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!
When I was planning Mammoth’s pre-order campaign, I read several blog posts from other writers (like Eric Smith and Rachel Lynn Solomon) discussing campaigns they’ve run. Those posts were incredibly helpful, and since I learned a lot while organizing my campaign, I decided to do a write-up of my own. Maybe it’ll help someone else.
This won’t be short. Grab a snack. Dig in. (HAHAA YES I AM STILL MAKING PALEONTOLOGY REFERENCES I WILL NEVER STOP)
First of all, is it pre-order or preorder? I prefer pre-order.
A pre-order campaign is a way to reward people who order your book before its release date. Pre-orders are important. I’m no publishing expert, but from what I understand, a boost in early sales numbers looks good to your publisher and can influence other sales. If early demand for your book is high, more bookstores and sellers are likely to stock it. You want people to pre-order your book, and with so many amazing books coming out these days, it’s not getting any easier to get buyers to commit to yours, especially when it won’t launch for a month or more. I appreciated every pre-order Mammoth got, and I wanted to show that appreciation.
Pre-order campaigns are as complicated as you make them, but they’re always more complicated than you’d expect. Decide how much time you can realistically put into your campaign, and have a budget in mind. Whatever you think it’ll cost, increase that by at least 50%. It will cost more than you expect, and it’s better to have a surplus than to run out of money.
If the campaign is your idea, go for it. If it’s something your publisher is pushing for, ask them to cover at least some of the costs. Heck, ask either way, just in case. You never know.
Your budget isn’t just for the swag itself. It’s also for any related packaging costs, as well as postage. SO MUCH POSTAGE. Keep postage in mind when figuring out what kind of swag you want to include–flat items like stickers and bookmarks are so much easier and cheaper than bulkier items to ship. Research the rates, especially if you want your campaign to be international.
And if you don’t have a lot of experience with packing and shipping, keep things EVEN MORE simple. I ran an Etsy store for nine years and shipped something like five thousand little stuffed monsters all over the world, and that experience came in really handy. So did a lot of leftover supplies I’ve held onto. I would’ve floundered otherwise.
For Mammoth’s campaign, I set up a separate email account for people to submit their pre-order proof (usually a screen grab of their order confirmation). Keeping the requests in an account of their own, rather than having them get lost in the vast caverns of my main Gmail accounts, was really helpful. Some campaigns have web forms instead of email, so that’s another option.
I designed my own bookmarks, stickers, bookplates and postcards, basing most of them around the fossil-heart design from the cover. The additional sketches are my own. I’m not a professional graphic designer, but I have a lot of experience designing promo items, and I think I did okay. If you’re not comfortable doing that yourself, and it’s not something your publisher is doing for you, don’t forget to figure the cost of hiring a designer into your budget.
(Yes, one of my stickers features my cat, Gatsby. It’s a long story. He’s an honorary smilodon.)
I got most of those items printed through GotPrint.com. The quality was great and the turnaround time was very reasonable.
I also created paleontology-themed keychains, which I assembled by hand. I used to help my dad with his hobby of importing jewelry and related components, so I knew how to source the charms, and I put together a hundred keychains while watching a movie. The cost was well under a dollar per keychain, not including my time.
I also wanted to do a run of enamel pins, but that was out of my budget, so I used my button press (a professional model by Tecre–it’s an absolute beast and I love it so much) to make sets of one-inch pins. I had the press and a ton of supplies left over from my Etsy days, so the cost per button was extremely low. They took a considerable amount of time to assemble, but I kind of love doing mindless work while watching Netflix.
Since not all of my items were flat, I didn’t want to risk shipping them in normal envelopes. My go-to choice in my Etsy days was padded envelopes, but those don’t offer protection for flat items like bookmarks. For the campaign, I bought rigid mailers in bulk. (I’m not linking my source because their politics are absolute garbage and I’m searching for an alternative.) The mailers protected the flat items while having just enough room for keychains and buttons.
I packed the mailers assembly-line style. First I packaged the buttons and keychains in their little baggies. Then I wrote my thank-yous on the postcards. Then I counted out how many of each item I needed, and I sorted the items into individual piles. Each pile went into an envelope. Then I went down my pre-order list and plugged each address into Endicia, and printed the postage.
I used USPS to mail everything. Because the mailers were rigid and not uniformly flat, I paid package shipping rates. (I miiiiight have been able to get away with paying for a cheaper option, but I didn’t want anyone receiving a postage-due envelope because some postal employee somewhere got overzealous.) Again, my Etsy background came in handy–I still have the Endicia account and the Dymo label printer I used back then, and the resulting discount saved me about a dollar per envelope (and I printed my postage from home, so I didn’t need to stand in line at the post office).
I also set limits. International shipping costs have gotten increasingly bogus*, so I only offered flat swag that could go in a normal envelope to anyone who pre-ordered from outside the US. I felt kind of rotten about this, but I tried to keep it as fair as possible without maxing out my credit card in the process. I also limited the keychains and buttons to the first 75 US pre-orders. In the end, I didn’t hit that limit, but I’m glad I had it in place. There are so many unknowns to consider in terms of potential results. I know of campaigns that have gotten less than 50 requests, and campaigns that have gotten more than 500. That’s a big difference in terms of cost and time.
