When I was 37 years old, I had a near-death experience that could have been prevented with a few simple changes to my daily routine. When Julie Glover asked, What would your TED talk be?, this was my first thought. What my brush with death taught me, and the easy habits that can keep writers alive.
Back in 2005, I discovered gratitude. Like oh-my-stars-I-am-lucky-to-be-here gratitude.
I developed blood clots in both legs and the one in my right leg shattered, sending about fifty blood clots to my lungs. My doctors call me their "One-Percenter" and, yowza, I am so very lucky to be alive.
With so many Americans living sedentary lives, blood clots are on the rise. More than 900,000 cases occur each year in the United States. On average, one person in the U.S. dies every six minutes from a blood clot.
Why am I talking about this on a writing blog? Because writers, by the nature of their profession, often stay lost in their imagination and ignore some of the risk associated with our normal daily routines.
I'm not exaggerating with the title of this post, y'all.
Blood clots don't discriminate. They don't care about age or disorder, gender or race. I was a normal thirty-something, minding my own beeswax and doing kickboxing three times a week.
Did I find out I have a blood clotting disorder? Yes. But I was also engaging in some risky blood clot behavior:
- Sitting long hours at a desk.
- Drinking lots of coffee and not enough water.
- Taking birth control pills.
- Stressing out about a crazy work project.
- I’d just put on a 5-10 pounds from the Pill and the aforementioned project.
- I sat most of those long hours in a cold room with air conditioning blowing on me.
- As a result, I was dehydrated.
Sound familiar? The list above could describe most writers.
Below, I describe the most risky everyday behaviors that we all do so you can be aware of them, and maybe even change some of them over time.
#1 – If you sit, drive or fly for long periods wear compression stockings!
I warn you, most of these are seriously unattractive, but they are getting better (especially for men). Compression socks/hose can be purchased in any medical supply store but now they’re also available on Amazon if you want them to come right to your door.
Any of you who see me at conferences or work? I always have “toes to bellybutton” compression hose on. It’s too painful for me to sit or drive for more than 20 minutes without them. It’s like someone is pouring hot acid down the inside of the veins in my legs.
(You see why you want to prevent blood clots?? They freaking hurt.)
Important note: If you’re traveling or having surgery, you need to increase your water intake before you do so.
In fact, if you are a clotter like me, flying works like this:
The day before I fly, I drink a gallon of water. No exceptions. I hate it. But I do it so I can be safe. I also:
- Walk for 30 mins in the airport before I get on the plane.
- Take a 20 ounce bottle of water onto the plane.
- Drink only water and no alcohol on the flight.
- Get up and walk the aisle every 30-40 minutes.
- Bounce on my toes in the back of the plane while I wait for the restroom.
- Do these exercises in transit to prevent blood clots from forming.
Oh yeah…I just adore flying nowadays. It’s not the TSA grope I dread, it’s the DVT prevention.
#2 – Keep your feet up as much as you can.
I have an 80 pound box of paper under my desk at work. Not because I need so much paper, but so I can put my legs up while I'm in the office.
Why is it vital to keep the back of your legs from pressing against hard edges? If factors like smoking, being on the Pill or sitting for long periods are part of your daily living, you are more likely to get a blood clot, even before you add any of the other risk factors like obesity, cancer, or a prior history of blood clots.
#3 – Exercise regularly.
I don’t care what you do, as long as you make the blood in your legs flow vigorously multiple times every day. Most people recommend taking a quick stroll every hour. Other ideas: Jump rope for a few minutes a couple times a day, walk for 15 minutes in the morning, bounce on a trampoline.
Your life is at stake here. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your loved ones.
#4 – A glass of wine, particularly red, a few times a week is a good thing.
I’m not saying “booze it up,” especially if you have a problem with alcohol. But a periodic glass of red wine has been shown in studies to lower your cholesterol and inflammation and to prevent the development of blood clots.
Alcohol thins your blood, so I try to make sure I have a glass if I’m eating a lot of foods that are high in Vitamin K.
#5 – Lower the levels of inflammation in your body.
This one’s a doozy and no one talks about it.
Chronic, low-level inflammation is one of the top ten causes of death in America and leads to the development of at least 7 of the other top 10 causes of death. Chronic inflammation can be triggered by cellular stress and dysfunction, such as excessive calorie consumption and elevated blood sugar levels.
