On October 15th, I started a new venture. I took a book I knew readers loved, because I’d tested it, but hadn’t sold to traditional publishing yet despite editors all praising it, and put it out via a small press called Boralis Books. Since then Simon Says has not only earned back my initial investment but exceeded it and received mostly 5 and 4 star reviews in doing so, a higher percentage than any of the other 25 books I’ve done.
Simon Says was hard to sell traditionally because I mixed genres—near future science fiction and procedural thriller—in a way that has not really been tested. Only JD Robb is doing it in any noticeable way. So publishers didn’t know what to do with it. But as friends and family who’d test read the book kept asking me, again and again, when’s that book coming out, I knew I was onto something. I didn’t get that kind of enthusiasm on my prior books.
And Simon Says, while it can stand alone, is actually book one in the John Simon Thrillers series, so as part of my strategy, I planned to launch a new book every quarter in that series and eventually add other series and titles. So here we are, 4 months after release as of February 15, and I’m so excited about the next John Simon Thriller, I’m releasing it 5 days early on February 10th.
It’s called The Sideman, and preview of several chapters has actually been up since Simon Says released. (A preview of book 3, Common Source, will be posted Feb. 10 when The Sideman Releases. It’s up for preorder now via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound will have it soon. To see what people are already saying about The Sideman as well as those sample chapters (3) and buy links, click here.
And if you haven’t read Simon Says yet, check out the same for it here and expect to see it on sale to celebrate the release of book 2 next week. I appreciate your support of this new venture and can’t wait for you to read my latest. Here’s the first reader review on Goodreads:
As a professional editor, one of the questions I hear most often from writers and others is how does one go about finding and hiring a good editor. So today’s tip addresses that challenge.
First, it’s important to know the type of editor you need. This diagram breaks down the types of editing a writer may encounter or need:
Most writers will be hiring either Developmental, Line or Copy Editors for their book. Not every editor does all of them, but some do more than one. I do all three and frequently do Developmental and Line Editing together as a package because they can be combined easily. Copy Editing is a separate pass requiring different focus and skills. Proof Readers are also quite useful, although many people find volunteers who are helpful and cost effective.
If you need to hire an editor on your own you will need to do some research. For information on standard rates, check the Editorial Freelancers Association for a list of average rates here:https://www.the-efa.org/rates/. For individual editors, they should have their rates on their website as well as a list of clients they have worked with and even quotes recommending them. For me, I’d ask some of the clients about them as well as friends to see what kind of reputation they have in the community. Then most editors usually offer a sample edit to demonstrate their skills for free (usually a page or two, maybe a chapter). Submit your work to several for samples and then compare them when you get them back. You can also reach out via social media to authors you admire asking for recommendations. Most of us have been there and will be happy to point you in the right direction toward finding a good, reliable editor—one we’ve worked with or who has worked with friends. Be sure and search bookstores and online for books in print that they’ve edited and check the quality and who published them. This kind of information tells you their level of success and skill as well as their taste, which can be important, as well as their knowledge of genres. You definitely want someone knowledgeable in the genre in which you are writing to help you navigate market expectations, tropes, and other genre-specific concerns.
Once you’ve found an editor or two you are interested in, ask for full quotes and discuss their cancellation fees, timeframe and deadlines, and how they deal with cost overruns, if any. You’ll want to be sure in advance you are not charged for extra time without permission, whether they do extra passes or just one, etc. Then choose your editor and get a contract. Make sure the contract outlines guarantees to you, not just the editor. Usually there will be clauses about payment schedules, how they deal with non- or delayed payments, etc. as well as a delivery timetable. All of this is important to have in writing to avoid conflict later, as these tend to be the areas where most misunderstandings and conflict occur between freelance editors and clients.
After that, you send them you book and get started.
I would expect a decent editor to need between three weeks and six to edit the average novel well (80,000 to 130,000 words). More if your book is longer. I would also expect them to send you regular updates on the progress and even provide the first half around the time any second payment is due, so you can get an idea of the quality of their edits, usefulness, etc. Editors work for you in this case, not a publisher, so you have total control over what you do with their edits. That’s why it’s very important to hire an editor you trust and enjoy working with, then trust their judgment enough to use their advice. Your editor’s job, whether freelance or in-house, is to help you make your book the best it can be. If you succeed, they look good, too, but most of all, you look good, because your book is your reputation, your calling card. The editor has no motivation to ruin your book with bad advice or to sabotage or hurt it. So the advice they give is always intended to help, whether it hurts your feelings or not. There is a need for your editor to be somewhat blunt—though most try to point out strengths as well as weaknesses and use a sense of humor in doing so to soften the blow—so that you get a sense of how readers will react and can really dig into the issues properly. Remember, it is not personal nor is it an attack. They are all about helping you. They are on your side. So take their comments seriously, ask questions as you have them, and try to find a way to make them work if at all possible, never dismissing them entirely out of hand.
There will be times when you disagree. Some of those will be over things that are per choice, up to you. Personal taste or preference may be a part. Good editors will admit this and explain their reason for making the editorial suggestions. These are the edits you should decide if you agree with and want to do. In other cases, edits are absolutely necessary. These usually are edits about clarity and understanding, facts, character motives, story holes, story pacing, mood, tone, emotion, etc. and should be considered very carefully and every attempt made to find a solution you can both agree on, even if it is a compromise. Remember that we all have weaknesses and strengths and the writing process is a journey. Everyone wants to best book possible and is working toward that goal, because a great book makes us all look good. Keeping that in mind should make it easier to take criticisms, even when they sting or confuse, and put you in the right mindset to trust and work with your editor as a partner, not an opponent.
Ultimately, once your book is edited, it is ready to go on to formatting, copyediting, and proofing. And those stages will involve more edits, but generally focused on repetitive words or phrases, grammar and spelling errors that slipped through, italics and underlining, house style, punctuation, etc. If the items are house style, they are nonnegotiable. Everything else can be discussed and considered, but, of course, if the grammar is wrong unintentionally or you have misspellings, you need to fix them. Accuracy matters to readers and critics. It is about professionalism and presentation.
I find the editorial process with some clients can be like pulling teeth, but with many it is pure joy. I enjoy very much watching writers gel with their material as things come into clearer focus, get stronger, and take on that sparkle they always envisioned in their minds. There’s real joy in watching a good book become great and seeing the pride the author takes in it and the success that follows. I feel very much a part of that, as well any editor, and if you find a good one, hold onto them and treasure the relationship. It is like finding gold.
