World Building: It’s all in the details

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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The world your story is is set in controls the possibilities for the characters and events in your story. This is more obvious in science fiction or fantasy perhaps, where magic or advanced technologies are the norm and are to be expected, but there is world building involved in others genres as well. every story has rules which may limit what can and can’t happen. And in every story, it is the author who creates the world and determines the rules, and it is the author’s job to clue readers in to what that world is like and what those rules are.

This may be easier with stories set in a reality that reflects the world we live in and are familiar with, because then readers may know most of the world, but it is still the author’s job to paint a picture with his or her words in order to allow reader’s a clear vision of their world. You would think in nonfiction this world we are familiar with, but it may be a setting we haven’t been to, or it might be from past times which are unfamiliar, so nonfiction authors must find ways to convey their story world clearly, too.

How exactly we, as authors, go about that may vary, but it is a task we are all faced with. Readers are allowed a glimpse into the story world through the details provided, including sensory details that make an unfamiliar world seem more real and help familiar worlds to ring more true. Dialog between characters is another tool that helps readers to buy in to the story and emerse themselves in the story world, but it’s one that may be difficult to get right.

Today, our Ask the Authors panel members will be discussing how they build and portray their story worlds, real or imagined. Our panel members this week include DeAnna Knippling, Lilly Rayman, Mark Shaw, Ashley Fontainne, RA Winter, Jordan Elizabeth, Tom Johnson, Cynthia Vespia and Amy Cecil. Let’s find out what works for them and what doesn’t.

Do you prefer to set your stories in the real world or one which you’ve created?

DeAnna Knippling
deannak I am generally terrible at creating entirely separate worlds, although I’ve had some really helpful tips lately, and I have a book planned pending more research into 18th-century Russia.  I’m much better at taking the real world, adding some odd element, and extrapolating from there.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My main series – The Unexpected Trilogy is set in the real world, yet with paranormal characters. Yet I have a work in progress that is set in a world that I have created.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Real world. Sometimes that requires an extensive amount of research yet using realistic settings gives the story a relatable connection to the readers.

RA Winter

RA Winter I love to write magical realism.  Taking the real world and bringing in those little details that take your breath away just gives me the chills as I write.  In my older series, I  brought in a realm we can’t see or touch but know are there.  The spirits who surround my MC’s with love or nefarious tendencies were fun to write. In my new series, I take the reader to the underworld and Olympus to meet the Greek gods.  I’ve read Dante’s Inferno, the Illiad, the Odyssey and I’ve read some Plato. They don’t all agree on the details so I rework characters for my own purpose.  You just have to stay consistent with your details.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I prefer worlds I’ve created.  There is more freedom to allow the story to take you where it will.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture One that I have created, but I want my world based on reality to some degree. Okay, SF really has no holds barred when we use telepathy, teleportation, time travel, and FTL because those have not been accomplished yet, and probably never will. But if I set my story in the 25th century I’m not going to have cell phones and iPads, either. Our technology will be far past those devices by then, and I get riled when I read a futuristic novel set a million years in the future and the main character pulls out a cell phone or iPad! Please, try to come up with something fresh.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy The real world is easier to write about, especially if I’ve actually been to the location. But creating worlds is half the fun. So I like to do both. Real world with fictional locations. For instance, in my novel Lucky Sevens it takes place in Las Vegas where I really grew up but the majority of the story is set within the fictional hotel/casino Saints & Sinners which I created specifically for the book.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use a little of both.  I take real places, real locations and set my story there, adding to them to fit into the story.

In fiction, even this world we live in becomes a physical backdrop for your story. Whether created from this reality or from your author’s mind, we must still help readers to visualize our story world.
How do you paint a picture for the reader so they can visualize your character’s physical environment?
DeAnna Knippling
 A lot of opinionated sense detail from my POV characters. They don’t just see a library full of books, they’re like, “Shame about the old Victorian haunted house’s library, with its thousands of stinking, mold-spotted, water-logged, mouse-eaten tomes.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I drop small elements of the physical backdrop into the prose of my story, it’s another element of avoiding information overload or boring word filling. When the backdrop becomes a part of the story in a descriptive sense, it helps you avoid boring the reader, allowing them to paint the picture in their mind’s eye as to the backdrop. Here’s an example from one of my current works in progress – this is the opening sentences of the story “Miracle In The Dust” and Australian setting:

The track stretched out before them, disappearing into the horizon like a red thread cutting through the scrub that undulated either side of the dirt road. Travis sighed at the bull-dust cloud that bloomed behind their horse truck in the side-mirror. It had been a dry winter, and it was shaping up to be a long hot dry summer.