Lowering your intake of processed food and refined sugars will decrease your inflammation, as will discovering and treating any food allergies you might have.
Speaking of food allergies, click here to read about what gluten did to my body. (I found out I’m extremely gluten-intolerant at age 42.) The #1 thing gluten did was inflame me. It also swelled me up, stiffened my joints, raised my cholesterol and knocked out my thyroid.
You don't have to go crazy and give up a whole food group to lower your body's inflammation.
I use many dietary methods, such as using lime in my water (rather than lemon) and drinking apple cider vinegar, to lower my body’s inflammation levels.
The most ironic thing is that leafy green vegetables, although they thicken your blood, also lower the inflammation in your body. Here are 6 additional lifestyle changes that will lower your body’s inflammation.
Last of all, here’s a bonus easy behavior change for the ladies:
Stop crossing your legs!!
I know, I know. It’s habit…it makes your thighs look skinnier…it’s more lady-like.
Who cares about those things if they give you a blood clot?? Maybe back in the day when people walked everywhere, women could cross their legs and dangle a high-heel from their toe, looking like a sexy dame from a black and white movie.
Nowadays? Not so much. Most of us have very sedentary jobs where we sit down a lot. Must you cross your legs too? (In other words, must you squeeze the large veins in your thighs and behind the knees, and cut off your blood flow?)
Note: if you wait tables or guide nature tours for a living, you’re welcome to ignore this suggestion and swing that high-heel from your toe any time you want.
That’s the highlights of what I know about how to prevent blood clots with everyday simple changes. I"m hoping this saves some lives and some angst for even one person here at WITS.
Note on Factor V Leiden: This is the blood clotting disorder I have (pronounced "Factor Five"). According to my doctors, Factor V is approximately 15% prevalent in people of Norwegian descent, 5-8% in Caucasians, 3-5% in people of Latin origin, less than 3% in African-Americans and almost non-existent in people of Asian descent.
Extra reading: Here is a story about a college-age girl who got a blood clot because she was born with her shoulder bone and rib too close together.
Do you have questions? Are there other behavior changes you know for clot prevention that you’d like to share? What are your tricks for lowering inflammation in the body?
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About Jenny Hansen
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
by Anthea Lawson Sharp
Over the years I’ve made enough from selling short fiction on the side to help put my daughter through college, (though novel-writing is still my main income source). I’ve found that shorter works are enjoying a resurgence, and busy readers like having the option to read a smaller morsel before bedtime, or while waiting for an appointment. Think of writing short as providing a fine chocolate truffle as opposed to a full meal.
5 Reasons To Write Short in Today’s Publishing Market
Creative Freedom: Length is no longer a barrier to publishing your work – no need to fit into proscribed boxes about word count. The story can be as long as it needs to be, plus the short format gives the author a chance to explore new ideas or work with spinoff characters without the pressure of completing a full novel.
Loss-leader: By having a less-expensive or free work available, authors can reach a larger reader base. For many authors, running a loss-leader on a shorter work feels more comfortable than deeply discounting or giving away a whole book.
Visibility: For most authors, writing short takes less time, thus providing more titles released during the year. Courtney Milan releases 2 novels a year, and fills in with 2 novellas, for a new release every 3 months.
A Chance to Indie Experiment: Some traditionally published authors are able to start indie-publishing shorter work that’s not controlled by a non-compete clause. Going short can be a great way to test the indie waters. A smaller project is easier to manage during that initial learning curve of self-publishing.
Hybrid Possibilities: In addition to self-publishing, there is a good market for short stories, especially in magazine markets for SF and Fantasy, Mystery, and Literary. Also, keep an eye on calls for submissions for anthologies in various genres.
A Bit about Short Story Word Counts
Counts vary, as do reader expectations. In SF/F, the following are the word counts used to determine categories for the Hugo and Nebula awards:
- Short Story: less than 7,500 words
- Novelette: between 7,501 – 17,499 words
- Novella: 17,500- 39,900 words
It’s important to remember that SF/F has a very strong short story heritage. Most magazines - Asimov’s, Analog, SF&F - want word counts between 4-6k. Readers of those publications expect that kind of length.
- Novella: Between 20,000-40,000 words
- Novel: Over 40,000
- There is no short story category.
Super-short lengths can be fun, and there is a magazine market for flash and micro fiction, but readers will be reluctant to pay for a super-short unless you bundle several together into a collection.