So in addition to ratcheting up the tension every chance you get, what are some techniques to use to build suspense? The description of the bar above is a form of subtlety and misdirection known as foreshadowing. And foreshadowing is a technique all writers should use. Foreshadowing is presenting hints that will pay off in a bigger way later in a story.
For example, in Andy Weir’s smash hit novel The Martian, he sets up his protagonist, Mark Watney’s, background as a botanist to foreshadow later events:
In other news, I’m starting to come up with an idea
for food. My botany background may come in useful
after all. Why bring a botanist to Mars? After all,
it’s famous for not having anything growing here. Well, the idea was to figure out how well things grow in
Martian gravity, and see what, if anything, we can do with Martian soil. The short answer is: quite a lot…
almost. Martian soil has the basic building blocks
needed for plant growth, but there’s a lot of stuff go-ing on in Earth soil that Mars soil doesn’t have,
even when it’s placed in an Earth-atmosphere and given
plenty of water. Bacterial activity, certain nutrientsprovided by animal life, etc. None of that is happen- ing on Mars.
One of my tasks for the mission was to see how plants grow here, in various combinations of Earth or Mars
soil and atmosphere.
That’s why I have a small amount of Earth soil and a
bunch of plant seeds with me. I can’t get too excited,
however. It’s about the amount of soil you’d put in a window planter-box, and the only seeds I have are a
few species of grass and ferns. They’re the most
rugged and easily grown plants on earth, so NASA pick-ed them as the test subjects.
So I have two problems: not enough dirt, and nothing
edible to plant in it.
Later on, Watney uses materials on the ship and in the environment to grow food and extend his life on the planet while he waits for rescue. In fact, his scientific calculations and knowledge become key to making rescue possible, but the timing for the mission becomes vitally important and dramatic. He has one shot at it and complications, of course, put the timing in jeopardy. What at first may seem like backstory on the character, becomes an essential plot elements. This is foreshadowing. A seemingly innocuous mention of science that might otherwise seem boring or useless foreshadows an important skill that will later save his life and be a hinge the story’s outcome depends on.
In my epic fantasy novel Duneman, I was creating a world where parts of the lands lived in medieval like conditions, while others had started industrial development, with steam powered airships, cranes, and more. Because the story starts in the medieval-like area, at one point, I had the protagonist pass airship landing zones on his journey, hinting that this land may seem medieval and standard fantasy but somewhere there are airships. It was subtle but later became important and set up the contrast between different areas of the lands, which in itself becomes an important source of conflict between various people groups—one that soon puts them on the brink of war. Always look for ways to hint at details early on which will play a key part later. If you don’t, readers will feel like you are inventing of necessity character skills and abilities or objects just when you need them for the story, which is manufactured and doesn’t ring true, and will shake their confidence and trust in you as a storyteller.
What if your characters hear a gunshot out on the street…discover a missing letter in the couch cushions…or smell an out of place odor in an unusual place? In Conflict, Action & Suspense, William Noble describes this technique as “plot-hypers.” Plot-hypers involve “injecting an unexplained event or circumstance” to add uncertainty or raise tension. Some are accomplished via misdirection and others through subtlety. He offers two classic examples.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes book The Hound of The Baskervilles, Sherlock discovers that a watch dog did not bark at a crucial moment, an odd coincidence. But at the end of the story, it becomes a significant clue that helps solve the case. This is subtlety.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a thief places an inoffensive letter next to a crucial one and then slyly slips away with the important one in front of witnesses. Police begins suspecting the thief because of his history and assume a search will turn up the letter, but the thief tricks them and hides it in plain sight. It almost works. This is misdirection.
Both involve one little fact that leads to an assumption. The authors don’t hit readers over the head. But yet the assumptions both take the story in surprising directions.
Another technique for setting up suspense is through flashbacks. Now, some people hate flashbacks. Flashbacks are scenes that take place earlier in a character’s history which reveal important information about the character, his or her relationships, or his or her conflict and flaws, which advance the story in their reveal. Admittedly, some authors overuse flashbacks, which can be annoying and also risks killing the pace of storytelling. Like any other scenes, flashbacks should be kept short and in media res applied. Enter and exit the scene as close to the key action as possible. Also be sure you introduce flashbacks only as needed vitally to further the story. Timing is key and when used well, flashbacks are an invaluable and quite effective tool for building tension and suspense in storytelling. The catch is that flashbacks can often slow the pace because they take us away from the main tension of the story and out of the present, pressing conflict to another time. For that reason, we will discuss them again briefly under pacing. But here’s an example from Miracle Man by David Baldacci, where a flashback actually continues the suspense and tension, despite interrupting a scene.
Decker has just posed as a lawyer in an attempt to get in to see a suspect at a police precinct—a suspect in the murder of his wife and child. As the woman at the counter asks him to sit and wait while she calls for approval, this happens:
Realizing he might have just blown a bunch of money he
didn’t have on lawyer-looking attire, Decker sat down in a chair bolted to the wall and waited. The old
woman picked up her phone and slowly, ever so slowly, punched in numbers.
Numbers. Always numbers.
They had a hypnotic effect on him, sending him to
places he didn’t always want to go.
Decker closed his eyes and his mind began to whir back…back to the day, no, the exact moment when his life
The crowd went berserk every time the hit was replayed
on the megatron, and that was often, I was told later.My helmet flew five feet and rolled another six, end- ing at the feet of a zebra who picked it up and maybe checked inside to see if my head was still in there.
I think my brain bounced against my skull multiple
times like a bird trying to introduce itself to a
window until its neck breaks.
Yep, the crowd cheered and whooped whenever the mega- tron belched out the replay.
Then I was told that they stopped cheering. Because I didn’t get up. Because I didn’t move a muscle. And
then someone noticed I had stopped breathing and had also turned blue. They told me the head training was
alternating pounding my chest like a punch press
attacking metal slabs and blowing air into my mouth.
Later, they told me I died on the field twice but he
brought me back both times from the hereafter. They
told me he was screaming in my ear, “Hang on, ninety-
five. Hang the hell on.” I was such a nobody that he
knew my jersey number but not my name.
My professional football player identity was a nine
and a five printed on my chest.
Nine and five. Violet and brown in my counting colors mind. I never consciously assigned colors to numbers. My brain did it for me without my permission.
The collision changed everything about me, because it essentially rewired my brain. So I died, twice, and
then came back, essentially as someone else. And for
the longest time I thought that would be the most
awful thing that would ever happen to me. And then
came that night and those three bodies in neon blue,
and the gridiron blindside dropped to number two on
the list of my personal devastations.
“Excuse me, sir? Sir?”
