A Rundown on Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Q&A between myself and Evelyn Duffy, my editor. There was one question she asked that was cut from the final post:

In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?

I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.

I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.

I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.

As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.

This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue.  You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.

This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.

This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.

As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).

calvin-conversation
Calvin may have been off-the-mark on conversations, but he does have some good advice on writing dialogue. Try not to have your characters interrupt each other too much though (unless they’re fighting — that’s more realistic).

Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.

Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.

But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.

I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.

This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.

But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.

So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.

Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.

And, try talking to yourself. Trust me, it works.


I’ve talked a lot about talking, but if you want to read a little more, I’ve shared similar advice on the blog before — namely, on talking to yourself in the form of interviewing yourself.

I also recommend checking out the actual conversations between me and Evelyn Duffy. It’s a conversation in two parts: Ask the Editor and Ask the Author.

Thanks for reading!

Ask the Editor: A Q&A with Evelyn Duffy

evelyn duffy, of open boat editing
“[E]very piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.”
No story is complete without a good edit. I often reference my editor when I talk about my work. Her name is Evelyn Duffy (pictured, right). She edited both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give; and is currently working on the short stories I plan to include Wither and Other Tales. Evelyn was kind enough to take part in a Q&A with me. Read on for editing advice, writing advice, and why you should consider proofing your tattoo.


Sonora: You’ve edited a wide variety of authors and genres. Do you find yourself switching hats when switching from short story to novel, fiction to nonfiction, stories to plays? Can you describe such a switch? What’s it like editing each? What’s universal about editing each?

Evelyn: There are a lot of universals. Good writing is nearly always character-driven, with fully-imagined individuals living full lives, whether or not we see much of them on the page. (If you think nonfiction has to be an exception to this, I encourage you to reevaluate.) Structure is crucial, no matter what you’re writing. I think structure is harder to get right at first in a short story or a play. From an editing perspective, it’s easier to tell when and where these go wrong. A novel’s structure may not be fully clear until quite a way into it.

Dialogue matters, always, but in different ways. In novels, short stories, and nonfiction, there should almost always be more and better-written dialogue; in plays, there can nearly always be less, replaced with trust in one’s actors to communicate through physical movement on the stage. Nonfiction is a big umbrella; if you’re writing the annual finance report for the Association of American Lichen Enthusiasts, you won’t have many opportunities to integrate scenes, narrative structure, dialogue, or themes — but if you’re crafting a longform article with the hope of publishing somewhere like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, these are crucial starting points.

One timeless universal is that every piece of writing can be improved: what is good can be made great, what is great can be made wonderful, and what is wonderful can be read by its author 15 times and still have a typo in the first line.

Sonora: How do authors typically find you? Do you accept unsolicited queries? How do you decide which clients to take on?

Evelyn: I am typically reached through my website at www.OpenBoatEditing.com. I work with many repeat clients and find that new ones often reach me via their recommendation, which I deeply appreciate. Another way new clients reach me is through my profile at the Editorial Freelancers Association, a wonderful organization I’m proud to be a member of.

Sonora: Your website shows that you have edited four New York Times best-selling nonfiction books, numerous fiction and nonfiction books, a journal article, academic papers, and a play. You’ve also worked on many other projects not listed online. Are you open to editing other pieces of writing, such as screenplays or comic books? Is there anything you would not edit under any circumstances?

Evelyn: I’m open to editing pretty much anything, I think. (In fact, I’ve worked on several screenplays and really enjoy them.) Due to time constraints, I haven’t been able to do much academic work or many book proposals in recent years.

I don’t feel particularly qualified to edit poetry, unless someone is looking for a straight proofread — but even then, poetry has such freedom to invent that I’d be more comfortable with the author asking an editor who is a fellow poet to look at it.

Sonora: How have the editing services you’ve offered changed over the years? What do you offer now?

Evelyn: My editing practice has evolved into one that focuses on keeping an author’s book-length manuscript for four to six weeks and providing a thorough critique and set of line edits.

I also offer proofreading for businesses and corporations (publications, websites, etc.) and have a wedding-related sideline called The Proofread Bride.

I’m happy to review shorter items like news articles, resumes, business plans, personal websites, application essays, and syllabi at an hourly rate. No project is too small. Gift certificates for hourly editing blocks are available here. I also offer transcribing services.

Sonora: In addition to copy edits and comments, you provide a memo to your clients that outlines in-depth changes and feedback. What inspired you to incorporate this into your work? Is this common practice amongst editors? What do you most want your clients to gain from this memo?

Evelyn: When I first began freelancing, I started out purely as a proofreader/line editor. As time went by, I found I increasingly had thoughts that weren’t accommodated by Track Changes or a list of line edits, so the memo began as a way of merely organizing the extra thoughts that emerged. As time went by and my skills and experience expanded, I began to enjoy this part more and began to make thematic elements and structure my focus.

