A few things writers and superheroes have in common

image By Ned Hickson
As I’m sure you’ve already gathered from the title of this post, yes: I look really great in tights and a cape. At least on paper. In fact, all writers do. However, the power writers wield with words (such as using four “w” words in a row) — whether (make that five) for inspiration, contemplation or revulsion — got me thinking about the things writers and superheroes have in common. And I don’t just mean how often people confuse me for Chris Hemsworth. At least on paper.

To begin with, like any superhero, every writer experiences a transformation process before going into action. Sure, it doesn’t involve hastily peeling your clothes off to reveal a fancy costume (depending on your genre and dedication to research), or a blinding flash that changes you from street clothes to colorful tights — something for this reporters in my newsroom are extremely thankful. However, while not as dramatic, there is a transformation that takes place as a writer’s body language, facial expression and overall focus shifts from “earthbound” to “alternate universe.” Ever see a photo of yourself immersed deep in writer mode? It’s like looking at someone else. Which, in my case, is often mistaken for Chris Hemsworth. I mentioned the alternate universe part, right?

Speaking of which, like Thor’s mighty hammer, Spiderman’s web-shooters, Green Lantern’s ring or Hulk’s endless supply of purple pants, writers wield their own super-powered tool for getting the job done. I’m talking, of course, about a cranky editor. Haha! Just kidding! That will be next week’s NWOW topic: Things Editors and Super Villains Have in Common. Naturally, the super-powered tool I was referring to is the computer or tablet a writer wields as a defender of the written word. I realize some of you might be saying:

“I don’t write on a computer, so that’s not entirely accurate.”

And I suppose you’re right. The again, Moses was technically the first person to use a tablet, but let’s not split hairs.

Another characteristic that writers and superheroes share is having their powers thrust upon them. Like any superhero, a writer discovers their gift and realizes “With great power comes great responsibility to pick up a second job.” There’s no avoiding who your are, the powers you have been given, or finding the best way to use them. Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Jean Grey, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent — they all tried to deny their powers and the responsibilities they carried as a result of what fate had bestowed upon them. In each case, they came to realize they were only living within a shadow of who they were meant to be. The same goes for writers; they return to action because they can’t stop being writers.

So, does all of this mean you should should expect a call from The Justice League or S.H.I.E.L.D.?

Probably not. But as a writer, rest assured you are in the company of some really super friends.

(P.S. This one was for you, Marcia!)

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image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. He ic currently working on his next book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist.

Is your manuscript in its eighth trimester? It may be time to induce

image By Ned Hickson

Let’s face it, editing the second draft of your story or manuscript is like a visit to the proctologist: You want it to go quickly; you want to avoid too much grimacing; and you know before you get started there’s going to be too much crammed in. Yet statistics show that early detection of grammatical “polyps” is the most effective way to prevent the spread of bad writing.

But apparently not horrible analogies like this one.

However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you remove the “p” and “l” from the word “polyp,” then add a “t,” you can spell the word “typos.” Or if you prefer, drop the “y” and you can spell “stop,” which I plan to do right now because, judging from the look on your faces, I’ve made my point.

Or possibly made you queasy.

Either way, I believe the second draft is the most important draft in the “three-draft process” I suggest every writer practice. And when I say “three-draft” process, I’m not talking about how many beers it takes to loosen up those typing fingers. I’m talking about the minimum number of drafts you should make of your story or manuscript before you push the “publish” or email button. That said, I’m not suggesting you can’t do more than three if that’s what it takes to make your manuscript the best it can be. But if you’re on the 20th draft of a five-paged short story you’ve been revising for the last three years, it’s time to ask yourself if 1) There’s alcohol involved, or 2) You’re purposely stalling.

I recently had a conversation with a blogger who is an aspiring writer. She confessed to having a 100-paged “work in progress” she’s been revising on a weekly basis for six years. Her plan is to make it available online as a self-published novella. When asked when she thought it would be done, she wasn’t sure.

“I think it’s time to consider forced labor,” I told her. “This baby is so overdue that, if it were a child, it would come out eating solid foods.”

[Official Disclaimer: I am not an actual doctor, although I have played one. Just not on TV.]

Inevitably, she realized she was stalling out of fear of failure; as long as her novella remained unpublished — and unread — the hope it would be a “big success” remained. As I mentioned last week, “success” is a relative term. What I mean by that is, if your family won’t even read it, then Yes: it probably stinks.