Decker opened his eyes to see the woman staring down
Now that is a well-constructed flashback. Not only does he use telling language because Decker is recalling things that happened along with things others told him about them, but it interrupts the moment he has awaited for four long years: a chance to confront his family’s killer, yet still manages to maintain tension and suspense. That’s because every word drips with the character’s emotions and because Baldacci chooses the flashback placement well. It has everything to do with who Decker is and his intensity as a person and it even ties into the moment at the police station at the end. So, planned and written well, flashbacks too can be a device for upping suspense. We’ll talk about them more later. First, here’s yet another technique.
A fourth technique is reversing the rules. This technique uses contrariness to create excitement and defy expectations. It’s about having things go against the established expectations to twist plot and characters from what readers would normally expect. Noble writes: “A reader expects something to be a certain way, but suddenly it’s not. The misdirection is in the expectation, the subtlety is in the surprise.”
For example, what if a handsome man is cruel, a real jerk, or an evil character happens to have a soft heart for kids, who love and flock to him whenever he’s around? A church is corrupt and hides a criminal enterprise. A school teacher is engaged in selling students into sex slavery. All of these are twists on normal expectations that first occur to us, twists that surprise us by defying our natural assumptions. This is reversing the rules.
These four techniques are the most common tools for building suspense, but no doubt some of you—and other authors—can think of others I didn’t mention. The general rule is to use whatever works for you and betters your story and ignore what doesn’t. Also closely related to suspense is pacing—the flow of your story. It’s the combination of tension and suspense—keeping readers wondering, guessing, wanting to know what happens—that sets the pace of your story. We’ll examine that next.
Previously, I wrote about In Medias Res—the rule that you should get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon after as you can to up the tension and help pacing. This is particularly true in dialogue scenes. Dialogue, as a rule, tends to move faster than action and description, upping your novel’s pace. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey writes: “Plunging into the middle of scenes speeds your novel along and keeps the reader involved in the rising conflict…When critics say a work is fast-paced, it is often because the writer keeps his characters engaged in intense conflicts and cuts directly into scenes with rising conflict.” A lot of time can be saved by starting scenes with the conflict already happening or ending them right as it ends. The results will also make your story feel faster. For example:
Johnny opened the door and stepped into his kitchen.
“Hi, honey,” his wife said, sing-song as usual, and bounced across the floor togreet him. They embraced
and kissed as usual before she asked, “How was your
“Boring. Usual sales calls. Nagging boss. How was
“It sucked. I got fired,” she said, frowning. Johnny
hadn’t expected it, given her great mood.
Now what if it were written like this?
“Today sucked,” Johnny’s wife said the minute he
opened the door.
“What happened?” he asked as she moped across the
floor to greet him.
“My boss is an asshole,” she said, then kissed him.
“Well, we kinda knew that.”
She smiled. “Well, now we have proof.”
Which feels more dramatic and fast paced? In every scene you write, look for the best way to enter dramatically and shape the dialogue for the greatest dramatic effect. In real life, niceties like greetings and chatter might be socially expected but in dramatic narrative, they kill pacing. Just cut to the drama. Charles Johnson in The Way of The Writer: “We should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or conflict) that has brought him or her there.” Sometimes establishing a rhythm requires getting the characters into a scene with a greeting or set up, and sometimes they jump right into the conflict or have “a hit” as Johnson calls it, “the heightened moment in the scene where what has brought them there is finally revealed.” It depends on the needs of the story and scene and characters at that moment. It must be natural while at the same time dramatic. Still, finding ways to cut to the chase will make your dramatic narrative more effective every time.
Here’s an example of dealing with a phone call from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey:
Lucas looked up at the clock. Eleven-forty. Damn. If
the cop who took the gun was planningto call, he
should have done it. Lucas looked at the phone,
willing it to ring.
It rang. He nearly fell off his drawing stool in
“Lucas? This is Jennifer.”
“Hey. I’m expecting a call. I need the line open.”
“I got a tip from a friend,” Jennifer said. “He says
there was a survivor. Somebody who fought off the
killer. I want to know who it was.”
“Who told you this bullshit?”
Two techniques are used to increase the tension of the scene. First, Lucas, a detective, is awaiting an important call. By telling us this, Sandford allows readers to feel the character’s tension as he looks at the phone. Second, because the caller is a tv reporter and not the fellow cop he was waiting to hear from, we get more tension, despite the routine nature of the chit chat that opens the call. If you need a bit of social nicety, this is a great way to handle it while still keeping the scene as dramatic as possible. Also, note the varied length in sentences, none of which are especially long. Johnson writes: “Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences.” Study the speech patterns of others around you and you’ll see this is true. Varied length of sentences also affects pacing and can add dramatic effect to a scene, in addition to being more natural particularly in dialogue.
Dialogue is not normal conversation. It is conversation with drama. It is a medium of performance. William Noble writes in Conflict, Action, & Suspense: “The throwaway words of conversation such as “Hello,” “How are you,” “I’m fine,” “Good” should never be thought of as dialogue…because they don’t contain drama. Don’t reproduce conversation and call it dialogue; reproduce only that portion of the conversation that has drama…Dialogue must contribute to telling the story. If it doesn’t, it’s of no use.” Dialogue needs to move in a few short sentences. Take this example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:
“Where was it?”
“On the floor under the bunk. Maybe it fell out when I changed the bedding.”
“What do you think?” Leaphorn asked.
“I think I never had anything that had beads like that
on it or knew anybody who did. And I wonder how it
“Or why?” Leaphorn asked.
In this scene, Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are at Chee’s trailer, which was shot up the night before, looking for evidence. The bead they discover raises ominous questions, upping the tension, and it becomes a major key to the unfolding mystery of the overall story. This is how you write effective, dramatic dialogue. Cut to the chase, the drama, what matters, and skip everything else. Noble writes: “When dialogue disintegrates into dull conversation, it destroys the forward movement of the tale, and once this happens, the conflict falls apart and the action and suspense hold no one’s interest.” Dialogue must always fulfill two purposes: Keeping the story moving and developing characterization. This is why most dialogue inevitably becomes confrontation. “Readers are interested in confrontation because the drama inherent in a face-off carries excitement and uncertainty,” Noble writes. The “Yes/No” countering in dialogue carries inherent disagreement that ups the drama every time.
Also, humans are rarely directly responsive to each other when conversing. Oblique or partial responses, especially those that ask or raise questions are common. And this keeps the pace of the conversation flowing.
“It’s cold out tonight.”
“I’ll get locked out if we don’t hurry.”
