Jim Rollins Interview – Dialogue

Since Annie Pearson and I last chatted about dialogue, I’ve been meaning to say something about capturing the unique aspects of a person’s speech.

Jim Rollins and I recently talked about this issue.

If you read thrillers, you know who he is. If you don’t, look at his Bookshelf and check out the best seller lists he’s topped and the awards he’s garnered. Jim speaks at writers conferences; he’s a fine teacher because he knows his craft. And, as a friend, I’d be seriously remiss if I didn’t mention that he’s got a new book coming out this fall—INNOCENT BLOOD—and a spring release titled KILL SWITCH: great reads guaranteed, and polished craftsmanship we can call learn from.

Here are some comments Jim had on the matter of dialogue and dialect.
I have some notes of my own that follow this conversation.

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DON:  Jim, when you’re creating a character, do you give any immediate thought to the unique voice of that character? Or does that come as the story unfolds?

JIM:  For me, it’s about learning who the character is during the flow of the story. It’s only in that furnace that I discover who that character truly is.  Unfortunately this often means having to go back and rework that character after finally learning the true nature of that guy or gal.  But I like this method, as the character becomes born out of the story, making them “fit” naturally into it versus trying to shoehorn a pre-made character into a storyline.

DON:  Do you ever draw a character’s dialogue (in part or wholly) from a real person? (I’m assuming that, if you do, you’re very cautious about it, or I’d be sending this to some jailhouse.)

JIM:  I’ve never done that fully, but I always have my ear out for some turn of phrase or snatch of conversation that intrigues me and I jot it down.  Eavesdropping is a great tool for a writer to hone.

DON:  Have you ever considered characters who speak in dialect? Assuming you don’t want to swamp your readers with that sort of thing, how do you avoid it while still capturing the flavor of it?

JIM:  I hate when writers spell out phonetically some foreign speaker’s dialog.  It stops a reader’s natural flow in a story and turns them into a puzzle-solver, forcing them to try to figure out what that speaker is saying.  I prefer to flavor my foreign speaker by leaning on that language’s natural colloquialisms and manner of speech.  And I’ll occasionally pepper in a foreign word.

DON:  You deal with exotic locales and personalities. How do you deal with other languages or the slang from other places?

JIM:  Using the tools described above, here’s an example from my next book (The Kill Switch), using a Russian speaker as an example:

“I do you better than bonus,” Fedoseev offered. “You become part of my team. Permanent part. I am generous. Your dog will eat steak every night. He would like that, yes?”

“Ask him yourself.”

Fedoseev’s gaze flicked toward Kane, then he smiled and wagged his finger at Tucker. “Very funny.” He tried a different angle. “You know, these two suka may have had a helper. If he is still around—”

Suka was one of Fedoseev’s favorite slang terms. Roughly and politely, a suka meant scumbag.

DON:  My pal, Annie Pearson, said to ask this: How do you let readers know what untranslated phrases mean without stopping the narrative dead in its tracks?

JIM:  See the example above, where I actually roughly translate the word. But sometimes it’s a matter of context and tone, where no translation is necessary.  Again from The Kill Switch, here are both methods used:

“Priest tells me fly,” Fedor added in badly broken English. “Fly you tonight.”

Tucker nodded. “Spasiba.”

Da. Your Russian bad.”

Here the reader may not know that spasiba means “thank you,” but there is enough context for the reader to understand that Tucker is agreeing with the Russian pilot.

Also, Don, as you and I noted about “speaking your dialog”:
I learned early on that a great way of knowing if dialog works is to read your work aloud.  It is there that I’ll often find bits and pieces that don’t work.

Someone once told me that you should be able to take out any piece of dialog from a novel, read it aloud, and someone familiar with the book should know who that character is.  The goal is to strive to make each character’s cadence, diction, and vocabulary consistent enough that the character’s dialog becomes a unique trait for that individual.