More word counts:
- Micro-fiction: up to 300 words (the novel in 6 words or a sentence.)
- Flash Fiction: 300-1,000 words (there are a number of flash fiction publications online.)
Romance readers and publishers, however, are not as comfortable with fiction that falls on the shorter side. The Mammoth Book anthologies require stories from 7,500-12k words, (although the RWA anthology asked for 5-7k word counts). Partially, this is because it’s more challenging to complete a Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy for Now (HFN) in so few words. Still, it can be done.
How to Write Short
What myths are you carrying around about short stories?
- They are harder to write.
- They are easier to write.
- A writer can’t make any money with short fiction.
- The ideas are harder.
- The ideas are easier.
- They are literature.
Take a second to think about your own perception of what short stories are and aren’t, and how you might be setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
What is short fiction?
Simply, it is fiction that is short. Short fiction gives the author a number of opportunities. Not only can a writer complete a project more quickly, you can:
- Explore the kernel of an idea (O. Henry is classic for this – Gift of the Magi).
- Write a vignette.
- Play with spin-off or secondary characters from longer works.
- Experiment and practice.
- Use an unreliable or unlikeable narrator (villain’s point of view).
- Set up a joke or emotional payoff (the shiver of a ghost story, the aww of a happy ending).
Short stories have patterns like novels do – just shorter. The narrative structure remains the same, but often in a condensed or simpler form. Algis Budrys, in his seminal craft book Write to the Point, lays out the 7 POINT PLOT OUTLINE.
(This is basically the structure of all Western narrative fiction.)
1. A Character
2. In a Setting
3. With a Problem
4. Tries to Solve
5. Fails, and Things Get Worse (4 and 5 repeat multiple times)
6. Climax – at last Succeeds
7. Validation (essential closure)
There are a few exceptions, such as the “story of revelation” or “punchline” model, but, especially in romance, the reader expects the above narrative form.
Quick Short Fiction Tips
- Learn to CONDENSE.
- Enter late, leave early.
- Use jump cuts (quick scene breaks without a lot of exposition) wisely and well.
- Limit POVs.
- Don’t leave out the validation at the end, even if it’s just a sentence or two.
Drawbacks of Writing Short
Some authors find that figuring out characters and starting a story is the hardest part of their process. If you are a writer who needs a lot of time at the beginning and tends to do multiple drafts of your first few chapters, writing shorter may be difficult, and nearly as time-consuming as writing a full novel.
Writing short fiction can be so much fun it takes up all your writing time, and your novel languishes. 😉
What To Do With Your Short Fiction
A large number of magazines are built around short fiction – many of them in the SF/F field, but in mystery and literary as well. If you have fantasy or SF elements, noir/suspense, or even straight contemporary with a bit of a literary twist, submit to these markets! Just don’t tell them you wrote a romance story.
Anthologies like the Mammoth Books publish short romances (generally invite only, although if you had an in, you could probably write something that fit the theme and submit it) or other stand-alone compilations. Watch for calls for anthologies and check out places that list such things. I’ve seen a number of calls for erotic romance anthologies in the last 6 months.
Two fine resources that list open anthologies are http://angiesdesk.blogspot.com/ and The Submission Grinder. There are also the Open Call groups on Facebook that are full of good information. These anthology calls can provide inspiration for the seed of a story, and can be a fun challenge to write for.
Advantages include a lump-sum payment either on acceptance or publication, excellent visibility and wider reach for your writing, and fairly quick reversion (2 months – 2 years).
Disadvantages are long waits on submissions, with the strong likelihood of rejection at the end. Decide how long you want to try and keep a story in circulation before pulling it to self-publish.
When selling to magazines and anthologies, don’t accept less than pro rates. I recommend .06 cents a word or better, unless it’s a charity project, you get the rights back almost immediately, or there’s incredible visibility for you in doing the project. Remember that miniscule payment often means miniscule distribution/readership.
An increasing number of markets are acquiring limited audio rights on short stories for podcasts. Though the majority is still SF/F, they generally are not looking for first rights, which means you can submit already-published stories.
The Indie Route
Self-publishing a short work is a great way to “try out” indie publishing with a more manageable project. Although there’s a steep learning curve if you’ve never gone indie before, there are an increasing number of resources available.