Not, “my fingers are cold,” which would be a commentary on the coldness. Instead, the reply is about the agenda of the second character. Since this is a natural human trait due to poor listening skills most of us possess, it is a great tool to utilize for keeping dialogue dramatic and moving. It avoids bogging down the story in chit chat, while also providing information about the characters: their motives, priorities, what is on their minds.
Varying character emotions is also an effective tool. If one character underplays and response calmly, while the other is tense and emotional, this has the effect of varying pace while also building the story. When we are stressed and talking to someone who isn’t, we naturally want them to share our sense of urgent emotion. Tension increases each time they respond calmly to our urgency. The same is true in dramatic scenes. Subtext—implying more than the words say directly—is a great technique for upping the drama via underplay. It makes the impact more devastating, too.
“You’re not sleeping,” Roger said.
“I’m trying,” Julie replied.
“Well, you talked to me,” she replied but left her arm
laying over her eyes just where it had been.
He rolled over and touched her shoulder. “I can’t stop
thinking about it.”
She groaned. “Damn it.”
Subtext is when something going on beneath the surface unspoken changes the meaning of a scene. Here, the subtext is that Roger has something urgent on his mind but Julie doesn’t want to talk about it. She is annoyed at being bothered. But this is never stated outright. The mystery of it allows the story to build because we are waiting to see what happens, wondering how it will play out. Will they talk or will she go to sleep? Will this lead to more conflict later? Etc. It is subtle, but very effective, and not unrealistic to life.
Stream of consciousness in interior dialogue can also be used to up tension, especially in scenes where dialogue with others is impossible because a character is alone.
She was coming toward me. I couldn’t get into it
again. I glanced around for somewhere to hide.
This kind of inner monologue adds tension, even if the “she” is someone we have not seen before by asking questions we want to know the answer to, thus upping tension and building expectation that it will pay off in a dramatic fashion at some point later.
Another technique to aid pacing with underplayed dialogue is gesturing.
“Someone’s coming,” Al said.
“Is it him?” Rick never even looked up from his
“Blonde, tall, thin, about twenty or so?”
“That’s what the boss said, yeah.”
Al watched as Rick reached down and fingered the blade
in his pocket. “I thinkit’s him,” Al motioned. This
time they both looked.
Two mobsters waiting for their victim. Plenty of tension from the implied expectation, but the dialogue itself isn’t all that dramatic. It is the subtext which adds the drama. The gesturing adds dimension by having the characters innocuous dialogue be underscored by what they are doing: waiting for a victim, knife ready. And when the body movement happens, it is almost like the start of violence. It is restrained, but we anticipate it, and the physical movement punctuates the anticipation by foreshadowing a physical response to go with the subtext.
These techniques are always effective time and again when keeping dialogue dramatic and well-paced so they keep the story moving and reveal character at the same time.
Chances are fifty percent or more of your novel will consist of dialogue. Dialogue is the characters’ chief method of communicating information to one another (and readers). But remember: Conversation isn’t dialogue. Dialogue is drama. It is a certain type of dramatic representation of conversation that has conflict and drama and urgency. It may imitate conversation but there is no chit chat. Dialogue involves imparting key information about plot, emotion, character, setting and more that drives the story forward. It involves building tension, pace, and foreshadowing conflict as well as expressing present conflict. Dialogue is one of the essential craft tools of good fiction writing.
Johnny Payne writes in Voice & Style: “Dialogue is the essence of teaching…The role of dialogue within fiction can be defined as not so different from the one it plays in learning. Ideally, it should deepen with progressive readings, leaving the reader with an increased understanding of the story’s consequences.” In some ways, dialogue exists in tension with, and separate from the authorial voice. Characters care nothing about the author’s life or concerns, just their own. When two or more characters dialogue, they are in a sense “talking back” to the author or narrative voice. They contest it at times, challenge it, add complexity to its views. This tension gives us perspective on the narrative voice while also clarifying the independence of characters in the story from the narrator. By necessity, fiction must be truer than life in order to give us different perspectives on it. Because characters always speak in opposition—conflict lies at the heart of drama, remember—the tension between character voices and author voice is a key element of the storytelling experience, adding tension and drama and upping the stakes. And while dialogue is part of overall voice, because characters and narrator can also speak in opposition, they create the kind of multiple meanings and complexity associated with dramatic irony. As narration directs and lays out the story, dialogue detonates and creates explosions that create twists, surprises, turns, and consequences that affect the rest of the story and keep it interesting. This is the essence of narrative drama.
So how do you develop a skill for good dialogue? Let’s look at The Purpose of Dialogue.
The Purpose of Dialogue
Jack Hart writes in Storycraft: “Dialogue isn’t an end in itself; it has to do some real work. It can advance action as characters encounter and struggle with obstacles, such as an antagonist who resists a character’s progress in resolving a complication. It can help shape a scene as characters comment on objects in their environment, such as the clothes one of them wears.” Advancing action, imparting information, revealing character, increasing conflict—all of these are the purpose of dialogue and its every word should serve one or more of these at all times.
According to screenwriter John Howard Lawson, speaking “comes from energy and not inertia.” It serves “as it does in life, to broaden the scope of action; it organizes and extends what people do. It also intensifies the action. The emotion which people feel in a situation grows out of their sense of scope and meaning.” James Scott Bell writes in How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: “Characters talk in fiction because they want to further their own ends…Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” Because dialogue can foreshadow action, explain it, or set it up, advancing action is a core role of dialogue. Also, dialogue exchanges are laden with conflict and can thus up the tension and stakes of action and confrontations, thus advancing action and leading from one action to another. The very act of dialoguing is, in effect, taking an action: to confront, to question, to ask, to discuss, etc. and in all cases, this dialogical action furthers plot, story, and character in some way (or should).
Because, in many ways, we reveal who we are by how we speak, what dialogue does best is reveal or advance character. In the next section we will cover dialect and diction, but it’s not just the word choice that is at work here but the interaction with other characters and the world reveals much, too. Word choice can reveal education level, social stratus, historical background, genetics, nationality, etc. but dialogue with others reveals attitudes about society, setting, the world, and relationships which are also important. We talk to different people differently for various reasons, and that very act reveals much about who we are and who they are to us.
Because much dialogue involves opposition between characters, inherent in its nature is conflict. Stephen King writes in On Writing: “It’s dialogue that gives your cast their voices and is crucial in defining their characters—only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.” Dialogue is intimately connected to character motivation. It reveals motive constantly, setting and revising their agenda. These agenda checks come in opposition with those of other characters, creating conflict and tension and leading to action, imparting information, upping the stakes. This is a key difference between conversation and dialogue. Dialogue is always about tension and conflict, whereas conversation is not. Conversation can be casual and consumed with minute details, facts, and experiences which interest the involved parties but are irrelevant to those around them. Dialogue must always function to advance the story by revealing motives, information, character, action and more, so dialogue and conversation are very different in both purpose and style. In dialogue, characters sometimes say things to inform readers of information they already know in order to advance the story. This exposition is a manufactured trait of narrative dialogue that is not common in real life except with strangers. There are things many times we don’t have to say because we are the party we are speaking to just know them, but with readers watching, in narrative, these things cannot go unsaid and must be imparted.
