Monday, October 27, 2014

Advice for New Indie Authors from Self-Publishing Veterans

By Betty Kelly Sargent 

It can be a jungle out there for self-publishers. Just try Googling “publishing an e-book," and you get a staggering 54,400,000 results. If you search “self-publishing an e-book” you come up with 2,510,000 results and if you ask for “self-publishing advice” you will be directed to a sweet 3,070,000 offerings.

We decided to simplify matters by going to some of the leaders in the self-publishing world and asking them one simple question: If you could give someone starting out in self-publishing only one piece of advice, what would it be? As it turns out, the key is to know what you want, and to be patient.

Jane Friedman, professor, speaker, blogger, and publisher of Scratch magazine had this to say:

“The most important advice I can offer is don’t rush. Many first-time authors make a lot of mistakes along the way -- some of which are inevitable -- but I find that some authors don’t even have a clear idea of what their goals are. I tell authors: Before you do it, take time to understand why you’re doing it, to research your options, and to hire experts if needed to help you achieve your goals. Take enough time to produce a product that’s worth your reader’s time and money.”

When we asked writer, blogger, and consultant Joel Friedlander what advice he has to offer, he said:
“Know your goals. Be absolutely clear about what those goals are and how you plan to achieve them. Self-publishers need to understand why they are writing this book, who it is for, how they will reach those people, who they will have to hire to help, what their budget is, and what they want to get out of all this. So many times I’ve seen authors spend thousand of dollars unnecessarily and run into dead-end after dead-end because they simply didn’t have a clear set of goals in mind when they started out.”

Hugh Howey, celebrated author of the Wool and Silo series and self-publishing expert, offered this advice:

“My one piece of advice would be patience, both in publishing and in expectations of sales. Make sure your work is as amazing as you can make it before putting it out there, and once you do publish, don't worry about how the work sells out of the gate. Books are now available forever. Start writing that next book. Don't be in a hurry.”

For Ron Martinez, founder of the direct retail and social media marketing service Aerbook, the author/reader relationship should take center stage. He said:

“Remember that the most important relationship in the book business is the one between author and reader. Make your books as widely available as possible in our increasingly networked world. There has never been a better time for books to find their readers.”

Carla King, blogger, writer, adventurer, and self-publishing guru, had this advice for people new to self-publishing:

“Premature distribution is one of the most embarrassing mistakes made by self-published authors. Avoid it by starting small, publishing beta versions of your book, and growing your author platform as you perfect it. You don't want to publish and then discover copy-editing errors, realize you should have invested in a better cover design, or wish you'd spent more time on marketing copy, metadata, and back of book information. So upload your book in places that allow you to publish, sell, remove, revise, and republish in just minutes.”

Cindy Ratzlaff, social media strategist and brand evangelist, said: “My first piece of advice would be to write every day. But my second piece of advice would be to hire an editor. Even the best writer needs the trained eye of a professional editor.”

And finally, author-marketing expert Penny Sansevieri put it this way:

“Self-publishing should be treated as a business. You would never open up a brick and mortar store without doing some competitive research and having a business plan and a marketing plan in place. Yet it amazes me how many times authors launch a book with no idea of the market or how they plan to get it out there.”

So there you have it. According to these experts, self-publishers need to be patient; know their goals; make their books the best they can be; network to find readers; avoid premature distribution; write everyday and hire an editor; and research your competition. Sage advice, indeed, and it sure beats sifting through the 3,070,000 suggestions offered by Google.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.


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Monday, October 20, 2014

8 Terrifying Ghost Stories

by Author, Movie Critic

The terror generated by a ghost story can be more lasting than the shocks delivered in a horror story... indeed, this different quality of scariness may be what distinguishes one form from the other, not the simpler question of whether or not a ghost features. Freddy Krueger is, technically, a ghost, but the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films are horror -- indeed, as Freddy becomes more familiar, he enters the pantheon of movie monsters, which has surprisingly little room for ghosts. "The Blair Witch Project," in contrast, is a ghost story, though it barely mentions ghosts -- instead, it's marked as a ghost story by its ambiguity, its sense of a presence affecting the characters, and the care taken to sketch out the history of the haunted woods.

