Snow falling. No deadlines looming. Perfect day to cozy up on the couch and read.
Deep into a very funny paranormal romance I reach the climactic moment when the cheeky young witch meets the acid tongued evil vampiress. Biting insults fly back and forth with the speed of fiery spells. I’m laughing and then…wait. Who said that? I have to go back to the beginning to be sure I understand which character that pithy insult came from. The dialog rages on for a page and a half, not a dialog tag in sight. The punctuation alone sets apart the speakers. The rhythm of the story is broken when I lose my place and I wish the author had found a way to make that clever, long exchange read effortlessly. It’s still funny and well written though, so I read to the end.
Not long ago I’d given up on a detective story when I stumbled on yet another doozy of a dialog tag line: “I want to go home,” she said vulnerably. Really, vulnerably? The character’s husband has just been gruesomely murdered and her junky son is in jail. I’m pretty certain she’s vulnerable. Worse, given the flow of the narrative I know who’s speaking. That adverb felt like hitting a chug hole at 40 mph. Sigh. That was the final disconnect for me – I’d lost the rhythm of the story. I no longer cared who’d murdered the bookstore owner.
The writerly world is flooded with dialog tag dicta. We have the Elmore Leonard – Steven King school of absolute ‘she/he’ said (and possibly, maybe, sometimes ‘asked’). We have the proponents of injected emotion: ‘she yelled’, “he cried”, “she demanded hotly”. And then there are the minimalists who reject all tags, relying solely on punctuation to set speakers apart.
There are no rules for dialog tags, and I don’t champion making any, but smart writers are aware of how a tag affects the narrative flow and when it adds to, or detracts from that flow. The purpose of a dialog tag is to identify the speaker. Good storytelling shows emotion so the narrative circumstances and the wording of the dialog will convey how the words were said. Depending on how the scene is structured no tag would be needed, or ‘said’ would be enough.
And then there are those instances where a more elaborate tag is vital. (There really are no rules!) All the great writers occasionally use some variation of ‘she snarled’ ‘he groaned’ etc. Sometimes it makes sense to support the dialog by a little telling. Even Steven King admits to slipping in an adverb in a dialog tag or two. A writer’s gotta do what their story demands. As an editor and reader I prefer that the music of the dialog within the setting of the scene show me all I need to know.
The reader’s inner ear will hear good dialog; it’s an unconscious understanding. For my money the best dialog tags are invisible. All that need register at the conscious level is the identity of the speaker. Does anyone knowingly read ‘said’? It’s like a good child, seen but not heard. “Unless it’s little Parker next door whose screams of delight fill me with joy,” I say unreservedly.
I enjoy book reviews. I read reviews of books I might want to purchase, reviews of books I’ve read and loved, reviews on the works of authors I I know and love, reviews of books I’ve just finished, reviews of my client’s work. And I read reviews because, well, I really love listening to fellow bookworms talk about books.
Reviews are important to any author’s success, of course, but they’re especially important to the Indie author. Indie authors can promote any number of ways, but reviews are the crucial fuel for sales. Readers rely on reviews, especially if the author is new to them; Indie authors rely on reviews to find readers. It’s this fact that makes me so crazy when a review is an elaborate retelling of the story, complete with outing all the twists and mysteries as well as the resolution. That isn’t a review; it’s a damn book report.
I can feel my head begin to explode when a reviewer prefaces a sentence with ‘spoiler alert’. That’s not a pass to spill the beans. It’s a glaring neon sign declaring that this reviewer, this self appointed arbiter of storytelling, has kindly read the book for me. Now I can save my money because reviewer person has graciously taken care of that grisly chore of actually reading. (Audacity always makes my blood boil.) I mean, what about the word ‘spoiler’ don’t you understand?
A book review should give me some indication of why and how the book affected the reviewer. Specifics are welcome, the more insightful the better. Perhaps the author’s voice is particularly unique and pleasing, or the plot was a refreshing take on a well-loved genre. Maybe it’s the characters that win the day, or the book presented a world view that made the reviewer thoughtful. And if the reviewer didn’t like the book I want to know why. If the book was terrible, what made it a stinker? If some aspect of the story was off-putting be fair; not all readers like the same thing, which doesn’t necessarily make the work bad.
It’s not about the author. If a reviewer dislikes a book because the F-bomb and it’s numerous cousins were used it does not mean the author is in need of spiritual counseling. If the political bent of the tale does not suit the reviewer it does not mean the author could use time in a re-education camp. A review is about the story.
Being of mostly open mind and generally democratic spirit I’ll take the one or two line reviews of the “If you like fill in the genre then this is a must read” or “I spent a great winter weekend with this book. Highly recommend” variety. I may not have any specifics but there is something wonderfully persuasive about that kind of joyful sharing.
You may say I should just give a pass to the book reports and the spoilers, and you would be right. But I raise my pen-sword in defense of every Indie author I know, and those I’ve yet to meet. Insightful, honest reviews are sustenance to a writer. They impact sales and the writer’s heart. When you review, do it with substance. Please don’t retell the story – it’s the author’s story to tell and the reader’s tale to enjoy, and for the love of the muses, don’t give away the best bits. You’re going to make my head explode and I do not want my heirs to have to clean that up.