These days the memo has evolved into anything between two and ten pages and tends to emerge as a love letter of sorts to the book I’ve spent the past four to six weeks with — what works well, what can be tweaked, and what needs large structural revision. I always encourage clients to read the memo before the line edits, and my hope is that the larger thoughts in it will sit with them and marinate as they revise.

Sonora: I like to write to you as I incorporate your edits, and keep you in-the-loop on my progress. Do you usually hear from authors after they receive your edits?

Evelyn: Yes, authors often go back-and-forth with me throughout the publication process, especially those pursuing self-publication, asking follow-up questions and sharing thoughts as they go. I always love to at least find out if they go ahead with it!

Sonora: If a client seems worried or discouraged, how do you go about encouraging them?

Evelyn: In every memo I write, I encourage the author to follow up with me with anything they have questions about or want to discuss further. I’m happy to delve into anything that concerns them — a question about one of my suggestions, doubts about moving forward with the book, or how to approach publishing.

Sonora: You make it a point to tell me that your edits are suggestions, and up to me on whether or not I should include them. Do you find that your clients usually accept most, if not all, of your edits? Has there ever been a time when your client refused most or all of them? Did they discuss this with you, or were you left wondering?

Evelyn: Generally on the big things — character questions and plot issues and thematic points — I find it’s less of a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, and more that an author is so close to their own work that they couldn’t see something was unclear, or hadn’t noticed they’d developed a theme and then dropped it 25 pages before the book ends, etc. In the case of the latter (which happens often), it’s an open-ended option of eliminating the things that produced that theme or drawing it to its natural conclusion — I may not necessarily recommend either, but I do bring their attention to the theme and fact that it’s unresolved and walk them through their options.

On smaller things, line edits and such, I don’t usually find out until the book is published, and by then I probably don’t remember what I recommended! But in some cases I’m sure the authors choose not to implement my changes. I suspect a few get line-edit fatigue — I can be quite thorough — and others may simply disagree. All this does is reinforce the point you reference: all of my edits are merely suggestions, and it is up to the author which ones to accept or reject. I remind every author I work with of this every time I work with them, even the ones I’ve collaborated closely with for over a decade. It is my Prime Directive, so to speak, and it bears repetition.

Sonora: Writers need readers, especially before a book is published. What are your thoughts on beta readers? What sets you, an editor, apart from a beta reader or even just a reader? Do you think all authors should seek out beta readers?

Evelyn: The best beta readers are talented and dedicated people — but they’re hard to come by, because being a beta reader is rarely a great experience. Being a book’s first reader can be a challenge. When an author hires me to edit and critique their book, one of the things they’re buying is professional distance. I have not only the freedom but the duty to give an author my complete, most candid opinion, where a beta reader might feel constrained by any number of factors — time, friendship, awkwardness, etc. Even when I edit for friends and others I know well, entering into the professional relationship of author and editor allows for a freer exchange of ideas. There are certainly beta readers who provide this, but again, they’re rare — and, in my view, wearing dual hats of beta reader and editor.

As an editor my goal for every manuscript is different, but generally speaking it can be summed up this way: an editor should aim to help get the manuscript to a point where they’d gladly read it for free. A beta reader (or, ideally, two or three) should read it after the editor and give the author a sense of broader audience reaction. It’s all about getting as many pairs of eyes on the finished product as the author can stand.

Sonora: What do you think of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Do you recommend one path over the other to aspiring authors?

Evelyn: They both have their merits, and their low points. I tailor my advice to individual authors, but generally I’d say follow all the publishing opportunities you find, do lots of research and consult with other authors, and be realistic about your prospects and expectations.

Sonora: How do you think your own writing experience influences your editing? How does it influence your interactions with authors? With other editors?

Evelyn: It makes me deeply sympathetic toward writers who stumble into the traps every writer stumbles into, especially in early drafts. To be slightly facetious with a serious story, I refer you to the tale of the man who fell in a hole:


Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books? Does the writing you read for fun influence your editing at all? If so, how?

Evelyn: My favorite book of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I’m also a huge fan of John Irving (it’s not a big leap from Dickens to Irving) and Margaret Atwood (particularly her short stories).

Wolf Hall is a book I return to again and again. Like the rest of the internet I’m waiting for The Winds of Winter. I also really enjoy YA books, especially Philip Pullman. When it comes to nonfiction, Mary Roach is a favorite. The two nonfiction books I’ve read most recently that have really stayed with me are Marriage, a History by Stephanie Coontz and Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.

Favorite playwrights are Neil Simon, David Mamet and Eugene O’Neill. Since it’s 2018 and we’re living in a golden age of television, I’ll add Aaron Sorkin and David Simon in the same breath.