Horror makes you jump, and -- sometimes -- makes you think. Ghost stories slowly lower your body temperature, producing the frisson effects described as chills down your spine or goose-flesh. Sometimes, they make you stop thinking because what they are suggesting is too awful to contemplate ...and the physical response takes over. Ghost stories offer the sort of scares which come back to you when you wake up in the middle of the night. "The Sixth Sense" just missed this list, because its ghosts aren't ultimately frightening, but M. Night Shyamalan includes a great scare moment as his child hero gets up to take a pee in the middle of the night and encounters a pleading specter. Everyone who saw that film had total recall of that moment the very next time they made their way through a darkened home to the bathroom.

My latest novel, An English Ghost Story (October 7, $14.95), is an exploration of what its title means just as it's an exploration of a haunted house -- its shifting topography and its long history. This list is about ghosts, rather than haunted places -- though spirits are often tied to specific locations. And I've chosen stories which got under my skin, and have stuck with me. 

I've looked at various media, but find that often the best ghosts transfer from one realm to the other, moving from the printed page to a screen:

"Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad"

A short story by M.R. James, adapted into a television film ("Whistle and I'll Come to You") by Jonathan Miller in 1968. The spectre which manifests after a holidaying professor finds and blows an antique whistle is a reverse joke -- James takes the most debased, cartoonish, your-kids-dressed-up-for-Halloween image of the ghost (a sheet with eye-holes) and presents it with deadly seriousness ('a face of crumpled linen'). My father remembers a BBC wireless version of the story (hosted by Valentine Dyall as the Man in Black, on "Appointment With Fear") in the 1940s which made him terrified of the dressing gown hanging on his bedroom door.

"How Love Came to Professor Guildea"

A novella by Robert Hichens, published in Tongues of Conscience (1900). This is the least-known of my choices, though an Internet search reveals it was adapted as an episode of the early TV horror series "Lights Out" in 1950 ... and has been done several times on the radio (here's a 1948 version from the show "Escape"). M.R. James abided by a set of rules for the ghost story, including the tenet that the ghost must be malevolent and capable of harming the living... Hichens found a subtler, more unsettling approach as a repressed bachelor academic attracts a formless, imbecilic lump of a ghost which fixates on him like an unwelcome lover.

"The Haunting"

Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was filmed by Robert Wise as "The Haunting" in 1963. In keeping with the novel's ambiguity, Wise shows no onscreen ghosts but powerfully conveys the effects of their presence... the loud breathing that bows a huge wooden door is unsettling, though the most well-remembered chill is a neat contrivance as the troubled Eleanor (Julie Harris) is terrified at night and reaches out to hold the hand of her roommate Theo (Claire Bloom). The camera closes on Harris's face as she is comforted by her friend's firm grip... then a cut shows that Theo isn't in the bed but is all the way across the room. 'Whose hand was I holding?'

"Dead of Night: The Exorcism"

I could have filled this list with television ghost stories from the 1970s ... the annual BBC M.R. James adaptation in the "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, one-off plays like Nigel Kneale's "The Stone Tape" and John Bowen's "A Photograph," children's serials like "The Owl Service," American TV movies like "Something Evil" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," episodes of "Night Gallery," "Supernatural" and "Shadows." This play by Don Taylor, broadcast in 1972, is the one that most terrified me then, and most haunts me to this day (it's included in the BFI's DVD release of "Dead of Night"). Four middle-class friends have dinner in a converted farmhouse where a family once starved to death, and are trapped in a replay of the tragedy. 

"The Shining"

Stephen King's novel, controversially filmed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. The ghost of the Overlook Hotel who most stays in my mind is Delbert Grady (Philip Stone), the deferential waiter who spills avocat on Jack (Jack Nicholson) and takes him into the disturbingly red-and-blue men's room to mop him off and give him instructions to deal with his family and interlopers. Grady at first claims to have no memory of chopping his own family to bits, but then coldly recalls "correcting them." The scene is framed and edited to keep Grady in profile and long shot until he turns menacing, then a cut to a medium shot allows Stone -- a genial you-know-the-face character actor -- to flash the most blankly terrifying expression in the cinema.

"Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"

David Lynch doesn't exactly make ghost stories, but his films are full of terrifying apparitions in human form -- the kabuki-faced Dean Stockwell miming to "In Dreams" in "Blue Velvet," Robert Blake as the bilocating Mystery Man in "Lost Highway," the medusa-staring vagrant round the corner from a restaurant in "Mulholland Dr.," the huge-eyed gurning Laura Dern doppelganger of "Inland Empire." However, his most appalling specter is Bob (Frank Silva), the demon of Twin Peaks who appears to doomed Laura Palmer, possessing her father and eventually taking on her identity. Silva was a technician accidentally caught on camera while Lynch was filming the TV show, and stayed on to be the incarnation of all the ills of the multiverse. His most frightening moments come in Lynch's film prequel, as we see how he permeates the last days of Laura's life.

Ringu/"Ring"/"The Ring"

Sadako in Koji Suzuki's novel and the Japanese film series, but Samara in the American remakes, the vengeful spirit of "Ring" crawls out of a well and the television set one week after a victim has looked at a cursed videotape. She brings death, but that's almost not the point... the various versions of the story have given her varying backstories (in the novel and a Korean film, she's not even a her but a hermaphrodite), but the indelible moment for Sadako's presence in pop culture, which familiarity and parody haven't dulled, is the simple image of the lank-haired, contortionist ghost coming through the screen at her next victim.

"Ghost Stories"

Theatre is an underappreciated medium for scares ... there's something unique about gasping or clutching the nearest arm at something which is really happening (in a manner of speaking) in the same room as you. The Woman in Black has been running for years on the strength of its chill. I was part of a group who put together our own spook play, The Hallowe'en Sessions, in 2012. Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson's play Ghost Stories, still enjoying its second successful West End run, is a thoughtful analysis of what ghost stories are and what they might mean... but what audiences take away is that first glimpse of a white-faced, red-dressed mannequin which moves when it shouldn't.


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Monday, October 13, 2014

Print Books Outsold Ebooks In First Half Of 2014


Fans of print books, who have long lived in fear that their neighborhood bookstore will be rendered obsolete by the ubiquity of ebooks in a matter of years, can take comfort in new numbers from Nielsen Books & Consumer showing that ebooks were outsold by both hardcovers and paperbacks in the first half of 2014. 

According to Nielsen’s survey, ebooks constituted only 23 percent of unit sales for the first six months of the year, while hardcovers made up 25 percent and paperback 42 percent of sales. In other words, not only did overall print book sales, at 67 percent of the market, outpace ebook sales, both hardcovers and paperbacks individually outsold ebooks. 

Given the explosive growth of ebook sales since the launch of the Kindle in 2007, with increases in the triple digits for several years, many expected the paper book industry to remain in retreat for the foreseeable future. Recently, however, ebook gains seem to have stabilized with hardcover and paperback books still comfortably dominant. In 2013, sales growth for ebooks slowed to single digits, and the new numbers from Nielsen suggest the leveling off was no anomaly.

At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel theorizes that this anticipates a future in which paper books and ebooks will coexist peacefully. This hope was also expressed to Publishers Weekly last year by industry insiders, including Perseus Books Group CEO David Steinberger, who commented that: "A healthy, diverse marketplace with multiple format, price point, and channel choices for the consumer is generally a positive for readers, authors, and publishers overall.” 

Author Stephen King told HuffPost Live recently that he also believes print books have a long and bright future ahead of them, saying, "I think books are going to be there for a long, long time to come." King compares books' prospects positively with those of CDs and vinyl."[A]udio recordings of music have only been around for, I'm going to say, 120 years at the most," he said. "Books have been around for three, four centuries ... There's a deeply implanted desire and understanding and wanting of books that isn't there with music."

This continuing variety in format doesn’t only appeal to choice-conscious consumers. It may be a boon for those worried about the possible downsides of ereading, given growing, though still preliminary, evidence that print books may allow for deeper reading and stronger understanding and memory than digital books. Advocates of more engaged reading have often warned that the increasing omnipresence of ereading might erode our capacity to read deeply. 

If the new trends continue, such warnings of the death of print books, and their potential benefits, may prove to have been greatly exaggerated.


You can find the original article at:

Monday, October 6, 2014

Indie Bookstores Aren't Dead -- They're Making A Comeback

Become a fan Writer, Librarian  
"The Death of the Independent Bookstore?"; "Is the Bookstore Dead?"; "Why Bookstores are Doomed": those headlines are from Slate (2006), Jewish Journal (2011), and Business Insider (2013). For years, journalists have made these types of predictions about the death of independent bookstores: if the chains didn't crush them, Amazon would. If Amazon didn't, they would die anyway because people just weren't reading. 

