you’re writing scenes involving multiple characters and you need to show who’s addressing whom, but if your characters are constantly saying things like, “Jane, how was your day?” or “I paid that bill last week, Roger,” or “I’m running to the store, Allie, do you need anything?” consider revising to minimize some of that. Use names in dialogue when you (or your characters) have a good reason for doing so.
–Dialogue that’s overly formal and stilted, or that avoids contractions and other spoken shortcuts. I’m not telling you to jump headfirst into writing in dialect (which is SUPER tricky and potentially offensive if it’s not a dialect you share), but you don’t want your characters speaking like robots: “We are going to the store, and later I will stop by the post office.” That might work for some characters (if you’re writing Downton Abbey fanfic, for example, go for it!), but when I see, for example, teenage characters in young adult contemporary speaking like that, it can be really jarring. Compare the above line to something like, “Hey, we’re gonna run to the store. I’ll go by the post office later.” Dialogue doesn’t need to employ perfect grammar; often, it really, really shouldn’t.
–Careless tags and description. The unspoken parts of dialogue-heavy scenes are just as important as what’s actually said. Choose tags (said, asked, exclaimed, yelled, whispered, etc.) with care. The right tags will blend into the dialogue; the wrong ones will stand out (this is not the time to grab the most creative synonym your thesaurus can deliver) or cause an uncomfortable amount of repetition. Personally, I like to avoid tags as much as possible and let the action illustrate who is speaking.
Here’s a snippet from Mammoth that illustrates the above points. It’s a fairly unimportant bit of dialogue that exists mostly to get Mellie and Eli, the paleontology program’s senior interns, out of the dorm for a bit so shenanigans can happen, but it shows how I balance multiple characters, use action to note who’s speaking, and choose tags that blend into the narrative:
That evening, we’re watching a zombie show in the common room when Mellie speaks up. “So guys? Can Eli and I trust y’all to your own devices for a few hours?”
“Depends,” Brendan says. “Why?”
From a chair in the corner, Eli scowls. “I don’t like this.”
Mellie shushes him. “There’s a special showing at the Drafthouse that we really want to see.”
“That you want to see,” Eli mutters.
“Take us with you.” Brendan leans back with a negotiator’s grin.
“It’s an anniversary showing of Dirty Dancing.” Mellie’s tone grows bubbly. “The best romantic classic ever!”
“Never mind,” Brendan says.
“So . . .” Mellie raises her brows at us.
I shrug. “Sure, go.”
“I still think this is a shitty idea,” Eli says.
Mellie jumps up and tugs on his hand, pulling him off the chair. “Come on. Nobody puts Eli in a corner!”
In thirteen lines of dialogue (I count Eli’s grunt as a line, heh), I only used four speech tags, and even that feels like a bit much. And only one of them is more unique than “says.”
But you’ve gotten hints about the characters. From the dialogue and the action that surrounds it, you get a sense that Mellie is playful and bossy, Eli is a grump, and Brendan is a bit of a schemer. Mammoth’s main character, Natalie, only gets one spoken line, but since she’s the narrator, everything here is filtered through her point of view, and what she focuses on lets us infer things about her as well.
The characters don’t always speak in complete sentences. They use contractions like it’s and there’s and y’all (the book takes place in Texas, after all). The only time a character says someone’s name is when Mellie specifies that she’s asking a question on behalf of both herself and Eli.
What are some books that you feel handle dialogue especially well? Let me know in the comments!
Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan: I grew up going to Walt Disney World roughly once a year, and I’m still a total Disney nerd, and at one point I seriously considered moving to Orlando so I could work at WDW. So how could I not be drawn to a YA contemporary about a group of teens who work at an amusement park (especially when the story includes a queer romance angle)? Back in the day I was part of an unsuccessful online push to keep Disney World from shutting down Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and I’m still bitter about the Frozenification of Epcot’s Maelstrom attraction, so I had serious sympathy for Lou and her attempts to save her beloved Magic Castle Funland from closing. And how darling is that cover?
Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno: A lightly magical YA contemporary set on the Gulf Coast of southern Florida? HI I NEED IT IN MY LIFE. I live in South Florida myself, right on the Gulf Coast, and I wish my city could be as bright and colorful and lively as Rosa’s beloved Port Coral. I’ve seen this book described as Gilmore Girls meets Practical Magic, and the best elements of both are definitely present here. I envied Mimi’s Florida room/greenhouse–if only I could figure out how to make gardening and herb cultivation work like she does in this climate. I read part of this book by candlelight during a blackout caused by a roaring thunderstorm, and it was the most Florida thing ever. Absolutely lovely.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim: I took a brief break from YA for this one. Natalie’s a talented chef with an opportunity to reopen her grandmother’s San Francisco Chinatown restaurant and a habit of quitting and running away when things get serious or complicated. The recipes and luscious descriptions of her cooking made me so hungry, and her emotional journey was extremely relatable. The depiction of her late mother’s mental illness is handled with sensitivity, and the touches of magic and fantasy throughout the narrative are utterly charming. This book is a delight that’ll leave you with a craving for perfect dumplings.
Just another roundup of recent favorites! I seem to be developing a habit of reading multiple books at once. Kid Jill the anxious completionist, with her habit of devouring one book at a time before tearing into the next, would be horrified. Or impressed. Or both.
The Wise and the Wicked by Rebecca Podos: Ever have that experience where you’re reading a book and you suddenly realize you didn’t know how much you wanted this story until you were neck-deep in it? This was one of those for me. I jumped in knowing relatively little about it, not having read any in-depth summaries, and I’m glad I did–discovering the secrets of the Chernyavsky family along with Ruby was a delight. The story’s LGBTQ+ elements are handled with gentle, deft sensitivity (I don’t want to say too much because there was one reveal I didn’t see coming, having not read up on the book first, and it was so well done), and I loved the concept of this strong, imperfect matriarchal family in which things are seldom as they seem. I’ve seen some criticism of the end, but its standalone open-endedness worked well for me while still leaving plenty of room for a possible sequel. The author has addressed that possibility on Goodreads.
The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman: First of all, can we yell about how gorgeous this dust jacket is for a second, with its glossy raised letters and its mattified metallic sheen? I swoon. And as a Stranger Things fan, I really enjoyed this story. A group of teens figuring out their powers? A deadly monster trapped in another dimension? Family secrets? Complicated feelings and friendships? Bring on the sequel!
You Asked for Perfect by Laura Silverman: OH HELLO THERE HIGH SCHOOL ANXIETY, I REMEMBER YOU WELL. Senior Ariel Stone throws everything he has into making sure his grades and extracurriculars are enough to get him into Harvard, but when the competition’s this fierce, one bad grade might be enough to ruin everything and something’s going to have to give. This was so relatable–I was the same kind of perfectionist in high school, although compared to what Ariel feels like he needs to accomplish, I suppose the stakes were a little lower back in the mid ’90s. I studied like mad, hyper-focused on grades, and stopped taking some of the classes I most enjoyed because earning an A in them lowered my weighted GPA. (How freaking SAD is it that weighted GPAs work like that??) I just want to hug Ariel and gently suggest to his parents that he might benefit from therapy, because his narrative felt like an anxiety disorder to me.
Embarrassing confession time: Until quite recently, I did not have a current library card. That’s fixed now, but the idea of a professional writer without a valid library card is kind of unbelievable. I mean, most writers do a ton of reading. We need to keep up with what’s going on in our genres and know about buzzworthy recent releases. Plus, books are AWESOME and I want to read as many of them as possible. I’d love to buy every book I read (I really hate not getting to keep a book if I truly enjoy it), but shelf space and financial limitations make that impossible. A library card is a necessity.
Yet my last card expired in the early 2000s, and I’d stopped using it even earlier. Why? Let me tell you a story about how an anxiety disorder can turn a minor inconvenience into a huge deal. Thanks, anxiety.
I’m usually too much of a perfectionist to let a book go overdue, but during my last year of college I had to write a pretty major paper. The professor required us to turn in a list of our sources weeks before the paper was due, so I had to check the books out and then keep them as long as it took me to write the paper. I guarantee I finished it early, but even so, my sources were overdue. Most were from the campus library, but at least one was from my public library system.
As soon as possible, I went to my local branch to pay the fine. I’d always adored the public library; I practically grew up between its shelves. The fine was something like $7, and I had cash in hand.
The volunteer at the front desk blinked at me. “You can’t pay that here.”
“Okay, so where do I pay it?” I thought maybe I had to go to a different part of the large front desk, or maybe even a different branch.
“I don’t know, but not here. I can’t do that here.”
I shoved down the anxiety rising like bile in my throat. “What?”
“You can’t pay the fine here,” she snapped.