Also, consider the environmental aspect of all this. Envelopes, any additional packaging materials, the swag itself . . . It adds up. Consider using recycled and recyclable supplies. You can avoid this aspect by offering digital bonus items (I gave people who pre-ordered Mammoth early access to a companion short story and a “fashion field guide” from Natalie’s blog).
There’s also the aspect of fairness. Not everyone can afford to pre-order books, so if you can have an option for those who request the book at their local library (which is also really helpful!), it’s a cool thing to do. Digital bonus items are great for this, as is flat swag if you can afford the postage.
So was it worth it? I mean . . . probably not? Getting the word out without constantly spamming my social media was so hard. But I heard from several people who weren’t aware of Mammoth before they found the campaign, and who then pre-ordered because of the campaign, so there’s that. Plus, I had so much fun putting it together. Like I said earlier, I can happily spend an afternoon bingeing Netflix while doing mindless work. It made me miss my Etsy days. Plus, now I hand out the leftover swag at local events, so it still helps me promote Mammoth.
(I even considered starting a side hustle doing pre-order campaign packages for other writers, but I’m not sure I could get the cost down enough to make it worth it while still covering my time. But maybe. It could be an interesting project for 2019. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy all this?)
The one element I think wasn’t worth it was the sweepstakes. I offered two prize packs within the US and one for international pre-orders (again, because of shipping). I don’t think they got much attention or encouraged anyone to order, and they were costly to ship. Plus, there are so many rules and legalities to consider. On the other hand, the winners have been SO HAPPY, and I’m a people pleaser, so that element worked well for me.
Would I do another campaign? Probably. I’d skip the sweepstakes aspect, and unless I came up with an irresistible idea, I’d consider sticking with flat swag to make mailing cheaper and easier. For example, I’d love to hire an artist to create character portraits for trading cards or small art prints. I also really like the idea of digital bonus content, especially from an environmental aspect, but I don’t know if that’s tempting enough to generate any pre-orders.
One last thing: Sadly, there are ways to fake order confirmations, and some people will go through a lot of fuss to get something for free, even if they have no interest in actually ordering your book. If you run a campaign, keep an eye out for anything that looks fishy.
I think that’s about it! Sorry for the length, but I really did learn so much, and there’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking of running a campaign yourself. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!
*No, seriously. When I started selling on Etsy in 2006, it cost about $3.00 to ship a three-ounce padded envelope to, say, the UK. Now it’s about $13.00. I CRY. It cost me more to ship a button set, keychain and bandana to the UK than to ship a four-pound box via USPS Priority Mail halfway across the country. I knew that was the case, but if a writer organized an international campaign without being aware . . . What a punch to the gut. As of 2018, an envelope of flat swag weighing less than one ounce only costs $1.15 to ship internationally–that’s a lot more reasonable and easy to budget for.
Can we talk covers for a moment? I’m still not over the darling cover art Turner Publishing came up with for Mammoth:
I have ALL THE APPRECIATION AND GRATITUDE for creative director Madeline Cothren and artist Jo Walker because this design still makes me fall in love every time I see it. Mammoth is about hard, unyielding things — fossils, the reception women receive in male-dominated fields, the kind of raw ambition that can result in reckless decisions — but it’s also a soft, sweet, optimistic story about discovery and vulnerability and love. Somehow, this cover captures both sides of the narrative.
I mean, come on — a heart made out of half-buried mammoth bones? It couldn’t be more perfect. I SWOON.
However, Mammoth almost looked completely different.
Several years ago, when I was unagented, I considered self-publishing Mammoth. I held off because I couldn’t come up with a cover concept I liked, so I never got as far as commissioning an artist/designer to create anything for me. I knew I didn’t want a photograph of a model meant to look like Natalie (the book’s main character, plus-size fashion blogger, and resident paleontology geek). I liked the idea of representing Natalie without actually depicting her, so in early 2016 I played around with this mock-up in Photoshop:
Totally different! A pair of dig site tools and some random bits of dirt scatter over a skull image from one of Natalie’s sketchbooks. (She usually sketches fashion ideas, but I can totally imagine her drawing a fossil here and there.) The title’s scribbled with Natalie’s signature lipstick. There are retro-inspired polka-dots and a black/white/red color scheme Aunt Judy would adore. There’s a bit of a skull-and-crossbones theme representing how Natalie occasionally goes rogue when a paleo discovery’s at stake. But overall . . . It’s harsh. This design is like Natalie early in the book, when she’s strong and flawless on the outside, but there’s no hint of the evolution she undergoes during her time at the dig site. The story’s softness is missing. I never moved forward with this concept, obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t. (Especially since I made such a mess of the brush bristles in Photoshop! I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to design.)
It wasn’t a total loss, though. I’ve gotten to recycle a few of its elements in swag designs. My skull sketch is on bookmarks, info cards, buttons…
Mammoth had to wait a few more years for a perfect cover, but it has one now. ❤
It’s been a minute since I blogged about Mammoth-related goodness, so let’s do a quick round-up of what’s been going on.