Holiday-themed shorts are BIG. Christmas is the most popular, but other holidays like Valentine’s Day and even Halloween can give your story an extra boost, since readers are actively looking for themed stories around those times.
Advantages include much quicker time to market, ability to plan timing of your releases (filling in between novels to keep up visibility), and ability to bundle your stories into anthologies, which is another great way to increase your inventory of titles. And, of course, having a title you can set to free or .99 cents in order to draw more readers.
Pricing Short Stories
Check out your genre (erotic romance prices are generally higher than regular romance, for example), think about word count, and then experiment. Find what works for you – there’s no one right way. That’s the beauty of going indie.
However you want to approach writing short fiction, I encourage you to take the plunge! You never know what new opportunities await.
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About Anthea Lawson
A USA Today bestseller with both her pen names, Anthea writes RITA-nominated historical romance as Anthea Lawson, and award-winning YA Fantasy as Anthea Sharp. She sold her first short story in 2009, and has never looked back. Since then, dozens of her short stories have appeared in anthologies and magazines, including collections from DAW Books, the groundbreaking Future Chronicles, Fiction River, and numerous other publications. Discover more at www.antheasharp.com and www.anthealawson.com
by Tari Lynn Jewett
Last year, my first book #PleaseSayYes, was published in a limited edition, boxed set with other authors. When I got my rights back I decided to indie publish that book, and write four more to make it a series. I knew it would be a learning experience, but I had no idea exactly what it was that I would learn.
I’m excited to be here to share 10 Things I learned Indie Publishing My First Book. In descending order, just for fun:
#10. No matter how many books you’ve read, workshops you’ve attended, classes you’ve taken, friends you have that have successfully published tons of books, and shared their brilliance…you still don’t know enough…
Don’t get me wrong, I knew when I decided to indie publish this first book that I still had a lot to learn. But I’ve always loved reading and writing. I devoured books from the time I could read, and turned nearly every job I’ve ever had into a ‘writing’ job. I wrote for magazines and newspapers for fifteen years, and I’d written fiction as a hobby, long before I began to write fiction for publication. All my friends and family thought I should write a book.
I got serious about writing fiction for publication, and took craft and how-to classes and workshops. The more I learned, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. When it came to indie publishing all that I knew was that you wrote a book, put a cover on it and loaded it on Amazon.
That sounded easy enough...
# 9. It’s vital to join professional organizations, take classes, attend conferences, network, do everything you can to learn about and keep up with the changes in your industry.
Indie authors have done something amazing. They’ve reached out to each other through organizations, social media, conferences, etc., in a way that I’ve never seen before. And they share! Yes, they share what they’ve learned about publishing, business, and marketing. They also work together to promote and support each other.
So, while you won’t learn everything from other people, you will learn more than you even realize you need to know by finding other writers who indie publish, and other writers in your genre. And not just writers! There’s a world of cover artists, editors, formatters, personal assistants, all out there sharing what they know…with you!
# 8. There is no ONE right answer. Get all that you can from experienced friends and colleagues…and when they conflict, choose what works for you.
One indie bestselling author is a pantser, another is a plotter. An author who’s making triple digits on her books says put everything in KU, and another… also making triple digits is doing it by going wide. You don’t know what KU is? Or what it means to go wide? You’ll learn this from other authors. And then, you’ll make educated decisions about your career.
# 7. Don’t give yourself a tight deadline for your first books.
What? You planned on doing a pre-order and gleaning all you can ahead of time to try to make a bestsellers list? As I said, there’s no one answer that’s right for everyone, but I’m so glad that I haven’t yet written my deadlines in stone.
Working on my first cover was a back and forth process that took longer than I expected…because I wanted it custom. I can write a draft pretty quickly, but revisions, not so much.
I also went back and forth with my formatter several times. The man is a saint. No matter what I screwed up, he’s yet to call me an idiot, and some of the things I did wrong were really embarrassing. But you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to do it!
So, I’m not yet ready for pre-sale, and I know it now. Maybe after book 3, or 4. I might even wait until the second series.
# 6. Writing and editing are the easy parts.
So far, I’m spending less time writing and more on the mechanics. And by mechanics, I mean learning what I need for formatting, about copyrights, and the need for two covers: one for print, one for digital. I've learned to have the book formatted twice, how to upload my books and how to price them. Pricing is much more complicated than I ever knew! I also had to learn the difference between ISBN numbers and AISN numbers and whether I need both. And did I talk about copyright? Because seriously, that’s lots of fun.
