Many beginning writers find dialogue daunting, so they try to avoid it, by not bringing their characters on scene. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen the conversations your characters have, and make them believable to your readers.

Lewis Turco, in his book, Dialogue, gives an example of weak, overstated dialogue:

“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

Turco calls this an example of author intrusion—the reader is over-guided, and the illusion of reality is lost. Here are steps to avoid unbelievable dialogue:

  1. When giving dialogue attribution, generally use “said.” Occasionally you may use “added,” or “replied.” The “he said” and “she said” fall into the background—they guide the reader, but do not intrude.
  1. Sometimes tags (another word for attribution) aren’t needed at all. If the person speaking is already identified in the paragraph, you can eliminate tag, as in this example from my novel-in-progress:

Moss’s heart turned to stone in his chest. “Aw, jeez, no. Please! You know how I feel about this dog. I worked hard to save her; I want her to be my dog now.”

  1. Allow the strength of writing to eliminate most adverbs, such as “nervously,” “uncertainly,” and “blushingly,” in Turco’s example. Your readers are smart! If you handle dialogue well, they will glean subtleties that are only implied on the page. You can show those same adverbs with body action, instead.  For example, instead of “blushingly,” you could say, after the dialogue, Her face pinked up, or Her hands jumped to her face, now hot. Something like that.
  2. When you have a long stretch of dialogue, you don’t need to identify (tag, or attribute) who is speaking each time. Hopefully, each character has a unique way of talking that is identifiable. Include tags now and again, as in the example below #5.
  3. Start a new paragraph each time the dialogue switches to the other speaker.

In the following example from my own writing, notice how little attribution is used, or required, to guide the reader:

“Mr. Moss?”
“Carol?” A man’s resonant voice.
All her life, people had mistakenly called her Carol. “No, it’s Carolina.” She hated when people were careless with her name.
“Just Moss, no mister. Have you lost a dog?”
“Yes! Oh my God, have you found her?” Unsteadily, she slid down to sit on the floor.
“Describe her,” he said.
“Do you have her?”
“Tell me what she looks like. I have a right to make sure she’s your dog.”
“Let’s see. She’s impossibly tall and skinny, with a wiry, gray coat. Her hair hangs over her eyes. What else do you want to know?”
“Her name.”
“Zephyr. Her name is Zephyr. Do you actually have her with you?”
“It’s your girl. She needed surgery, and I’ve been nursing her.”
“What happened? When did she get hurt? We need to come, right away. My daughter’s been frantic.”
“Daughter? How old?” His voice had stiffened a bit.
“It’s her dog. Rowan’s eleven.”
“Nope.” Lengthy silence. “You can’t bring a child here.”
His tone was implacable and … something else she couldn’t quite place.
“What do you mean, I can’t bring my child?” Carolina’s voice rose. “Are you a pervert or something?”
“No! Good heavens, nothing like that.”

Strong dialogue is much sparser than the way people actually speak—and yet it is the spare quality that makes it seem real. Also, dialogue is strongest when it illuminates conflict between two people, and avoids the trivial patter that is found in much human conversation.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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adding detail with the senses

Simply put, sense impressions describe a person, place, or thing. They can also clarify a psychological or physical state. They may make use of metaphor or simile.

We tend to write about the senses we cannot help but use, if our eyes and ears are intact: sight and sound. But taste, texture, and smell are just as important to include. Because I notice this common weakness in my writing, I don’t focus on including them in the first draft, but in succeeding drafts, I work to layer in taste, texture, and smell—although not necessarily all at the same time.

Including the senses adds verisimilitude to our work—they take our reader right there. Every person will interpret the words on the page differently, and that’s fine—readers are building their own fictional impressions and world based on the words we craft.