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Since that discussion with Jim, one element I’ve been thinking about a lot is dialect. To be clear:

I dislike written dialect—a whole lot.

It doesn’t make me feel any closer to the character or any more involved. What it makes me feel is imposed on by someone who’s deliberately misspelling words or inventing phonetics unknown outside the Tropical Bird Exhibit at the zoo.

So how do we account for the fact that Zorba the Greek speaks English with an accent that could easily sour your skanopita? In plain fact, we can’t really approximate the sound of his English. What we can do, however, is concentrate on some highlights—impress them on the reader early on.

If one of your characters notes that Zorba pronounces is as eez, we’re on our way. A few scanty references to other variants is usually enough to anchor the reader in the dialect.

More, there’s a tendency among all of us to alter our speech when we shift into a second language. Your character, Greek or not, will probably speak a bit more slowly than a native speaker. There will also be awkward phrasing from time to time; it may be a single word, but it’s enough to catch the attention of the reader, thus reminding him/her that the speaker has a unique facet.

Listen to someone whose English is a second language.

Even those who’ve spoken English since childhood occasionally entertain some personal quirks in their use of the language. I have a very close friend whose speech is practically indistinguishable from someone born here (which she wasn’t). But she does something with “little” that always stops me cold. If she wants to describe a small portion, it comes out:

“…a li’la bit.”

Another time she may say:

“…a li’la while later…”

If the character in your novel has a similar quirk, you can call on it at any time to remind your reader that this character is unique—and isn’t unique character what we always shoot for?

It’s a small thing, and dangerously easy to overdo, but I don’t think there’s anything a writer can do with dialogue to better enhance a character’s singularity than attach a singular quality to his/her speech.

I’m not advocating a cast of characters drawn from U.N. membership. All I’m saying is:

Look for the vocal tag with the same industry you apply to physical appearance.

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I’ve been musing with Annie Pearson on craft topics for a while, and we’ve been sharing ideas back-and-forth here. We’re looking for other writers to share in the exchanges—just like we would after-hours at a writers’ conference. We’re talking about structure now. Let me know if you want to chat about that or any topics related to writers craft.

Writing Of Speaking

In our blog-swap, Annie and I have spoken back and forth about dialogue as something that has to contribute to the story. As obvious as that seems, it’s amazing how often truly good writers stumble through conversations like salmon battering their way up rapids. What’s particularly damaging is the forced marriage of narrative and dialogue. How often have you read something like this?

        Bill’s face turned fiery red. His eyes bulged and a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Now you’ve made me angry…,”

Say again? Unless Bill was just swigging Tabasco from the bottle, what else could he be but angry? In short, if you’ve described a character’s appearance well enough to tip off your reader to his/her emotional state, why clog your pace with pointless dialogue that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know? You’ve done a good job setting up a powerful scene, then stepped on it. As authors, we should be constantly asking ourselves how to direct dialogue so it contributes to the total story. In the above situation, if Bill’s dialogue is on the order of “You know I hate it when you do that…” your reader knows the characters (A) have a history, (B) the history has points of abrasion, and (C) this particular event isn’t unique. Instead of revealing something in narrative, only to repeat the information in dialogue, you’ve broadened the reader’s knowledge of the characters and their relationship. More than that, by exposing that one small facet of their relationship, you’ve opened up a warehouse full of possible actions, reactions, and resulting tensions.

And there’s that magic word again: TENSION. If tension is the engine that drives a novel (full disclosure; I’m a believer), then the interaction between the characters is the fuel. I just finished Hallie Ephron‘s latest, There Was An Old Woman. I suppose it’s women’s fiction. I don’t care. I read what I choose and my criteria are a reasonable premise and the craftsmanship that assures a good read. Ms. Ephron supplies. I’m mentioning it here because her use of dialogue to further the story is outstanding. Her primary characters are two sisters and two elderly women still living in the neighborhood where the sisters grew up. It’s a suspenseful novel and the dialogue (internal as well as interpersonal) rings like silver. Every thought, every reminiscence, every exchange leads us further into the snare waiting for the victims. No car chases, no bombs hidden in the toilet, no dark figures scurrying about. But there’s dialogue. Each bit of it tightens the tension. What I found especially well done was the internal dialogue. Ms. Ephron’s characters provided story narrative in individual voices and they never broke form. That’s a pretty nifty trick.