# 5. Hiring professionals for editing, cover art, formatting is imperative.
If you want to produce a professional work, you must hire professionals. Otherwise, it’s probably smarter to submit. Indie publishing and traditional publishing are both legitimate choices, but if you submit your work traditionally, you’re going to have a professional editor, cover artist and formatter to put out your book. Why would you not do the same if you indie publish?
Even if you are a professional cover artist and can do your own cover, or even your own formatting, I recommend you always hire your editors. Just like a doctor shouldn’t treat himself, a writer should never edit their own work, even if they’re a professional editor. Again, just my opinion.
# 4. Thankfully, nothing is set in stone.
Well, unless you’ve scheduled a pre-order on Amazon. That’s pretty much set in stone. But if your book isn’t selling, you can change your cover, tweak your blurb, find a new editor. Because you’re doing this yourself, you can always change things.
# 3. You’re not just a writer, you’re a business person, a sales person, a marketer, and you better learn to love social media.
This is the part that’s hardest for most of us. I had no idea when I started this several years ago, that social media was going to become such a big part of my life. Honestly, just like almost every writer that I know, all I want to do is hide in my library and write books. I don’t want to be a salesperson. And I don’t want to feel like a pusher, or pimp for my books, but if I don’t tell people about my work, who will? And sadly, this is one thing we now have to do whether we’re indie or traditional authors.
The part that is easy to love is the readers. They talk to you, they want to know more about you, and they want to know more about your characters, and that makes the social media part more fun.
# 2. I LOVE having control.
I had no idea, because truly all I want to do is write, but I love that I get to pick my editor, make decisions about every detail of my cover, and every word of my blurb. If it doesn’t work, it’s on me, but if it does, well that’s on me too.
# 1. I have the best job in the world.
There is nothing I’d rather be doing at this point in my life than writing. And after putting out my first book, and learning some hard lessons, I still want to do this. Will I publish traditionally? I hope so, but I’ll probably always indie publish as well. Book 2 #FireworksintheFog is releasing in just a few weeks, and the learning curve is still steep, but it’s worth every minute.
So, those are just 10 of the things I learned indie publishing my first book. Oh, believe me, there were many more, but it would take a book to write all of them…and maybe someday I will, and I’ll probably indie publish it!
If you're an indie author, what lessons do you have to share? If you want to be an indie author, what are your most pressing questions?
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Tari Lynn Jewett lives in Southern California with her husband of nearly thirty years (also known as Hunky Hubby). They have three amazing sons, a board game designer, a sound engineer and a musician, all who live nearby. For more than fifteen years she wrote freelance for magazines and newspapers, wrote television commercials, radio spots, numerous press releases, and many, MANY PTA newsletters. As much as she loved writing those things, she always wanted to write fiction…and now she is.
She also believes in happily ever afters…because she’s living hers.
by Barbara Linn Probst
Before I became a writer, I taught students who were getting advanced degrees in clinical social work. One of the questions that always came up was whether a clinician could effectively counsel someone if she didn’t share their experience. Did a clinician have the ability—or the right—to presume that she could help someone struggling with issues that she couldn’t understand “from the inside,” such as domestic violence, anorexia, or racial discrimination?
There are arguments to support both answers to that question. On the one hand, there’s the addiction recovery model, which is based on the idea that “those who’ve been there” are in the best position to help. On the other hand, as I would point out to my students, did that mean that I—as a white, urban, female, baby boomer—had to limit my clinical practice to people exactly like me? That didn’t sound right. It implied a world of stereotypes and separation that contradicted everything I believed in.
The answer that I found most useful, over the years, was based on two complementary principles. First, acknowledge what you don’t understand. Ask and learn. “Tell me what it’s like for you.” Respect the client as the expert on her own life.
And second, excavate what you do understand, even if it’s not evident at first. As I told my students: “I might not know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed because my father is incarcerated. But I do know what it’s like to feel worthless and ashamed. Something in my life has made me feel that way. It doesn’t matter what it is, specifically, as long as I can dig down and connect with those feelings. They’re human feelings, and we all have them.”
It’s exactly the same with writing. But the principles require a bit of translation.
We’ve all heard the injunction to “write what you know.” That’s like the idea that a therapist will do her best work with people whose experience most closely resembles her own.