“He did not answer, of course, because he was dead, was now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen, nestled between piles of books and old Silas’s basket, which was lined with the rotting old sweater Silas guarded fiercely. It smelled of salt and pine and wood smoke and now, of course Silas.” [her cat]

This paragraph is from the prologue of Anne Rivers Siddons novel, Off Season. She is one of my favorite contemporary authors because her writing uses place as a character, word painting with the senses to carry us right there. This is the first taste of her Maine that we get, offered in the smells: “salt and pine and work smoke.” And we are introduced to her dead husband, Cam, “now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen.” (Smells and textures)

And later, in the same prologue: “…and look down from the top of the piled-stone seawall and watch the bay playing about the rocks, creaming and swelling and falling, glittering far to the west where the afternoon sun was lowering. I would smell the clean, fishy, kelpy sun-on-dried-rocks smell, and I would hear the sea breathe.” Siddons has me. I’m fully captured in her fictional world. (Sights and smells and sounds—and I can taste that fishy smell, too.)

Give the most sensory attention to the important characters and places—it helps guide the reader in understanding what’s important.

One can be lush and still spare. Allow the reader spaces to create for themselves within your work—don’t do it all for them. They will appreciate this.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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My book is published!

My book, Bound to Love: a memoir of grit and gratitude has been published! Both the paperback and Kindle versions can be found here, at Amazon. Other digital versions can be found at Smashwords.

Bound to Love ebook websiteThe memoir won first prize in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association 2005 contest under the name Blood Bond. That was a very bad time to market memoirs, I discovered, because of James Frey’s betrayal of the form when he exaggerated his personal story. I let the manuscript molder on my computer for seven years, then pulled it out and walked it through two more critique groups.

Bound to Love is the true story of a single mother who encountered and navigated a complicated nightmare for any parent. My child, the only child I could ever bear, was born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect, and suffered a more brutal health diagnosis soon after. Walk with me as I birth the courage and grit to meet Thom’s compounding challenges.

The memoir covers Thom’s first twenty years as we confront prejudice, injustice, and a share of compassion as well. This is an important read for any parent who feels alone raising a child with complex disabilities.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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Kindle books – what I learned today

I uploaded the .mobi file that I formatted for Kindle. Because my book has quite a few sub-titles, and because I have the skill, I wanted to handle the formatting myself. With the help of Hugh O. Smith’s Seven Days to Kindle, the process went very well. Like all book formatting, there is unrelenting detail, and proofing, reproofing, and reproofing yet again. But finally, the book, in the Kindle Previewer software, looks the way I want it to.

When the file went through Kindle’s “meatgrinding” software, and was accepted, I of course went to the page to check it out. But when I clicked on the “Look Inside” link, I was disturbed by the preview–the formatting was different. I called, and was told that is always so: the previews are handled by different software, and will not be identical to the actual formatting of the book when it is purchased. The customer service person looked at my actual book, and said the formatting matched my description of it.

I also learned that it takes five business days for Amazon to link up the paperback and Kindle versions, and put them on the same page so the customer can easily choose which they want.

Another challenge I discovered is another author out there named Skye Blaine! I never expected that to happen. Her name is Allegra Skye Blaine, and she writes about dragons. My legal name is Amrita Skye Blaine: both authors, both names start with A and have the same rhythm. Surprising.

Once both versions of my book, Bound to Love: a memoir of grit and gratitude, are on the same Amazon page, I will announce its publication here.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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IngramSpark or CreateSpace?

I have had quite a week. First, because I prefer to do business locally, I got a bid from my favorite local printer. Each copy of my book would cost over $10. Then I planned to publish with IngramSpark, so my book will be in their catalog. I still will. However…

I have not yet reached IngramSpark by telephone to get questions answered. I have waited on hold for an hour each time, and finally hung up because I needed to go to appointments.

Frustrated, I decided to try CreateSpace. Each copy of my book will cost $4.32 including shipping. Their customer service department is simply amazing. Over the last week, I’ve spoken to eight or ten customer service representatives. I put in my phone number for them to call me “now,” and within about 30 seconds, my phone rang. I was then put on hold–but every time, the hold was approximately one minute. The representatives have been unfailingly helpful, friendly, and human. They seemed happy and upbeat. Only one had a slight accent that made it a little difficult to understand her–and the problem was most likely on my end, because I wear hearing aids.