For a few years, facts on the ground seemed to support this dire prognosis. During the early years of the new millennium, bookstore after bookstore closed in some of the most reading-friendly cities in America: the Madison Avenue Bookshop in Manhattan (2002), The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in Greenwich Village (2003), Wordsworth's in Cambridge, Mass. (2004), Cody's Books, Berkeley, Calif. (2006). "Every month, it seems, another landmark independent bookstore closes its doors," remarked a contributor to Poets & Writers in 2009. 

But around the time of that lament, a sea change occurred. Bookshops continued to close, but others began to open. In 2009, the number of independent bookstores in the nation stabilized at around 1,400, and then slowly began to grow. As of last May, the number of indie bookshops in the U.S. was 1,664

Why the turnaround? Part of the reason was the long, slow implosion of one of indie bookselling's biggest competitors: Borders went heavily into CDs and DVDs only to find itself competing with iTunes, and then outsourced its online bookselling to Amazon. The company's last profitable year was 2006. It filed for bankruptcy in 2011. 

Other factors, such as the buy-local movement and an increase in reading among adult Americans, have helped as well. But the biggest reason independent bookstores are still around is that the store closures of the previous decade alerted people to what they were in danger of losing. Author Ann Patchett wrote that when the last two bookstores in her hometown of Nashville closed, "The Nashville Public Library organized community forums for concerned citizens to come together and discuss how we might get a bookstore again." When I first read that passage two years ago, I was struck by the public reaction. A community wouldn't respond like this to the loss of just any business.

That's because books, by their very nature, are communal. Reading itself may seem a solitary act, but when we read a book we open ourselves up to the mind of another person, to his or her ideas, to the stories this writer has to tell. And when a book is good, people want to talk about it. Therefore, bookstores themselves are social spaces. Often when I go into a bookstore I notice people animatedly talking in a way they don't in any other type of shop. For avid readers, a bookstore is as much part of the social fabric of the community as is an old-fashioned town square or a beloved park.

For the past year I've been talking to bookstore owners around the country, and it's clear that although bookstores are businesses, a good bookstore is never just a business.

Matthew Norcross owns McLean and Eakin in Petoskey, Michigan, a summer resort town with a permanent population of 5,000 people. He cites the advantage of living in a "very literate community attuned to the need to buy locally." But it's also clear that his love of books is contagious, and that's made McLean and Eakin a very special place. 

Many of the town's vacationers become year-round customers. "We do more online selling than ever before," Norcross says, adding that shopping at McLean and Eakin becomes a habit that spans not only the seasons but also generations. "I see customers I first saw as kids in our children's section bringing in their own kids."

And that love of the store has a ripple effect.. "One time a woman came in mid-September," Norcross told me, "and said, 'I had to come here because one of my students came back from summer break and now he's a reader, and I had to see this place that made this kid who hated reading into a reader.'"

Like other successful bookstores, McLean and Eakin has also become a venue for literary events. Norcross and his staff bring authors to northern Michigan to do readings, hosting local book clubs as well as internationally known events such as the roving book lovers' retreat Booktopia. 

John Evans, the owner and founder of Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, echoed Norcross' sense of bookstores as a place that matters to people. He founded Lemuria in 1975, back when "you had to hunt down books and hunt down records; you couldn't just look stuff up." He says his store has survived the "super-storing of America" and the "Amazon-ing of America" because it's a place where people want to be.

"The customers who have stuck with me feel like they're part of the store," Evans said. "It's not really my store, it's their store. It's a business, but hopefully it's a meaningful part of their lives."

And what helps make Lemuria a place where people want to be? Not only its collection of books, also its knowledgeable staff. " I have to figure out what books I need to buy to support the good books that don't sell very often. That's the only way we can have a good bookstore, and that's one of the ways we compete with Amazon. "You come in and explore and prospect and hopefully find something to read you didn't know you wanted to read. That's the magic of it."

As a veteran bookseller, Evans was eminently established and experienced when the funeral bells began to toll for the independents. But when David Sandberg and Dina Mardell bought Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., in 2013, the conventional wisdom was still against the indies.

If you ask Sandberg why he and his partner decided to buy Porter Square Books when it went on the market, he'll admit it was on impulse.

