Being a Better Writer: Gestures, Paralinguistics, and Dialogue

Welcome, readers, to the year 2020, and a new series of Being a Better Writer! We’re back at last, ready to tackle all new topics of writing every Monday. So kick back and get ready to talk writing!

If you’re new, well you’ve probably figured it out by now, but Being a Better Writer is a weekly series here on Unusual Things, several years running now, that’s all about writing in its various aspects. We’ve discussed everything from romance subplots to character motivations to common writing cliches.

So, what topic have I chosen to kick off the new year? One I’d imagine many people haven’t thought a lot on. I myself, actually, hadn’t consciously given it much thought until an incident about a month ago got me pondering on it. See, a little over a month ago now, as the holiday season was really winding up, I got talking with someone that had just finished one of my books, and they’d offered their thoughts and opinions. One thing that they pointed out was that the exposition offered by the characters felt, for lack of a better word, thicker than other books. It would cover plot, yes, and needed elements, but would do so in a way that was longer than other books by other authors.

But at the same time, while this threw them off, it wasn’t bad, and they couldn’t say why. For that matter, neither could I, and I puzzled over it for almost a week. Because they weren’t the first reader to note this. More than once it’s been pointed out to me that many readers feel my characters’ moments of dialogue and exposition are larger than other comparable books … but don’t feel drawn out. In other words, they make take twice as many words to say what another book would do in half the amount … but it doesn’t feel like it unless one sits back and looks at the whole.

This puzzled me, as it wasn’t the first time an observation in this vein has been made about my work. I say puzzling because for the majority of readers it wasn’t bad. No one felt that there were “extra” or even unnecessary words or phrases in there, despite the overall length being larger by comparison. Put before a critical editor, they’d hem and haw … but in the end conclude that they didn’t want to cut anything.

See? Puzzling. And so I spent a good week during the holidays pondering on this odd occurrence. What was I doing differently with my writing that made my dialogue and exposition longer … but not filler?

Then, I watched a Youtube video from content creator Tom Scott, and it clicked. I knew what it was that I was doing differently, and why people would note that the exposition was “thicker” but wouldn’t want to cut anything.

It had to do with my characters. Or rather, how I developed and made them come alive to the audience through use of paralinguistics.

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Being a Better Writer: The Five Senses

Welcome back readers, to another installment of Being a Better Writer! We’ve got a pretty nifty topic ahead of us, but before we hit that, there’s some big news we’ve got to discuss. News which I’m sure many of you have already guessed at. It’ll get its own post tomorrow, as to not interfere with today’s BaBW (I’ve learned my lesson there), but it’s big enough news it needs it’s own spot heading today’s post (since today is the first I can get to it). So here goes.


Jungle is now available for Pre-order!

Jungle CoverYes, you read that right. Jungle, the massive sequel to Colony, is now open for pre-order in advance of its November 19th release date. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely must have the newest book the moment it comes out, or if you’d rather order it now so that you don’t have to worry about it later, well, you’re in luck! All you need to do is click this link right here or the cover image to the right there and you’ll be taken right to the pre-order page so you can place your order.

Jungle is the long-awaited (and at last almost here!) sequel to Colony, coming November 19th!


Okay, take a moment to recover from that bit of news. It’s big, I know. Once a year kind of news.

All right, heart-rate stabilizing, breathing returning to normal, pre-order made … Everything’s taken care of. So let’s talk writing!

Okay, I expect that some of you are looking at the title for this particular BaBW post and thinking something along the lines of “The five senses? He doesn’t mean those five senses, does he?”

And, well, yeah I do. The five you learn as a kid when you’re in a grade school, or from your parents, or maybe an older sibling (though the latter usually comes with either the wrong number, or a made up sense because older siblings messing with younger siblings is a time-honored tradition).

But yes, we’re talking about those five senses: Sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Specifically, we’re talking about using those in your writing. Why?

Well … I noticed something a few months ago (yeah, this topic’s from a while back) when I was both editing Jungle and reading through a book from my local library. Now, this happened long enough ago that I don’t remember exactly how the topic came up, but if I recall properly, it had to do with a comment an Alpha reader left on Jungle that served a sharp contrast to the book I was reading at the time. Sharp enough that I suddenly stopped and thought to myself “When was the last time anyone smelled anything in this book?” Meaning the book I was reading, not Jungle.

Believe it or not, this question stumped me. And I starting thinking even more heavily on the topic, running over the last few books I’d read in my head and thinking about, well, smells. The more I thought about it, the more odd the last few books I’d read felt to me. Why? Because it was as if scents didn’t exist in their world. In fact, I’m pretty sure one of them never once mentioned any smells at all.