There is no charge for uploading and proofing a book and its cover. I ended up uploading mine three times, because even after countless proofreadings, my husband and I still found small glitches–a missing drop cap, an indent with one extra space, a word that was supposed to be italicized, but I had missed it. Yes, I am a perfectionist.

When I placed the order for my first 100 books, the review invoice showed sales tax. I have a resale permit from California, so I called CreateSpace yet again. My window is getting smaller–I want to take the books to a retreat that begins on October 25th, and I should have my books by October 20th if I order them today. I had to send them a signed form and a copy of my resale permit. They found my email–addressed only to info@createspace.com–while I was on the telephone with them, corrected my account, and boom! Within 1/2 hour from first noticing, we solved the problem, and my invoice now shows up with no sales tax. ORDER PLACED! People grouse about Amazon all the time, but CreateSpace is one of their divisions, and I’m a fan.

Now back to waiting on the telephone for IngramSpark.

© Skye Blaine, 2015


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family trouble

I’ve been reading a book of essays by memoirists called Family Trouble, compiled by Joy Castro. The essays explore the challenges that come from writing about family and friends, and their possible reactions to what is revealed. I’ve learned from this book that when people get upset, it’s never what the writer expected would be upsetting. It might be a tiny detail of how a person was characterized. In some cases, revelations have brought families closer.

“First person point of view requires me to say who I am and where I’m standing when I look into the world, find something I think is worth reporting, and speak of it to the reader. In investigating this perspective and its sources of understanding and authority, I have to be able to write about what I see and where I stand–and therefore the places and people that have shaped me–with both honesty and clarity.” from the essay  “Things We Don’t Talk About” by Aaron Raz Link pg 157 of Family Trouble.

My take: tell my truth, remember that the other person is simply the same awareness clothed in a different form. I dive deep to mine my own weaknesses as well as the other peoples’ in the story. I do not write to blame anyone; I write to understand.
© Skye Blaine, 2015

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characters’ inner thoughts

At my weekly critique group, we’ve been discussing the issue of identifying characters’ inner thoughts: put them in italic, or not?

First: inner thoughts, or inner dialogue, are when a point-of-view character is talking to him/herself. We all talk to ourselves; it’s part of being human! Our characters do as well. However, thoughts are private to that character—the others who populate the story are not privy to what our point-of-view character is thinking. These thoughts allow the reader to understand the character more deeply. Perhaps she is showing a lot of angst on the outside—but if the writer doesn’t take us inside her head, we may not learn what’s driving that behavior. Perhaps she wishes she could murder her husband. Or wring her daughter’s neck. Or have sex with someone other than her partner. Inner thoughts are intimate, and private. We’re glad, in real life, that our family and friends don’t know what’s going on inside of our heads. But in fiction, the writer can take us there–and in doing so, gives the character a voice that is different from all the others in the story.

Traditionally, private character thoughts were put in italics, to clue the reader. However, if the thought were tagged with “he said” or “she said,” then the italics were not needed. But today, many writers are not italicizing inner thought, whether it has an attribution or not.

When I went to desktop publishing school in the mid-1990s, we discussed typography and readability. For example, we were taught that italics are not as easy to read as Roman (standard) type. I think it’s fine to italicize the text when there is no attribution if the thought is short. But a paragraph of italic type is tiring for your reader.

Whatever choice you make, to italicize thoughts or not—there is no right or wrong–be consistent throughout your manuscript. Not only does this look more professional, it is also a subtle guide for your reader. They will appreciate the consistency.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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the value of critique groups, take two

When beginning writers ask me what’s most important, I direct them to find or to start a critique group. There are a few important ground rules:

