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Dialog – MSP Workshop Notes

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Notes from the MinnSpec May workshop on dialog.

  • Some examples and terms are pulled from the Turkey City Lexicon
    • A list of common problems in speculative fiction dialog
    • Brenda Starr dialog
      • Disembodied dialog
      • Dialog consisting of just quotation marks down the page
      • This type of dialog makes following who is speaking difficult
      • When there is dialog with no attributions, there is a loss of opportunity.
        • There is the loss of stage action. There is a lost opportunity for sparks to fly.
      • Brenda Starr dialog is a film problem too. There is an example by screen writer Stephen J Cannell.
  • People rarely just talk
    • Use dialog heavy scenes from television as an example
      • Babylon 5 Sheridan capture
      • West World robots being interrogated
      • Where are they?
      • What are they doing?
      • Who is saying what?
      • Does the scene have momentum?
  • Quick back and forth discussion does have tension
  • Floating dialog occurs toward the middle or end of a scene
    • Starting a scene with floating dialog creates the risk of an anticlimax
  • Mixing one character’s words and another character’s actions in one paragraph causes confusion.
    • “I hate you!” Debbie slammed the door.
    • In this example, Debbie says, “I hate you,” and slammed the door. The sentences would be misread if the intention was for someone to say, “I hate you,” and for Debbie to slam the door.
  • Dialog can be a pacing tool to break up long periods of text.
  • “As you know Bob”
    • Exposition disguised as dialog
    • Dune: “Is it not a magnificent thing that I, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, do?”
  • Said Bookism
    • Substitutes for said
  • Tom Swifty
    • Tom said swiftly.
  • Writer’s Digest series has a book on dialog
  • Read dialog out loud to catch clunky things to say
  • Listen to dialog
    • Record it – lots of free software
    • Use speech to text
    • Have another person read it to you
  • The dialog in plays and short stories are different
    • In plays, it feels like you are allowed to have more ornamentation. Everyone can be clever and have zingers.
    • In novels and short stories, there is more of an attempt to be realistic. We try to capture the flavor of real life. You don’t have as much liberty to say witty, zingy things.
  • If all of the characters are witty, they start sounding like the same character. I think this was mentioned in  Writing Excuses 10.38 How Does Context Shape Dialog?
  • How do you make your characters sound different from each other? How do you give them a different voice?
    • Write a brief biography
    • Use register, the level of English a character speaks
    • One author writes characters as he imagines another author would write.
      • How would Earnest Hemingway write this character?
      • How would William Faulkner write this other character
  • Translation convention
    • The idea that in an alien world, they are speaking in another language, but the book has to be written in English.
    • You can create dialects or idioms to convey aliens
    • Example: Clockwork Orange
    • Too many idioms or injected dialect instances can exhaust readers.
  • Historical fiction grapples with historically accurate dialog sounding farsical
    • Example Deadwood, old swearing had to be upgraded because old fashioned
  • How do you keep dialogs with three people straight without everyone saying said?
    • Dialog tags
    • Voice
    • Juggle pairs of people, the third person can talk once in a while
  • Resource: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print

Write the First Sentence Last

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The first sentence may be king, but write it last.

While study the craft of writing, I often heard the first sentence is king. The advice about the first sentence relayed that an intriguing first sentence captures the reader. Tutors and texts along a similar vein stated, depending on the length of the work, an author needed to hook the reader by the end of the first paragraph or page.

As a result, I agonized over the beginning of the story to the point of giving myself writer’s block. I wanted to get the perfect beginning before confirming where the story went.

Listening to Writing Excuses Season 10 changed my approach to the beginning. The hosts said write the first sentence last. The beginning of the story often changes as the plot changes. The simple statement sounded obvious after hearing it.

I struggle with other aspects of writing and nailing the beginning is still important. Since I understand that the beginning changes as the story changes, I no longer agonize over it until after completing a couple of passes of the story.

Resource: Writing Excuses 10.17 Q & A on Beginnings

Query Workshop with Jennie Goloboy: Meeting Notes

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The notes below recap the Query Workshop with Jennie Goloboy.

Do not start the query letter with “Agent” or “Dear Agent”.  Use their name.

The goal of a query letter is to get the agent interested. You don’t need to tell them the whole story. The letter should be one page and generally four paragraphs.

Paragraph 1 Contents

  • The title
  • The genre
    • For query letters, you need to commit to a genre.
  • How long the novel is
    • There currently is not a market for 50,000 word novels in the adult science fiction and fantasy genre.
  • If you have met the agent before and they expressed interest in your book
    • Note: the meeting and expression of interest should be recent
  • If someone specifically recommended you to submit to the agent the query letter is for.

Comments from submitted query letters

  • You do not need to include that it is a novel. All query letters are for novels.
  • Several of the queries left out word count.
  • 70,000 words is the desired minimum length for the science fiction and fantasy genre.
  • One of the queries sounded like it could be fantasy or thriller. Try submitting to both to see which gets more traction.