A perspective client and I were in the first stages; you know, where you get a feel for one another to be sure of a good fit. It was a great exchange. She was funny and literate and serious and we quickly decided to move forward (I passed muster too!). Before she sent her manuscript she had one last question: What are the five things a writer should bring to the editorial table. Great question!
And I love doing just that.
Like most of you, I’m a voracious reader – voracious and omnivorous. I love every genre but I tend to binge. Right now I’m binging on historicals—adventure, detective, romance and biography. It started with the publication of a client’s historical seagoing adventure. I really love this client—dedicated, talented, determined – and best of all, his 18th century hero is surrounded by characters so real they practically walk off the page.
The cast of characters includes every walk of life one would find in postcolonial America and the wider world. From merchants to millers to a lesbian frontier woman, a free black family, an Ottoman Turk political fixer to a closeted gay Navel officer, not one of these critical players feels forced or token. There is no preachy message, no particular point to be made from this varied cast. They are simply the natural population of this writer’s historical period, as much as all types and flavors are, and always have been, the natural population of the world. Such characters have largely been written out of history by social convention.
In all this bingeing, I’ve come across a few works where the writer loudly and proudly proclaims they are whatever identity they are as opposed to the conventionally accepted population of American novels—mainly Anglo and heterosexual. These voices can feel strident, in your face, surprisingly aggressive. It feels like preaching and I’m not aware of belonging to any particular congregation. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and tends to get in the way of a good story. But beneath all the militant raging I recognize there’s a message that needs to be heard. And I think about the suffragettes.
The right to vote is so smoothly woven a part of my life that I have to make an effort to remember that these woman got strident, got in the face of convention, got extremely aggressive and unpleasant in order to win a basic human right 100 years ago. Those gutsy women were widely vilified, punished and imprisoned, but they got the message across. That’s how it is done.
Writers have always given us more than just great entertainment. Throughout the ages storytellers have had a major impact on society. Kepler’s Somnium (1634), offered radical ideas (the sun is the center of the solar system!) safely disguised as fiction. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath, Sophie’s Choice . . . a huge list of books from writers who humanized and taught us about people and worlds we were ignorant of before. Those authors were, writers are, social warriors.
So I say welcome those strident voices. Be they people of a different skin color or people of a different bent, excluding their part in the stories of life—the stories we write and read – is to diminish the rich tapestry all writers wish to capture. Those walrus mustachioed gentlemen in their stiff collars and heavy suits survived the onslaught of the women’s vote – and thrived. So shall society survive and thrive acknowledging and embracing the existence of those voices that are not presently the conventional idea of the norm. Long live the power of the pen, the impact of the well told tale!
Every author faces this last crucial challenge. You’ve already spent untold hours researching, writing and editing your book. Your title hits just the right poetic note. You’ve gone several tense rounds to find the perfect cover. All that remains is the book blurb, the opening salvo in the promotional war. This is the first (and sometimes only) chance to grab a reader and compel them to buy the book. And so, like click bait, you need to lure your reader with an honest but irresistible snap shot.
It’s an art, this writing of a synopsis that isn’t a synopsis, this sell copy that isn’t an ad. And for something that isn’t a science there are strict rules: you have to be honest – no misleading the reader. No spoilers or why bother to read it – which can be tough since the spoiler is often the most exciting part of the story. Keep it at 200 words or less and don’t make it one run-on paragraph. Use the proper keywords for your genre. Reveal something about the antagonist – readers like to know if they can root for the hero. This isn’t the place to relate the entire plot but you have to provide the zeitgeist, the feel of the tale. No easy task.
A lot of the writers I work with find this daunting and ask for help, which I am happy to provide. I think it’s difficult for the writer to step far enough away from their work to pick out the enticing, salient points and present them with the tension and intrigue that make for a successful blurb. To the author, all story points are important. I get that, but as an avid reader I know what works for me in a blurb. It’s not how much is said, but how compellingly it’s said.
I start with a deconstruction approach. It’s possible to distill any story down to bare bones. In his book Hit Lit – Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers James W. Hall provided the most distilled example I’ve ever seen. This is a beloved tale that we all know intimately: “A young girl wakes in a surreal landscape and murders the first woman she sees. She teams with three strangers and does it again.” It’s short, accurate and intriguing but would it sell the book?
I wouldn’t distill it down that far but it makes a great beginning. What if we knew something about the young girl – an orphan, a princess, a refugee? And what about the surreal landscape – gaping desert, oozing swamp, forbidding mountains? Then the three strangers – female, male, older, menacing, kindly? Is all this murdering spurred by necessity, thrills, defense, the three strangers or is it unintended manslaughter? And finally, what is the young girl up to – revenge, enlightenment, finding a way out of the surreal landscape? Flesh out those points, add some genre keywords, reference any kudos and you could turn those original 24 spartan words into a 160 – 200 word blurb that would peak curiosity and entice the shopper to buy.
If you can step away from the totality of your story and deconstruct the plot to the primary elements, then present those elements in a provocative way you can create an effective selling tool with your book blurb. BTW, that book Hall described? The Wizard of Oz.
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