Ha! Ha! Just kidding! Who cares what your family thinks! Or if your own mom thinks your writing is “just a phase” that will pass like “that Star Wars thing” once you turn 50 in couple of years!

By the way, have you seen my shoes?

Yeah, Star Wars and being a writer are just phases...

Yeah, Star Wars and being a writer are just phases…

In all seriousness, the only failed writing project is the one that is never started. If you’ve completed one or more drafts of your manuscript then you’re already a success because you’ve beaten the odds by doing something many people talk about but never attempt — let alone finish. Think of it as making the world’s best submarine sandwich; whether or not anyone takes a bite, it’s still a great sandwich. Having others walk around with mustard stains on their shirts is just a bonus.

So if you’re carrying around a 9-pound, fully-developed manuscript, ask yourself what you’re truly waiting for and why. Be honest with your answer. Don’t let fear of failure keep your literary baby from entering the world. It may be time to start pushing for a delivery.

And be thankful I didn’t end this with another proctology comparison.

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image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble. His next book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom from 16 Years as a Shucking Columnist is due out in late February.

Exciting tips on how to fail at your New Year’s writing resolutions

image By Ned Hickson
No doubt, many of you have begun formulating your New Year’s resolutions:

“I’m going to lose weight!”
“I’m going to drink less!”
“I’m going to change careers!”
“I’m going to stop referring to himself in the third person!”

Ok, maybe that last one was just me. Regardless, I think we can all agree resolutions are a great way to jump-start goals for personal improvement and life changes. At least until the end of February, at which point we often “re-evaluate” our goals and make “more realistic” adjustments to those goals by “dropping them completely.” For this reason, as writers, we need to be careful about the resolutions we make regarding literary goals, and in some cases we shouldn’t make them at all.

Many of you are probably saying, “Sure Ned, that’s easy for you to say!”

Oops, sorry — That was me speaking in third-person again. Still, I think it raises a good point: I’m fortunate enough to write full-time for a newspaper, so who am I to tell you not to set lofty goals for yourself when I’m living the dream my editor coincidentally calls her nightmare?

All I can say is that I’m the guy without a college education who spent 10 years cooking in kitchens before being mistakenly hired enthusiastically added to the editorial staff here at Siuslaw News 16 years ago. I can tell you from experience that reaching this level of success, which includes not two but three readers from Florida who are willing to admit they follow this blog, only came after making several important realizations — and failures — regarding New Year’s resolutions and goal setting for my writing.

Here are my Top Three writing resolution mistakes:

1) Waiting for Jan. 1
What I came to realize after several attempts to “start and complete that novel” was that the mere fact I was waiting for a start date doomed me to failure. I can honestly say the best things that have happened to me in my life — including meeting my wife on Match.com, getting this job, actually starting and finishing a mystery novel years ago — didn’t come by way of setting goals; they came from acting on them instinctively and following through, regardless of the date. The decision to start pursuing your goals as a writer — whether it’s to start a blog or publish a blockbuster — shouldn’t hinge on the New Year.

The only exception might be writing for a calendar company.

So am I saying NOT to start pursuing your writing goals next Wednesday? Not at all. But you should probably ask yourself, “Ned, why are you waiting?”

Sorry, I’m still working on that “third person” thing…

2) Setting resolution goals that include things beyond your control:
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write a blockbuster, land a book deal or increase blog followers by 1,000 or more. But don’t make them goals. Ultimately, just like the women The Bachelor will decide not to send home this season no matter how much you yell at the TV, you have no control over those kinds of things. As a writer, all you can do is focus on what you’re putting on the page and have faith in what happens next. The same goes for watching The Bachelor, which is why most of them eventually end up on The Bachelor Pad. In short, set goals that are within your realm of control — the most important of which is the quality of what you write. Like a successful restaurant, people don’t come because of the plate ware — they come for the food. Unless you work at Hooters. Which brings us back to The Bachelor…

3) Lumping too many resolutions together
“I’m going to lose 30 pounds, write a novel and give up bacon!” Let’s face it, if those are your resolutions you’re doomed once again. Why? While it’s true that resolutions are supposed to be difficult and life changing, even if you could drop 30 pounds and write that novel all in the same year, what’s the point if you can’t eat bacon? Whatever your resolution is, in order for it to be successful it needs your full attention. Remember that a root word of resolution is “resolute,” which means “determined and of singular focus,” and “lute” which is “a guitar-like instrument with a pear-shaped body.