I think the most straightforward way what I read recreationally influences how I edit comes up whenever I’m asked to edit something that is already phenomenal by the time it comes to me, or when the author is someone I admire. It’s good to remember that all the writers I named above have had editors, and surely appreciated their catches and contributions.

Sonora: What advice would you give to aspiring editors?

Evelyn: My advice for aspiring editors is — at first — the same as it would be for aspiring writers: read constantly, and read widely. Where it differs is this: try to actively read things that don’t interest you. If you’re indifferent to football, read the sports pages. If you hate ballet, read reviews. If statistics put you to sleep, read scientific journal articles. If you’re a Twitter junkie, take up War and Peace or Moby Dick. It’s crucial to be able to form objective opinions and put yourself in the shoes of other readers when editing, rather than basing your advice on your personal reaction to what you like and dislike.

Also, find a community. Editing, especially freelancing, can be a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be. I recommend checking out the EFA and ACES for camaraderie, referrals, conferences, classes, and other resources.

Sonora: Are there things people tend not to have edited that they definitely should? What would you like to see people ask for an edit of more often?

Evelyn: Tattoos! In fact, I will give anyone who sees this an on-the-house, thanks-for-being-smart-about-life review of their English-language text for a planned tattoo. (If it’s already tattooed on you, sorry — it’s too late for me.) Contact me through email, and include “Tattoo Edit – Sonora Writes” in the subject line. (Note from Sonora: as someone with twelve tattoos and counting, I second this advice.)

Other than that, I started a whole separate side business because of the rampant typos in wedding stationery. There’s a lot of paper involved in weddings — save the dates, invitations, menus, signage, programs, thank you notes — and a lot of opportunities for expensive typos.


Check out Ask the Author, where Evelyn interviews me! Thanks for reading, everyone.

Talk it Out: Thoughts on Dialogue

I’ve been writing since I was little. A lot of my drive to write came from encouragement from my teachers. One thing I heard from grade to grade, and class to class, was the following observation: “You write a lot of dialogue.”

While never framed as a critique outright, I took it as an observation of something I should scale back. There are books, and there are scripts. I prefer to write books (or short stories). While I adore a good screenplay, it’s ultimately a writing medium that I don’t feel is my forte – beyond my knack for a good back-and-forth.

Unlearning my interpretation of my teachers’ observations has been one of the trickier parts of getting back into writing over the past two years. As I write first drafts — always a tough experience — I find myself stopping when I fill a page with a back-and-forth between characters. “It’s a book, not a script,” I tell myself. Then I keep writing – and keep writing dialogue. Cursed habits!

Or maybe they’re not so cursed. Over the past two years, I’ve heard more and more from people who encourage my dialogue habit. The most common refrain is one I’ve discovered firsthand: it’s one of the best ways to show and not tell. This seems odd, since characters speaking a truth is somewhat like telling. But in my own writing, I find that telling sounds more natural when it’s shared in conversation, as opposed to spelled out in narration.

This was my most common revision in Please Give, a trickier story to navigate the “show not tell” fields because it’s written in first person. My first drafts often had the narrator, Beth, possess amazing psychic powers about what the other characters were thinking. If she wasn’t psychic, then she was a lengthy narrator, going on and on about people’s histories and what was what. Sometimes that worked in narration (well, TBD — I’m waiting to hear back from my editor), but most of the time, it was long-winded, clunky, and unnatural. All those adjectives were erased when I converted explanatory narration into dialogue. Why should Beth speak for these people? She – and I, and the reader – can talk to them.

Further, having the characters talk revealed more things to me while writing than I thought possible when trying to speak for them as a narrator. This is true of both my first-person and third-person stories. Conversation can reveal many layers of depth, in ways that narration sometimes can’t.

My editor gave me some sound advice that I’d like to close with. When reading one of my stories, she found it didn’t flow as well as the others. It was also a story with less dialogue than I usually include. She said she realized while reading it that my characters need someone to talk to. I’ve often repeated that to myself when I get stuck on a dialogue-heavy story, because when I move past my doubts and make my characters to speak, I find that she’s right.

I would encourage any of you struggling with dialogue to consider if your characters need the same. Write a bunch of one-liners. Get them to talk to each other. Get them to talk to you. Even if you go back and take out superfluous lines, or add some narration to make it less script-like, or even feel odd writing so many lines, it may end up being the practice that helps your story come further to life.

Friday Motivation: Done is Better than Perfect

The following was the entry on my desk calendar the other day. It came at a great time, as I was hesitating to continue some projects because I didn’t think they were perfect or ready enough to continue or finish. In a quick post to get the weekend started, I wanted to share it with all of you. I hope you spend your weekend – or any day, really – completing your pieces! Writing something is always better than nothing. 

Done is better than perfect
Have a good weekend, everyone. 