Paragraph 2 Contents

  • Introduce your hero, what they want, and why they can’t get it.
  • Give a hint about the world
    • Sometimes this can’t be summed up in one paragraph with the extensive world building in fantasy and science fiction. Some lee way may be given here, but try to keep information concise and clear.
  • This summary should be more like back jacket copy. Give the tone of the book, but don’t be over the top.
  • Be clear.
    • The need for clarity was reiterated several times throughout the workshop.
    • The agent needs to understand the book you are trying to sell.
  • Some agents don’t like sassy tone that is often used as a back jacket hook.
    • Sass can get in the way of clarity.

Comments from submitted query letters

  • Several of the queries went into too much detail about book.
    • Don’t tell the whole story.
    • This shouldn’t have backstory.
    • Telling about the heroes hanging out doesn’t add value
  • Don’t go into too much detail about the protagonist
    • Introduce them, but provide detail about what they do, not just who they are.
  • Never say that a character is stereotypical
  • You need to illustrate what differentiates your character (and story) from the norm.
  • Comps (Comparisons to other novels)
    • Figure out what you are getting from your comps
    • They need to be recent works and relevant to your work
    • Comps are not required
  • Figure out if your novel is YA or adult with a young protagonist. Once you have decided, make sure your choice is clear in the query letter.
  • Stating if you have used an editor is fine.
    • The name itself isn’t of import. There are too many editors for name recognition.
  • Don’t explain the meaning of the story
    • If you’ve kept the query clear, agents should be able to figure that out from what you have written about the story.
  • Indicate how the protagonist protags.

Paragraph 3 Contents

  • Brief biography
  • Summary of credits
  • If no credits, what you’ve been doing to improve your craft
    • workshops
    • viable paradise
  • Interesting facts about yourself
  • Anything unusual in your background
  • Anything unusual in your background that relates to your book content
  • You don’t need to mention prior agent experience.
  • Mention if you are a member of SWFA.
    • SWFA is more focused on good short stories. Membership is helpful, but not a deal maker.
  • Do not mention that you have been writing since you were young
    • A lot of people fall into that category

Comments from submitted query letters

  • If you self-published, did you sell a lot?
  • If you have a website or twitter, include it in the bio.
  • Don’t reference Sam’s Dot as experience

Paragraph 4 Contents

  • Detail what you are sending in what format
  • As requested, I have sent you this… in this format …
  • Use readable fonts in the email

How can you find agents?

  • Query Tracker an agent repository website
  • Agents often have twitter accounts with their MSWL
    • Manuscript wishlist
  • Query a small batch at a time.
    • If you query no more than ten at a time, you can potentially diagnose your query letter.
  • Publishers marketplaceHas a $20/month subscription fee
    • Potentially use tactically when you have something ready to sell instead of keeping subscription full-time
  • Locus
    • science fiction/fantasy only

Pitching versus querying

  • Don’t memorize the whole thing.
  • Don’t run through it at break neck speed.
  • Think about it as a chat.
  • Pitching at conference may not result in a pickup, but you can get feedback about potential improvements to make for your novel.
  • Conferences with agent pitches
    • Minnesota writers workshop
    • The Loft
      • They trend more to more Young Adult agents currently

What we learned about Jennie’s preferences and practices

  • She tries to be pretty quick if she knows the answer is going to be no.
  • She will request the first three chapters if the query letter intrigued her.
  • If interested after the first three chapters, she’ll request the full novel.
  • She doesn’t personally like pirates because of all the time on the boat.
  • Self-professed as not a good YA editor.
  • She doesn’t like synopsis as part of a query letter

Odds and Ends from Q&A

  • If you are writing fiction, the book has to be finished when you query it.
  • The fact that agents don’t request whole manuscripts may be a holdover from the days of paper manuscripts. However, the query letter system is still beneficial to the author.
    • The benefit is that you will find out more quickly if the interest is not there.
    • Query letters have a quicker turn around than novels because they take less time to read.
  • Hard science fiction is in short supply.
  • Roman or Tolkien influences don’t stand out as different currently
  • Military science fiction is in demand, if there is soul to it, especially if you have a military background.
  • Paranormal romance isn’t purchased by publishers as much as it used to be because there is so much of it.
    • Illustrate how your story is different from the norm.
  • Whether or not to send a synopsis varies by agent preference.
  • Write down how you are going to market the book before it gets published because you will forget.
  • It’s uncommon for authors to make a career from short stories.
  • It’s okay to query different novels to agents that have rejected previous novels.
    • Sometimes one novel isn’t a match, but another one might be.
    • Jennie picked up the forth novel one author queried to her.
  • Cons are potential places to meet agents. A lot go to World Fantasy, WorldCon, Convergence, and the nebulas
  • The premise from Kings of the Wild if mercenary bands were rock bands seems entertaining
  • Agents expect simultaneous submissions.
  • Romance has a HEA pledge – Must end happily ever after

Veteran Suicides

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The Veterans Administration released results of the latest study about veteran suicides.  The combination of the release, comments from other veterans and an article about veteran suicides in VA Hospital parking lots saddened me.