What does this mean? Clearly, writers who set resolutions for themselves should be “singularly focused” and should not simultaneously diet, even if they have a pear-shaped body.

In short, keep your resolution exactly that: singular. That way you can give it your complete focus and not be distracted by the success or failure of other goals you promised yourself.

My intention isn’t to dissuade anyone from pursuing resolutions into the New Year, or setting lofty goals for themselves. Though I had my share a failures with resolutions over the years when it came to my writing, I don’t regret them.

Except for that time I tried to learn how to play the lute…

image (Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

Me, myself and why: Learn to avoid yourself when writing in first-person

image By Ned Hickson
First, I’d like to point out that this week’s topic actually came from blogger Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who asked:

What are the compositional and elemental changes in astral rock once it passes through a solar flare?

Since she is the first person to ever ask me that question, we will be talking about first-person perspective in writing, and why it’s important to avoid overuse of “I” “Me” “My” and “Astral Rock.”

First, let’s do a quick overview of the four main voices authors use when writing:

1) Omniscient — This is the all-seeing God-like voice, which was coincidentally used by my ex-wife. Haha! Just kidding! (she probably heard that). This voice allows the author unlimited access to any character, timeframe, observation and inner monologue…

I am the all-powerful, all-knowing Omniscient Voice! I can be anywhere I want, any time I want, with access to anything I want, including any gas station restroom without lugging a key attached to the rim of a 1974 Gremlin!

2) First-Person — For many reasons, this is the most common voice writers use. It establishes a sense of immediacy and connection by allowing the author to speak from a singular perspective, therefore keeping the reader privy to only the main character’s knowledge and thoughts. It’s an especially effective choice for writers with a strong, stylish voice. If William Hung is reading this, I would highly discourage you from taking this approach…

I am First-Person perspective! Everything is in relation to me, my thoughts, and what I say. I hope you like me. If not, I will try telling you even more about me so I can bond with you, but not in an E.L. James kind of way… which reminds me, have I told you what my new safe word is? That’s right! “Me!”

More on this in a bit.

3) Third-Person — Think of it as the demi-God of Omniscient Voice; it has some God-like powers by allowing the author to shift points of view — but to a limited capacity. All observations, thoughts and dialogue must be linked to character perspectives. There is no external narrative and limited opportunity for foreshadowing. The advantage is that it allows more exploration of characters and situations than First-Person, but without the additional burden of establishing an Omniscient narrative. William Hung, if you’re still reading, think of it as you singing, but with a choice of back-up singers to drown out your voice…

I am Third-Person perspective! I can do things that mortal First-Person can’t do, but I will never live up to the expectations of my Omniscient-Voice father! Stop talking to yourself, Third Person! Sorry Dad! *whimpers*

And finally,

4) Last-Person perspective — The least popular and most difficult technique a writer can attempt, mostly because Last-Person voice always goes something like this…

I just got here, so what did I miss? WHAT?! Why am I ALWAYS the last person to know!

Now that we’ve established a basic overview of the four main voices authors utilize, let’s focus on today’s topic: Writing in the First-Person perspective. The same things that make writing from the First-Person so effective in establishing a relationship with your reader can just as quickly end that relationship — for the same reason many relationships end: Too much focus on “Me,” “My” and “I.”

Although improper handling of the toilet seat is a close second.

According to the word count indicator, we are 684 words into this post. Including the references I’m about to make, the “I” or “Me” words have been used nine times. And because I know some of you are now going back to count, I’ll wait here…

…Okay, fine. Ten times.

The point is, one of the easiest ways for a columnist to avoid too many “I” references is to replace them with “We” when possible. Not only do you cut down on the “I” words, but you also make the reader feel they are part of what’s happening. Assuming they want to, which isn’t always the case with my readers.

But you get the idea.

While this technique doesn’t necessarily apply to novel writing, the basic principles of avoiding too many references to yourself are the same. Let’s take that last paragraph and change it to how it could have been written by using more “I” words…

MY point is, one of the easiest ways for ME to avoid too many “I” references is by replacing them with “We” whenever I can. Not only do I cut down on the “I” words, but it also helps ME make the MY readers feel they are part of what I’M writing…

Have you seen paragraphs like that before? I mean, other than in the last 15 seconds? It makes you want to stop reading because the writer is talking at you instead of with you. This brings us back to the relationship analogy, and why it’s important to look at your writing — whether it be a column, blog post or novel — as a conversation with someone you are in a relationship with. Because you are. If you’re doing all the talking, the other person will stop engaging in the conversation and, eventually, they will find someone else. Probably at a book store. A lot of authors make the mistake of viewing their writing as a one sided conversation. This is particularly easy to do when writing in the First-Person voice.

So how do you avoid too many “I” references while still establishing your voice? Again, it’s relationship time. Once you’ve written your first draft, go back over it with your reader in mind and eliminate those “I” references — either with a simple “We” fix or, if necessary, by re-working the passages to be more inclusive.

That said, avoid going to the polar opposite with your revisions because again, just like in a relationship, you don’t want to lose yourself entirely.

For more on this, watch any season of The Bachelor.

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Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Writing is a lot like weightlifting, except without the abs

image By Ned Hickson
It struck me this morning at the gym, while diligently pumping iron from a seated position at the smoothie bar, the number of similarities there are between reaching your fitness goals and writing goals, and how, in both cases, you will likely fail if you attempt too much too fast — especially if you’re trying to show off and accidentally flatulate while attempting a power lift. OK, now that the obligations required by my Gas-X sponsorship have been met, we can move on to how the same principles that make up a good fitness plan can be applied to achieving your writing goals. (Make sure to stop in next week, when Trojan will sponsor tips on expanding your readership.)

Just like many people who enter the gym for the first time and see the dozens of different torture devices designed to make you look weak and destroy your self esteem fitness apparatus that can sculpt your body into lean muscle capable of opening even the most stubborn mayonnaise jar, those entering the world of writing often find themselves being crushed under the weight of their own lofty goals by not building up literary muscle first. And by this I don’t mean technique, style or developing your writing voice. I’m talking specifically about easing into writing project(s) and commitment(s) in a way that strengthens your writing endurance so you can avoid “injuring” yourself creatively.

This isn’t to be confused with creatively injuring yourself, which I also know about. But that’s a whole other post…

In the same way a smart fitness plan is built on improvements through gradually adding weight in small increments, running for longer periods or monitoring and increasing resistance in measured amounts, writers need to follow the same example if they want to keep their disciplined writing commitment from turning into sloppy repetitions that can hurt their goals. Any gym instructor will tell you lifting a lot of weight too quickly, or without the proper control, is pointless and even dangerous.

Especially if I’m your spotter.

The key is to recognize your limitations and commit to lifting nothing beyond that until it’s time to add more.

How will you know when it’s time? When you realize you’re making the circuit without getting winded. In literary terms, the best measurement I can give you is this: When you find yourself easily beating your deadline(s) on a regular basis — whether self-imposed or established by an editor or agent — you’re probably ready to build more muscle.

Until then, keep working the circuit and maintaining those steady, controlled writing reps.

But please: Stay away from the gym if you’re gassy.

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(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

Even when making stuff up, honesty is still the best policy for writers

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By Ned Hickson
Being a humor columnist, I am often asked:

“Where do you get this stuff?”
“How did you even think of that?”
“Do you just make this [censored] up?
“Isn’t marijuana legal in Oregon?”

The answer to all of those questions is a definitive “Yes,” particularly on Ballot Measure 5. However, each of the first three include an important addendum that reads as follows:

While the consumption of humor shall be made available to everyone regardless of race, color, creed or whatever they happen to be eating that may unintentionally exit a nostril, the distributor of said humor is required to provide a basic standard of truthfulness, therefore guaranteeing consumers a more pure grade of laughter. At least until they try passing mixed-berry yogurt through their nose.Continue reading

Active descriptions are key to believable characters; Activia descriptions are not

image By Ned Hickson

This is the second part of a two-part post about earning a reader’s trust through effective character dialogue and active description — and how earning that trust means the difference between a reader taking a leap of faith or a flying leap. Here’s a brief re-cap from the first part of this post, which focused on three forms of dialogue: Narrative dialogue, fictional dialogue based on a real person, and “real” dialogue from a fictional character…

1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. Do You HEAR ME! Oops, sorry. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative like this:

See what I mean?

Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.

2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context requires thinking of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Especially if they have big ears.

3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. That’s because, when we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.

‘Tis truth I speak.

Now that we have recapped three key points about dialogue, let’s talk about defining a character and building your readers’ trust even more through active description. So what is active description?

POP QUIZ! The term “active description” refers to:

a) When a writer who is seeking to lose weight and get published writes their novel while riding a stationary bike
b) Long paragraphs describing the sweat-filled pores of someone doing something exhausting.
c) Using a character’s subtle actions and habits to help define them and break up monotonous dialogue tags, such as “He said,” over and over again in a repeatedly repetitious fashion many times.

(Please explain your answer on the back of this blog.)

If you picked “C,” give yourself a gold star and bring this blog with you to the front of the class. If you picked either “A” or “B,” give yourself a gold star anyway because no one fails here. Unless it’s me doing a face-plant while pole dancing.

Active description is a way to add another level of believability in a character through the subtle nuances of how they move, their body language and actions. It’s also an effective tool in breaking up dialogue patterns that quickly begin to feel contrived. Lastly, it relays information about the character in ways that feel natural to us in actual conversation. Remember: What is being said is only half the conversation. The other half is the non-verbal communication happening at the same time. The more you can capture that feeling in your writing, the more believable your characters will be.

I realize that was an entire paragraph without a single quip or bodily function joke, but I assure you it’s really me talking. Which is why I can offer this snippet from my Long Awkward Pause “interview” with Kevin Spacey as a way to show how active description can help quickly sketch a character — fictional or otherwise — and establish a believable pace for their dialogue. For the “interview,” I met Spacey at a nacho bar called Casa de Papitas (House of Chips) in Hollywood…

He then graciously offered me a seat before settling into his, legs crossed, one arm resting on the chair-back, leaving the other free to rummage through the chips basket. It was clearly my signal to start the interview, which I opened with the question I’m sure is on every LAP reader’s mind.

“Why did you agree to an interview with us and be a guest on our upcoming podcast? I mean, it seems either one of those would be bad enough.”

Spacey smiled and examined a chip, then popped it into his mouth. “Did you ever see the movie Albino Alligator?” he asked, referring to his directorial debut, which grossed $339,000 and cost $6 million to make.

“I think we all did. Everyone at LAP thought it was great.”

“Bingo,” said Spacey.

Before I could ask my next question, a waiter approached the table for our order. Spacey, noted for his Hollywood impressions, chose to forgo the nacho bar and order from the small menu as Clint Eastwood.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Spacey, who squinted and began speaking through clenched teeth. “Will he order the number six chimichanga platter or only five. In all this confusion I sort of lost track myself. So I gotta ask myself: Do I feel lucky?”

“Well — DO you, PUNK?!?” I chimed in, then immediately regretted it.

The waiter gave me a nervous glance.

“A man’s got to know his limitations,” said Spacey.

To establish believability in this mock interview with Spacey, I opened up with active description that establishes his natural intensity and self assuredness in order to add credibility and believability to his dialogue — which is quick and direct. Just like the way he would eat his chip; no tiny bites, but in one quick pop. Also, by describing the way he took to his chair, by crossing his legs and throwing one arm over the chair back all in quick succession, the impression is of a decisive man who already knows he wants to leave one hand free for chips long before he sits down.

For contrast, here’s a snippet from another “interview,” this time with Clay Aiken. Once again, setting the tone with his actions lends credibility to his dialogue — and builds the kind of trust you need with readers in order for them to buy your book take a leap of faith with you…

As I sat on the back of his bedazzled Vespa motor scooter, Aiken seemed to take pride in his city, as well as take corners so sharply I had to squeeze his waist. Though he formally announced his bid for Congress a week ago, Aiken told me more than once that he’s no politician.

“I’m no politician!” he shouted over his shoulder, then swerved to avoid a cloud of mosquitoes. “Woooo! Shields down!”

Some speculate that his run against Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers is a publicity stunt aimed at putting him back in the spotlight for the release of his next album, Aiken for Change, which coincidentally happens to be his campaign slogan. When asked about this, the American Idol star abruptly brought the scooter to a stop in a rundown South Raleigh neighborhood known for its high crime rate and low employment. He removed his helmet and raised a finger, prepared to reply with a well-thought rebuttal, then quickly put his helmet back on.

“Oh darn,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to stop in THIS neighborhood!“

I hope this two-part tome has been helpful. If not, please blame Michelle at MamaMickTerry, who suggested this subject in an email when she asked, “Have you ever tried writing dialogue when you’re on pain killers…?”

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Convince your reader to take a leap of faith (instead of a flying leap)

image By Ned Hickson

Writing must ring true with readers for them to become emotionally invested. This is particularly important when it comes to fiction, where you are often asking readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into something — such as an eccentric character, over-the-top situation or random reference to the new iPad6® in hopes of getting a free one — that requires a leap of faith. In this case, your reader is making a “leap” over reality because they have faith that you, the writer, will keep them safely suspended until they land safely on the last page. Assuming, of course, your book doesn’t end with, “…Then there was a massive explosion and everybody died, including the basket of puppies.”

As with taking any kind of leap, you must first gain momentum through a series of confident and quickening footfalls along a solid foundation. This applies to your writing as much as it does, hypothetically speaking, to clearing the front fence of your home in order to beat your son to the restroom after a long car ride. Without the right amount of momentum, your reader could end up — again, hypothetically speaking — doing the splits on a picket fence.

The most effective way for a writer to build a reader’s momentum toward a solid jumping-off point is through writing that resonates with an underlying honesty. This doesn’t mean confessing how you re-named areas of Mrs. Flunkem’s 7th-grade world map with parts of the reproductive system. Although changing “Panama Canal” to “Fallopian Tube” is worth mentioning, hypothetically speaking of course. No, when it comes to honesty in fiction writing I’m referring to what I like to call the “Double-D” approach, and not for reasons you might think. In this case we’re referring to “dialogue” and “description” that ring true enough to establish believability — and lay the foundation of confidence your reader will need when asked to make that leap with you. This applies equally to completely fictional characters, real people written within a fictional context (such as my “interviews” with Kevin Spacey and Clay Aiken), and the persona we project on our blogs and social media sites.

Dialogue is used to convey many things, from mood to information, plot points to character profiles. Because writing dialogue is complex and deserves its own post, today I’m focusing specifically on ways to make your dialogue — whether character driven or as author narrative — ring true and build trust with your reader. In a later post, we’ll talk about the difference between “telling and showing,” avoiding too many “he said, she said” references and the common mistake of nonsensical “action” dialogue (“Then I’m LEAVING!” he yelled, slamming the door on her still-parted lips poised in reply…)

*rubs lips*

Also, for purposes of this post, the subject of “description” will be limited to building believability in your character by effectively describing their actions. We’ll save descriptive passages like “The sun was setting in the canyon like a giant navel orange into God’s fruit bowl…” for another time.

Dialogue: It’s one of the fastest ways to earn — or lose — a reader’s trust. Whether it’s your voice as a blogger or words spoken by someone in a story, you are essentially having a conversation with your reader asking them to “believe.” And just like that guy at your office who is always talking about his nights of crazy sex when, in fact, you took your kids to the dollar theater Friday night and saw him sitting alone watching “Frozen,” you know he’s full of Whoppers. The same goes for your readers.

Unless they’re too busy singing “Let It Go.”

Assuming they aren’t, possibly because they have been shot, here are three tips to writing dialogue readers can believe in:

1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. We don’t like it from our parents, teachers, bosses, ex-wives, etc., and readers don’t either. Always keep your reader in mind. Pause every few paragraphs or minutes, depending on how fast you type (total elapsed time for this paragraph: three days) and ask yourself, “If I was having this conversation on the street with a stranger, what would they be thinking right now? Would they have questions? What feedback would they have? If someone drove by on a motor scooter, would they yank them off and steal the scooter just to get away?” You are building a relationship with your reader and, as with any good relationship, the other person needs to feel acknowledged. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative.

See what I mean?

It’s a way to break out of the lecture mode and invite them into the conversation. Another approach is specifically stating the question they might have…

I know what you’re thinking: Is he always this verbose, or is it the coffee?

Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.

2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context is simultaneously easy and extremely difficult. I say this because, on one hand, you have the nuances of their dialogue pattern already established in television and magazine interviews; it’s simply a matter of studying the way they speak and incorporating it into the dialogue you are creating for them. On the other hand, if you get it wrong, every reader will know it immediately.

I’m not buying it. Angelina Jolie would never refer to her children as “My little sucklings.”

In this case, you have to think of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Even if you don’t regularly “interview” famous people like I do (at least until there’s an injunction), it’s a great writing exercise that forces you to analyze all the nuances of dialogue.

Or as Angelina Jolie would say, “Go ahead — Make my day.”

3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. I purposely placed this after “famous person dialogue” because many of the same rules apply. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. When we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? If there are inconsistencies in their behavior, such as explaining how they own a Porsche dealership yet leave the bar driving a 1987 Ford Fiesta, we tend to question their honesty. The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.

‘Tis truth I speak.

So take time to determine the nuances of your character’s speech pattern in the same way you would with their physical appearance and backstory. Or backside. Or whatever.

This is officially the longest post of my life. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking this leap of faith with me. If you didn’t make it this far, then I can call you a big jerk and you’ll never know.

Next week, we’ll continue with “Description,” and tips on how it can enhance dialogue and build trust with your readers that will make them want to take a leap of faith — instead of a flying leap.

imageNed Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Every writer needs perseverance. And maybe an angry monkey

image By Ned Hickson

Since mid August, I’ve been working on a project collecting the last two years of my “Nickel’s Worth on Writing” posts into an eBook that is part writing tips, part writer’s survival guide. What some of you may not know is that I have the technological IQ of a chimp.

Ok, ALL of you knew that — and you’re probably right: I shouldn’t assume all chimpanzees are incapable of creating an eBook.

Regardless, the process has reminded me of how important perseverance is as a writer and how, as writers, having a chimpanzee capable of tearing apart a laptop with its bare hands could be really therapeutic.

I’ve come to see my eBook-creating experience as a smaller version of the trials and tribulations every writer goes through in the quest for publication (Except hopefully with less cursing.) Every writer begins with a manuscript: Pages with thousands of words, each specifically chosen through a painstaking process aimed at creating imagery, setting a mood and conveying information methodically doled out to establish the perfect pace. Does it make you any less a writer if it doesn’t get published?

Of course not.

That’s like saying you aren’t a singer if you only reach for those high notes while in the shower. It doesn’t matter what you do to hit those high notes, and I’m pretty sure the rest of would rather not know. The important thing is that you don’t need a recording contract to be someone who sings, any more than you need a published book to consider yourself a writer. If you spend time on a regular basis writing your thoughts down while searching for just the right words — whether in the form of a novel or personal observations — you’re a writer.

It’s that simple.

Although if you spend hours in the shower reaching for those high notes, it starts to get complicated.

That said, it’s the hope of every writer to share their words with others. While blogging has streamlined this process and allowed more people than ever to make their words accessible to the world, the printed word — virtually in an eBook or physically on actual paper — still holds a special significance. Admittedly, seeing the title of my first book in the Dewey Decimal System at the library was a thrill. It didn’t matter that I’d probably never be able to find it again by actually using the Dewey Decimal System, or that my identifier on the spine of the book is “HICKS” in all-caps.

Apparently, there are a lot of HICKS around here.

Apparently, there are a lot of HICKS around here.

To become an overnight sensation has taken me 15 years.

And counting, actually.

That’s because, aside from you and readers of my newspaper column, I remain virtually unknown in most parts of the world and to a select group of state law enforcement agencies (which I’d like to keep that way, thanks.)

Did having a book published make me more of a writer? Did it open the door to fame? Fortune? A table at Waffle House without a reservation? Yes! But only to that last one. Although I’m pretty sure you only need a reservation there if you ask for gluten free waffles or meatless sausage. Then there is a three-hour wait.

My point is, published or unpublished, overnight success or one-night wonder (I’d rather not get into that), a writer writes because it is part of who they are. It’s as second nature and as necessary as breathing and eating, although I should warn you that inhaling while eating a powdered donut can be dangerous. Did the fact that I once dropped face-first onto a table at Big Dog Donuts while choking on powdered sugar keep my from having another donut? No way. That’s because as writers we persevere. We brush off the proverbial powdered sugar dust and take another bite.

So as I keep cursing at diligently working on the eBook collection of my Nickel’s Worth on Writing, rest assured I will — like all of you — rely on my perseverance as a writer until it is complete.

Unless a monkey eats my donut.

image

Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.