What I’m Reading: September, 2019

I’m slowly catching up to my goal of reading at least 30 books this year. I’m five books behind schedule so I’ll be making more time to read and post quick reviews here. If you like reading my reviews, then feel free to connect with me on Goodreads.

I finally finished Crossfire, the first book of Matthew Farrer’s Shira Calpurnia trilogy and already posted a short review on Goodreads. It was as I expected, which was an action-packed political thriller set in the grim-dark universe of the Warhammer 40k universe. Pretty fun if you’re already familiar with the lore, but if you’re not then you might get lost on all of the references and heavy world-building. Currently working on Legacy, which is the second book in the trilogy. Not too bad so far, but heavier with political intrigue. It’s a shorter book, though, so I predict I’ll finish it within a week or two.

I like to think of myself as a teacher who’s taking an extended vacation, so any books that tell stories about teachers or the teaching profession interest me. Schooled by Anisha Lakhani is a book about a young and naive teacher who quickly discovers teaching is a lot harder than she thought it would be. Overwhelmed by the stress, anxiety, and poor pay, she starts writing essays for the students of wealthy families in other neighborhoods. The premise caught my interest because of the recent SAT grading scandals and I was hoping for a gripping drama that explores the pitfalls of teaching and how the super rich take advantage of the system. Unfortunately, I was not impressed with Lakhani’s juvenile writing, which is filled with so many cliches and tropes that it felt like a bland Lifetime special. Although the beginning has a strong hook, the rest of the book fell apart and I had to label it as a DNF (did not finish). Lakhani had a great idea, but the execution was poor. I believe her book would have been better if she veered away from the lazy tropes and cliches and focused on making the main character more likable.

September Writing Advice: Dialogue

I’ve been gone for a while, but I’m back and restarting my writing advice posts. I plan to do one at least once per month and try to keep them short and sweet. I hope these will be helpful to you and other aspiring writers out there. This month I’m offering few bits of advice to help you with writing effective dialogue.

  1. When it comes to dialogue mechanics, stick with the verb “said” and resist the urge to explain what the character is feeling or saying. Renni Browne and Dave King explain this mechanic well in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: “Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act; you’re getting really involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly, the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, ‘Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?’ You get it, of course, and you feel patronized. You’re an intelligent theatergoer, and what’s happening on the stage is clear enough. You don’t need the writer to explain it to you” (83-84). This means that if the dialogue is doing it’s job, then there’s no need to say that a character said something “sadly” or “angrily.” It’s important to avoid explaining because you need to trust that your reader is clever enough to make the connections on their own and explaining it to them will often turn them away from the rest of your writing.
  2. Avoid info dumps whenever possible. Although world-building is important in fantasy and science fiction, if your characters come off as walking info dumps then it’s a lot harder to accept them as believable characters to feel emotionally attached to and sympathize with. Steven James, author of Story Trumps Structure, once wrote an informative guest post for Writer’s Digest about how to improve dialogue: “Although in real life people speak primarily to impart information, in fiction a conversation is not simply a way for something to be expressed—it’s a way for something to be overcome…Words can be barbs. They can be sabers. They can be jewels. Don’t let them be marshmallows that are just passed back and forth.” This is important because you don’t want your characters to simply tell important information about the plot. Characters should have personality, show humor, jealousy, fear, and other powerful emotions in order to be believable, likable, or hated.
  3. Unless you have a great ear for dialect, try to avoid it whenever possible. For example, Steven King grew up in Maine and intimately knows that regional dialect. He can write it effectively without distracting the reader. I tried to imitate King’s style of dialect in college when I wrote a story featuring a narrator who spoke with a Southern drawl. My creative writing professor gave it back to me with a note that explained how the dialogue felt inauthentic and the character came off as an offensive stereotype. I felt bad and later scrapped the story altogether, but walked away with a better understanding of what to avoid in writing dialect.

That’s all for now. Hope this helps and I wish you the best of luck with your writing!