Well-written dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story forward, give more depth to the character, and keep the plot from stagnating. But there are some pitfulls to writing dialogue. Here's a few things to watch for:
* That you are not just dumping information through dialogue. It’s OK to give some information through dialogue, but when a character is giving an entire monologue on any issue, you’ve gone too far.
* That you aren’t including dialogue just for the sake of having dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose, whether it’s revealing someone’s character or showing the sleuth and sidekick figuring out an important clue. Are there lines you can cut, and replace with action beats?
* Does your dialogue have conflict or tension? Good dialogue, according to James Scott Bell in “Revision & Self-Editing,” should surprise the reader. “View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Are they using dialogue as a ‘weapon’?” he asks. Among that weaponry he lists anger, epithets, pouting, name-calling, and dodging as examples.
The two speakers don’t necessarily need to be antagonists, as in this example, from Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Walking the Perfect Square,” between his protagonist, recently retired cop Moe Prager, and Rico, a police detective:
“I had lunch with Sully,” I said. “He showed me a picture.”
“Yeah, and so what happened?”
“It was of Patrick Maloney.”
Rico’s expression soured. “That what you dragged me off a stakeout to tell me?”
“The picture didn’t look like the one on the poster.”
“Jesus Christ, Moe! Who looks like their picture? You take a look at your departmental ID lately? You probably look like Wolfman Jack.”
* That last line above is called “curving” the dialogue. Do you have ho-hum lines that you can ramp up a bit? How can you make them funnier, or edgier?
* Does your dialogue sound real – but not too real? It should be realistic, but not to the point where you use the normal hesitators that people use, such as “um,” “uh,” “y’know.” This will stop readers in their tracks.
* Have you thrown in some action beats? Here’s an example where an action beat is done well, from “A Cold and Lonely Place,” by Sara J. Henry:
She buried her face in her mug, and it was a moment before she spoke again. “Troy, I want these articles to show Tobin’s life, good, bad, whatever. I want them to show who he was and what he could have been.”
The character is struggling with what to say, and how to say it, and Henry shows us, rather than telling us. But beats should be used sparingly; use too many in dialogue and they only serve to slow it down too much and annoy the reader. Renni Browne and Dave King, in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” suggest you read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself pausing between two consecutive lines, then you might want to insert a beat at that point.
* Is each character distinct enough? If not, look at giving characters pet words or phrases they repeat from time, or look at cadence (some people use more words).
* Are you overusing ellipsis? Ellipsis should only be used only to indicate speech that trails off. And in real life, dialogue shouldn’t trail off every other sentence. Interrupted sentences are indicated not by ellipsis, but by dashes.
Finally, here’s a good example of dialogue done right, from Michele Drier’s "Edited for Death," in which two main characters puzzle out a clue together. This is the way to give the reader information. The dialogue is witty, there’s a little bit of tension between the two, there’s an action beat, and it certainly moves the story forward, providing a vital clue:
“You’re the one who told me not to put too much into him,” Clarice says. “To quote you, ‘It’s sad when a nobody dies,’ blah, blah, blah…”
“It’s not that he dies, it’s where they found his body,” I say.
“They found it in a bar, where else would a drunk be?”
“But that’s the point.” I’m patient, waiting for her to catch up. “Royce just said he slept in the lobby. Besides, if he was a well-known drunk—”
“They would have locked the bar!” Clarice says, her eyes growing round. “Royce sure wouldn’t have left the door to the bar open for a drunk, not to mention keeping Stewart out at night. So, where was he killed?”
The following three-part series is reprinted from the Sisters in Crime blog:
We’ve all had the experience of reading a book, being completely immersed, and then, whoosh, we’re thrown out of the story. It can be as simple as a misspelled word or as grievous as a character whose name has suddenly changed.
This is where the editor steps in—or should have stepped in, I should say.
Editors often get a bad rap. Most writers don’t like their words to be changed, trimmed or otherwise played with. Editors are seen as nitpickers, at best; an intrusive presence, at worst. A good editor, though, leaves behind a better story, without having left a footprint behind.
If you are a first-time writer, this experience can be invaluable, as Toby Speed, a Long Island Sisters in Crime member, found. Speed spent 15 years crafting her first novel and another year shopping it around.
“After many revisions and a couple of overhauls, at 101,600 words it was perfect,” she said. “I’d had two groups of beta readers go through it carefully and I incorporated their helpful, detailed comments.”
But Speed’s mystery story was going nowhere until one editor wrote back, explaining the importance of pacing and suggesting a cut of 15,000 to 20,000 words—and, best yet, the editor had shown her how, by editing the first 70 pages. But, at first, this only annoyed Speed.
