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: Detail Versus Audience

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you know what that means! And if you didn’t, well … Check that title above!

That’s right, it’s time for another installment of Being a Better Writer! Now that the Jungle launch is past us—an event I’m sure some of you are tired of hearing about, but only because you haven’t read it yet—life can settle back down to normal. Until the next launch at least.

But seriously, guys, Jungle is out. There’s no good reason not to have picked up a copy yet! Unless you haven’t read Colony, in which case you’re really behind and what are you waiting for?

Also, don’t forget that the call is open currently for additional Being a Better Writer topics! If there’s something you’ve wanted to hear about that BaBW hasn’t covered, go leave a comment and you might see it covered in the future!

Okay, that’s the news out of the way. Let’s talk writing.

Today’s topic comes from a forum post I saw online. Specifically, from a forum dedicated to talking about Sci-Fi books. A new, would be writer hopped into the forum and asked what seemed like a pretty simple question, which I’ll paraphrase here:

When writing about technology in my Sci-Fi novel, like spaceships, is it important that readers get all the details of how it works and why? Or should I just offer a little bit of info, or almost none, and move on?

You readers want to take a stab at what answers this poor individual got? I’d almost bet that answers here would, statistically, line up with with those given on the forum.

See, this forum was Reddit. So anyone could either upvote or downvote answers that they felt were right or wrong (I mean, in theory it’s “upvote posts that contribute, and downvote ones that don’t” but everyone turns it into a vote anyway). Would you like to guess what the top two answers were?

They were “Yes, give us the details about the ship and tech so we know about it” and “No, we don’t need that detail! Just tell us there’s a ship and move on, we don’t need anything else.”

Uh-oh.

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Being a Better Writer: Small Windows of Character

Life, The Universe, and Everything is this week!

Yeah, that’s an opening of excitement. I love attending LTUE (which if you’ve somehow missed or not heard of, is a Fantasy/Science-Fiction convention that focuses foremost on authors and writers; check out their site here). Tomorrow I’ll throw my schedule up here on the site, ie what panels I’m interested in attending, where I’ll be, etc, but no mistake, if you spot me and want to say “Hello!” do so! I love attending this convention not just to both learn and pass on knowledge, but also to run into people and chat about books, writing, games … the works!

Okay, I’ll stop disrupting today’s Being a Better Writer post now. Well, save for one small detail:

My entire lexicon (as in, all of my books) will be on sale during LTUE. Starting a day beforehand—this Wednesday—and running through the weekend. This will be a great chance to catch up on any you’ve missed, let friends who might want a copy of one know,  share a link on Facebook (hint, hint), etc. It’s the LTUE sale!

And, like I said, it’s only through the weekend, starting one day before LTUE does (so that you’ve got a day beforehand if you really don’t want to be distracted during the con).

With that, all LTUE news is over for this post (tomorrow is another story). I hope to see you there! And yes, tomorrow I’ll give you some helpful identification in tomorrow’s post plus a picture if you’re looking to say hello.

Now, news out of the way, let’s talk about today’s BaBW topic. Which is … well, a bit of an interesting one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about characters, or specifically, what makes them unique and have depth to a reader.

Which is, to be fair, nothing new. But today I wanted to talk about a specific aspect of giving our characters depth and how we approach it, because as I’ve been thinking upon it, I think that this is a delicate area that many authors accidentally overstep or underutilize for one reason or another.

With that, I’m starting to worry that I’m getting a little too nebulous here, so let’s just dive into it. Today, I want to talk about character quirks and how we use them.

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Being a Better Writer: Scale, Scope, and Ideas

Welcome back readers. How was your weekend? Was it good?

Mine was. A Game of Stakes is going into Beta Reading this week thanks to my Saturday, so it’s one step closer to being done! I’m going to try and polish the Alpha off today, which was going to be yesterday, but  … Well, I had a work shift. And for the moment, Being a Better Writer takes precedence. Sorry for the delay, however.

Also, one other bit of cool news. I’m not sure about the internet etiquette for this scenario, so hopefully I don’t mess it up, but I’ve started getting hits from Wikipedia? Why? Being a Better Writer is being used as a source reference!

Again, not sure of the etiquette here. I only just noticed because I started seeing referral links from Wikipedia but … hey, cool! One further notch in “look how far I’ve come!”

Sands, maybe someday I’ll have a Wikipedia page dedicated to it or something. I’d not thought about that angle until this moment. Kind of an awesome thought.

I’d best get to work on building a future where that can happen, then! So, with news out of the way, let’s talk about ideas and scale.

This one is … an interesting topic. One that was brought about, as many of my topics are, by reading. In this case, it was reading two Science Fiction books, unrelated outside of genre, back-to-back and looking deeply at why I enjoyed one so much more than the other. After thinking about it for a time and letting my mind run across a large number of different traits and possible reasons, it was reading a third book that finally made things click in my head. And when it clicked, it clicked.