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Being a Better Writer: Voice VS Grammar

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, and that means Being a Better Writer! So, our topic for today? We’re going to start off with a little quiz. Nothing complicated, just pick answer A or answer B.

The setup? Picture a man sitting alone in a train car. He’s alone in his berth, the other three seats unoccupied. He keeps glancing out the window. His leg is bouncing up and down in a rapid rhythm. His clothes are wrinkled, unkempt. He looks as though he may have missed his last shower. His fingers keep beating a nervous, staccato beat against the arm of his seat.

The door is open, and he jerks his eyes to it as a trolley stops in front of it. The man behind the trolley politely asks if the occupant would like anything.

The man in the berth opens his mouth and says—

Option A) “No, thanks.”

Option B) “No thanks.”

So, which option is correct?

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Being a Better Writer: Character Voice

Hey readers! Welcome back!

I know. It’s been a slow week from your perspective. The last major post here was another Being a Better Writer post last Monday. I said nothing else all week.

It’s because I was keeping busy. I’ve thrown myself headlong into Jungle edits, currently on  chapter … 37? Of 42. I think. Not important. The vital detail is that I edited something like 120,000 words last week. This week will see every single chapter up for the current group of Alpha Readers.

Oh, Hunter/Hunted beta calls will go out this week, too. I gotta finish up some of these plates so I can stop juggling them. And then pick up more.

This week there will be more than just Being a Better Writer, so check back. Got some thoughts on things here and there, as usual. But that’s for later.

For now, I want to talk about character voice.

Character voice is one of those unique elements that can make or break your story. Imagine, if you would for a moment, that you’ve gone to see an animated movie. The particular film doesn’t matter. Picture a favorite. You pull out the Blu-ray, walk into the theater, whatever, sit down, and the first character comes up and speaks. There’s their voice. Cool. Whatever.

Then the second character opens their mouth to respond … and it’s the same voice. The same VA, clearly the same person who did the first voice. And they do the third voice. And the fourth. And the fifth.

No changes. No switches to pitch or inflection, or any of the standard talents voice actors use when fulfilling multiple roles. Just the same voice for every character.

I’d imagine a viewer would find that both difficult to keep track of and outright annoying, wouldn’t you?

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Being a Better Writer: Chemistry

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, which means it’s time for Being a Better Writer! But first, some quick news. Really quick. Then today’s topic.

Prior Alpha readers, look for an Alpha invite in your e-mail box today! For something short; the Halo novel pitch! That’s right, I’ll be sending out Alpha read e-mails for that today. Just for three chapters, since it’s a pitch.

Meanwhile, the Hunter/Hunted Alpha is about two-thirds of the way done. Then Beta! The next project for me? Getting Jungle into Alpha, and then writing Axtara: Banking and Finance, followed by Fireteam Freelance.

That’s the news. So, chemistry …

It was my worst topic in school. No joke. It took … I want to say the fifth time someone explained the periodic table to me for me to get it. Chemistry in the science portions of my education was always a struggle.

Thankfully, when we start talking about chemistry in a book setting, it often takes on a different meaning. Unless you’re writing a chemistry book. Or a character that’s a chemist.

See in stories something you’ll hear a lot, discussed everywhere from movies reviews to games, is chemistry between the characters. If you’ve ever read a review, or talked about a film you enjoyed (or didn’t) you’ve probably heard someone comment on the characters, saying something like “Oh yeah, those two really did have chemistry.” Or maybe, if it wasn’t good something like “those two had no chemistry.”

Sure, you’ve heard it. But what does it mean?

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Being a Better Writer: Dialects

When you go to the grocery store, what do you call the wheeled apparatus that you collect your groceries in? Is it a shopping cart? Or is it a carriage? Or a trolley?

I’m willing to bet that a good number, if not most of you said “shopping cart.” But if you were from the American northeast—say, Connecticut or Rhode Island—there’s a high chance that you said “Carriage” instead. Or that you might say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain.” Or “soda pop” instead of “soda.” Or crud, maybe you’re even one of those individuals who calls all sodas “coke.” You know, as in “Get me a coke,” followed by “What do you want?” and “Oh, a Pepsi.”

All of these differences (and many, many more, from snow machine to snowmobile) are examples of what are know as “regional dialects.” Which makes today’s post a bit of a companion piece to last week’s on accents. And, I must admit, this topic wasn’t on the list, but after a comment about the concept by reader ocalhoun (no, I don’t know how you pronounce that either, but I’ve always read it as “o-cull-hoon”) brought up the subject, I realized that it was worth posting about, rather than just giving it an offhand mention as I had previously done.