Dialogue can also be external and internal. At the same time as characters engage in dialogue with other characters, they maintain an internal dialogue with themselves that can be in conflict with the external dialogue but performs the same functions. It can impart backstory, history, and details readers need to know and also things characters may not share, for various reasons, with other characters but which they know and hold in reserve but which readers need to further the story, action, and character. These two streams of dialogue go on simultaneously and intertwine with the narrator’s voice as the story unfolds.
Here’s an example from romance author Catherine Bybee’s Wife by Wednesday:
“Kissing me is wrong?”
“Yes,” she blurted out. “I mean, no.”
He chuckled, “Which is it?”
“Ugh. What if I choke? What if I don’t look convincing?” What if she screwed up and gave the camera exactly what they wanted and Blake lost his inheritance?
Blake removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it over her cold ones. “Samantha?”
“Relax. Let me take charge here.”
She wanted to trust him. But her hands shook as they pulled into her driveway. He removed the key from the ignition and shifted in his seat. “Let’s just go inside and start packing.”
“Are you going to kiss me the minute we’re inside?” God, she had to know…so she could prepare herself.
Okay, clearly Blake and Samantha are lovers. And they are going somewhere important with potential consequences for Blake that Samantha is worried she’ll screw up. Notice also how Samantha’s internal and external monologue are both at play here to impart understanding of motives and thought behind her reactions and words? Also note how while she is tense, anxious, Blake’s body language and words combine to demonstrate he is not. He is relaxed, at ease. This is a very solid demonstration of effective dialogue.
The next is example from The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson:
“What are you smiling at?”
“Leave me alone. I’m having a moment of grace.”
He stared at me. “Well, we would not want to interrupt that.”
I tossed a piece of shale at him, missing by a good two feet. “If you can have multiple lives, I can have moments of grace.”
He grunted. “How was your moment of grace last night?”
“Not bad, as moments of grace go.” I thought for a while. “More like a moment of truth.”
He nodded. “That is good. They are harder to come by.” He winced as he stretched the tendons in his right
knee; maybe he wasn’t indestructible. “So, she left
“You drive her home?”
He stretched for a minute more, leaned against the
mile-marker post I was leaning against, and sighed.
“We do not have to talk about it.”
“We are talking about it.”
“No, I am talking about it, and all you are doing is
Even without a lot of context, hopefully you can tell these are characters who know each other well. In this case, Sheriff Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are childhood friends, now adults. Henry is an American Indian, Walt white. The sarcasm inherent here shows familiarity, as does the inside reference to “multiple lives.” Characters with a history spar as they talk frequently. There is a playfulness and tension to it as they test each other, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger, but always in shared knowledge. Just four lines of dialogue and two of description, but you see what that can reveal, even out of context. Walt, it appears, had a date or something the night before. Also, notice that Henry uses no contractions in his syntax. He has a unique way of talking that distinguishes him from Walt.
Dialogue’s purpose is to reveal character, plot, and story. It drips with conflict and drama, moving the story forward, upping the tension, and pushing the story along. Just by tone, phrasing, and wording, it can raise questions and evoke emotions in the reader. That is the importance of getting it right.
Next week, we’ll talk about some other aspects of dialogue.
Last week, I wrote about The Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right QuestionsThe Key To Good Plotting—Asking The Right Questions, this week I want to talk about more ways to build suspense in your storytelling, specifically through creating tension using dialogue and emotions. This post is longer because of numerous examples, so please stick with it.
“Holding readers’ attention every word of the way,” writes Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist, “is a function not of the type of novel you’re writing, a good premise, tight writing, quick pace, showing not telling, or any of the other widely understood and frequently taught principles of storytelling. Keeping readers in your grip comes from something else…the moment-by-moment tension that keeps readers in a constant state of suspense over what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds.” This kind of microtension comes not from story but from emotions, specifically conflicting emotions. So above all else, creating suspense is about making readers care.
Webster’s Dictionary defines suspense as: a. The state of being undecided or undetermined; 2. The state of being uncertain, as in awaiting a decision, usually characterized by some anxiety or apprehension.
What is undecided and undetermined are story questions. First and foremost, suspense is about questions. James N. Frey writes in How To Write a Damn Good Novel II: “A story question is a device to make the reader curious. Story questions are usually not put in question form. They are rather statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like.”
An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October,1815, a man traveling afoot entered the little town of D------. The few personswho were at this time at their windows and doors, regarded this traveler with asort of distrust.
Thus opens Book 2 of Victor Hugo’s classic masterpiece Les Miserables. The story questions are “who is this man?” and “is he dangerous?” The first question intrigues, the second raises the suspense, and this is how story questions work. Other examples:
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by great sweeps of its crescent tail.
(Jaws, Peter Benchley: “Who will be the shark’s lunch?”)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortunemust be in want of a wife.
(Pride and Pejudice, Jane Austen: “Who’s the single man?” And “Who’s going to be the lucky girl?”)
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom
realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were.
(Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell: “What are the consequences of the twins being charmed? Will they fight over her?“ Etc.)
Expanding on last week’s post, Frey goes on to say: “Story questions, unless they are powerful, life-and-death questions that are strengthened, reinforced, and elaborated will not hold the reader long.” When they occur at the beginning of a story, they act as “hooks” that draw readers in. That’s why so many classic novels start with hooks and yours should, too. Ultimately, raising story questions—unanswered questions, characters we care about, and tension are the keys to suspense in any story.
Since we just discussed it, let’s start with dialogue. Dialogue in novels is not realistic. Every word is thought through and constructed to create the upmost tension and steadiest pace. Characters say what they mean, are rarely interrupted, don’t stumble over words, and all the same the words often seem unimportant if taken by themselves. The words are notwhat holds the power. The power comes from the meaning, the motivations of the speakers, and the underlying conflict. Here’s an example from John Sandford’s Rule Of Prey:
“Daniel’s hunting for you.” Anderson looked harassed, teasing his thinning blonde hair as he stepped through Lucas’ office door. Lucas had just arrived and stood rattling his keys in his fist.
“We might go for a warrant.”
