Read With Intention

October 25, 2012

I was giving a seminar on character development last weekend, and I mentioned using dialog as a cool way to show your character rather than tell your character. What I mean is this:

Telling your character:

Jane was the quirky sort who looked at the world through a skewed lens. She was on a few degrees off plumb.

On the face of it, the sentence is fine, but what if her dialog never reveals these characteristics? Then I have no choice but to take your word for it; and I won’t.

Here’s an example of showing your character through dialog: 

“What’s the fun of attending this stuffy tea if we can’t have a little fun? I say we spike the teapot with cheap gin and watch those university wives get down with the funk. With a little bit of luck, they’ll hike up their skirts and splash about the marble fountain. It’d be the most fun they’ve had since having their braces removed.”

The dialog makes the first example sentence (tell) unnecessary. The reader already has it figured out that the character is a few degrees off plumb.

I always appreciate authors who show rather than tell because this adds an extra layer to character development. You’re getting the idea across about your character by letting her speak, rather than giving your readers a menu. As I always say, you can tell me something ’til the cows come home, but until you show me, well…I’d rather go cow tipping.

The author in my seminar asked about what books I could recommend that had “intentional dialog” – dialog that accomplishes the two-part goal of imparting information and showing some character development. Oboy…what books? There are a gajillion books out there that can teach writers all kinds of cool writing tips.

The trick is to read with intention. If you’re looking for cool dialog, read with the intent of analyzing effective dialog. For example, I patterned my dialog after John Lescroart because I love the delicious banter he creates for his two main characters in his Dismas Hardy series. He makes me laugh and keeps me turning the pages. Moreover, I care about the characters. So when I first started writing, I kept a close eye on how he developed his dialog. I figured out what I liked about his dialog is that it’s dry, minimalist, and witty.

I thought about all kinds of books I’ve read and loved the way the authors’ dialog worked toward character development, but I ended up unable to give him a definitive answer because I have no idea what he’s really looking for. Just because I love something doesn’t mean it’ll float someone else’s boat.

If you’re looking to enhance your writing, you need look no further than the books you love to read. Figure out the specifics of why you love the stories so much. Why do you love the characters? What methods did the author use to develop those characters so they leap off the page? Looking for plot structure or pacing? Examine how your favorite authors do it.

Go to your bookshelf and read with intent. After all, those who have come before us are brilliant and have kept our attention into favorite author status, so analyze the tricks they employed to capture your attention. It’s a lot cheaper than writing classes and How To books, no?

If you don’t read, how do you know?

November 3, 2010

Over the past several months, I’ve been hither, thither, and yon, talking at conferences, giving library seminars, and reading queries, and I’ve noticed some consistencies:

Those who didn’t read
Those who were trying something entirely new

Those who don’t read

A number of the pitches I read and heard sounded unmarketable. So unmarketable that I asked who they felt would read their books. Um…well…head scratchie…

Ok, here’s an easier question, sez me, where does your book fit? Who’s your competition? Um…well…head scratchie…I have no competition because there’s nothing on the market like my book.

Ohhh…the exclamation point speech bubble pops over my head…how much reading have you done? Author’s eyes search the heavens…um, not much.

Pricey goes head bangy. How on earth can you know you have something unless you’re well read in your genre? I’ve heard all kinds of excuses – “I don’t want someone else’s book getting inside my head.” “I don’t have the time.” “Oh, that’s important?”

See, the thing that bugs me about these comments is that the writers aren’t taking their craft seriously. This isn’t an industry where someone decides to write a book and whamm-o, out pops a bestseller.Words come to mind: sacrilegious, hubris, certifiable.

Look at it from our standpoint; are we going to spend thousands on an author who doesn’t take his craft seriously. Sure, there are the odd accidental hits, but of those few, there are tens of thousands of books that aren’t hits. They have to make it the old-fashioned way; by understanding what it takes to be a writer.

And one of those elements to being a writer is understanding the unique qualities of your book. But you can’t know that unless you’ve read your competition. Believe me, at some point, an editor or agent will ask – and won’t you look the green jellybean for stuttering over your tongue?

Read, people! Know your competition and understand how your story fits in nicely with theirs, yet lends a new voice.

Those who were trying something entirely new

Then there are authors I’ve encountered of late who were trying to break new territory. I’m always happy to entertain these writers because they may be on to something quite cool. But what I’ve been seeing are those whose new territories reside on other planets. It’s like trying to blast a new tunnel through a mountain. Without knowing what’s on the other side, you have no idea how much dynamite it’ll take to do the job.

Breaking new territory in a book requires a lot of dynamite because it’s new. No one has done it before, so you need to have a solid foundation – meaning that there needs to be some familiarity to it. Take Stephanie Meyers…we already had vampires and we already had romance. But we didn’t have vampire romance. Voila! She combined two genres that the reading public is already familiar with and made some serious lemonade.

