"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Critique Group that Works

My writer's group is a diverse group of men and women who, thankfully, get along famously. I think what makes our group work is that there are no big egos or petty jealousies. Success for one means hope for all. It also helps that we are not all writing in the same genre and, therefore, we're very much on our own career paths, which can't be compared to someone else's.

It makes for some interesting critique sessions. While most of us read a wide variety of books, it gets tricky to offer suggestions on a genre that we might not read and know nothing about. It has forced us all to stretch as readers, writers, and editors. For me, it's made me pick up books in genres I wouldn't normally read so I can offer more insight to my fellow writers. I believe we've all discovered that the same rules of good fiction apply regardless of the genre. All successful plots have the same basic elements: strong characters with plausible conflicts and motivations, personal stakes that are high enough to drive the hero or heroine to action and to sustain the work to its conclusion, characters who grow and change, and resolutions satisfactory to each particular genre.

By reading and critiquing such a wide array of writing types and styles, and knowing our job as a group is to help each other improve, also helps us improve our own work. It makes us appreciate the uniqueness of each genre and realize that each genre requires skill–and a lot of hard work–to achieve success.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ride Your Own Horse




When I was growing up, we always had a bunch of horses around the farm, and most of them were too wild for us kids to ride. My dad was always afraid we'd get hurt so he wouldn't put us on anything that wasn't broke really well or ridden down for a few days before we climbed up on its back. Many times if he was breaking a colt, he would "snub" the colt to an older horse. By this, I mean he would put a lead rope on the colt's hackamore (he preferred hackamores to bridles). The person on the older horse would help control the colt with the lead rope. The person on the colt had the reins, but the snubbing rope was an added insurance in case the colt started bucking or decided to run away.

One of my dad's favorite horses was named Dan. He was a spirited Appaloosa. Dad wouldn't let just anybody ride that horse because he was afraid if the rider "didn't know what he was doing" he'd "ruin the horse." I'll never forget the day when he decided he was going to let me ride Dan. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous–more about ruining his horse than getting bucked off. Dad decided we were going to ride to the top of Blue Mountain at our ranch, a steep climb through pine trees and over rocks. Even though he'd ridden Dan pretty good ahead of time, we started out with Dad snubbing Dan to the horse he was riding. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, Dan was tired (or at least I hoped) and dad wrapped the snubbing rope around my saddle horn. I was on my own on the ride back down. It was quite a thrill to ride that horse. I made it back to the ranch in one piece and didn't ruin Old Dan.

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I'll tell you. We all like to have some help now and then with our writing. We like someone to hold that snubbing rope and keep us from getting bucked off; i.e., rejected. We want to hear what others say about our work. We want their advice, their critiques that will kindly and gently point out bad plotting, punctuation mistakes, weak conflicts, poor characterizations and so on and so on. But sooner or later, we have to gather the reins, put our foot in the stirrup, and settle our butts down deep in the saddle. We might be a little afraid to put our heels to that horse, but there comes a time when we have to trust ourselves, our knowledge, our instincts, and all we've learned along the way. Sooner or later we have to let go of that snubbing rope and ride our own horse. What's the worst that can happen? If you get thrown off, just dust off the dirt and swing into that saddle again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Make Your Dialogue Speak

In our daily lives we often engage in nonsensical dialogue and pleasantries, but if we do this in our writing, we'll never see our Great American Novel in print.

Authentic dialogue starts with interesting characters who have their own voice based on their personal history. Beyond that, it needs to flow naturally and not sound stilted, dull, or too proper. Reading it aloud or "acting it out" will help you determine if it sounds natural.

Just as narrative can go on for too long, so can dialogue. Whatever the issue, don't drag it out for pages. The reader will want your story to keep moving forward. If characters get caught in an argument, or perhaps they are bickering over a decision that needs to be made, don't keep rehashing the same point. Bring the topic to a conclusion in good time. Say what needs to be said and move on.

Also, don't be point-blank, unless that is one of your character's known traits. Most men wouldn't walk up to an attractive woman and tell her she's hot. He'd show his interest in more subtle ways. People in real life often dance around what's really on their minds and, for the most part, your characters will too.

Avoid "info dumps" via dialogue (or narrative). Shifting the content of the dialogue from one thing to the next in the same scene, especially if the content isn't tied together, could be more than the reader wants to digest in that particular setting. If the reader becomes confused or can't absorb all the information, he could be confused later because he missed something.

Dialogue needs to move the story forward by imparting information pertinent to the plot and the characters. Each piece of dialogue should be there for a reason and each scene should have a point. Like your narrative, it should "show" rather than "tell." It should impart an "action/reaction" mode from your characters.

Pick a piece of dialogue from a favorite book and analyze each line, asking yourself what information it imparts. Here is dialogue from my own book, The Last Rodeo. Dev Summers, a rodeo bull rider, has just completed his last ride on a savage bull named Satan 101 and walked away, but with injuries. Here's the conversation between him and his dad.

"What do you mean, you're done?" Jake Summers spoke with that familiar sharp edge to his voice. "You'll have plenty of time to get healed before the next event. I can tell you one thing, that shit you pulled today on Satan damned near got you killed, and you'd better not do it again."

"I rode him."

"If you want to call that a ride."

Dev lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. His dad's response was so typical. "I stuck to him until the buzzer sounded, and I got the top score for the night. Isn't that what you wanted, damn it?"

"And look where it got you–crippled up again. You'd have done better to let go. A man has to know when to let go."

"My point precisely."

"So that's what the suicide wrap was all about? To rub my nose in some imaginary shit you've been packin' around."


This scene's purpose is to show the ongoing discord between Dev and his father. It reveals the father's disapproval of the bull ride. His dad thinks he should have known when to let go instead of sticking to the bull with a suicide wrap that ultimately got him injured. But at the same time he disapproves of his son not going to the next event because of the injury. It shows something of the two personalities–of the father who can't give praise, sympathy, or understanding, and the son who is tired of trying to please his father and thus rebels by intentionally knocking himself out of the running.

Just as dialogue arouses your characters' emotions, it should reveal growth, discovery, and truth about themselves and others. In real life we often walk away from a conversation and kick ourselves for not saying something smart or clever, or for not sticking up for ourselves and saying what was really on our minds. As writers, we have all the time in the world to help our characters say those perfect words and say them in exactly the right way.