“Yeah. Sloan spent the night going through his garbage. Found some wrappers from rubbers that use the same kind of lubricant they found in the women. And they found a bunch of invitations to art shows. The betting is, he knows the Ruiz chick.”
“I’ll talk to the chief.”
Now, tension in this scene comes from two things. One, starting abruptly with dialogue that is a warning or feels urgent in a way before establishing setting and that Detective Lucas Davenport, our protagonist, has just arrived. Two, the underlying tension of the hunt for the killer and the chief wanting Lucas. The words themselves are fairly innocuous at face value, a bunch of information really. In another context, they might play very differently, but here they carry urgency, a sense of danger, emotional foreboding. A sex killer is loose and the cops are racing to find him. Yes, some of this was established in earlier scenes, but just from this little short scene alone, you get a lot of it. This dialogue drips with tension as a result. What makes dialogue gripping is not the information or facts imparted, but the tension, the urgency. The tension comes from the people, not the words.
Let’s look at another example from Every Dead Thing by John Connelly:
“Nice story, Tommy,” said Angel.
“It’s just a story, Angel. I didn’t mean nothing by it. No offense intended.”
“None taken,” said Angel. “At least not by me.”
Behind him there was a movement in the darkness, and Louis appeared. His bald head gleamed in the dim light, his muscular neck emerging from a black silk shirt within an immaculately cut gray suit. He towered over Angel by more than a foot, and as he did so, he eyed Tommy Q intently for a moment.
“Fruit,” he said. “That’s a…quaint term, Mr. Q. To what does it refer, exactly?”
The blood had drained from Tommy Q’s face and it seemed to take a longtime for him to find enough
saliva to enable him to gulp. When he did eventually
manage, it sounded like he was swallowing a golf ball.He opened his mouth but nothing came out, so he closedit again and looked at the floor in vain hope that it
would open up and swallow him.
“It’s okay, Mr. Q, it was a good story,” said Louis ina voice as silky as his shirt.
“Just be careful how you tell it.” Then he smiled a
bright smile at Tommy Q, the sort of smile a cat mightgive a mouse to take to the grave with it. A drop of sweat ran down Tommy Q’s nose, hung from the tip a moment, then exploded on the floor.
By then, Louis had gone.
The tension here comes from the characters, not the dialogue. Separate the dialogue out and there’s nothing particularly tense about it, but the context is that Tommy Q has just laughingly told Angel a story about a gay man’s murder. Louis and Angel are gay and they are killers, particularly Louis. Puts a whole new spin on it, doesn’t it? That’s how tension in dialogue works. I imagine that even not knowing everything beforehand, you felt the tension reading it, but now that I’ve told you, read it again. Even more tense, right? We keep reading at moments like this not because of what they say. We keep reading to see if they will reconcile or fight. Will the tension explode into a fight or resolve?
Ask yourself where the tension is in your dialogue? Look at every passage, every word. How can it be improved? Does the tension come from the words or the situations, the circumstances and characters? Make sure the emotional friction between the speakers is the driving force.
Tension in action works much the same way. Yes, there can be violence and that has an inherent tension. But even in scenes with action that is nonviolent, you need tension. Let’s look at a scene from Harlan Coban’s Tell No One:
I put my hands behind my head and lay back. A cloud passed in front of the moon, turning the blue night into something pallid and gray.The air was still. I could hear Elizabeth getting out of the water and stepping onto the dock. My eyes tried to adjust. I could barely make out her naked silhouette. She was, quite simply,breathtaking. I watched her bend at the waist and wring the water out of her hair.
Then she arched her spine and threw back her head.
My raft drifted farther away from shore. I tried to sift through what had happened to me, but even I didn’t understand it all. The raft kept moving. I started losing sight of Elizabeth. As she faded in the
dark, I made a decision: I would tell her. I would tell her everything.
I nodded to myself and closed my eyes. There was a lightness in my chest now. I listened to the water gently
lap against my raft.
Then I heard a car door open.
I sat up. “Elizabeth?” Pure silence, except for my ownbreathing.
I looked for her silhouette again. It was hard to make
out, but for a moment I saw it. Or thought I saw it.
I’m not sure anymore or if it even matters.
Either way, Elizabeth was standing perfectly still, and maybe she was facing me.
I might have blinked—I’m really not sure about that either—and when I looked again, Elizabeth was gone.
Lots of description, and fairly benign at that. Only one line of dialogue. But what lends tension to this is the descriptive details that follow what is obviously an important decision by the narrator to confess something to Elizabeth. Is she gone? Did someone else arrive? Who? That the narrator, David, is deeply in love and feels guilt over a secret is obvious. It doesn’t need to be stated. And that underscores the tension of otherwise mundane action. We want to see what happens. This is how action, even nonviolent, can drip with tension if written well, and it needs to if your book is to hook readers time and again and keep them reading.
Exposition always risks boring readers. Maass writes: “Many novelists merely write out whatever it is that their characters are thinking or feeling—or, more to the point, whatever happens to occur to the author in a given writing session. That is a mistake.” Most commonly, exposition fails because it merely restates what we have already learned from the story or information characters would already know. It becomes uninteresting or false because it feels unnecessary. The key to good exposition is to frame it so it offers new ideas and emotions into the tapestry of the story. Remember when I said you should only give us what we need to know to understand the story at any given moment? That’s why choosing placement of your exposition carefully is so important. Save it until we need it so it brings something useful and important to the story. Don’t just dump it all at once to be stored up for later use. Instead, leave it until it will advance the story.
In Pretties, Scott Westerfeld manages to offer exposition that creates conflicting feelings in the character at the same time.
As the message ended, Tally felt the bed spin a little. She closed her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh of relief. Finally, she was full-fledged Crim. Everything
she’d ever wanted had come to her at last. She was beautiful, and she lived in New Pretty Town with Peris
and Shay and tons of new friends. All the disasters and terrors of the last year—running away to Smoke, living there in pre-Rusty squalor, traveling back to
the city through the wilds—somehow all if it had worked out.
It was so wonderful, and Tally was so exhausted, that belief took a while to settle over her. She replayed Peris’s message a few times, then pulled off the smelly, smokey sweater with shaking hands and threw it
in a corner. Tomorrow, she would make the hole in the wall recycle it.
Tally lay back and stared at the ceiling for a while. A ping from Shay came, but she ignored it, setting her
interface ring to sleeptime. With everything so
perfect, reality seemed somehow fragile, as if the
slightest interruption could imperil her pretty future. The bed beneath her, Komachi Mansion, and even the. city around her—all of it felt as tenuous as a soap
bubble, shivering and empty.