But I’ve been seeing things that I’m not sure the reading public is ready for quite yet because there’s no frame of reference. And even if readers are ready for plumber/alien romance, or vampire botanists, I’m not sure the genre buyers’ loins have been properly girded. In other words, it helps if the story makes sense. I love quirky just as much as the next person, but I’d like there to be a plausible reason for the story to exist.

And this comes from reading and researching your genre. After all, there are only so many rotten beagle secretary stories one can exploit, yanno?


Reading your competition

August 29, 2010

I received a number of queries that piqued my interest, so I did what any good, black-hearted, soulless editor does and asked for a full proposal that included title comps. Most of the authors sent exactly what I’d asked for because they knew the elements that go into a full proposal. They came to the party prepared.

Show me da comps!

One proposal was pretty well filled in, but didn’t list any title comps.  So I contacted the author. “Oh,” sez Mr. Author, “I don’t have any. See, I didn’t read anything that was comparable to my book because I didn’t want other books to influence my writing.”

Let me just say that not providing an agent or editor with information they requested is noobish  (someone who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know – and doesn’t care) because it makes us wonder what they’re hiding. It’s unprofessional because we expect writers to come to the party prepared. After all, you queried us, right?

In this case, I wasn’t sure whether the author’s  lack of title comps was a true fear of being influenced by someone else’s writing, or whether he was too lazy to do any outside reading. I know, it sounds strange not to do any reading in the genre one writes, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who think up an idea and write it.

Do you have a story?

This head in the sand stuff drives me buggy because the author has no clue as to whether he even has a marketable story. Whazzat, Price? you screech. Bear with me.

We’d all like to think our imaginations rock and roll and we can crank out a great story. But until we have something to compare it to, we don’t really know, do we? I’ve mentioned this before, but years ago I had a guy send me a story that sounded eerily like J0hn Grisham’s The Rainmaker. When I brought this coinhinkydinky to his attention, he wrote back: “who’s John Grisham?”

Facepalm. I’d like to think he was pulling my leg, but I’ve encountered many queries where the story was either cliche, or it’s been done a thousand times already (hello, vampire romance, teen angst, cancer, and biopolar disorder).

Case in point: I discussed an author’s cancer book with her a couple years ago. I pointed out that there wasn’t anything in her book that hadn’t already been discussed in countless other books. She was genuinely shocked at my comments…until she went out and read a couple cancer books. She wrote back, chagrined, to say that, wow, she really didn’t have a story after all. Aside from the possible catharsis provided by writing her book, it was a total waste of time. I can’t think of a worse fate. And all she had to do was simply reach out and read her competition.


And knowing your competition can help the smart author determine whether the marketplace is saturated. When DaVinci Code came out, I thought I’d lose my ever-livin’ mind with the plethora of knockoffs. Sure, imitation is the highest form of flattery, but not in publishing. Dan Brown did it already, so I strongly advise you do something else.

Knowing that you’re writing in a saturated category will force you to ask whether your story is unique enough to strike a chord with this particular readership. That can only come from knowing what’s already out there.


I know what it’s like to write a novel, and there was absolutely nothing that could get in the way of my story. It’s because I know my characters inside and out and have a firm grasp on the plot. If you’re that concerned that someone else’s book is going to influence you, then how strong of a writer are you? How committed to the story are you?

These are the questions rolling around the dark caverns of my sometimes-working brain.

Besides, I think authors can gain inspiration from reading their favorite authors. For example, I’ve always loved John Lecroart’s dialog because it’s so real and witty. With a simple keystroke, Lescroart makes his characters come to life because his dialog is that strong. I drew great inspiration from that and worked hard to pattern his style and make it my own. To date, readers always tell me dialog is my strong suit and makes my characters become three dimensional. Had I not read and found inspiration in others’ works, I don’t know where my writing would be.

Someone is going to ask

At some point in your writing career, your book is going to be compared to something else. It’s the way of the industry. If you’re talking to a radio producer and they want a quickie rundown of how your book compares to Eat, Pray, Love, what are you going to say? “Uh, gee, I didn’t read that book.” Ka-thunk. Not only do you look like an idiot, but no one will take you seriously.

The more you know about your competitors, the better able you are to highlight your unique qualities.

So, long story short is this: If you don’t read your competition:

  • You have no way of knowing if you even have a story.
  • You have no way of knowing whether your book is marketable.
  • You have no way of knowing if the genre you’re writing in is heavily impacted.
  • You have no way of knowing the unique qualities of your book.
  • You will piss off any editor who wants title comps.
  • You will greatly embarrass yourself in an interview

Ask yourself whether you’re in this game to win it or to be a grain of sand on a very big beach? Know your competition.

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