When you review your own work on your way to that perfect final draft, be sure you ask yourself if there’s a craftsman’s edge to your dialogue. What’s said is important; what’s necessary is that it’s said with effect.

Whose Blog Is It?

Annie Pearson and I have started swapping blog comments. We’re both committed to studying – as well as practicing – our craft, and we’ve found an electronic answer to the old-fashioned jaw sessions where writers got together and discussed technique, editors, agents, and other tests of endurance and perseverance. We just started, but it’s already increased my curiosity concerning some of the writers groups on the net. I have no experience of them, but the idea sounds like a good vehicle to expand horizons and deepen opinions. One of my problems with the whole blogging concept is that it has a lot in common with hollering down a well. Some of the bloggers I read about speak of thousands of hits a week; some claim to rack up that many a day. I find that staggering.

The point of all this is that I’m inviting anyone who’s interested to respond to what Annie and I are up to. We’re not teachers, we’re students. If you want to talk to someone with problems and struggles like your own, come on board and we’ll all take a shot at it.

I’m getting more writing done now. I’m partnered with a fellow in North Carolina on a thriller. The story originated with him, and it’s a good one. I’m cautiously optimistic about its future. I’m also working on a fantasy. I’ve never done anything like that, and it’s proving more of a challenge than I bargained for. Still, it’s exciting; any time you come out of a good fight with the sense that you won, it’s a great experience. So far, I think I’m a couple of rounds ahead of the book. I’ll know better when I get the first rough draft whipped.

Can We Talk?

Sadly, the answer is no. Not if we’re writing dialog. It’s customary for people discussing the craftsmanship in writing to say things like character’s the most important thing in your novel, or point of view can make or break your entire novel. We’ve all heard arguments about how tough it is to maintain or control pace. Etc. In the end, it’s all of the techniques woven into a whole that make a novel either sing or croak. But a key to keeping a reader interested in your characters is the dialog exchanges.

Dialog in a novel bears little similarity to our ordinary conversation. When we talk to someone else our objective isn’t to further a story. If anything, we’re making a point or making a joke or, as the cliche has it, making conversation. Dialog, like everything else in your novel, has to be finely tuned to keep the story moving forward. More, it has to move it at the pace you’ve selected at the moment. If you’re at a point in your story where the tension is at a lowered state, it’s a good idea to match the dialog accordingly. If there’s an argument, try to keep it as civil as possible. In short, how your characters respond to each other on the page has a direct influence on how the reader responds to everything on the page. Consider: If you portray a couple building a relationship and you set a conversation at a beautiful, tranquil site, even a minor disagreement between them can foreshadow trouble to come. It’s the same way a composer can throw in a minor key – or more blatant discord – to create an effect in music.

An author controls what the characters say and how they say it. We make conversation, but we create dialog. Obviously, in everyday speech we do our best to communicate. So do the characters in a novel. The difference is that the attentive author will select language, tone, and character description to assure the speech serves the overall needs of the novel. General chit-chat doesn’t help.

Dialog is a fine way to reveal character. Interior dialog tells us things we could never otherwise know. The language a character uses defines him/her – in the eyes of the other characters, but not necessarily in the eyes of the reader. And, most certainly, not necessarily accurately. We all know Bre’r Rabbit and his rustic, dialectic dialog. If you take it at face value, he’s a traditional hick. But what he says and does makes us know he’s a cunning trickster. Dialog in the hands of a practiced author can give us insight into a grand shell game – one hand manipulates the walnut shells and the other one slips the pea out of sight. In short, dialog should contribute to every aspect of your work. It defines character, it establishes pace, it creates or dissipates tension, it contributes to suspense and story. A novel is a matter of people interacting with other people; without good dialog, that interaction will never ring true.