"We bought it without a particular rationale. We thought [running a bookstore] would be a great thing to do, even though we had never thought about it before. We just did it."

But he doesn't regret the decision. "We love owning a bookstore," he says.

It's obvious to Sandberg that the store provides people with more than just a way to buy a book: "The previous owners and their staff created a community. And the customers appreciate the expertise of the people who work here. They like knowing someone is going to help them, and that's hard to do in an online environment."

As for the business end? "The store's never had a year when sales have gone down."


You can find the original article at:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Diversity in Publishing Matters (Whether You Like It Or Not)

There has been so much talk about diversity in reading these days, and a surprising amount of aversion to it, which shows that this needs to be an ongoing conversation. This is going to be a very frank, very not-politically-correct post; gird your loins or don’t read at all.

A.) WHO CARES if anyone is trying to be politically correct by reading diversely? (This seems to be the loudest argument against it.) Who cares, who cares, who cares?

B.) Not all people are reading diversely to be politically correct.

C.) Many people who are making noise about it are reading diversely in an effort to give authors of color a better chance of being published.

C.) You don’t have to read diversely to give authors of color a better chance of being published… no one has any control over your book spending habits. If you feel offended or upset, blame your conscience, not your Internet screen.

D.) Buying books from authors of color (and women) sends a monetary message to the publishing industry (which is, by the way, a business – not a magical art-making unicorn) to publish more of these authors, thereby giving readers more of a variety of authors to choose from. In other words, one doesn’t buy Poland Spring bottled water when they live in California, not necessarily because they think Arrowhead is better but rather because we don’t have Poland Spring bottled water. Put an abundance of it in our grocery stores and you’ll see more people buying it.

E.) Having a group of people be very opinionated about something that seems like an agenda to promote something that you are not interested in (in this case, equality) can be annoying and uncomfortable. You know what else would have been uncomfortable and annoying? Separate drinking fountains forever. Equality levels in art and culture reflect equality in society. If you don’t think that’s true, you aren’t paying attention.

F.) You don’t get why this is such a big deal? That’s because you don’t have to. Thank your lucky stars and realize that means you are part of a privileged group (and whether or not you take offense to that doesn’t change that it is true).

Who am I to speak about this topic? I am the person who needs these types of posts. The one who, when colleagues and others in the publishing world started talking about this, rolled her eyes thinking… here we go, white people are BAD, anyone with any privilege is EVIL, let’s all pretend we read diversely so that we can be better than everyone else (yes, I can be that big of an asshole… you’re over it, let’s keep going). And I won’t lie – there is part of me that still feels that way; I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it… and I don’t want to have to think much about it. But I’m going to because it’s the right thing to do, period. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, so I’ll annoy myself, and challenge myself, and make myself uncomfortable just to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Do what you want with this, but please… stop acting like it isn’t an issue, it highlights your ignorance.


You can find the original article at:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rewriting Is Writing

by John Casey

When I was 23 and about to go to law school, I thought I'd spend the summer writing a novel. (A bit more than a half-century later, I laugh.) To keep the days free for writing, I decided against getting a day job. Instead I sold my body to science -- that is, to the various experiments in greater Boston offering pay to guinea pigs. Most of them were in the late afternoon or evening. The one that made the most lasting impression was a study of hypnosis at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. I was hypnotized six or seven times over a two-week period. I soon realized that hypnosis is co-operative. You don't just submit; you're a partner.

A bit later I saw that the trances varied in depth. At an early and shallow level I was conscious enough to rephrase the hypnotist's suggestion that my extended arm was "as stiff as a broom handle." I thought of a stronger simile -- "arm like a rebar in a block of cement." The hypnotist hung a bucket of water onto my wrist. I consciously thought it was odd that I didn't have to make any effort to hold up the weight.

Another trance, deeper. The instructions, of which I was unaware, were: "You're in third grade. Write your name. Write the names of the students around you."... "You're in fourth grade..." When I came to I was amazed at what I saw. In third grade, I still printed. It was eerie how childlike my writing was. Even eerier was my fourth grade writing. I'd seen John Hancock's signature on a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. I'd taken to imitating his bold J, the one that looks like a lateen-rigged sail. I'd forgotten that. I also had no memory of picking up a pen during the trance. When I was awoken, I felt as thought I'd had a good nap.