First of all, Mammoth will be at Book Expo America this week!! *ALL THE HEART-EYES EMOJIS* My friends at Turner Publishing Company will have over 150 Mammoth ARCs available, as well as these super-cute totes to carry your books and swag. (I think they’re at booth 2829!) I love how the bag’s color scheme perfectly matches the book’s Central Texas Mammoth Site setting.
I use my tote all the time, and I have a few extras that I’ll be giving away when Mammoth’s November 6 release date is a little closer, so if you aren’t able to grab one in NYC this week, keep an eye out!
I recently pieced together this paleontology-themed keychain design. I need to source some sturdier jump rings, but once I do that, I plan on sending out some of these babies as Mammoth-related swag.
I got some adorable bookplates this month as well. I’ll be autographing these and mailing them out to anyone who pre-orders Mammoth. More on my pre-order campaign this summer! I’m still planning additional swag, too. I’m thinking bookmarks and buttons for sure, and maybe stickers. I’d looooove to design an exclusive enamel pin — we’ll see! Let me know if you have a favorite kind of book swag!
And hey, speaking of pre-orders, Mammoth is popping up all over. It’s now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. Ask about it at your local library and your favorite indie bookstore to put it on their radar!
I’ve been participating in #IGWritersApril over on Instagram this month. The prompt for day 26 was “writing inspiration,” which could be interpreted in so many ways. The Waco Mammoth National Monument inspired the dig site in MAMMOTH. My love for the city of Austin inspired several MAMMOTH settings, and my bff Dava inspired some of my favorite plot points. I could have posted a photo of my childhood copy of JURASSIC PARK, or a still from the movie, or a favorite page from the dinosaur encyclopedia I read over and over as a kid.
Instead, I found some photos of myself as a young teenager. I shared the kid who never felt thin enough, likable enough, cool enough, pretty enough. She was never enough.
In MAMMOTH, Natalie is a popular plus-size fashion blogger. She has an amazing vintage-inspired wardrobe. She rocks a red lip and perfectly winged eyeliner. She works for her aunt’s indie clothing line and knows how to design, sew, and alter for a perfect fit (and how to use shapewear to make that fit even more perfect). Natalie’s that fatsionista you envy on Instagram because she’s got it together (or at least she looks like she does).
Natalie adopted that persona because she was bullied in middle school. She reinvented herself so she’d no longer be “Fat Nat.”
Unfortunately, changing how others see you doesn’t fix how you see yourself. In MAMMOTH, Natalie has to figure out how to love and appreciate herself for who she is beneath her fashion armor. If she’s going to stand out during her dig site internship, she’s going to have to do so in an authentic way. She’s going to have to accept that she is enough, just as she is.
This means that Natalie isn’t as perfect as she appears. She has flaws, especially in how she thinks about herself. One of those flaws in particular, a habit Natalie has of being too aware of body size, is a detail I’ve discussed with readers, my agent, and my contacts at my publisher. Some people love it. Some people hate it. It’s polarizing, and whether to include or cut it has been a tough call! I went with what felt like the most authentic option, even though I’m still second-guessing myself about twenty times a day. The detail evolves as the story progresses. I hope readers will give my girl a chance so they can see that evolution happen.
Body image is so personal. SO PERSONAL. I’ve struggled with the concept since I was about seven years old, and because a lot of the self-doubt and anxiety in MAMMOTH mirror my own, putting this book out there is kind of terrifying. But if Natalie can be bold enough to stand out in paleontology, I can be bold enough to share her story.
I’m sharing it for that kid in the photos. She was enough, even though she never realized it. I’m sharing it for kids like her.
You are enough. Changing what’s on the outside won’t fix things until you accept and embrace that.
Okay, so where were we? I took a little break to deal with Hurricane Irma cleanup (almost five months later, we’re still working on getting our roof replaced) and other life stuff. I’m still processing a lot of anxiety-related stuff (hurricanes and anxiety disorders are a fantastic combination), I’m catching up on a ton of reading, I finished a new rough draft during NaNoWriMo last November, and last week I helped one of my best friends move from Georgia to south Florida.
I’ve also been sitting on some super-exciting news, and now that the announcements have run in Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace, I can finally share: my next novel, MAMMOTH, will be published in fall 2018 by Turner Publishing!
This book is so dear to my heart, and I’m so ridiculously anxious (in a GOOD way) to launch it out there into the world. MAMMOTH is a body-positive, science-geeky story about being true to yourself and letting your talents and ambitions shine.
Most of the book is set at an Ice Age dig site; to get the paleontology angle as accurate as possible, I trained at the Waco Mammoth National Monument and learned to dig and prospect for fossils. I also interviewed paleontologists, toured a bone lab, practiced screen picking, and spent a particularly spectacular morning hanging out with a pair of elephants at Cameron Park Zoo. (Thank you FOREVER to my bestie Dava Butler, who works at Waco Mammoth, for making all that possible!)
I’m so jazzed to work with Turner, and so excited to share updates as MAMMOTH’S publication date approaches. Watch this space, my vintage velociraptors (as MAMMOTH’S Natalie would say) — there’s so much more to come. ❤