The Lesser Demon

The last time I posted on this blog I talked about editors. In this day of indie publishing, finding a good editor just got about 1,000 times harder. Conversely, finding a horrible editor got about 10,000 times easier. Your favorite aunt watches tv twelve hours a day, doesn’t she? Surely that’s equipped her to critique stories and stuff. And, as a bonus, she always sort of favored you, right? Who better to read your effort and truly appreciate your literary skills. And while you’re feeling good about yourself for solving that nasty little problem, leave a well-written request under your pillow for the Tooth Fairy.  I realize you’re an adult with permanent teeth, but, gee, if you’re so lucky your aunt’s willing to take a break from Dancing With The Stars to assure your career, magical money’s a cinch. Trust me.

Which is not to say a seemingly ordinary person can’t be a quality editor. It’s the seemingly ordinary persons who make up the reading public who are going to make the final decision that determines the popularity – or lack thereof – of your work. No one’s figured them out yet, and that includes every editor who ever drew breath. But a novel that delivers its message clearly and skilfully at least has a chance at reaching that public. If you’re in traditional publishing, pray for a good editor. If you’re an indie, just pray. Harder.

Where you’re going to have real trouble, however, is where all writers slam into the wall. You really need a copy editor. They are the lessor demons of our existence only because they pelt us with details, whereas literary editors are masters of upside-the-head dictates, i.e., Your book actually begins on page 32, so dump the first 31. Be sure all the important details are in the revision. A copy editor may write You say Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 6th. History tells us it was December 7th. Do you have authentication for your choice? Could it possibly be a typo?

At a trade publishing house you can be pretty sure your literary editor loves your book. Maybe not as much as you, but enough to bet heavy prestige – possibly career prospects – on it. ( If you’re an indie writer, you need an editor with similar commitment to your work. Never forget that. )  That can be a problem. You’re both caught up in the story, the artful use of the language, the sub-plots, the nuances and implications of the story as it progresses. A good copy editor is every bit as aware of all that as you and your literary editor.  The difference is that the copy editor must, in a sense, divorce her/himself from the actual craft of the novel. The copy editor works almost as an architect, assuring the structure of your novel is level, square, and fitted together in a working whole. It is hard, demanding work, rife with microscopic details that must reconcile with each other. The copy editor will not sigh with emotion over your great love scene when you describe the heroine’s lustrous green eyes in one paragraph and inexplicably compare them to summer’s blue skies later. No matter how dramatically you describe a continuing character’s loss of an arm in Book 1, you cannot have that character miraculously healed in Book 2. Copy editors catch those things. They correct your spelling. Your punctuation. Your grammar. They will, quietly and professionally, drive you stark, raving mad. And we need them desperately. As an indie, you must find someone who lusts for typos, dreams of dropped lines, gets emotional about correctly transcribed Roman numerals, who knows the difference between a hood and a bonnet. You need someone who doesn’t really give a damn about your Hemingway-esque aspirations but who is determined to make you tell your story right. They do a hard, tedious job and get little thanks. We, as the beneficiaries of that effort, owe them much, much more.

All that said – be very careful. Editing and copy editing are very difficult. If you’re an indie, in particular, you must be aware that too many people out there will happily read your book and comment. A great many of them can read a check, but nothing else. You can also fall victim to the concept that honest criticism of your material is somehow disrespectful. I’d hope that you’ll work with people who tell you the truth. If you’re giving your manuscript to pre-publishing readers so you can hear them tell you how good it is, not only are you cheating your novel, you may well be forcing your friends to choose between a rather slender definition of friendship and honesty. Whoever does your copy editing should be expected to do it with a professional attitude. You should accept their efforts in a professional manner. Mutual respect puts agreement or disagreement in proper perspective. Above all, as the author you decide how to use whatever help you’re offered.

