Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A few gems I mined from JRW

One of my favorite parts of the James River Writers Conference has been the first pages critiques. This year's panel was made up of Elizabeth Evans of the Reece Halsey Agency, Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Management, Molly Friedrich of the Friedrich Agency, and Ken Wright of Writers House.

Most of what they said about the manuscripts was specific to each piece of work, but I noticed a few issues that came up again and again. Several of the manuscripts relied on cliches. The agents said that either the language or the character was too familiar, not fresh, even if it was well-written. Another mistake more than one writer made was in making their language unclear. In one example it was caused by overwriting. There were so many words the meaning was lost. The agents felt the author was trying too hard. The opposite problem occurred when someone wrote too few details, and again the agents were lost as to what was happening in the story.

They summed up by saying that this is a subjective business, and you have to keep trying and submitting in spite of rejections. Molly said she would have rejected one of the sample manuscripts simply because she'd just sold a novel with a similar premise. Paige commented that the way an agent is trying to shape her list will often affect what she chooses to represent.

Later in the morning I attended the panel discussion called "Putting Words in My Mouth: Dialing-up the Dialogue." Panelists included Frankie Bailey, Colleen Curran, and Jonathan Miles, moderated by Irene Ziegler. Here's some of what they had to say:
  • Use "said" in dialog tags for seamless dialog
  • The functions of dialog are to convey character, accent and mood, move the plot, set a rhythm, and provide exposition. Good dialog does at least two of these things.
  • Dialog shows. It is action. A narrator tells.
  • People often have two different conversations at once. Each person anticipates what the other will say, rather than listening to what is actually said.
  • Dialog doesn't have to be a volley. Just use the best parts.
  • Keep the dialog short, generally three sentence or fewer. If a character is long-winded, it's okay to say, "and then she went on for twenty minutes about what she ate for lunch."
  • Men are more likely to speak in incomplete sentences, while women speak in complete sentences.
  • Don't forget about subtext. People often say other than what is true. You can show this by their actions while they speak.
  • Use jargon sparingly when writing about a subculture. The same is true of dialects. A little goes a long way. It is better to use only a bit to convey character rather than confuse the reader and pull him out of the story.
  • As a rule, it is better to use the character's name before the word "said" in a dialog tag. People tend to skip over it, so the name needs to be right next to the dialog. "Dorothy said," not "said Dorothy."
  • Instead of adverbs, use physical acts to show how something was said. If a character says something timidly, for example, have her look at the floor.
  • There are no rules for inner dialog, but avoid quotation marks. You can use italics, but keep them brief because people don't like to read them.
That's a lot of notes, and we're only just getting to lunch time on Friday! You can see why we were so tired when we got home.


Tess said...

That is a lot of notes - but good ones! I agree that publishing is much like a treasure hunt .. we are searching for that perfect fit in an agent/editor. someone who 'gets' our work, you know?

Good advice here -- I always love the prof. crits at conferences. They have been very valuable and helpful to me along the way.

Michelle said...

Tess, I'm trying to maintain the spirit of what I'd share at a Slushbuster meeting after a conference. We like to do this, because not everyone can go to every conference, and even when we're all there, we may attend different sessions. All you blog readers are Slushies in spirit, so we want to share with you too.

Lisa said...

Thanks for the notes and pictures, Michelle. I'm about to revise a big dialogue scene, so your notes are the perfect refresher. I'm guilty of the "...said Annabel" dialogue tag. I do it far too often.

I wish I could have been there with you all!

Amy Tate said...

Thank you for this Michelle! I've printed it so I can refer to it as needed. Great stuff!

Michelle said...

Lisa, we wish you could have been there too. It was odd with just half of us. Glad the info is helpful, anyway

Amy, that's a good idea. I have a file for "helpful articles." This isn't an article exactly, but I hope it would fit into the same category.

Tara said...

Great notes. I think first page sessions can be difficult for agents and editors, so I'm glad you found some common themes to avoid.