I asked how I could pay. The volunteer got upset. She fussed. She didn’t know. I’m not sure if she was new, or if the library had just switched over to a new system, but I couldn’t pay my fine. And with an outstanding fine, I couldn’t use my card.
This was, obviously, a problem.
I went back at some point and tried again. Got the same answer. The whole “You owe us but you can’t pay us” thing hit my anxiety pretty hard. I was mortified. I wanted to pay! I wanted to make it right and start using my card again.
I could have pursued the issue. I probably should have. (And here’s where my therapist would call me out for using the word should.) But the volunteer’s attitude combined with my own embarrassment for having a late fee in the first place made me freeze.
So I took what felt like the easy way out. I mostly stopped using the library.
I still took my laptop there to draft or revise sometimes, but I never checked out another thing. I couldn’t, and my anxiety disorder held me back from fixing what seemed like a simple problem.
My useless card expired. I meant to get another, but I’d remember the volunteer’s tone, the way she snapped at me when I was trying to do the right thing, and I’d just put it off. Again and again.
That volunteer was probably just frazzled about an upgraded system. Or whatever. I’ll never know. The situation was weird and embarrassing and I gave up.
BUT. Last month I finally got a new card. I went to a different branch (because I still get a little jittery about my local one, even though that volunteer is likely long gone!) and now I can check out books again. It sounds like such an inconsequential thing, but anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses are rarely rational creatures. They take minor annoyances and reshape them as impossible riddles; they inflate problems while stealing solutions.
This wasn’t about getting a library card; it was about confronting an anxiety trigger that had been whispering in the back of my head for the better part of two decades. Now that whisper is gone.
I feel really old when I think about my history with rejection. When I first got serious about sending queries and submitting work to agents and publications, almost no one in the business used email as a default, and rejections took the form of slips of paper or little cards or photocopied form letters. Sometimes they showed up with bonus grease stains or a brown ring from a jostled coffee mug. One of my writing professors told me that he used to pin his rejection letters to his office wall. Seeing them all the time kept him going, purely out of spite. After I heard that, I held onto most of my rejections as well:
That’s only a sampling. There were a lot. Those slips and scraps represent my efforts to publish several books and a number of short stories. There are probably some poetry rejections in there, too. And those are just the hard-copy rejections; I’ve got tons of email rejections saved, too. I should probably just burn/delete the whole mess, right? Why hold onto hundreds of disappointments?
But I’m proud of that pile. Those notes are proof that I tried, that I’ve been working at this since I was in college. I swept all those NOs up in a folder, tucked them away and kept fighting, even when I was almost too intimidated and disappointed to manage, even when my anxiety disorder tried its best to swamp me into stopping.
Rejection is part of the industry, but understanding that on a rational level doesn’t really do much to lessen the sting. It hurts whether it’s your first rejection or your five hundredth. If you’re thinking about submitting your work somewhere–or if you’re already deep in the query trenches–here are a few thoughts that might help you deal with the lows, at least a little:
–Accept that rejection sucks. IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe you’ve spent months or years drafting a story. You poured your heart into it. Sharing a manuscript like that in a professional context leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and sometimes all your effort gets shoved aside with a form letter. (Or with no response at all, which I think is worse. Silence is the chilliest form of rejection.) That’s frustrating as hell! Let yourself be mad or upset for a little bit–just don’t wallow. Don’t let it weigh you down. Letting it out is healthier than holding it in and/or trying to convince yourself you’re not feeling it.
–Vent in private. Whatever you do, DO NOT reply to rejections. Even if you’re frustrated. Even if the rejection felt rude. Don’t do it. Instead, find a friend or two who are willing to listen. In person, online, over the phone–whatever works. You might want to talk to someone who’s at a similar stage of the process (in that case, remember to return the favor when it’s their turn to vent). Most of the friends who listened to me complain weren’t querying themselves and didn’t always understand the process, but that worked fine for me. I just needed someone to listen while I went “BLAH!” for a minute or two. So go “BLAH!” and then breathe and let it go.
–Reframe rejections as practice. The critical feedback in this business never ends. If you don’t get used to it, you’ll be miserable. Working through your early rejections will make the edit letters and the unfairly cruddy reviews that much easier to process later on. The rejections typically continue, too, even for a lot of successful writers. They’re not going away, but you can learn to get used to them.