Each session got deeper and deeper. For the last one, because I'd been co-operative, I was given a "free dream period -- something pleasant." I was a dolphin. I felt the air the whole length of my dolphin skin when I leapt, the water when I dove.

It occurred to me much later that rewriting has levels more or less parallel to hypnotic levels. The shallowest and most conscious is, in a now outdated phrase, "Run it through the typewriter one more time." Level two is something like what Flaubert did in his gueuloir, the practice in which he read his work out loud to himself, making sure each word was right. At a somewhat deeper level: rehearsing before giving a public reading. I have an occasionally recurring stutter, but not when in character on stage in a play. Odd. James Earl Jones has the same pattern; he stutters in everyday life but not when acting. Preparation requires an actor's concentration to make the words belong to another person, which is its own sort of trance.

Another level of rewriting: I was writing a long story. Halfway through I caught a following wind. I didn't know why. Two thirds of the way through I did know why. I was rewriting a story I'd tried to write and mangled. Now it was re-emerging with altered characters and different actions, all the better for having aged in the cellar.

Another level: This one came from a conscious decision at first, but went deeper into a semi-conscious realm. You -- meaning me but also you, fellow writer -- bravely put the 300 pages of a third draft into a drawer and start all over again. But you know the characters. You are happy to see them and hear them again. Perhaps you have some sense of the place where the tale will end. Things go well. Things go very well. Then it gets hard again. So hard you're stuck.

You take a long hike. Halfway up a hill you stop. Was it something you were humming? Was it something you saw? Some pattern of light and shadow? Something released a buried notion.
In your wallet there's a blank check and a grocery coupon with white space on the backside. At the bottom of your knapsack there's a pencil. You scribble. You walk home in a careful daze. It turns out that you don't even have to look at what you've scribbled. However it came to you, whatever it is is hanging around. Not a time to try to explain it. Be of good cheer and go with it.

At some point you may have heard or read other writers' descriptions of such mysterious but helpful moments. Not explanations and not instructions. Proust, Nabokov, Zamyatin and Kipling -- to pick a few at random. Proust's petit madeleine, Nabokov's rain drop sliding down a leaf, Zamyatin's blue light in the sleeping compartment of a railway car, Kipling's "daemon"...

Whether at the beginning, the middle or the end, whether during the first draft or the last, discipline and routine play a part, but so do the trances.

Writing is rewriting; rewriting is writing -- from the first crossed-out word in the first sentence to the last word inserted above a caret, that most helpful handwritten stroke: ^

John Casey is the author of Spartina (National Book Award), An American Romance, Testimony and Demeanor, Supper at the Black Pearl, The Half-life of Happiness, Room for Improvement, and Beyond the First Draft (W.W. Norton and Company, $25.95), a book of essays on the art of fiction.


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Monday, September 15, 2014

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II)

The following is the second in a two part, guest blog post from Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, whose short story, “Poetry by Keats,” took home the grand prize in WD’s 14th Annual Short Short Story Competition. You can read more about Trupkiewicz in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest and in an exclusive extended interview with her online. In this post, Trupkiewicz follows up on her discussion of dialogue with an impassioned plea: stick to said

*     *     *     *     *

Welcome back! Part I of this two-part post talked about two key aspects of writing dialogue. First, dialogue isn’t usually the place to use complete sentences because most people in everyday conversations speak in phrases and single words. Second, effective dialogue takes correct punctuation so the reader doesn’t get yanked out of the story by a poorly punctuated exchange.

Remember, the goal in writing fiction is to keep the reader engaged in the story. But don’t give up on writing to spend the rest of your life doing something easier, like finding the Holy Grail, just yet. There’s one more key aspect that makes dialogue effective for fiction writers.

Problem: The Great He Said/She Opined Debate

In Part I, I mentioned learning from my grade school English teacher about complete sentences. Another subject she covered in that class was the importance of using synonyms and avoiding repetition.

To this day, that discussion drives me absolutely crazy.

Thousands of budding writers all over the world heard those words and deduced that they would be penalized if they repeated the word said in any work of fiction they ever wrote. So they dutifully found thesauruses and started looking up other words to use.

I’d like to submit that thousands of budding writers have been misled. Here’s my take:


Do not touch your thesaurus to find another word that means said.

The attribution said is fine. In fact, when readers are skimming along through a novel at warp speed, the word said is just like a punctuation mark—it doesn’t even register in readers’ minds (unless used incorrectly, and it would be hard to do that).