Veterans accounted for 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults.1 Veterans only made up 8% of the 2016 estimated adult population.2

Since 2001, U.S. adult civilian suicides increased 23%, while Veteran suicides increased 32% in the same period.1

This article claimed veterans killed themselves in VA parking lots when they didn’t get assistance. I found two suicides in news articles for the past year in line with the theory.

Lack of treatment isn’t the only thing that contributes to veteran suicides, but it does contribute. A veterans’ group I’m a member of contains less than 7,000 veterans. At least one member weekly writes about frustrations from denied claims or inadequate treatment. In the period of a week, one veteran reached out to the group for support through a rough patch of PTSD. Another veteran spoke about how the lack of treatment by the VA for a shoulder injury caused her to consider suicide. I tried to register my main condition from serving in the Gulf War. The operator wouldn’t set me up with an appointment for review. He told me he couldn’t set up the appointment “in good conscience.” From the veteran side of things, the VA reform hasn’t trickled down yet.

I don’t know what I can do to better support other veterans. I am supportive of the people I know. It just doesn’t feel like that is enough. I don’t have a lot of answers at this point, only questions. One thing I do know. In the service, people who have a similar experience to you surround you. When you separate and return to your hometown, it’s hard to find people to talk to who might understand. There are a lot of disparate non-profit organizations across the country, but when someone is deep in crisis, they need help immediately. They don’t have a couple of weeks to research and determine things like which organization services their need, which organization is real, which organization is a scam. They certainly do not have years to fight a losing battle with the VA system.

Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255 Press 1


4th Street Fantasy 2017

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Two friends recommended 4th Street Fantasy as a good place to discuss writing and connect with other writers. They both described it as a weekend long conversation. I attended with hopeful expectations.

To stay in the hotel or not?

Living locally, I had the option of not staying at the hotel and saving money. The website suggested staying at the hotel because of the conversations that go late into the night. This fit with the theme of a weekend long conversation.


Shortly after checking in, I nipped to the Cub Foods across the street to stock up on fruit and coffee supplies. Much of the food I brought returned with me. Groups of people went out for every meal. Breakfast consisted of quick food from places like Bruegger’s Bagels. Attendees took lunch and dinner at local restaurants. Meal ambassadors ensured first timers like myself dined with a group of people. Anne Totusek kept the ConSuite well stocked with fruit, cheeses, crackers and other food.


Without prior Thursday night arrangements with other writers, I looked forward to the open gaming listed on the website. However, I couldn’t find the gaming. I was a bit disappointed, but I re-purposed the time to go the grocery store and revise.

Writers’ Seminar

Holly Black and Ben Dobyns described other types of media and opened dialogs about how to convert Swordspoint to a game, a graphic novel, television, film, and new media. Holly, Ben, and the participants had lively, interesting discussions. Holly’s animated speech extolling the virtues of love for furthering plots was the highlight of the seminar.

The room was excessively cold because twenty of us attended the seminar in a room meant to hold over one hundred people.


Every panel I attended had a nugget of information I didn’t know I needed until I heard it. The panels had a bonus of being highly entertaining. Panelists mentioned several relevant books for those wanting to delve deeper into the topics.

Lessons and Laughs

  • “The best way to learn to write a novel is to write a novel.” – Elizabeth Bear
  • Being a visual writer means I may have scaffolding to clean up and that my first drafts could lack detail.
  • Don’t mess with knife girl or her collective.
  • “The beginning teaches you what the book is about. The middle deceives you about that.” – Holly Black
  • “Chekhov was just one guy.”
  • Life-threatening situations don’t hold readers attention as much as personal struggles do.

Conversations and Extras

Every lunch and dinner continued the discussion from the previous panel and started new discussions. Saturday the attendees from Viable Paradise 19 adopted me for meals and conversation. They talked up Viable Paradise and strongly suggested I should apply when 22 opens. They also warned that not everyone gets accepted the first year they apply for it.

Annaka Kalton shared her mead Saturday night. I shared my mead Friday night.

Fish! ended up being stressful because I tried to do it in the middle of a work day. I rushed to get there, arrived late and left early.

Notes to Self for Next Year

  • Bring a sweater.
  • Arrange to share mead on the same night if more than one brewer is present.
  • Bring sampler shot glasses for the mead sharing.
  • Make sure to record all of the books from panels.
  • Fully commit to Fish! or don’t go to it.
  • Only bring food for Thursday night and Friday morning.
  • Bring cash in case someone wants to split a tab.
  • Don’t forget the extra coffee for the room.