Thursday, August 23, 2012

Literary Critique 2012 - SLO NightWriters

SLO Night Writers - August 14, 2012
 Photographs courtesy of Dennis Eamon Young

SLO NightWriters held it’s 2nd Annual Night of Critique at the August general meeting in San Luis Obispo, CA.   As Critique Group Coordinator it's my extreme pleasure organize and host this event.  

NW members bring 250-500 words to read at the microphone and receive feedback from a panel of critiquers.

I'm very grateful to our wonderful and distinguished panel for 2012, all experienced critiquers, most of them award winning writers, and all them published.

Left to Right:
  • Evy Cole ~ ~ Poet, novelist, Teaches ‘Writing by Hand’ to unlock the subconscious
  • Laurie Woodward ~ & ~ YA Novelist, Teacher, Anti-bullying campaigner
  • Susan ~ Creator of ‘Write It Right’ writing program, Teacher of ‘What If” writing classes, Paranormal Suspense & Spiritual genres
  • Barbara Wolcott ~ ~ Pulitzer nominee for Scientific Non-Fiction
  • Sharyl Heber ~ ~ Critique Group Coordinator for SLO NightWriters, aspiring YA Fantasy novelist, screenwriter and poet
And a special thank you to Anna Unkovich for her wonderful e-critique process contributions ~

Judith Allen reading for critique at the mic. 

It’s an informative critique process conducted in a casual, friendly and supportive environment.  Panel members comment a wide range of topics including points of confusion, character development, plotting, dialogue and much more. 

The SLO NightWriter 
audience participates too.  
Here's Dean Bernal giving feedback to a reader.  

 This year, in addition to providing oral critiques, 
the panel offered electronic line-edits 
to kick off a new program for SLO NightWriter members.  
E-Line Edit Exchange

Very exciting to have pool of folks accessible to read and comment on our work, line-by-line!  It’s my preferred method of critique.  

An oral read races too quickly to catch all glitches and too many problems can slip by unnoticed when ‘listening’ vs. ‘reading.’   

Spelling and punctuation are the obvious culprits but more insidious— a reader can mask any number of concerns with a great dramatic reading performance: dialogue, word choice, command of language, character development, tension and so much more.  

A slow, thoughtful, line-by-line review where problems can be pondered and solutions crafted is extremely helpful.  The reviewer can re-read the work as often as needed and provide a much more in-depth critique. 

We don't need to be experts to add value!

Join SLO Nightwriters to participate.  
or contact NW at

You can still join if you live out of town.
E-Line Edit Exchange is a perfect way
 for long-distance members 
to participate and receive direct benefit!

I’m delighted to hold the position of Critique Group Coordinator on the SLO NightWriters Board of Directors.  That means I assist NW members in locating or starting a critique group and mange the E-Line Edit Exchange List.  Guidelines, A Useful Critique, for creating a productive and satisfying critique experience can be found on my blog site,

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dialogue Tags
He Said – She Said

Mostly, in dialogue, I like the words ‘he said’ or ‘she said.’  I like to use them and I like to read them.  ‘Said’ seems to safely repeat on the page-- it’s stealthy and slips by relatively unnoticed. 

But, on those occasions when the tone or meaning cannot be discerned from the dialogue content, and a clarifier is needed or interesting, it’s nice to have some ‘said replacements’ handy— they can reveal character and break up a cluster of said’s on the page.

I keep a running A-Z list of ‘Said Replacements' for dialogue.

To date, it’s 25+ pages and makes for a ridiculously long blog post so I’ve put it onto its own page (check right blog margin for ‘Said Replacements’ page.)  While long for a blogsite, it’s a relatively short list, given that much of the dictionary is essentially available.  There are some quirky options on my list, but they sing to me so I’m including them.  

My favorite dialogue speaks for itself and doesn’t need much extra qualifying.  And, unlike ‘said,’ these other replacement words do NOT disappear on the page.  They can be superfluous and overuse of them, as a device, becomes annoying fast.

Though I include the actual ‘Said Replacements’ sparingly, I find I peruse this list periodically.  Even when I don’t actually use a replacement word, scanning the list reminds me to mine for a fuller range of behavioral, emotional, and conversational options in the delivery of a line and the crafting of a scene.

The list is formatted like this:


back pedaled

Sometimes they replace the word said—
         “You’ll always have employment here,” she apologized.

Other times they appear in the sentence to follow—
         “How very smart of you.”  Her jibe took him by surprise.