Hopefully the reader can see what I can see, an arid landscape of red dust across the Australian outback with scrubby bushes that dot the rolling plains of a large stretch of land, and a bumpy dirt road.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One of my favorite techniques is to just close my eyes and let my imagination immerse me inside the story, taking in all the smells, sounds, visuals and emotional responses of the characters in a particular scene.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I like to drop in descriptions here and there.  I try not to overwhelm the reader with thick paragraphs.  I’ve found it flows more smoothly if I add tidbits as the story progresses

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Hopefully, we will always have forests, oceans, and mountains. We can just give them different names and locations. The same for cities. Maybe moving sidewalks, dining tables in restaurants that float above the floor. Music that enchants instead of rocks. There is so much the author can do to build his world.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s part of being a good writer. Its your job to take the image you see in your mind and paint it on the page with your verbiage so that the reader sees the same picture. It’s like coloring a picture. I used to really like to do the central image in the coloring books when I was little and I often left the background unfinished. But when I took the time to color in the rest of the picture it made it pop so much better. It was alot more visual.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil With using a real location to start with, I have real locations that I can work with to make my descriptions.  For example, in one of my books, it’s set in a town in Pennsylvania called Edinboro.  This town has a small resort community around a lake.  The house are not relatively large, but my main character has a mansion on this lake.  I found pictures on the internet of the house I was looking for and described the house from those pictures.

When creating fictional worlds, anything is possible, but only if you, the author make it so. The author controls what is and isn’t possible in their fictional world, and it is our job to clue the readers into these things.
How do you portray the rules of the world, beliefs and preferences of characters?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ah! The rules!  A lot of writers give me the “are you insane?” look when I tell them that they have to set out the story’s rules at the beginning of a story.  I’ve done this multiple ways, including literally writing out the rules.  A good, practical, low-key way to set out the rules is to tell the reader the POV character’s goals and expectations, noting the rules as things to be wary of as they attempt to achieve their goals.  “I knew I had to overcome the wizard, but the way my magic didn’t work from sunset to dawn was going to be a problem.”  Another way is to tuck the rules into the description of the setting.  “The gas lamps flickered and the heavy fog erased everything more than a hundred feet away.  Mocking voices called out, ‘Two shillings for a love-potion, only lasts until dawn! Two more shillings for a girl to stare at while you drink it!'”  There’s your magic system, embedded right into the world as part of the setting.
Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable. Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?
My errors tend to be of a different nature!  I almost always forget that readers bring assumptions to stories, especially ones based on Earthly settings, and that if I’m not going to use that assumption, I’m going to have to stress that I’m not using it.  I had an orphan chimneysweep in a Victorian story who was a teenager, and a reader was upset that they weren’t, like, six.  Because Victorian orphan chimneysweeps should be six.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman In my only experience of world building I actually have an overlapping of the real world with my new world, via magic allowing for the main character to hop through the realms. The information that a reader needs about what my world and how it operates is provided in conversation when the main character first learns about the extra realm, and then when she finds herself in the new realm and has a conversation with a resident of the new realm who explains in conversation about the realm. Of course, this dialogue is broken up with some action and movement between the characters so that it doesn’t become an overload of static dialogue.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Again, I add in little bits.  The hardest thing can be keeping true to your rules and not bending them as the story continues.  I keep a notebook next to me of rules and beliefs to make sure I stick to them throughout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Usually this has something to do with the plot. A world of telepaths, and the necessary laws that might govern invading someone else’s mind. Or a world where one race has this ability and another doesn’t. This could cause conflicts between races.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I set those rules in my initial outline of the story and then I may or may not follow them depending on the direction the story is going in. I’m a big believer in breaking rules but not without a good reason.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I normally go with what’s acceptable in that time period.  I write historical and contemporary, so I usually don’t veer away from the beliefs and preferences of that time.

Understanding the world helps readers to buy into the story, allowing them to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in the story. The events in the story don’t have to be possible in real life, but they do have to be possible in the world of the story in order to be believable.

Have you ever had a reader catch an inconsistency in your story because a character did something that violated the rules of the world which you created?

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman No, I haven’t had anyone complain about anything that has happened in any of my stories. So far, all my published stories are built in this world with the supernatural being an element of the story, but I always try not to get too crazy with what my characters can or cannot do, to provide that element of “this could really happen!”

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan It has happened once or twice.  I’ve wanted to hug the reader.  “Thank you for catching that!  I’m going to make a note for the next release.  Also – why aren’t you my critique partner?!”

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture In my novel, Three Go Back, the mode of transportation is teleportation machines. Fossil fuel vehicles have long been replaced by these machines, and there is no longer need for fossil fuel. However, one of my characters is an old man, a professor of astronomy, who maintains a small jet. I left myself open with this, but no one seemed to question it. If fossil fuels are no longer needed, how does the professor keep fuel for his jet? I would have questioned it in someone else’s novel (LOL).

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy No, I’m very good at keeping my characters in check. I’ve had readers point out some elements that didn’t fit in some of my earlier work. For instance, I wrote about stainless steel in a historical and they noted it would not have been invented yet in the time period I was writing about. We all make mistakes. I’ve read alot of very well known authors who don’t remain consistent to the story or their characters and it becomes a let down. I try my best not to do that because it can ruin the story.