It’s your book.

Electrons Of The World, Unite!

I’ve gotten into Kindle in the past year. I think it’s great.
So what’s your point?
Glad you asked. Good question. Let me put it this way; I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.

My Kindle books are published by Raven’s Call Press. Raven’s call is my granddaughter, Caitlin. For the record, she has a far more melifflous voice, plus a far greater knowledge of the business of electronic publishing. Consider that sentence: Knowledge of the business; AND electronic publishing. It’s not an easy game, friends. In fact, it’s no easier than traditional publishing. Sure, you can publish anything any  time on Kindle or (insert your vehicle here), but the plain truth is, you’re still stuck with reaching the public.

Never doubt this: the first thing you need is luck. A good book helps; it’s not the absolute answer. A badly written book carries its own death warrant. Write one and find out. Your job, then is the best book you can produce. You don’t hold anything back for the next book. You give this one everything you’ve got. After that, you think about the next, better book.

What’s this have to do with electronic publishing? For one thing, you may think you can just jump in without good editorial input. Trust me; you can’t. Secondly, your novel is one of hundreds of thousands flooding Amazon or (insert here). You need something to attract attention. Covers, critiques, reviews, etc. They’re important. They help. What you really need is readership. You may strike gold and get that with a first novel. Spoiler alert – you may not. That means more, better books. Electronic or traditional, a readership comes with people who are convinced you can tell a story. What traditional publishing does is push you out there with a certain cachet – professional editors, publishers, pr people, etc. – have approved your work. If you believe that’s a can’t-miss prospect, hike down to the local bookstore and check out the remainder table. Those are the flunking grades of publishing.

If you want to publish independently, learn the business of preparing a manuscript for electronic production. (Or speak to my granddaughter.) I’m not offering you a course on how to break into e-publishing. I’m warning you that it’s another aspect of the writer’s craft. It opens new doors, but new doors require new keys. It offers new paths to success, but new paths require not just ambition, but an adventurous soul. And never forget that a good book is your major hope of becoming the successful writer you’re working so hard to become. There are no easy ways, there’s never a free lunch. It’s a simple matter of banging your head against the wall until the wall gives up. We’ve seen – and are seeing – a revolution in writing. As with most revolutions, the old order changes, but the old rules still apply. Learn your craft. Learn the techniques of fiction. Learn what the new e-world must have in order for you to succeed – then excel at it.

EDITORS – The best thing that can happen to you.

Usually.

We all growl about editors, especially copy editors. In plain fact, they’re the intercession experts of the writer’s craft.  A good editor, like a good wife or husband, it a gift beyond compare. As creative people, we need encouragement, support, understanding – all sorts of intangible, but instantly recognized, input. No matter how we treasure our individuality and the pride we take in weaving words into literature, without someone urging  are compared to how contrary husbands too frequently are.) Today, however, I want to talk about how we interact with our editor.

First off, understand that once you start working with an editor, there’s nothing about you that appeals as strongly to that editor as your success.  Think about it. This is a woman or a man who’s career in inextricably linked to your own. If your books fail, your editor fails. A few bumps like that and the editor’s on the corner selling t-shirts from a suitcase and you’re explaining to all your friends why none of it was your fault. And you may be right. Good books don’t always succeed. Bad books can catch the public eye and make the authors rich – and not do the editor any harm, either. So what’s an author to do?