But if you draw attention to the mechanics of your story with dialogue like this, you’re guaranteed to lose your reader in total frustration:

“Luke,” she opined, “I need you.”
“Raina,” he implored, “I know you think you do, but—”
“No!” she wailed. “Please!”
Luke shouted, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“You’re being so mean to me,” Raina wept.
With an exchange like that one, you might as well run screaming out of the book straight at the reader, waving a neon sign that says: HEY, DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS ONLY A WORK OF FICTION AND THESE CHARACTERS AREN’T REAL!!!

Why would you nail yourself into your own proverbial coffin like that?

Here’s my advice. Don’t reach for the thesaurus this time. Leave it right where it is on your shelf. You might never need it again.

Instead, if you need an attribution, use said. If you must use something different for the occasional question, you could throw in “asked” for variety, but not too often.

An even better way to use attributions in dialogue is to use a beat of action instead, like this:

“I just don’t know anymore.” Mary folded her arms. “I think I’m afraid of you.”
Harry sighed. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m not very good at this.”
That way, you know who’s talking, and you’ve even worked action and character traits into the conversation. It makes for a seamless read.

Two final thoughts:

First, dialogue cannot be smiled, laughed, giggled, or sighed. Therefore, this example is incorrect:

“Don’t tickle me!” she giggled.
You can’t giggle spoken words. You can’t laugh them or sigh them or smile them, either. (I dare you to try it. If it works for you, write me and let me know. We could be on to something.)

Of course, if you’re using said exclusively, then that won’t be a problem.

Second, let’s talk adverbs. If a writer can be convinced to use said instead of other synonyms, then he or she becomes really tempted to reach for an adverb to tell how the character said something, like this:

“I don’t want to see you again,” Lily said tonelessly.
“You don’t mean that,” Jack said desperately.
“You’re an idiot,” Lily said angrily.
The problem with using adverbs is that they’re always telling to your reader. (Remember that old maxim, “Show, don’t tell”?)

An occasional adverb won’t kill your work, but adverbs all over the place mean weak writing, or that you don’t trust your dialogue to stand without a qualifier. It’s like you’re stopping the movie (the story playing through the reader’s mind) for a second to say, “Oh, but wait, you need to know that Lily said that last phrase angrily. That’s important. Okay, roll tape.”

Why rely on a telling adverb when you could find a better way to show the reader what’s going on in the scene or inside the characters? Try something like this:

Lily turned away and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to see you again.”
“You don’t mean that.” Jack pushed to his feet in a rush.
She glared at him. “You’re an idiot.”
Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.


While a challenge to write, dialogue doesn’t have to be something you dread every time you sit down to your work-in-progress (or WIP). The most effective dialogue is the conversations that readers can imagine your characters speaking, without all the clutter and distractions of synonymous attributions, overused adverbs, and incorrect punctuation.

When in doubt, cut and paste only the dialogue out of your WIP and create one script for each character. Then invite some friends (ones who don’t already think you’re crazy because you walk around mumbling to yourself about your WIP, if you still have any of those) over for dessert or appetizers sometime. Hand out the scripts, assign each person a part, and then sit back and listen. Was a line of dialogue so complicated it made the reader stumble? Do you hear places where the conversation sounds stilted and too formal, or where it sounds too informal for the scene? Does an exchange sound sappy when spoken aloud? Are there words you can cut out to tighten the flow?
And don’t give up your writing to search for the Holy Grail. While the search would be less frustrating sometimes, writing dialogue no longer has to look demonic to you. You know what to do!


In your current WIP, what sticking points and challenges do you find about writing dialogue? Is a character’s voice giving you trouble? Do you worry you’re overusing an attribution? Do you have a totally opposite opinion about adverbs? The rule about writing fiction is that there really aren’t many hard-and-fast rules, so don’t hesitate to share!

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Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz is an author, poet, blogger, book reviewer, and freelance editor and proofreader. She writes full-length thrillers as well as short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her blogs are Engraved: All About Writing ( and Daily Poetry Prompts ( and you can find her on one of her websites at or Refiner’s Fire Editing ( Follow her on Twitter: @ETrupkiewicz. She lives and writes in Colorado with cats, chocolate, and assorted houseplants in various stages of demise.


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