“She had even deleted my prologue, the best writing in the book!” Speed said. “I walked around grumbling for 24 hours, wondering how I could possibly cut that many words without harming the story."
"Then I read the editor’s version with the tracking turned off. It read really well—in fact, a whole lot better than the original. The story got started right away and moved right along. The first two chapters ended in the right place. I took a deep breath and over the next six weeks, following her example, I shaved nearly 16,000 words from the story and resubmitted it."
"No one else had seen my story as it was—or as it had the potential to become.”
Speed resubmitted her book, and a publishing company is considering it.
Her experience is not uncommon. As a writer, it’s hard to be objective of one’s own work. A fresh set of eyes—an experienced set of eyes—is always helpful.
When searching for an editor, you should be aware that there are three levels of editing--developmental editing, copyediting and proofreading. Some editors will work in all three areas; some editors specialize in only one of them.
Developmental editing (also called substantive editing).
In traditional publishing, this is the first round of editing, and it may reshape your manuscript quite a bit. Not all writers may feel they need this, but if you do, you should expect a developmental editor to look at:
Copy editing (or line editing), which includes:
If you’ve worked with a good copy editor, you are not likely to need this last step. Generally, proofreaders are employed by publishers to read the story in typeset form, to look for any remaining errors in spelling, punctuation, or typesetting.
Finding—and Hiring—a Freelance Editor
You’ve finished your novel and now you need an editor. Some writers turn to an English teacher they know or a friend who was always good at spotting errors. But these may not always be the best sources. A professional copy editor has training and years of experience behind her, and will give your novel a far more thorough look.
How do you find this editor, and how do you go about hiring her?
One of the best ways of finding a copy editor is to ask for references from other writers. There’s also a very large pool of talent at the Editorial Freelancers Association (www.the-efa.org). A posting there will generate dozens and dozens of applicants. Some regions may have their own groups, such as the Bay Area Editors’ Forum in San Francisco (http://www.editorsforum.org/).
Now that you have a pool of applicants, the best way to winnow them is to ask them to complete a sample edit (anywhere from six to 12 pages). This is probably the most important step you can take. This will give you an idea of their editing strengths and, just as importantly, their bedside manner. Most editing inherently feels like criticism, and you’ll be reading page after page of this, so make sure you understand (and can stand) an editor’s comments.
A sample edit of this length is also enough to give the editor an idea of how long it will take her to complete the project, and she can base a price estimate on this. You can find common copy-editing rates at http://www.the-efa.org/res/rates.php, although individual rates vary considerably. Just remember, as in most everything else, you get what you pay for sometimes!
Editors also vary on the way they like to be paid. Some editors ask for a deposit, then a second or even a third payment later on, and a final payment. Other editors will charge you weekly, or as they finish sections of the book. Make sure all this is spelled out in advance in a contract.
Here are other important questions for you to ask:
Maintaining a Good Relationship With Your Editor
The next step, after determining what type of editor you want and hiring someone, is to maintain that relationship–and make the most of it. If the two of you are a good fit, this is a relationship that may potentially continue for many years–throughout more books, short stories, magazine articles, websites or blog posts. The secret of maintaining a long-lasting relationship is like many other working relationships. Communicating clearly and with respect goes a long way.
Here are some other tips:
Agents' Pet Peeves
Are you unwittingly turning off an acquiring editor by committing one of her pet peeves?
Two acquiring editors spoke about what works – and what doesn’t – at a panel at the Left Coast Crime convention in Colorado Springs.
Denise “Deni” Dietz, a senior editor for Five Star publications, says any manuscript sent to her should follow the submission guidelines, and authors should be professional in their dealings with her. She isn’t looking for perfection in a manuscript, but she is looking for someone with a “good voice” and for solid “characterization, plot, and pacing.”
“You can edit a book, but you can’t edit a[n author's] voice,” Dietz said.
She also has several pet peeves, and she warns writers:
Terri Bischoff, acquiring editor for Midnight Ink, mostly accepts agented submissions or those by invitation. Like Dietz, she has pet peeves, too.
One of them is authors who don’t know the genre or subgenre in which they are writing. “Or they say, ‘I write like so and so,’ and I open the manuscript and it isn’t at all” like that writer, Bischoff said. Also, writers who submit and a week later are asking her about the submission don’t do themselves any favors, she said.
Because Dietz and Bischoff work for smaller publishing houses, they will often critique or give suggestions to authors who show promise, but whose manuscript may still need some work. Take time to really rework the manuscript before resubmitting it, they said.
Finally, don’t try to follow the trends, or the popular authors.
“If you are submitting to me and saying, ‘it’s like Dan Brown,’ “ said Dietz, “well, I tried getting through Dan Brown four times and finally gave up.”
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.