When She Was Sloppy

All pieces start with a first draft, and with rare exception, all first drafts are bad. Aspiring writers — myself included — often forget that all great pieces came from bad first drafts, because we only get to see these pieces after they’ve gone through revisions, professional edits, and other polishes to make them less sloppy. I always appreciate it when my favorite authors share their early drafts to prove this point (though I say early, and not first, because I’m convinced that most first drafts will never see the light of day if their authors have anything to say about it).

I’ve discovered that the forgotten first draft experience can happen with my own writing. Over the past few months, I’ve engaged the most with second and third (and ninth and tenth) drafts of my pieces. The earliest drafts of Please Give ceased around New Year’s, with the first pages written getting heavily revised or completely rewritten; and any following pages being buoyed by those revisions. The new pages weren’t perfect by any means, but they were better than first drafts because I was more familiar with the story and where it was going.

Between chapters of Please Give, I worked on revising the short stories set to appear in The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales — reading them, getting feedback from readers, incorporating edits from Evelyn, and reading through them again. The first drafts of these stories were even more buried than the first words of Please Give, going back to the spring and summer of 2016.

Despite writing every day in 2017, new writing — brand new stories, with no drafts whatsoever to guide them and no revisions to shape them — didn’t happen at all until May, when the full draft of Please Give was done. At last, I had the time and mental space to start the new projects that were simply ideas. I cracked my knuckles, opened a brand new Word document, and let the words flow from my fingers.

Words that, as they I typed them, landed rather sloppily on the page.

I found myself looking curiously at these drafts. Why are these sentences so clunky? Why can’t I come up with a good transition from this scene to the next? Why did I use three adverbs in one sentence? Why am I using so many parentheses, and writing asides and exclamations instead of narration?

It’s because I’m writing a first draft — and even after writing several pieces to satisfactory completion, I still felt daunted by that, stuck on the fact that the ideal sentence wasn’t what was currently on paper. No matter how much I write, and no matter how pleased I am with the final versions of my stories, I still have to contend with sloppy first drafts. There’s simply no avoiding them.

They also shouldn’t be avoided. First drafts are where all stories begin, after all. And even with some clunky stumbles on the way, practice does make better. I find myself able to write more in one sitting, and making less of the mistakes (both style and technical) that I made almost by default not one year ago. A first draft is a first draft, though; and even with all the practice in the world, first drafts will always be rough.

Still, I appreciate reminders of when I was sloppy, and I’d rather get those reminders through writing sloppy first drafts than simply remembering them (or rereading them, though that can be fun when looking for a reminder of how far a piece has come). Remembering them means I’m not writing them. And like many writers say, writing a bad first draft — which everyone does — is better than writing nothing at all.

Developing Characters: Imaginary AMA

I received a standard piece of fiction writing advice in an electronic media writing class during my undergraduate studies. While the class focused more on advertisements and nonfiction, our final assignment was to write a treatment for a fiction TV show. My professor encouraged us to develop our characters by talking to them. He told us how a past student said she had trouble doing this, but once she engaged with her character, the character “wouldn’t shut up.”

I think about my characters, and the stories which hold them, a lot, especially when I walk to work. I have a ten minute walk to and from the metro, which gives me plenty of time alone with my thoughts. I’ve often used that time to flesh out stories and come to some interesting realizations about my characters.

However, I don’t talk to them. I find this difficult to do, as I see the characters as separate from my world. They’re not people I engage with, even mentally and with the lens of pretense that “talking to your characters” requires. When I do get my characters to talk, it’s to each other. Sometimes that dialogue makes it into the story, but other times, it’s side conversations that take place off-page and help me write what needs to be there.

My most common method of character development, though, is engaging with myself. When I’m thinking about my characters, I like to pretend I’m being interviewed about them after the story’s been finished. I pretend I’m being asked questions about the story, and I answer them — usually in detailed, humorous answers that help to shape my own thinking about the story (rest assured, I do this in my head — I don’t make it a point to scare my fellow commuters by talking to myself).

I find this AMA (“Ask Me Anything,” for those who don’t know) format very helpful in discovering things about my characters and, subsequently, their stories. By explaining deeper motivations than what appears on the page, it helps me figure out why things happen and how I should write them. Sometimes it gives me better ideas to shape things that aren’t working as I’ve written them.

I also find it more helpful to do this in my head (or quietly mouthed to myself) as opposed to writing it down. Notes are handy, and the few times I’ve forced myself to write notes, I’ve gotten good results. However, the off-the-cuff nature of pretending I’m doing an AMA helps me capture ideas as they flit into my answers. Writing it down, for me at least, would take this aspect away, as I’d spend too much time trying to write the correct thing to really let the answers I seek flow through. Speaking is less structured but, in many ways, more truthful.

Be it through an imaginary AMA or an imaginary conversation with characters, I find it interesting that one of the best ways to write fiction is to engage in a fictional conversation. Perhaps that act in and of itself is what helps us write.