It was probably just the knock on her head causing the
weird missingness that underlay her joy. She only needed a good night’s sleep—and hopefully nohangover tomorrow—and everything would feel solid again, as perfect as it really was.
Tally fell asleep a few minutes later, happy to be a Crim at last.
But her dreams were totally bogus.
So on the surface, she is happy to have accomplished her goal and become a Crim. But she has to try hard to convince herself of it. Too hard. That life is perfect. So hard that it is obvious she is not convinced it is real, that she fears it may be bogus. This underlying emotional conflict makes the exposition feel important and relevant in a way the words never would have. It advances the story and adds tension, keeping our interest.
The trick to making exposition matter is to dig deeper into your characters at such moments and examine what is going on with them. Why is this information important at this moment? What do they feel in saying it and why does it matter? Find the delimmas, contradictions, impulses, and conflicting ideas and questions that drive the character and readers will be fascinated. Maass writes: “True tension in exposition comes not from circular worry or repetitive turmoil; it comes from emotions in conflict and ideas at war.”
Description passages have a similar problem, which is why readers sometimes skim them. Maass writes: “Description itself does nothing to create tension; tension only comes from people within the landscape.” So the trick is to use description to reveal the conflict of the observer. How does observing various details affect the character? What makes the details stand out for the character? People tend to focus on details that mean something to them and ignore the rest. So pick the details that are important to the character and describe them so it’s clear why they count. Here’s a great example from Memory Man by David Baldacci:
The bar was much like every bar Decker had ever been in.
Dark, cold, musty, smoky, where light fell funny and everyone looked like someone you knew or wanted to know. Or, more likely, wanted to forget. Where everyone was your friend until he was your enemy and cracked a pool stick over your skull. Wherethings were quiet until they weren’t. Where you could drink away anything life threw at you. Where a thousand Billy Joel wannabes would serenade you into the wee hours.
Sounds like most bars I’ve been in for sure. There are elements of familiarity and elements of foreboding. Decker is both at home and ill at ease here, conflicting emotions. The history in the elements described keeps him on edge and we with him. And as a result, we feel the tension of anticipation that something will happen here. And in fact, it does. A confrontation follows moments later.
Maass writes: “Tension can be made out of nothing at all—or, at least, that’s how it can appear. In reality, it is feelings—specifically, feelings in conflict with each other—that fill up an otherwise dead span of story and bring it to life.” Finding ways to bring out those conflicting emotions through description is the key to keeping tension in every word.
So by now most of you know I have a new novel out, Simon Says, and the next anthology, Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers, is out in 3 weeks, close on its heels. So I am on the promotion bandwagon for a bit. Here’s two chances to catch me live this week:
Monday: At 8 p.m. CST U.S., find me on Keystroke Medium Live on YouTube, Join me and hosts Josh Hayes and Scott Moon as we talk about writing, police, the book, and more. Be sure and login early so you have your name in the chat window and can ask questions.
Tuesday: At 3 p.m. in the afternoon, you can call in and ask questions as I join hostess Sherri Rabinowitz on Chatting With Sherri live on blogtalk radio. The call-in number is 646-915-9580.
I’ll be talking about my research process for writing the John Simon Thrillers, including real live ride-alongs with KCPD on all night shifts multiple times, and other adventures, and taking questions. Who knows? We may even give away a book or two. So tune in please!
This week as I launch my latest novel, and my first thriller, Simon Says, I wanted to talk about the importance of suspense to drive a story. But before I get into how to make a story suspenseful, it’s important we first talk about Plot, because plot drives suspense, and the core of any good plot are questions asked and answered.
In Writing The Breakout Novel, Donald Maass identifies Five Basic Plot Elements all plots must have. They are:
A sympathetic character.
So every good plot starts with character, specifically a character we can care about. Then that character encounters obstacles that create conflict. This can be another person or group of people, some natural or other issue, etc. Then the conflict is complicated by various other obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of the character resolving it. This leads to a climax wherein the character must confront the opponent—person, animal, or thing—head on and see who will win. This leads to a resolution. These five elements make up any solid, well developed plot.
Once you have these core elements, plot is driven by asking questions. But what makes readers keep turning the pages isn’t just the questions themselves but how and when you answer them. Some questions get answered in the same scene, some several scenes later but within the same chapter. Some questions get asked and go unanswered for many chapters or even the entire book. The weight in importance of the question usually determines how long you will take to answer it and whether you answer it in pieces or all at once. Asking intriguing questions that readers just have to know the answers to will keep them interested and compelled as they continue to read. So picking the right questions is vital.
Questions can derive from characters or conflict. They result in complications that lead to a climax or climactic confrontation and then to a resolution (unless you have a sequel and end on a cliffhanger of sorts). The questions need to be compelling but they don’t always have to be complex or deep—just something we care about the answer to. At different points in the story, our level of caring will vary. At the beginning, it takes a while to care about the characters, so while you may ask big questions that set up the story and drive the characters (and won’t be answered until the end), the full weight of them isn’t felt right away. We may be intrigued, but to make us “dying to know” we need to care about the outcome, and that means caring about the characters: what they want, who they are, what their goals are. So, as you can see, all the five core elements of plot play into the power of storytelling. It’s very important to pick the right ones: ones that will generate compelling and interesting questions that keep readers coming back for more.
For example, some things we will want to know in a good story are: Who is this character? What does this character want? How is what this character wants affected by what other characters want? Why does any of it matter? Where does the story take place? When does the story take place? How is this character like me? How is this character not like me? What is this clue or object? Who has it? Who wants it? Why does it matter? What is the effect of one character having it over another? And so on.
The result of this pattern of questions and when and how you answer them is suspense—the tension that drives the story and compels us to keep reading to see how it turns out. Asking the right questions at the right time and answering them at the right time builds tension and keeps a story interesting and well-paced. Asking the wrong questions and answering too soon or not well (or not at all) destroys tension and interest and leads readers to stop reading or even throw your book against a wall in sheer disgust. So you see: the first key to good plotting is asking the right questions at the right time. The second key to good plotting is answering them at the right time in the right way.
Also key is viewpoint. Because picking the right viewpoint affects what we know and what we don’t know and how much we care about finding the answers. The question to ask yourself in choosing viewpoint is which character is the best person to tell this story or scene? In the case of singular viewpoints, everything readers learn will be what one character learns or knows, solely their experience and interpretation of people and events. With multiple narrators, you must choose who has the most to lose. Usually that character is the best one to tell a particular scene because their stakes are the highest. And as such, their questions and needs will be the most compelling and interesting for readers.
