Dialogue Algorithm

One of the common problems I've found while editing is an imbalance in my dialogue tags.

Early in the manuscript, I had too many tags - extraneous 'he said/she said's that (I know now) clutter the writing. I think I thought they added rhythm.

Later on, I found a lot of strong verbs. These aren't inherently bad, but there shouldn't be one on every line (as per my own advice).

Towards the middle of the manuscript, it seemed like every line had a dialogue tag inserted midsentence (this one I know was for rhythm).

It's like, every time I learned some new thing to do in dialogue, I got all excited about it and did it too freaking much.

Okay, so here's my "Less is More" algorithm. We'll see how well this works:
  1. Write dialogue such that the speaker's identity, emotion, and expression are clear without the need of dialogue tags.
  2. If it is impossible to make the speaker's identity clear through dialogue alone, add a simple tag (e.g. he said, she said). Add the first one on the end of the sentence, the next one in the front, the third in the middle. Alternate "Sam said" with "said Sam".
  3. If it is impossible to make the speaker's emotion or expression clear through dialogue alone, add an action sentence to the dialogue.
  4. If an action sentence is inappropriate or inadequate, use a dialogue tag with a strong verb (e.g. "he shouted", "he challenged").
  5. If the English verb does not exist to express the appropriate emotion or expression, use an adverb (e.g. "he said happily").
  6. Never use step 2 three times in a row.
  7. Never use steps 3, 4, or 5 twice in a row.
  8. Just to be safe, don't use steps 2, 3, 4, or 5 on every other line either.
I know (and I hope you do too) that even these are just guidelines - although it would make for a pretty decent novel-writing computer program. Hmm...

Anyway, I already see problems with this. What about establishing place? What about rhythm? This is still very much an art, but maybe with this algorithm I can come up with better dialogue on a first run than I (apparently) have been.

Believing in a World

Chapters Edited: 15
Scenes Edited: 47
Words Murdered: 2904 (5.2%)

Confirmed Kills: 1 (Geez, that's it?)
Mutinies: 1
Authority figures Sam has a problem with: All of them


A writer has to believe in their story. That's a given. A writer has to believe in their world - that's a corollary. But how far does that go? Tolkien wrote about immortal elves that left our world behind. Orson Scott Card described a future endangered by buglike aliens and saved by a pre-teen genius. But they didn't believe these things were really true.

Or did they?

When I was planning Air Pirates, I discovered that, while the worlds I created didn't have to be real, I needed to believe they could be.

The Air Pirates world sprung out of science fiction. I needed a world that was like Earth, but wasn't. At the same time, I didn't want to just take Earth and rename it. If names, cultures, and languages were going to be like Earth's, there should be a reason, I thought. I wanted the people of Air Pirates to be from Earth.

And so they are. They're distant descendants of Earth, whose ancestors arrived on the planet via a generation ship, though they don't know it. Nearly all of their knowledge was lost when the generation ship crashed into the sea.

Here's where it gets weird (or where I get weird - take your pick). The survivors lost everything - technology, history, even theology... and that was my problem. I'm a committed Christian, and so believe that God created us for a purpose, with an end in mind. The traditional end being, of course, the horrors and glories found in Revelation, when Jesus returns and God ends this world.

But I've read lots of stories that don't fit - and in many cases, outright reject - this worldview, and I've never had a problem with it. My capacity for belief-suspension is pretty dang high. But for some reason, I couldn't write about a world where clearly the Bible was wrong. My heart wasn't in it.

So I included God in my world. Not just by giving them religion, but by imagining how a forgotten colony could fit into God's plan. If a remnant of humanity left Earth, wouldn't God send his Word with them too, somehow? Though all their history was lost?

Enter the Brothers and Sisters of Saint Jude. Decades after the crash, when civilization had stabilized and the first generation had almost passed away, a group of people came together and tried to reconstruct the Bible. Knowing their project to be imperfect, they named the result the Incommensurate Word of God.

Air Pirates isn't about all this stuff. The monks only show up in one chapter, and their history is only briefly mentioned as world candy. The origins of the world aren't even touched on (in this book).

But they're there. They have to be, for me.

Anyone else get weird about their world building like this? Or maybe you have your own (less weird) world building stories to share?

Halfway Done and Silver Phoenix

Chapters Edited: 14
Scenes Edited: 41
Words Murdered: 2,576 (5.1%)

Visions Hagai has seen in the stone: 5
Visions where Hagai gets beat up or dies: 4
Visions where good things happen: 0


One of my first bosses once told me, "When your boss tell you to estimate how long a task will take, double what you think it will take and tell them that." I found that to be true in later jobs, and it's still true here.