So, dialects! What are they, how do they come about, and—this part is a bit key—what separates a dialect from an accent? Because yes, they are two different things. You can have two individuals with the same accent but a different dialect.

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Being a Better Writer: Accents

Hopefully this will be a short one. After the longer-than-average posts the last few weeks, I’d like to get a quicker, shorter Being a Better Writer post in so I can jump back to closing up Jungle once and for all!

Granted, every time I say that I end up writing a post that’s multiple times longer than I expected, so hopefully I’ve not jinxed myself here. But let’s get this underway. Let’s talk about accents.

Thankfully, I feel that I have a bit I can contribute on this topic, as it was a hotly contested one during one of my college English courses, with the classroom dividing into three sides (for, against, and non-determinate) on the issue. Granted, the non-determinate faction really doesn’t come into play here, except to let you know that there are those who don’t mind either way, but … Well, let’s back up. Why were there two groups?

Well, because there are two ways of handling accents in fiction. Well, writing in general, rather (you could do this in a non-fiction work as well). You can create an accent that is phonetic—as in, written out the way it sounds—or you can not do that and simply tell the reader what the accent is. Okay, and there’s technically a third option, which is to blend to two, but most consider that going the phonetic route either way.

Both of these, naturally, have strengths and drawbacks, so really, it’s up to you—and on a smaller scale, up to your audience—to decide which of these you prefer.

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Being a Better Writer: Giving Characters a Leitmotif

Okay, first of all, I need to apologize for this post coming so late in the day. I know that yesterday I said I would have it up this morning, but as some of you likely noticed … that didn’t happen. What did happen was that last night, as I sat down to put together what would have been this morning’s post, it … Well, it wouldn’t go together. I was nursing a headache, tired, and after a frustrating time spent slapping together a less-than-subpar BaBW post, I canned the whole thing and decided to do it today after work (and after I’d gotten a little more sleep).

So far, this seems to have worked. With the one problem being that I missed the scheduled posting this morning and for that, I apologize. I should be more regular in getting these posts up (especially with the sudden surge in Monday work shifts at my second job).

Right, so with that done and said, what are we talking about today? After all, I’m sure a few of you who have had more than a few music classes or shared a passing interest in music may know what a leitmotif is, and with that knowledge, you’re surely wondering how that applies to writing. After all, despite experimentation to the contrary, a majority of books do not release with a soundtrack, nor any form of ambient accompaniment (and there’s a small subset of people who want to keep it that way, no less). So then, what might I mean by giving characters a leitmotif?

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Being a Better Writer: Character Descriptions

This post was originally written and posted November 17th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today’s topic inspired was by a bit of a firestorm I saw with regards to a story that someone had written. And while the firestorm in question will definitely not be the subject of today’s post, nor do I wish to get into that as it is nearly an entirely separate topic, today’s topic will brush up against it for a brief moment.

Today, I’m going to talk about character descriptions.

Character descriptions are something that every new writer struggles with, and often many somewhat experienced writers as well. Because when we get right down to it, character descriptions fall into one of those writing areas where no one teaches you how to do it, and everyone assumes that it’s fairly straightforward and to the point. “You shouldn’t need to be taught about this,” the public mindset seems to say. “How hard can it be? You just describe your character!”

Well, as it turns out, and as most new writers discover when they put their pencil to paper for the first time, describing your characters is much more difficult than it appears. It’s hard. Many writers, in a fit of panic (or without realizing it), will simply throw out a narrated description of basic looks—eye color, hair, figure, etc—and then just jump right into the story, without realizing how jarring and unappealing to the reader such a description is. Only upon going back do most of them realize how truly unappealing it is for a story to start off with “Bob was Asian, five-foot-seven-inches, with brown hair and brown eyes … etc, etc.” Only when they do realize how unappealing it is does the real panic set in, when they realize that they have no idea how to do any differently.

Which is why I’m talking about this today. Because to many readers, how you describe a character can be a make-or-break point for the entire book. Young writers don’t quite realize how important something as simple as a character description can be to the reader’s acceptance of a work. Plenty a time has been the moment when a reader has picked up a book, read only a few paragraphs, run across a poor character description, and put the book back on the shelf. Why? Because even if they don’t consciously realize it, a poor character description is often an indicator of other problems with the book, be they weakness of story, poor attention to detail, or just in general a low-quality read.

Yikes. Suddenly the amount and care for detail you put into your character description takes on a whole new level of importance, doesn’t it? It might not just be something that’s a nice part of your work, it’s something that the very reading of your work may hinge upon.

Kind of makes it important to get right.

So, where do you start? How do you go about making sure that your character description is going to be something that keeps your reader flipping through your pages? Well, to start, you’re going to need to know a few things about your work.

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