  • The discussion remains on the writing itself—NOT on the writer, or the story they’ve chosen to tell, but on strengthening the words on the page.
  • No blaming or mean comments! I call this flaming. I would leave a group immediately if that kind of behavior took place. And not return.
  • Start by commenting on the writing strengths you’ve noted. Occasionally in new writers, strengths are hard to find. But you can. Look for them.
  • Then move into areas where the work can be improved. Be KIND. You are speaking to yourself here.
  • Meet weekly as possible. I think five is a good maximum number of people, particularly if everyone is bringing writing each week.
  • In the three critique groups I’ve been in (one for five years, one for twelve, then I moved to another state and I’ve been in this one for three years), we bring up to ten pages of double-spaced, Times New Roman 12 point print outs, with one inch margins, for everyone, including a copy for ourselves. The double spacing allows room for comments, and my favorite, + signs for language I love. The font, font size, and margins keep everyone writing to about the same length.
  • Each person reads their work out loud, and the others make written comments as they read. After the reading, each member offers verbal comments as well. These are best received in silence. No arguing! It’s only one person’s opinion.
    Judgment has no place here: (such as “this is wrong”) Discernment is valuable: (This paragraph conveyed more anger than I think you intended.)
  • No disclaimers or apologies about your writing! Be brave. Allow it to stand on its own.

As soon as I get home, I sit down and consider their feedback while it is fresh. For example, occasionally every critiquer commented on the same few sentences, but their opinions were directly opposite. Then I know that area needs assessment, and it’s up to me to weigh their feedback and find my own way through. Sometimes those sentences are removed, or completely reframed. Very occasionally, I leave them as they are. In the end, it’s up to the writer.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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critique groups

I remember the feelings and sensations running through my body when I walked into my very first critique group, some twenty years ago: terror, excitement, sweaty palms. Curiosity, fear of rejection. I only tangentially knew one person in the room. I was faced with exposing my writing to strangers. My hands shook. My heart raced.

What I found pleased me. The focus remained on the writing—noticing strengths first, then encouraging in areas that needed improvement. I was very lucky in my first group. They had the sense, with the beginning writer that I was, to choose two main areas for me to work on: maintaining point-of-view, and learning to control narrative distance. Point-of-view means that the reader knows what is going on in the thoughts and feelings of one character, but can only observe the other characters from the outside. Narrative distance describes whether the writing brings us in, an intimate experience, or holds us away, at a distance. A writer needs to learn to control this sense of distance, because writing demands a range of distances.

After feedback over a few weeks, I caught on to holding the point of view to one character, and not jumping from one character’s mind to another, which can make the reader feel jerked around. Books can have more than one point-of-view character, but it needs to be handled skillfully.

My understanding of narrative distance took longer—writing thousands upon thousands of words, and listening to other people’s writing, and the comments offered about their use of narrative distance.

The beauty and strength of critique groups is that it’s easier to first learn to identify weaknesses in other peoples’ work—then eventually we can see those weaknesses in our own. I don’t this this value can be underestimated. It’s huge. We are protective of our own writing. It takes time and skillful critiques until we can view our own writing with a less-filtered lens.

Tomorrow, some specific suggestions for running a critique group.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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many steps to publication

There are so many steps I need to complete in order to publish my book. I’m slowly working my way through the tasks:

  • I registered the ISBN number for the Bound to Love paperback version. I will also need to register a second ISBN for the digital version. (Five years ago, I purchased ten ISBN numbers, and am now using them.) I’ve paid for the bar code–a separate expense–but won’t download it from Bowker until I decide on the book’s price.
  • My business fictitious name was registered today. I filled out the form online, and took it to the County Clerk’s Office to have it stamped and get their official number. We went with our old business name from Oregon because we already have a Federal ID number (FEIN)
  • I uploaded the stamped fictitious name form to a local newspaper for the required once- a-week for four weeks announcement.
  • I filled out the State Board of Equalization registration online (so I can charge and pay California sales tax), and printed my seller’s permit. It’s in a frame in my office, “displayed conspicuously” as they require.
  • My Square account is now set up so I can accept credit cards and process them on my iPhone.
  • I completed the layout of the text in InDesign, and it’s been proofread three times.
  • I’ve also made quite a bit of headway on the cover design. I got a cover template from IngramSparks for the size book I’m using, 6″x9″, and the number of pages: 256. They compute the spine width based on the weight of the paper. I’ve added my author photo to the back, a brief bio, and a paragraph about the book. I’m awaiting blurbs. One is promised, the other I’ve just asked for. Next I’ll place the ISBN barcode, and the price, of course.

And all I want to do is write!

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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