And we’ve all heard the counter-arguments. If we were limited to writing what we know, directly, then a female writer could have no male characters. There would be no fantasy or historical fiction. That’s obviously not what the injunction is meant to connote. Taking it that way is far too restrictive.
However, there’s another pitfall to the notion that we must turn to our own experience as source material for our writing. You might say that it’s not restrictive enough. That is, it requires a caveat or two.
“Write what you know” does not mean you should turn your own life into fiction—or, more subtly, use writing for personal catharsis. My first (terrible) manuscript did just that, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was drawing on my own painful experiences, ostensibly because that was the material I could write about most authentically, but actually because I still needed to work through them.
In other words, I was writing about my experience, rather than writing from my experience—from the human truths I’d come to understand. Those truths can deepen a story. They can tell me, if I listen, what my characters might feel and do, even if I’ve never been part of their world.
We’ve all been swept into the world of a story, knowing that the author herself wasn’t a member of the French resistance or part of an orphan train. Certainly, the author did extensive research so the external details would be accurate. But no doubt she did “internal research” too, tapping into the human emotions that transcend time and place.
In short: My own experience can guide how I render the story. But it should not guide how I structure the plot.
Ask yourself: Are you writing about your experience or from your experience? How can you tell? Here are some guidelines that can help.
- Can you imagine people you know asking if a character in your book is “really” you or “really” someone you both know?
- Do you believe that no one else could truly tell this story?
- Visualize your novel as a memoir. Would it work equally well?
- Do you feel deeply connected with your protagonist’s struggle, despite the ways in which you differ?
- As you were writing, did you feel as if you knew, intuitively, what your protagonist would say or do—even though you’ve never been in her shoes?
- Did the passages of interiority come more naturally to you, while you were writing, than the external events of the plot?
If you answered “yes” to the first three questions, you may be writing about your experience.
If you answered “yes” to the last three, you may be writing from your experience. It’s not always so clear-cut, of course—and there’s nothing inherently wrong with semi-autobiographical writing, as long as you do it purposefully and call it by its proper name.
One of my writing teachers, the wise and generous Sandra Scofield, told me recently: “There’s no harvest so bountiful as one’s own pain.” The image of a harvest is a good one, I think. The pain—whatever struggle, loss, shame, rage, and despair one has experienced—can be fertile soil. The crop doesn’t consist of quasi-autobiographical accounts of that pain. It’s whatever you, as a writer, can bring to life from the mysterious combination of soil, light, water, and air.
It’s a delicate, two-step process. First, we take what is personal, particular to us, and search for its universal essence. Then we take that universal essence and embed it in a new particular—a character, an event, a fictional world.
That’s the miracle of writing.
What about you?
Is there something from your own life that has enriched a story you’ve written? Are there dangers, as well as benefits, of drawing on one’s own experience?
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Barbara Linn Probst is a writer and researcher living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her forthcoming novels (Queen of the Owls, April 2020, and The Sound of One Hand, October 2020) tell of the search for authenticity, wholeness, and connection. In both novels, art helps the protagonist to become more fully herself. Queen of the Owls has been chosen as a 2020 Pulpwood Queens Book Club selection.
Author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit (Random House, 2008), Barbara holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online sites for fiction writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
I'm a huge fan of the original Gilmore Girls. Or really, a huge fan of the scriptwriters on that show. While the lines were delivered perfectly by the wonderful actors, the writers were the ones who crafted the dialogue that set the show's tone, deepened the characters, and popped off the screen.
Whether you're a fan or not, settle in with your popcorn and let's pull some principles from scenes of Gilmore Girls to apply to our own novels—thus creating dialogue that keeps readers reading and coming back for more.
1. Represent, don't reproduce, real dialogue.
All too often, we writers think we need to speak like our characters would in real life. But think that through.
In real life, people stammer, interrupt themselves, interrupt each other, pause to recall someone's name or hunt for the word they want to use, repeat pet words over and over, default to cliches, and fill their dialogue with "verbal graffiti" (um, uh, like). That does not make for seamless or engaging reading.
Some have pointed out that no one in real life speaks as wittily and quickly as Lorelai Gilmore. To which I reply, "So what?" Her dialogue feels real enough—true to who she is and how she engages with the world—and keeps the viewer engaged. Take a look at this scene that happens the day after Rory Gilmore, a normally straight-laced college student, gets arrested.