1. Believe in your editor. She/he’s working for you. (For you new guys on the block, that’s the way it works: The editor works for you, not the other way around.)
2. Never forget that publishing is a for-profit operation. Your editor won’t. At the end of the day you’ll be agonizing over your place in the literary canon. Your editor will be going home to  sweat blood wondering if your sales will help him/her make the house payment. Since I’m assuming you’re writing commercial fiction, I’m going to assume you’re smart enough to take commercial advice from someone who’s played the game successfully and is trying to make you rich.
3. Be true to yourself. Your editor wants you to succeed, but if she/he could do what you do, he/she would sure as hell do it. If you’re going to face down your editor – and there certainly will be times when you must – don’t do it out of pride. Do it out of awareness of your talent, your craftsmanship, and the soul of your work.
4. Don’t think you’re all the editor has to work on. Editors are overworked, underpaid, and (too often) unappreciated. You have something to say about one-third of that construct. See to it you don’t assume your third even approximates the other two.
5. The other side of (4., above) is that not all editors are created equal. The world’s full of horror stories about lazy, incompetent, and generally crummy editors. Some of the stories are true. That takes us back to (3., above). You’re a writer. You’re unique. Have enough pride in your work and yourself to insist on considerate treatment. Not preferential – considerate. When you have a legitimate gripe, sound off.
6. It’s not your editor’s job to love you, nor is it your job to love him/her. You’re supposed to work together to polish a piece of work that’s impressed so many people it’s being readied for big-time commerce. Be professional. Be civil, no matter what. Remember Please and Thank You? Use them. And when the chores seem to be outweighing the rewards, think back on how eager you were – and how hard you worked – to get to the point where you have an EDITOR. Then shut up and get back to work.
7.  Be aware you’re involved in the grandest gamble of your life. Throw the dice. Enjoy the game.

Who ARE these people?

I’m reading today’s paper and suddenly we’re up to here in reasons why we should hold hands with the Syrian rebels. The reason seems to be All our friends are doing it. Is there no one in our entire governmental structure who can say So what? It’s pretty obvious that Iran and their trained puppies, the ones that call themselves Hezbollah, are going to end up running Syria (or at least a big part of it) when the smoke (and poison gas) clears. In effect then, anything we do to further the aims of the Syrian rebels assures we’re empowering people who’ve been unmistakably clear about their position that the only good American is a dead American. If it’s so important for us to throw in with any of those people, why don’t we at least deal with the Iranis? We provide a no-fly zone and they pay all the expenses. They’ve got money. Ok, oil; same thing. The only resources Hezbollah’s got is hate and suicide vests.

(Quick question: Also been reading about a rash of female suicide bombers in Russia. If a male blow-up automatically qualifies for those 72 virgins, what sort of entertainment’s on deck
for a lady blow-up?)

And don’t tell me our government will be earning a voice in the decisions about anything whatsoever in a future Syrian government. Take a look at what our young men and women died for in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – and we’re still counting in Afghanistan. We’ve got Hamid Karzai. The man’s so crooked that when he dies they’ll dig his grave with a corkscrew. Iraq is a battlefield, probably will be for another full generation. In Vietnam we had so many prime ministers or presidents or premiers it took a flow chart to keep up. And in the end we bailed out and the survivors live in one of the most tightly controlled societies on the planet. There has to be a secret college somewhere where we train people to go into other countries and spot corrupt creeps so we can champion them. Who’s going to tell me that there are no upright, ethical people in Afghanistan, that we have to hang in there with Karzai because he’s the best we can find? The best what? We’ve been playing at bringing democracy to the underdogs of the world for the past 60 years. All we’ve accomplished is to set up corrupt, conniving crooks everywhere we’ve gone, and the finest of our young men and women have paid for those pitifully failed adventures with their lives – and possibly worse yet, their dreams and the dreams of those who love them.

Bringing democracy to other countries isn’t my job. It’s not your job. If it’s anyone’s job, it’s for the people who live there. We’re not helping the unserved people anywhere. We’re backing people you wouldn’t allow in your home and, in some cases, people who’d be happy to shoot their way into your home. When we see the people of a nation fighting to be free, we should consider – consider – helping them. That from a man who’s way too old to go to war ever again and one who’s well-enough acquainted with it to lament sending someone else – especially when our government has never learned the difference between self-interest and selfish interests. But if we can’t find an honest leader to stand beside, then get the hell out of there. We deal with anyone else on a cash basis without all this jabber about being friends. We’re not here to save the world. We’re here to save the United States. That’s enough.