Dialogue tags do help keep speakers identifiable.  I really hate struggling through an exchange of dialogue where I can’t tell by the content who is speaking, and I have to go back and count quote marks to guess.

I think if speakers are truly unique and distinguishable, the he said/she said can be minimized, as each can be identified by their exclusive individual voices.  I aspire to that as a writer.

Sometimes, even better than ‘said,’ I like an action in alignment with the dialogue—
“Never again.”  He removed his ring. 

Or perhaps, more interesting, an action contrary to the dialogue—
         “Marriage, such bliss.”  She stabbed her knitting needle into his neck.

Kristen Lamb recommends a great reference on her blog - helpful for using action/behavior in place of ‘said.’  It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus, a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  It lists 75 emotions, then provides a nice list of corresponding postures, gestures, behaviors etc. for each one.

Please share any other ‘Said Replacements’ that come to mind.
I’m always updating my list and I have fun collecting them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Crafting Subtext
Strategies to Minimize On-The-Nose Dialogue

I’m a huge fan of subtext and always looking for ways to incorporate it into my own writing. 

In real relationships, saying exactly what we mean seems imperative— in fiction, it's the kiss of boredom.

I love what's smoldering underneath the spoken word.  I find dialogue is a great tool for mining deeper layers— and the subtext, a perfect antidote for dull, flat, straightforward, ‘on-the-nose’ conversation. 

Generally, my goal is to delete or minimize expository/explain-y conversations.  A favorite application of on-the-nose dialogue is with a calculated dramatic purpose, e.g., I think it’s great for demonstrating the avoidance of deeper issues.  

I like it best when “Nice weather we’re having.” really means, “You conniving little weasel!”

Below is a list of strategies I am compiling to help me craft subtext, create depth, inject tension and keep the dialogue fresh.

Can anyone out there share other techniques to avoid on-the-nose dialogue?  I’d love to add to my list!

Implied information allows us to learn about people and events through interesting inference rather than ‘on-the-nose’ explanations.

Alluding to unspecified incidents in the past can create history and mystery.

Private jokes, exclusive comments, or ‘loaded’ nicknames can reveal intimacy and allude to secrets.

Abrupt changes in subject can reveal taboo issues.

‘Talking around’ issues rather than addressing them head-on can reveal nervousness, enhance inter-personal dynamics, and create tension.

Strong reactions of any kind can mask feelings that reveal character and allude to deeper issues:
   -Syrupy sweet sentiment can mask seething rage.
   -Gruff standoffishness can mask adoration.
   -Cavalier indifference can mask longing.  (Apparent indifference can mask many emotions.)
   -Maligning and ridicule can mask jealousy.
   -Machismo or boasting can mask insecurity.
   -Excessive piety or righteousness can mask moral bankruptcy.
   -Concern or protectiveness can mask control issues.
   -Humor or making light of a topic can mask pain.
   -Mocking can mask jealousy or resentment.

Freudian Slips’ can eek out bits of repressed emotion.

Long repressed feelings can explode into conflict or deep emotion with surprising, irrational, or inappropriate outbursts.

Withholding or silence can inform us by what is NOT being said.

Ignoring a comment or question completely can reveal avoidance.

Answering a question with another question can deflect responsibility or demonstrate avoidance.

Answering a different question, or responding to a different comment than was stated can reveal discomfort and an intentional redirection of the conversation.

Multiple meanings - where each character focuses on a different meaning of a word or issue can reveal character and create depth in a conversation.

Teasing, either good natured or mean spirited, can reveal relationship quality, character and emotion, and may reveal a bit of history.

Insults about sensitive or private issues can ratchet up relationship tension and allude to past history.

Casual questions can border on interrogation and indicate insecurity, mistrust, or suspicion.

Physicalizing an emotion with an action in response to a question or comment can make a powerful statement (a tender touch, shoving a knife in the back) especially when the action seems to vary from the expected response.

Perseverating on a topic can reveal obsession.

Sarcasm can inform about underlying feelings and create tension.

Chronic complaining can indicate self-imposed victimization or failure to take responsibility.

Clichés (strategically used) can reveal a pathetic shallow character.

Symbolizing or referring to anything that symbolizes something else can expand and deepen meaning.

Speaking in metaphors can symbolize and illuminate personal issues.

Inserting poetry or lyrics (our own or those of others) to speak for a character can vary the speaking style, utilize metaphors, and create depth and emotion. 

I think the best fiction writers are closet psychologists.  I'm trudging through my own mini-PhD program here in my writing corner.

Do comment if you have ideas.  I’d love to hear more thoughts on creating subtext!