Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Q & A workshop

Q. Regarding dialogue attributions, does it matter if you use “said Bob” vs. “Bob said”? Is it better to use one or the other? Or better to mix them for variety? Somebody told me “said Bob” is old-fashioned. Also, I noticed that Michael Crichton in Swarm began a lot of his dialogue with "Bob said, blah, blah, blah.” Then in the next paragraph "Mary said, blah, blah, blah.” It annoyed me a little, but maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe he’s just used to writing TV and movie scripts.

A. I don’t think writing “said Bob” is old-fashioned, and I think you should use both Bob said and said Bob for two reasons—one for variety and one for rhythm. Elmore Leonard, for instance, wrote great dialogue. He says that he uses attributions mostly for “beats” or pauses (rhythm) more than to identify the speaker. You can hear the rhythm better if you read your dialogue aloud (and all of your writing, for that matter). I would also suggest that you limit your conversations to just two characters whenever you can, because then you can eliminate most of the attributions, just inserting one here and there so the reader doesn’t get lost.


Published writers, including Michael Crichton, don’t do everything perfectly. If his use of too many dialogue attributions up front became noticeable and even annoyed you, then he has done a poor job of varying his tags. Remember that you can put a tag before a line of dialogue, after a line, or in the middle of a line for variety and to develop character and setting (”I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bob said, turning away from the window, “and I resent your accusations.”). 


Q. What books about writing fiction do you recommend?

A. Elements of Style should definitely be a part of your writer’s library, along with John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and King’s On Writing. King’s book is instructive, entertaining, and sometimes funny—an enjoyable read. For your further study I would suggest Writing the Novel, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, and Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block and Novel Secrets: Ten Secrets Novelists Need to Know by Lary Crews, if you can find it (ISBN #0-9656132-0-8). Another book I’d recommend is The First Five Pages by literary agent Noah Lukeman. Otherwise, Writers Digest Books offers a wide variety of useful titles. You should also have The Chicago Manual of Style, a new Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and a college-level textbook of grammar and composition.


Q. How can I tell if my novel is good or bad?

A. The whole process of judging which books are “good” and which are “bad,” of determining what works and what doesn’t work in a novel, and what rules should or should not be applied is subjective, simply because you’re dealing with human beings at every stage of the game. What one literary agent loves, others will reject (ninety-nine percent of manuscripts from new writers are rejected), and the same goes with acquisitions editors at publishing houses. We just have to remember that good usually means “marketable” and bad the opposite. Also, everyone in the business of writing thinks a book is a bad one if the writer obviously knows little about English composition and the craft of fiction.


Q. Should I use underscoring or italics when a word or phrase needs to be italicized?

A. You should use an italic font for words that should be italicized such as the names of books, newspapers, magazines, foreign words, etc. You may also use italics occasionally when you want to emphasize a word or phrase. Use The Chicago Manual of Style for guidelines about what should be set in italics. The use of underscoring went out with the typewriter.


Q. I have developed the habit of putting a comma after a prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence if the phrase is three or more words long. You’ve indicated that I should delete quite a few of these commas. I’m doing so, but is there a rule of thumb, or is it a judgment call?

A. One rule of thumb is to place a comma after an introductory clause if it’s five or more words long, although this is only a general guideline. I make judgments on a per case basis, primarily by the context and by determining if the lack of the comma promotes misreading, which can happen even with a one-word introductory element. Example:


As we would expect, Freud’s self-evaluation would hardly be agreed upon by everyone.


In this case the comma should be used for clarity (they weren't expecting Freud). On the other hand, no comma is needed for clarity in a sentence like this one, even though it has a seven-word introductory clause:


As soon as I saw the elephant I knew that I shouldn’t shoot him.


Q. I agree that I need to further develop and describe my minor characters. There seems to be two schools of thought, however, on the subject of describing the viewpoint character. Some authors describe the viewpoint character pretty thoroughly. Others intentionally leave the viewpoint character with only the descriptions required by the story so the reader can insert himself or herself into the shoes of the main character and “live” the story from inside the character’s skin. Is the second view wrong, or is it an acceptable variation in style?

A. Some novelists purposely limit the description of the protagonist, especially in a first-person narrative, where self-descriptions seem awkward and even egotistical. More often than not, though, offering readers a basic physical description is an appropriate thing to do so that they can form a generalized picture of that person. If the protagonist has brown hair and a reader has blond hair, he won’t be any less likely to identify with that character. What matters, as far as reader sympathy and identification goes, is what the protagonist says and does, what situations, problems, and challenges he or she faces, and how he or she deals with them. I don’t think that a general description of your protagonist will have any adverse affects on reader identification and sympathy. But don’t stop your narrative to insert a long description of a character. That’s too obviously contrived, thus making the writer visible. Instead, insert a bit here and a bit there, when it’s natural to do so in the course of the action. Examples: She flipped back a handful of her long, black hair. . . . I didn’t want to take on this guy now. He weighed much more than my 185 pounds. Or a woman could look at your male main character and say, "My, my, aren't you a tall one?"


Q. What do you mean by “genre-mixing”?

A. Fiction is divided into a number of categories, or genres, including mystery, romance, western, crime, historical, and thriller, plus some sub-genres such as the legal thriller. Before you begin writing your novel, you’d better know what genre it will be, and you’d better not write it as a blend of more than one genre. Literary agents and acquisitions editors want to pigeonhole books quickly and easily so they know exactly what they’re selling (the editor, remember, first has to sell your book to her editorial board) and know where your book will be shelved in the stores. If they can’t slap a label onto your book immediately, it could be a tough sell.


Q. The concept of “filtering imagery” isn’t quite clear to me. Help, please?

A. As novelist/teacher John Gardner says, “Generally speaking, vividness urges that almost every occurrence of such phrases as she noticed and he saw be suppressed in favor of direct presentation of the thing seen.” Gardner encourages writers to present sensory images directly to the reader instead of filtering them through a POV character. He discusses this concept in his book The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers in the chapter “Common Errors.” This would be a good title to add to your writer’s bookshelf. Speaking about filtering of images, Gardner says, “The amateur writes: ‘Turning, she noticed two snakes fighting in among the rocks.’” A better way to write this, he says, is: “She turned. In among the rocks, two snakes were fighting.” Now the image of the two snakes fighting is presented directly to the reader. Further improvement can be made by writing: “She turned. Among the rocks two snakes whipped and lashed, striking at each other.” This version is less abstract and a lot more visual, which is always what you want.


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