I once said the full read-through of Air Pirates would take me 1-4 weeks. Yesterday was the 4 week mark, and I am now halfway through. So it would seem my boss was right.

In other news (and other references to previous posts), I found a book trailer that I think is kind of cool. It's for a book called Silver Phoenix, about a young girl in ancient China with hidden powers who tries to find and fulfill her destiny. Here, check it out:

This works, I think, because everything seems to fit the tone of the book. There's no weak voice-over. The images look like they would fit in the world without being too specific. The music, too, feels very Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; it helps that the whole story has that Chinese mythical feel about it. I really like the Chinese-to-English text fade they do in the middle, too.

Finally, the only glimpses we get of characters look just like the girl on the cover.

I haven't read the book (it's not exactly carried in my local Thai bookstore), but it sounds like something I'd enjoy. Natalie even said it reminded her of Miyazaki's work, which is like saying to me, "Here, Adam, would you like some crack with that cocaine?" (Note to my mom: I don't do drugs. I do like Asian folklore though, perhaps too much).

This is the author's debut novel, which I like of course because I hope to be in the same place someday. She is doing a contest on her blog, giving away a copy of the book as well as some of her cool paintings for telling others about her book (like I'm doing).

Anyway, I don't get books often, but I do keep a list of what I want, so I don't forget things. Silver Phoenix has made the list, and that's no small thing.

Content Ratings

(No statistics today. Sorry, Natalie.)

Books don't have content ratings the way movies do, but I often think of them in the same terms. The question today is what level of sex/violence/language do you typically write or prefer to read?

There's a lot of action in my stories, and I'm not afraid to write about people beating the crap out of each other. People get shot, crack their skulls on pavement, slit each other's throats, and even die in childbirth.*

That said, I think the violence in my writing remains mostly PG-13.** In movies, the difference between PG-13 and R is not necessarily what happens, but how much you show of it and how much blood there is. It's the same idea in books (or would be, if there were a rating system). If a major character gets a sword in their gut, and you spend a paragraph describing what comes out, or the excruciating pain they're going through, it's the equivalent of a rated R scene. But if a minor no-name gets "sliced" during a battle and "doesn't get up," it's PG-13 - even though the same thing happened.

So I'll write as violent the story calls for, but how much I show will depend on the tone of the story. Most of Air Pirates is pretty light, so I keep the violence light, but it has its dark spots too.

In movies and books, language doesn't bother me at all for some reason. Even so, I keep the language in my books at PG-13 level (e.g. no sh-words or f-bombs, but damn and hell are okay). A lot of that is due to my alpha reader who physically hates reading bad words. It's actually good because it forces me to think before I make a character swear, and when they do, it's far more effective.

Alternatively, I could make up a whole new slang, like I did for Air Pirates. That way my characters can swear all the time without offending the ear (at least the American ear - some of AP's swear words are borrowed/modified from the British). You have to be careful with this though. Made-up swearing is hard to do right. I have no doubt that some Air Pirates' slang just sounds stupid.

I don't like watching explicit sex, and I'd rather not read it in books. They just aren't images I want in my head. (Though having said that, sex scenes in books don't affect me as strongly as the visual images in a movie).

So I almost never write sex scenes either. When I do, it's strictly fade-to-black PG stuff. There's none in Travelers, and Air Pirates has only two scenes that come close. In one, a woman gets attacked - attempted rape is implied, but never said out loud and never shown. The other is essentially: "They kissed. They didn't come out for a long time."

No, I won't be writing erotica anytime soon.

I should add that I'll read anything (hello, Song of Ice and Fire). These are my preferences. Not surprisingly, I tend to write what I like to read. So what about you?

CategoryPrefer to ReadWrite
LanguageDon't carePG-13

* But no knees; I can't stand knees. None of my characters ever get shot in the knee or break their knees. If someday one of them does, it will mean I have grown as a writer and a person.

** I'm using the American rating system. It's the only one I'm familiar with.

Three Truths

Chapters Edited: 12
Scenes Edited: 33
Words Murdered: 2,359 (5.6%)

Times Hagai's life has been threatened: 8
Hagai's brief moments of bravery: 4
People hunting Hagai: 10, plus a pirate crew and the entire Imperial Navy

Fighting monks: 3
Airships destroyed: 5


Only a few of you know me in real life, so we're going to play a game. Below are four facts about me; one of them is a lie. See if you can guess which one.
  1. I am 31 with 7 kids, ages 2 to 17.
  2. Until I was 11, I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. After that, I wanted to write novels for a living.
  3. I don't drink, don't smoke, don't like coffee, and I only swear when I'm talking to God.
  4. I sometimes play a recurring D&D character named Khad'am - an evil dwarven fighter with the constitution and charisma of a brick wall.
This is just for fun; there's no prize (wouldn't want anyone to feel tricked by my wording or anything). I'll put the answer in the comments on Tuesday night, PST. The answers are in the comments, so make your guess before reading them.