It has to do with scale and scope, plus ideas, and how those are brought about in your story.

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Being a Better Writer: Character Matters

So, last week I was browsing the web (one of my favorite pastimes for finding interesting details and acquiring knowledge) when I came across a very … shall we say, interesting post. It was on a book forum, where someone was, if I recall the context correctly, talking about a specific Sci-Fi book they tried to read. A recent award winner, again if I recall correctly, from one of those snooty ‘literary’ awards. Anyway, they mentioned that they’d tried reading it, but had given up because, as they explained, all the characters fell flat. Or rather, were flat, simply mouthpieces to explain the story’s science. They had no other character or uniqueness other than a name. They were just there as, well, robots, to drive the science forward. Other than that, they were simply flat caricatures. As a result, the reader had given up on the book, because there was no character to revolve around.

Now, this post jumped out at me for two reasons. The first, but not the foremost, was that it lined up with a news article I recall reading a few years ago about in which a major publisher, faced with the falling sales of their Sci-Fi and Fantasy, conducted a nationwide survey of their former readers (no idea how they pulled that off, but they have to have some metric for it) asking why their former readers had abandoned them. The answer? That too many of their books just didn’t have good characters anymore, or worse, had characters that were just ideological mouthpieces for the science/social angle of the book. Without strong, compelling, or real characters, their readers had abandoned them.

The second reason that this post jumped out at me was the response to it. This was on a forum that is … Well, let’s just say they’re the kind of readers that the current publishers want to have in greater number. The response was immediate and, shockingly, angry. We’re talking caps and exclamation marks about how dare this reader put down a book because the characters weren’t good. Because—and understand I’m summarizing a number of posts here—characters aren’t important. They’re just mouthpieces to present the science. You’re not supposed to care about them. Or find them interesting. If you do, that’s a bonusnot a requirement. Blah blah blah, you read the book for the message, not for the characters, who cares if they’re shallow, etc etc etc.

Reading over this led me to this post. Where I’m going to say something flat-out.

That stance? That characters don’t matter? It’s wrong. From start to finish. This isn’t even a matter of opinion. That’s why the survey sprang to mind. That survey said that people do care about characters, that people are invested in how characters act and why. And do you know why?

Because they are! Great characters make stories come to life! They sell stories. Not science or social messages. Those can be pandered anyone in a deadpan monotone and still find their audience of those already subscribed to the idea. But a story? That takes characters.

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Being a Better Writer: Holidays

Hey there readers! Quick note before I let you go on: Don’t forget that we’re currently undergoing a Topic Call for Topic List 11! That’s right, Being a Better Writer‘s topics of choice don’t just spring from my head, but from yours as well! Got a writing topic you want to hear about (or hear more on)? Then hit the link and let me know, and I’ll add it to the list! Do it now while it’s still open!

Right! Got that out of your system? Ready to move ahead? Then let’s go! No sense beating around the bush today; we’re diving right in!

So, Holidays! What on Earth am I talking about when it comes to Holidays?

No, I’m not talking about the practice of going on holiday yourself (to use the British term for it), though we have touched on it before (take a break every so often, readers, and keep moderation in all things!). No, I want to talk about holidays in your story.

This is an obscure bit of world-building that doesn’t come up that often, but I want to bring it up for that reason exactly. So let me start with a question: When was the last time you read a book, story, whatever that talked about a holiday that the characters and cast celebrated or revered. Can you think of one?

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Being a Better Writer: When Characters Fail

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday Being a Better Writer post! Today we’ve got a request topic, one that hopefully I’ll be able to do justice to the satisfaction of the one who asked. In addition, it’s also one of the last topics left on Topic List IX! We’re close to Topic List X, and I’m glad, because I’ve already got some pretty neat topics on there to go over.

But that’s in the future. For the now, let’s get going on today’s topic: When Characters Fail.

I’ll admit, I bounced around a bit on topic titles for this one, and not without good reason. For a moment it was “Failing to Succeed,” and then almost became “Letting Characters Fail.” But finally, I settled on When Characters Fail, rather than on letting, and I think that distinction is important.

See, if we go into our characters failing with the mindset that we’re “letting” them fail (and in fact, are), then we might be approaching our story in the wrong way. Sure, we’re giving our characters the “try/fail” cycle that they need, and they’re going through it, but here’s the thing about “letting” them fail. When we “let” our characters fail, then they’re not the ones acting on the try/fail cycle. We as authors are. We’re looking at our story and going “Okay, you can fail here, this is a good spot for it,” and letting the failure happen where we decide it works, rather than simply letting the characters be free to fail when their own choices drop it on them.

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