–Remember that if someone doesn’t feel strongly enough about your work to represent or publish it, they’re not the ones you want representing or publishing your work. It’s not personal. It’s just not a good professional fit for either of you. You want to work with people who are going to champion your projects, fight for your best interests, and help shape your career.
–Work on something else. THIS. This is the biggie. Always have another project going. It’s a welcome distraction and a reminder that the story you’re shopping around right now isn’t the end of the road. If this one doesn’t find a home right away, maybe the next one will–but that can only happen if you actually write the next one.
I’ve long since shelved most of the projects that collected all those rejections in the photo, but I didn’t let that pile of NOs stop me. If I had, I wouldn’t have written or sold Spookygirl or Mammoth, and I wouldn’t have several more WIPs on the way. I kept going. So can you. Kate McKinnon would totally back me up on that:
(And hey, if you’re curious about how to avoid the mistakes I made in those early querying days, check out my post on how not to query.)
I recently blogged about ways to deal while playing the publishing industry’s waiting game, and one of my suggestions was, of course, reading. I mean, let’s reframe the situation. Are you waiting for news, holding your breath, caught up in some level of publication limbo? Nah, you’re enjoying the rare opportunity to tackle some of that TBR pile before it grows to unstable heights, tumbles down and crushes you under the weight of a thousand unread treasures.
I’ve spent a lot of 2019 revising my second current WIP, but I’ve also been waiting on certain things. I’m still waiting on some of them. In the meantime, here’s some of what I’ve been reading:
Sadie by Courtney Summers: The story of a teen girl out for revenge spliced with clips of the podcast investigating her disappearance. This was one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. It was gripping. Shattering. And I loved the format–the narrative jumps between Sadie and the podcast kept the plot thrumming and the mystery intense. This story left me frustrated in the best of ways.
Sea Witch by Sarah Henning: An imaginative retelling of The Little Mermaid. I picked this one up based on a recommendation from Destiny Murtaugh, and I’m so glad I did. I was a pretty intense fan of Disney’s take on TLM for a long time, and I really enjoyed the nods Henning made both to Hans Christian Andersen’s original (including all the Scandinavian details), and to the Disney version. Plus, there’s a sequel coming out in August 2019, and now I . . . kind of need it?
On Writing by Stephen King: Half memoir, half writing class. The last time I read this book was in 2000, when it first came out, and I decided to give it a reread before rewriting WIP #2 (a feminist YA horror story). Some of King’s examples of top-notch writing haven’t exactly aged well (lots of old white male authors, huh), but a lot of his advice is still really solid, especially for those of us who don’t plot and outline and plan every detail before we start writing. I’ve been reading King since I was eleven, and his work had a huge impact on the evolution of my narrative voice, so I’ve got a soft spot for Uncle Stevie. (And no, he’s not telling you you can’t use adverbs! He just wants you to be aware of them and avoid using them if they’re not necessary. And a lot of them aren’t. There’s often a better, stronger, more direct way to say what you’re trying to say.)
(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen: An anthology of essays and other pieces about mental health, mental illness, and the discussions we need to be having, both with others and with ourselves. I’m not quiet about the fact that I have an anxiety disorder. I think it’s integral to be open about these things when we can, to counter and subvert the stigmas related to mental health, so I truly appreciate projects like this. The amount of raw truth Jensen collected and curated here is staggering. Gemma Correll’s comics are delightfully relatable, and I was especially drawn in by “Black Hole” by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab about the onset and evolution of her anxiety and the safe harbor she’s found in writing.
The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw: The curse of three long-dead sisters causes annual terror and heartache in a small Oregon town. I’ve been on a creepy-YA kick, and this one definitely fulfilled my expectations in that regard. It was also far more wistful than I expected, in a really lovely way, and it had such a satisfying, bittersweet conclusion. Ernshaw’s descriptive style is both vivid and atmospheric, pulling the town of Sparrow and Penny’s nearby island into existence with skill and care.
“SCRIPTED UNSCRIPTED is a charming YA contemporary about family ties, compromise, and finding what it takes to be authentic while surrounded by carefully-crafted fantasy. Animal lovers will embrace Ellie’s clever canine references and the story’s stance on pet rescue, and the Hollywood settings will delight teens with dreams of making it big.” -Jill Baguchinsky, author of MAMMOTH
How about you? Read anything good lately? Feel free to toss recent or upcoming creepy YA recs my way–I’ve still got several in the TBR pile but I’m always looking for more!