How compelling or entertaining would that scene be if the mom stopped to think up her next witty line, added a bunch of ums or likes into the conversation, or just asked how her recently-arrested daughter was doing? Not very.
As Alfred Hitchcock said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." So cut out the dull parts and represent rather than reproduce real conversation.
2. Have a purpose for dialogue.
It seems at times in the show that Lorelai and Rory were talking just to hear themselves talk. But the dialogue always, or almost always, achieved something.
Let's look at a seemingly pointless conversation, and then I'll address why this dialogue really matters in the episode.
In this episode, Lorelai goes out on a date with a man she met at an auction and it turns out to be a bust. As she explains to her daughter, the man went on and on about his car and the wine list until she was nearly bored to death. Plus, he had no sense of humor.
Yet in this opening scene, Luke goes on and on too. He rants about the young families in his diner, and his gruff attitude toward public nursing makes him seem far less desirable than the man Lorelai later meets. By seeing her amused and engaged by Luke, we get that this unlikely character is a better fit. This dialogue sets the story's tone, reveals their character, and foreshadows the main conflict to come. It's also somewhat entertaining.
Ask yourself why your characters say what they say. How does each line of dialogue matter to the overall plot or scene goal? What does the reader learn about the characters or the conflict? And if at all possible, get dialogue to pull double-duty, having it achieve more than one goal.
3. Tailor dialogue to character.
A common pitfall in writing dialogue is making your characters sound too similar. But how we speak arises from various factors, including geography, gender, age, race/ethnicity, culture, personality, and worldview.
Some of my favorite scenes from Gilmore Girls involve the community meetings conducted in the fictional town of Stars Hollow. Note how the individual voices vary.
Even in this short clip, you can see the personalities of many who spoke, from the anal-retentive mayor to the grumpy, ball-capped diner owner, to the tenderhearted teenage girl (Rory), to the humor-loving, sarcastic mom (Lorelai). If you knew nothing else about this whole series, you'd still get a flavor of the characters from this snippet.
Likewise, use dialogue in your story to show the uniqueness of each character and deepen the reader's sense of who they are, as well as what matters to them.
4. Use subtlety to express feelings.
Sometimes the best way for your characters to communicate what they're feeling is to avoid saying it or say it such a subtle way that only someone who knows the character really understands what's beneath the surface.
Emily Gilmore, the main character's mother, is a take-charge, never-let-em-see-you-sweat woman who shows how much she loves her husband in this touching scene in the hospital following his heart attack.
All that fuss about the bedding is her way of saying "I love you, Richard Gilmore." And in turn, he responds to her need for reassurance with the funny-yet-sweet line, "You may go first."
Look for original, indirect ways your characters can express what they're thinking and feeling. And, in line with the previous point, make their way specific to who they are.
5. Include subtext.
When it comes to subtext, novels are superior to shows. Unless a movie or TV show includes a narrator's voice, a character's unspoken thoughts must be implied through body language, facial expression, and words spoken aloud. Authors have the added benefit of internal dialogue on the page.
Still, we can see how important subtext is through this scene from Gilmore Girls. It's a turning point in the show when daughter Rory comes home after having accidentally stayed out all night.
Lorelai was a teenager when she got pregnant with Rory, and she brings all that past into the present. Since the writers showed us the first conversation between mother and daughter (Emily Gilmore with Lorelai), we can almost hear Lorelai's thoughts and emotions in the second conversation between mother and daughter (Lorelai to Rory). Giving every word spoken aloud that much more oomph.
What our characters say is important, but often in light of what they don't say aloud—that is, what they say to themselves about the conversation, visceral reactions they have, emotions and memories they experience. So consider carefully what you put between the quotation marks. Add subtext to give your dialogue more emphasis and power.
Make Conversation Count
You're probably not writing a Gilmore Girls type novel, but all of us will have dialogue in our stories. Make sure what you include isn't dull, distracting, or distant. Instead, make conversation count by:
- Representing (not reproducing) real dialogue;
- Having a purpose for dialogue;
- Tailoring dialogue to character;
- Using subtlety to express feelings; and
- Including subtext.
What have you learned about writing great dialogue from shows you've watched?
Julie Glover writes cozy mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. She is also co-author of the Muse Island supernatural suspense series, which begins with Mark of the Gods, under the pen name Jules Lynn.
When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.