What’s Your Life Worth?

It’s not always just telling a story. I figure just about everyone who sees my blog knows I’m big on story-telling and the techniques of fiction. I don’t know as much about it as I wish I did, but I’ve snuck a few words past a few editors and it’s always fun to jaw about something you love.

Sometimes, though, there’s a lot more to it than putting together a clever story line and interesting characters. Sometimes it’s about something so serious the only way we, as writers, can deal with it properly is to create a parable. We create a story that embodies a message we feel is so important it has to be presented to as many people as possible. That doesn’t mean heavy-gauge stuff: We’re not all agonizing Russians or angst-freighted teenagers, are we? Nor does it mean we’re required to sneer at the people who pump out fluff that reads like it was put together with bent nails. What I’m saying is, it’s a good idea to look inside yourself from time to time and run a quick identity check. All of us present a created world that reflects the one around us as we see it. That means you’re free to weave some personal observation into your work. As long as you don’t get carried away (or pretend one of your characters does) and rocket off on a screed, you do yourself and your reader a service by addressing an issue.

I wrote a book called Light The Hidden Things. I wanted to write about PTSD and veterans. I wanted to show how vital it is for those men (and more and more, those women) to be able to count on the love of a partner. I can’t speak for the women. I think I can speak for the men. It’s my conviction that any of us who have a wife or lover propping us up while we kill our devils multiplies his chances of making a full recovery. The purpose of the book is to get women to think about their role in the battle. I think most of them just think of themselves as loving and helpful. They’re a great deal more. They’re key. So my problem was to make that clear without getting swamped by the need to make the point. I hope I did. I tried. Best any of us can do is try.

When you sit down to write your next paragraph, I hope that, before you do, you ask yourself if there isn’t something you want to flash past your reader. Is there something worth bringing up, just in the hope it’ll help one of your readers ask him/herself an important question? If you have the wit, the skill, the grit to write things in the expectation of publishing them, surely you have the guts to include your vision and your ethical perspective (no matter how subtly) in your story.

If Not You, Who? If Not Now, When?

The worst danger a writer confronts is procrastination. There’s no plot hole that can’t be filled, there’s no writer’s block that can’t be worked through. Unless you quit.

Dashiell Hammett: If the story’s stalled, have a man carrying a gun come through the door.

I can’t guarantee the quote’s absolutely accurate. It still makes the point. The first job is to get the words on paper – or the screen, if that’s your style. Until you see your words with your eyes, you have nothing. Even if you write slop and have to throw it out and start over, you’ve kept moving forward. More to the point, you’ve kept the story vital; it, too, has moved forward, if only in the sense that you’ve learned to avoid that path. The real problem is when we stop the flow. Once we allow ourselves to quit moving for any length of time, we stagnate. As writers creating new material we believe in our hearts that every word we commit to the story (article, poem, script) is perfect. In our minds, we know that’s malarkey. We know we’re going to rewrite, revise, edit, etc. If we have an agent and an editor, we’ll get to all of it all over again. At least twice. But what if we decide we don’t want to work that hard? What if we allow ourselves to procrastinate? The work dies. It dies if we let that plot hole swallow us. It dies if we surrender to what we like to call writer’s block (which is just a term invented to mask procrastination at its worst). Your story may not tolerate a man with a gun suddenly appearing, but there’s something that’ll jumpstart it. You don’t put off searching for it and finding it. We experiment, we hack, we put down gibberish, but we keep pushing forward until the right stuff shows up.

You’re the only person who can tell your story. I don’t care if you’re writing about proper paperclip maintenance – you do it your way. Just do it. Take a break? Sure. Back off and re-think something? Of course. But never let yourself confuse refreshment and retreat. Understand that not all your ideas will work. Never forget that no idea will work if you don’t push it to its – and your – limits.