In next week’s post, we will examine techniques for building tension and suspense. The goal is to help you make your stories more compelling so readers come back for more and more.
In the meantime, if you want to see what I am talking about, perhaps check out my new novel, Simon Says, which I mentioned earlier. Readers tell me it is a real pageturner because of the suspense. The editor was so hooked he forgot to edit and kept having to go back and reread to do his edits. Free sample chapters can be found here.
Thanks for reading this far. Good luck with those questions. See you next week when we talk about how to play off them for greatest effect.
Another area of concern related to dialogue are speech tags. The most common of these, of course, is “said.” But sometimes people try to get creative and do so badly. Creative speech tags are generally a bad idea. All too often they stand out as forced or awkward and draw attention to the writer and craft, away from the story, rather than just flying by like they are supposed to, allowing readers to stay in the story. All of us can probably think of examples we’ve encountered in our reading. Here are ten common tips to avoid frequent pitfalls in writing dialogue and speech tags: 1) Use Simple Tags Sparingly. Fancy tags like “he expostulated” or “she espoused” are less clear and more distracting than anything. So keep the tags simple when you absolutely must use them. Instead, convey the manner in which a character speaks instead. Make it obvious from what is said. 2) Instead Of Tags, Use Actions. People talk while actively engaging in activities. So should your characters. Giving them business to do during dialogue allows you to identify who’s speaking without resorting to overused tags. Some can come in the form of characterizing the speaker: “His eyebrows lifted with menace,” for example. “Bob’s fist clenched as he spoke.” “Tears rolled down her cheek with every word.” 3) Avoid Expositional Dialogue When Possible. We’ve all violated this rule, but especially when two characters should already know the information being imparted, it seems unnatural and distracting. In such cases, internal monologue is a better tool and more natural. Characters may think about stuff they already know but they wouldn’t tell each other stuff each of them knows. 4) Keep It Short. People talk in choppy sentences. Long soliloquies are rare. So in dialogue, use a combination of short sentences to make it flow and feel like real people talking. Let them interrupt each other, too. People do that in real life. It adds to the pace, tension and drama of it. 5) Avoid Phonetic Spellings For Accents. They are difficult to read. Indications of dialect can be used instead to get the reader to do the rest. Overuse of a dialect becomes distracting to readers and can actually take them out of the story. Keep the words your characters say as unobtrusive as possible so your story flows seamlessly. 6) Dialogue Is Conflict. Conflict keeps the story moving. People talk like they’re playing table tennis-back and forth. This moves the story forward. Lace your dialogue with conflict. It adds dramatic urgency to every line the characters say and keeps the story’s pace. 7) Use Other Characters. Let a character imply who’s speaking to them by saying something specific to only that person. If you use business well (see number 2 above), having a character refer to something the other character is doing is a great way to do this. 8) Give Each Character A Distinctive Voice. Overdo it and its caricature but we all have our own speech tics. Create some for your characters and sprinkle them throughout. Readers will learn them and know who’s speaking. For example, Captain Jack Sparrow loves the term of affection: “love” and uses that a lot. He also says “Savvy?” a great deal as well. He has others you can probably remember, too. Study characterization and see what other writers have done. 9) Speak It Aloud. Talk it out. Get inside the heads of your characters and say the lines. Play out the conversation you’ve written. Does it sound natural? Does it flow? Your ear is often a better judge than your eyes and hearing it will give you an idea how readers will hear it. 10) Remember What Medium You’re Writing For. TV and Film dialogue and novel dialogue are not necessarily the same. There is no third party to use intonation, facial expressions and/or body language to bring it to life. Your words alone are the conduit between yourself and the reader and your prose skills and the readers’ imaginations make it work. Altogether, remember, the goal of speech tags is solely to help readers keep track of who is speaking, when. That is their sole purpose. It is not a chance to insert adjectives for emotional effect or to show off fancy word slinging vocabularies. They are another tool best used as subtly as possible. In On Writing, Stephen King writes: “As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty…It is important to tell the truth; so much depends on it…The Legion of Decency may not like the word shit, and you might not like it much either, but sometimes you are stuck with it… You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have resonance and realism…If you substitute ‘Oh sugar!’ for ‘Oh shit!’ because you’re thinking about The Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader—your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of made-up story.” That some readers may not want to hear the truth is not your problem. Your quest is to tell the truth at all times, to keep their trust, and sometimes the truth is uncomfortable for all of us. Dialogue being how characters talk is one of the most important crafts to writing your novel. It must feel authentic and real for readers to believe your characters could be real people.
Some of you know I’ve been working on a new project with friends called Boralis Books. Boralis Books arose out of my frustration with New York publishing rejecting strong, well written page turners because they “didn’t know how to market them.” It’s happened to me several times and I know other authors have experienced the same frustration. So I decided to publish some novels myself, and to me, the best way to do it is to create a press and recruit staff—editors, proofers, designers—and try and put out quality product that rivals New York quality books.
Eventually, Boralis Books will release titles by multiple authors: novels, anthologies, collections, maybe a few novellas too. But for now, it is starting with three near future procedural thrillers by me. Every project will depend upon the success of prior projects for funding, so the initial plan is to release three books a year, one every four months, and see how it goes. Books will be released in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebooks—with audio to come as available. All books will be distributed via Ingram Sparks so bookstores anywhere can stock them if they desire, with ebooks initially exclusive to Kindle and then expanding from time to time to other mediums. We will, of course, also set up a Boralis Books store for selling the other formats as soon as we can.
For information on what we have so far, please check out Boralis Books at www.boralisbooks.com, a work in progress for sure. As more authors and projects are chosen, we will post information there. We will not be doing open submissions at least initially. I don’t have the time or resources to review them adequately and keep up with other plans. But we leave open that option for down the road.
Meanwhile, we plan to publish both speculative fiction and mystery/thriller with a few others possibly mixed in. We hope you’ll check out what we’re doing. Our first release will be Simon Says, the firs in my John Simon thrillers, which is Bosch meets Lethal Weapon with robots. It’s filled with action, strong memorable characters and humor and set in 2029 Kansas City, with a tough Luddite cop teaming with an android witness to solve a nanotech crime and his partner’s kidnapping. Future books will follow.
As always, launching a small press is a challenging endeavor, but having edited numerous novels and short stories, I hope I am up to the task with a lot of friends for support. Our editorial staff includes Guy Anthony Demarco, an MFA in Creative Writing, who also does our interior design. A.R. Crebs will be our book trailer and cover designer and artist, though we may employ others as time goes on. I also have some proofers and a few others as well.
Be sure and check us out. Simon Says is up for preorder now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold!