I had a terrific time in poetry school. I heard lectures about odes and elegies and the use of time through verb tenses in a poem and much more. The five poems I submitted ahead of time got careful criticism, and I learned a lot. Thanks to everyone for keeping the blog humming in the meanwhile.

On July 24, 2010, Lauren wrote, I was rereading part of one of the stories I’m writing, and I just realized how forced the writing sounds. How can I change it? Should I completely re-write it, or just change bits and pieces? How can you edit your work without getting totally discouraged and wanting to give up?

I asked for clarification, and Lauren gave it the next day: I mean when the writing sounds fake. Kind of like what you wrote in that one chapter in WRITING MAGIC, where you gave two kinds of dialogue involving a couple of girls and weird smells one of them thought was coming from the science lab, but was actually smoke? One was very formal and didn’t sound like two tween/teenaged girls, and the other one did.

Sometimes I want to give up too. Usually this happens to me in the first-draft stage. I love to revise. By the time I get to revision the major plot kinks have been ironed out and all I have to do is to make my prose shine. Truth is, it’s fine and possibly even universal to want to give up but not fine to actually do so. If you stick with your revision, your story is likely to improve. If it doesn’t, you can start a new story, but I hope you won’t stop writing entirely.

I’m glad you’ve read Writing Magic!

Your dialogue problem may have come about because you’re putting information into speech that belongs in narration. Dialogue is likely to feel forced when it passes along facts that both speakers know – simply in order to bring the reader up to speed. If, in the example from Writing Magic, both characters are already aware of the smoke that issued from the science lab, they’ll be unlikely to talk about it.

Dialogue seems to be a lively way to introduce back story, but it’s not, in my opinion. Usually such conversations come off as stiff. Much better to tell the reader directly in narration. If you’re writing in third person, you can merely say that a science experiment has gone bad. If in first, your main character can notice the lingering smell of burnt rubber or whatever.

I can imagine circumstances when it might be appropriate to rehash known events. Suppose your main character Penny suspects something fishy went on in the science lab but she doesn’t have all the facts and she wants to find out. Maybe she’s an amateur sleuth. Then she would have a reason to bring up the accident, and, if she’s not experienced at sleuthing, she might do so awkwardly. As the conversation gets going she might reflect on how stilted she sounds. The reader will be content, because he’ll worry about whether she can pull off her subterfuge and because there may be real danger.

Or maybe Penny wants to establish a relationship with someone, so she brings up the science lab because it’s all she can think of. The reader will be okay with this too and will probably suffer along with Penny as her overtures proceed. Will she be accepted or rejected?

It comes down to why people talk.

Obviously not all talk in real life is fascinating. Much of it isn’t, but the motivation for speech often is, and sometimes the motive is more meaningful than the words. When a character, Warren, say, makes chitchat because he’s nervous, what comes out may be drivel, may even be forced-sounding drivel, but if the reader understands what’s going on, she won’t mind. She’ll be squirming along with him; the worse it is, the more she’ll squirm.

Or let’s say Warren is trying to find his sister who’s gone missing. He’s made contact with a woman who may be able to lead him to her. They meet for the first time outside a particular bank branch. She’s said he’ll recognize her, and indeed he thinks he does. There’s a woman at the revolving doors wearing a wide-brimmed red hat, a red wool coat tied at the waist, and high black boots. Her face is beautiful, her expression bored. He goes to her, and, scared, spouts the same nonsense as in the example above. The reader can’t turn the pages fast enough.

Not that Warren has to do it this way. He can master his fear and ask the woman straight out if she’s the right person and if she knows where his sister is. That’s fine. It depends on Warren’s character and the tone of the story. The direct dialogue will still engage the reader if she cares about Warren and his sister. One way is no better than another.

There are myriad reasons for characters to speak – anger, fear, warning, affection, love, for fun, to convey news, and more I’m sure – and myriad ways for them to express themselves, as many ways, I guess, as there are characters.

Some people and some characters are more comfortable talking than others; some are more comfortable being quiet. Here’s a prompt: Tomorrow, notice whenever you talk and when you’re silent in company. Pay attention to what prompts your speech and what shuts you up. At night write about what you discovered. Write whatever you remember of actual conversations. On Friday, observe the speech of others. Write about those discoveries too. If you’re feeling inspired, use what you found out in a new story.

Lauren also asked whether she should rewrite only the parts that are problematic or start from scratch. There’s a middle ground. Don’t scrap your entire effort, but do go through all of it. The seeds of the forced writing may start before the trouble begins, and if you fix the earlier part, the rest may fall into place. Revision is a big job. Bette Davis once said that old age isn’t for sissies, and neither is revision (or writing). It’s hard, and we have to push through all our writing frailties. Above all, we need to be thorough. If any place feels off, try other ways to express what you’re getting at, either in notes or in your story itself, but don’t delete your earlier versions.

Occasionally, tragedy strikes and you lose your entire story. If this happens and you start over, sometimes a little miracle occurs. You remember the plot, and it comes out more smoothly. Your subconscious or some good angel has taken over and fixed things, maybe to comfort you for your loss.

Let’s use that angel in a prompt. Think of a part of something you’re working on that you’re not satisfied with. Don’t look at it. Rewrite from memory. Don’t strain to make it better, just write.

Here’s another dialogue prompt: Your main character, Yona, is at her cousin Ivan’s birthday party where she doesn’t want to be. Her mother has threatened dire punishment if she isn’t nice. Ivan is annoying but not evil. This is not Yona’s finest or kindest moment. In dialogue Yona gets revenge on Ivan for existing and having a birthday, but she does it so subtly that he only knows that he feels worse and worse. Yona believes she’s said nothing that will get her in trouble. Write the dialogue.

And another: Your hero, Kyle, needs information that a particular dragon can provide. Unfortunately, the dragon speaks only in riddles. Write Kyle’s attempts to discover what he needs to know.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Yay first comment! 🙂 Great post, this will come in handy when I get around to rewriting the first few chapters of an unfinished novel I didn't like and when rewriting my Nano.
    Alas, I am trying not to give up on writing my Nano but I'm 10,000 words behind and I have less than a week to write 20,000 words… I'm hoping the quick dialogue I'm writing won't come off as forced…
    I'm also glad to know that its okay to have cheesy/forced dialogue under certain situations, that's a relief.
    I hope all you Americans on here have an awesome Thanksgiving. As for all you fellow WriMos, write! Write like the wind!
    Thanks for the post, Ms. Levine, it shall definitely help in the future.

  2. I can definitely relate to this post. Once I was writing a story and I really wanted to get to this one part, but I had to have something else happen first. It probably sounded really bad, but sometimes I do that when I'm just trying to get through the story.

    Grace: if you think you're doing bad in NaNoWriMo, I've been so busy with school and whatnot that I have under 20,000 words altogether. I tried writing like the wind today, but I'm really sick of my story. Whatever. 🙂

  3. This post really came when I needed it, so thanks. 🙂 I have a feeling that when I revise I'll lose entire chunks of my story that were just needless blabber to fill up my wordcount, but hey, it's all practice writing and that's good.
    I'm more worried about how to translate quantity into quality; but revising my NaNoNovel should by plenty of fun. Good luck to you, Grace (and don't give up just yet, Wendy!). I'm so glad that I finally got on top of my wordcount and I hope I stay there. Thank you for an excellent post, Mrs. Levine, I hope you had a lot of fun with that poetry!

  4. Yes, I'm glad you had a good time at poetry school! I missed the blog last week! 🙂

    Anyway thanks for the good advice with dialogue – I have trouble with putting too much information into my dialogue too. I try to fix that by giving my MC a lot of internal dialogue. I'm writing from third person limited, so he's always giving the reader a glimpse into his mind. I think perhaps this internal dialogue sounds forced sometimes too, but as it's also a type of narration, I find it more difficult to correct than dialogue. Do you have any suggestions for this type of forced writing?

    And fellow WriMos – come on, you can do it! 😀 I actually am a bit ahead – I hit 50,000 words yesterday. But I'm planning on writing until the very end because my story isn't even close to being done. If anyone's interested, I discovered this neat website that might help keep you motivated – it's called "Write or Die": Basically, you set a time limit, word count goal, or both. As long as you keep writing, nothing happens. But if you stop, the webpage around you will start turning red, urging you to keep going. And if you STILL don't write, there'll be…consequences. It's a great tool for people like me who are easily distracted. 😛

    I'd like to wish Mrs. Levine and everyone else a Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels if you're traveling! 🙂

  5. Nice post! Its perfect for the end of NaNoWriMo. The bit about our subconscious remembering old works and reworking it into far better stories was really comforting.

    @Silver: Congratulations on getting past the finishing line! I'm still struggling at 38k. NaNo has been fun, but I doubt I am ever going to do it again. It was far more tranquil before,and I so badly want to catch up with my other stories, and do Mrs Levine's weekly prompts.=)Or maybe it is just pre-ending jitters lol.=)

    Everyone who's doing NaNo, all the best, and Happy Thanksgiving! I admit, I'm not so sure what its about, but it always seems to get people in american sitcoms excited and there are a lot of turkey sandwiches=), well either way, it seems like an important holiday for all of you in the US. I should go and research perhaps…

  6. Silver the Wanderer–These two suggestion may or may not help: Try writing the forced parts in first person. If that works, then translate them back into third. Also, try simplifying your words and sentences.

  7. I'm glad you had fun at poetry school! I'm happy you're back posting, though . . . I missed it!

    This post was interesting for me to read. I've never had a hard time with dialogue . . . it's always come really easily to me. But I do wonder if I put in too much information and unnecessary jabbering into my work. Sometimes simpler is better, and I need to remember that . . . but hey, that's what revision is for!

    A quick question – my current story has a few gaps in the writing, and I was wondering if anyone had any suggestions as how to fix that? There isn't a lot filling in the space between the events in the story, and that leaves it feeling a little forced and just dull. What do I need to fill the spaces with?

  8. Gail, this is a very off-topic, random question, but are you going to write any more Disney Fairies books? I just finished your latest and really liked it.
    Maybe Tink doesn't care for Terence because there's nothing about him that needs fixing…?

  9. happy thanksgiving everyone!
    i find that if you have stiff writing that you don't want, it helps me just to spew it out and make changes later. if it's out of my head, it's easier to edit.

  10. Now that I think of it, some of the dialogue is supposed to be awkward. For example, when Alkhi is talking about something personal and private, it would be odd if he didn't sound at least a little awkward. And when the Ri is talking, since he's the strong, old leader of the forest, if he didn't sound formal and important, it wouldn't fit his character. It all makes sense now! Thank you again!


  11. @ April – Hmm . . . well, in the story, my MC has a mystery to solve, and she has three sources, two of them people and the third an old journal. So all the important events are either dialogue or reading, which gets kind of dull with nothing in between. And the gaps in between are just . . . gaps. The problem is that there is nothing there. My story jumps from one important scene to another, and I'm not sure what to put in between to lead from one event to another to interest my reader. I don't want a lot of extra stuff, but do I need it to keep my story interesting?

    One more question to put out there . . . my friend and I were talking about editing our NaNoWriMo stories (we want to get the bound proof copies for a Christmas gift exchange) and my friend mentioned how hard it is to know what to take out and what to leave during the editing process. I'd have to agree. The spelling and grammar are obvious, but the rest can be tough. Are there any posts on the subject, or any advice on how to identify what helps your story and what doesn't?

  12. Jenna Royal–I'm adding your question about gaps to my list. For revision, check my post of 11/18/09 and let me know if you have more questions.

    Elinor–I'm not sure about more Disney FAIRIES books, but your idea about Tink and Terence is great!

    Marissa–I don't think there are. Can you explain your question a little more?

  13. Thanks, Mrs. Levine! I'll try out those suggestions and see if either of them help.

    @Jenna, about your gap problem – maybe you should consider adding in little events that help the reader get to know your characters better? Maybe two of them could play a game, or go for a walk? Maybe the walk could be on the way to one of the people who are the sources? And they have to eat, after all. Some of these little things might turn out to be just filler, but you'll learn more about your characters by the way they act. And who knows? Maybe one of the events might turn out to be important? It's happened to me before, and it's always interesting to see how these things seem to tie into the rest of the story without really meaning to.

  14. Hello,I'm a big fan of your books (especially the fairy quest ones) & I love your blog it’s very interesting for me to read because I like writing too. A while ago, my friend & I started a blog: 'The Secret Life of the Bels' & are keen to get some readers. If you can, could you please read our blog from the first post & tell us what you think of it? Because we want to improve it as much as we can! Thank you so much for your time!

  15. @ Silver – thank you, I will try that. I think it might help. Ooh, I like your idea about the walk . . . or perhaps a walk to go play a game? I think this might work, thanks! I'll try it. 🙂

    @ Ms. Levine – Thank you, the post was really helpful. I think I'm ready now to start editing. 🙂

  16. Thanks for the advice on editing and dialogue-making. When to edit and when to write are always one of my hardest choices. The first time I write, usually its a lot of junk: one of the characters in the scene may act out of character because I was focusing on the main character or I might skip important details (like where the setting is and how it looks like). To me the first time writing something is just a way to get the ideas down on paper, a very detailed outline if you will, before editing to something that looks like a story. Editing is usually my favorite part.

    However, I always have the problem of actually starting to write. the story I want to write blanks from my mind, and I freeze before I even begun to write a word. Or I'll write something–realize its rubbish–and cross it out and begin again, and I'll continue on this way through the story until I give it up half-way. Or I sit in front of the page thinking of ideas/possibilities and reject each one. Have you ever felt this way and what have you done to get rid of this feeling in order to write? How do you start the process of writing a story? Do you outline what you are doing first, a simple two-liner that will guide the plot? Do you plan each chapter? How do you visualize what your trying to write before you do it? Do you a rough sketch of what your characters are like before fleshing them out in the story?

  17. What's the best way to avoid babbling? When I'm writing I always want to go back and review things in my main character's life or things that happened before the story started that I think are important, but I always want to put them in right as they become important. As a result I might be in the middle of an intense event, then I'll have a sort of flashback but by the time I get back to what's happening I've talked so much the reader sort of forgets what was going on. How can I avoid taking away from these scenes by "babbling"? Does anyone have some advice?

  18. @Maddie: I tend to do that quite a bit too.=) What I do is just keep writing, babbling and all, then come back to it and cut the unecessary parts. Personally, I think its best to write for yourself first, and get into the reader's POV during the editing process. Hope this is helpful!=)

  19. Hello, thank you so much for your time in reading our blog – it would be great if you could just leave us a short message saying that you have finished reading! Thanks again!

  20. @Bel-Bel

    I'm not Gail, but I took a look at your blog. It's a little unfair to ask her to read 50 blog posts in one sitting since she's not a blog reviewer. That'll take a lot of time away from her real work.

    I've read some of your posts, and it seems like you guys enjoy writing the posts. 🙂 I have just a few suggestions:

    – Most people are not going to read every post you've written, let alone from the beginning, when they stumble across your blog. I'd recommend an "about" page explaining who you guys are and what the point of your blog is. Maybe link some of your favorite/best posts on that page too, as short cuts for the reader.

    – Ease of reading is pretty important in gaining and keeping readers. Right now you have various colored texts, including orange on green. That's pretty hard to read. If you like the bamboo background, try picking a color that's easy to read on the green and stick with that. You can use other ways of signifying important text or a different writer (head- or footnotes, italics or bold, icons, etc.).

    – The best way to GET readers is to advertise. You can do that by linking your new blog posts in your Facebook statuses, making pertinent comments on other people's blogs (a real comment, not "check out our blog"; if they find you interesting they'll click your name), and linking other blogs in your posts. If the authors are computer savvy enough, they'll be able to tell someone linked them, and then they'll go and check out your blog.

    – The best way to KEEP readers is to update frequently, stay relevant with your topics, and make your blog as easy to navigate/read as possible.

    Hope that helps a little! 🙂

  21. Maddie- I agree with Myra. Just write in the first draft to get the story down. Then go back and edit. You might find out you don't even need some of the babbling in the story, but maybe you needed to know it yourself. So just let it come out now and fix it or move it around later.
    Hope that helps!

  22. Okay so I like reading and writing fantasy. So when I really get into the story I'm working on I can tend to me a bit… Distracted. At school I can focus but at home I'm caught in my fairytale land. I get yelled at a lot for that. I feel that my fantasy land keeps me writing better at my story but I can't focus on the really world at home. How do I find a balance?

  23. @ April
    Thank you so much for all these tips for my blog – it has really given me a lot to think about. I'll tell my friend the ideas you have given me. 🙂
    I understand that asking Gail to read all our posts could be a problem so I just said she could read ones of interest. But thank you so so much for your time in writing your very helpful comment. 🙂

  24. Thank you very much Ms. Levine! I'm really sorry about all the questions, I didn't realize how many questions I asked until I reread my post. I looked up the book you recommended online and read an excerpt. I am amazed, she addressed lots of the issues I am having with writing. I will definitely read this! Thank you very much!

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