And feel free to play along: put 3 truths and a lie on your own blog, or in the comments. I don't read all of your blogs (sorry), but if you put a link in the comments I'll be sure to pop over and learn some things about you.

Yet Another Post About Query Letters

Chapters Edited: 11
Scenes Edited: 29
Words Murdered: 1915 (5.2% - I think I added some while rewriting)

Times Hagai has been in a life-threatening situation: 6
People who've yelled at Hagai for doing something stupid: 7 (oddly, never Sam)
People who've fought with Sam: 9
People who wished they hadn't: 6


So, query letters again.

If there's one thing I learned from Nathan's Agent for a Day contest it's that the perfect query letter will not make agents request your manuscript. "What?!" you say. Yes, I say. At best, the perfect query letter can tell the agent about your story. It's your story that will make them want to read your manuscript.

That means your query letter must be a clean, logical summary of your story. It doesn't have to include everything, but it does have to read well, and it has to make sense. It can't get in the way of the story.

I've been thinking about this because I've been teaching our niece (whom we homeschool) how to write a high school-level book report. The method is essentially the same. Here's what I told her:
  1. Focus only on the main storyline: one protagonist, one antagonist, one conflict, one climax.
  2. Be specific.
  3. Everything in the summary must answer the questions: What happens (main storyline only)? Why does that happen? What happens as a result?
Example: Lord of the Rings (because you can't talk too much about LotR).

Focusing on the main storyline means we're talking about Frodo and the Ring and nothing else. In a summary, or a query, that means we don't mention Pippin or Merry, Legolas or Gimli, maybe not even Aragorn or Gollum! Sauron gets a mention because it's his ring. Sam might get mentioned as "Frodo's faithful companion," but that's it.

Being specific means mentioning the details that make your story unique. Frodo doesn't need to destroy the Ring; he needs to throw it into the bowels of Mt. Doom, located in the center of Sauron's wasteland domain. He isn't chased by evil forces; he is hunted by legions of orcs and tracked by Ring Wraiths - creatures so twisted by evil that they have no will of their own, only that of their master Sauron.

Be careful though. Specifics can get wordy. Choose the specifics that make your story unique but at the same time don't clutter the summary with confusing details. In particular, don't name characters that don't need to be named.

Flowing logically means that the query/summary makes sense to someone who has never read the book. This is the hardest part for us authors because we keep forgetting that things that make perfect sense to us wouldn't make any sense to fresh eyes.

Often, in order to answer the 3 questions I mentioned above, we have to include bits that aren't part of the main storyline. I have to say that Frodo inherits the ring - from who? why? He sets off to destroy it - why? who tells him to do that? why does he agree?

This is exactly why you must focus only on the main storyline. A query that doesn't make logical sense obscures the story behind it and gets rejected. If you include subplots and minor characters, you'll have to start explaining everything, and there just isn't room for that on a single page. Queries that try it become too long or make no sense - often both.

There's more, of course. You don't just want to explain your story, you want to sell it. But if your query is focused, specific, and logical, it will go a long way towards selling itself already.

French Cooking

(No stats this time. The major plot revision, combined with life getting in the way, has slowed me down a bit. I've only done the one scene since last time.)

I've been reading Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle. It's an interesting look at how faith and art overlap. In fact, to hear L'Engle tell it, the two are far more intertwined than most people realize. I'd strongly recommend this book for artists who are Christian, but I think it has something to say to those who consider themselves a Christian or an artist but not both.

This post isn't about faith though. There was a passage about how L'Engle turned ideas into stories. Her method, it turns out, is a lot like mine, though she describes it much more eloquently.

When I start working on a book, which is usually several years and several books before I start to write it, I am somewhat like a French peasant cook. There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day's work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove.

So it is with writing. There are several pots on those back burners. An idea for a scene goes into one, a character into another, a description of a tree in the fog into another. When it comes time to write, I bring forward the pot which has the most in it. The dropping in of ideas is sometimes quite conscious; sometimes it happens without my realizing it. I look and something has been added which is just what I need, but I don't remember when it was added.

When it is time to start work, I look at everything in the pot, sort, arrange, think about character and story line. Most of this part of the work is done consciously, but then there comes a moment of unself-consciousness, of letting go and serving the work.