Some authors draw maps of the fictional worlds they create to help readers follow the events of the story.
Have you ever used this technique? What other techniques have you used to help readers visualize your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ech, as I’ve said, I’m terrible at creating other worlds, so I don’t usually need to draw maps–although I do tend to use a lot of map research, so I can keep things clear for myself.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I haven’t drawn any maps since I played at writing when I was 14 years old, and that was more for my own use to remember where my world was based. In my writing now, as a published author, I try to use descriptive prose to help the reader to visualise backdrop, whether it be here on earth or in a world of my own creation.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne I have not, yet think it is a magnificent idea!
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I did have official maps for my original stories, but the publisher chose not to use them.  Now I just use a notebook and sketch a layout.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve never drawn a map of my worlds, but they would have probably helped in many cases. Usually the setting is a jungle or desert, and the characters must avoid a volcano or keep from getting lost in a desert. But would a map really help. Perhaps they can merely guide themselves by reading the stars and travelling north or south, east or west. However, when authors include a map, I do refer to it when following the adventure.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I drew a map once for a fantasy I was working on but I never actually used it. I use description to set the table of the scene and trust that my readers can visualize it from the cues I am giving them.

One of the questions in part 1 had to do with creating setting for places we’ve never been, which of course, encompasses all science fiction or fantasy worlds, as well as most speculative fiction worlds. Some panel members said they do a lot of online research of real settings they’ve never been to, but how many of you have explored real places which are similar to your fictional world, experiencing the sensory details in order to write them down?
Anyone explore physical locations in the flesh in order to get the details right when writing about a real location?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak When I can do this, I love it, but I can’t often afford to do so.  I’ll sometimes write stories set somewhere I’ve gone or planned to go, just because I can get deeper into the location.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman My Australiana setting is based off personal experience. My husband and I have travelled through Outback Queensland, and I intimately know the smell of the dry earth, or the smell of burning sap of a Eucalyptus gum tree in the scorching temperatures of Australia. And there is nothing more beautiful than the smell of rain hitting the dirt after an extended long period of dry. Having that sensory understanding helps an author to provide a detailed description that can pull the reader into the story for themselves. For other stories where the setting isn’t a location I have experienced, I scroll through the internet, researching the flora and fauna, going through images to get an idea of where my story is set.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne Once. When researching the real life mystery of the disappearance of famed Arkansas attorney Maude Crawford for Blood Loss, I went to her home in Camden, Arkansas, along with my mother (and co-author). The current owners of the home graciously allowed us to tour the residence and even take pictures. It was an amazing experience and allowed us to convey minute, specific details in the story we otherwise would have to invent.
RA Winter
RA Winter For locations, I use google maps while on the treadmill.  It’s a wonderful resource, as if the internet.  I’ve lived in five different countries, visited many others and have lived all over the US.  If I’m writing about someplace I’ve never been, I’ll ask people who’ve been there to read over my work before I publish it.  In one series, I wrote about a fictional city in Kansas.  It was a farm, which I grew up on one of those, so it was easy putting it in another state that I thought was beautiful driving through.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan Unfortunately, no, but I love to travel.  I haven’t done much traveling since my son was born.  I’m hoping to start back up in a few years.  I love to write about places I’ve been to.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve been all over the world so can usually describe the places I’ve been in good detail – at least during the period I was there. And I can tell when an author has never been where s/he is writing about. Encyclopedias and postcards give you the colorful aspects of a foreign locale, but if you don’t know the culture or customs you’ll get it all wrong. During the pulp era authors usually wrote about areas they had travelled – China, Japan, Europe, etc. But the men’s adventure writers of the 1970s and later seldom left their home town, and were writing about Africa, Turkey, and Cairo, as well as other foreign lands with no real knowledge of the places, and most of it was terrible. But publishers were publishing, and readers were eating it up. How many western writers have actually rode a horse? Or could saddle a horse if necessary? Writing about a location is the same thing, you need to know what you’re writing about. Someone once said that if you read about a mesa in Louis L’Amour’s novel, you can go there and find it.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t have the liberty to go traveling about like some of the big name authors do. But if I could I would because it lends more realism to the story if you know the secrets of a place because you’ve actually been there, not just from reading about it or seeing pictures and video. For instance I remember every bit of trips to Hawaii and Italy so I may set some future novels in these locales.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Yes, absolutely.  I would have to say that the majority of my books are set in locations that I have been to.

Do you plan out your world or build as you go and see what happens?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak See what happens, with a stack of books and maps at my side!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I generally find that my world builds for me as I write.

Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a general idea, but I build as I go. The story takes me where it takes me.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I build as I go

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I write as I go. Particularly when I’m writing an adventure fantasy piece I just move the story along to where it needs to go and then clean it up later in editing. The only time I really kept track of locations in my world was writing the sequels to Demon Hunter titled Demon Huntress. Because I was revisiting this world I already created I wanted to have my characters revisit places that I had written about in great detail during the original trilogy. That meant going back in to my previous work and finding out all I needed to know about these places.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil Build as I go, with the actual place as a start.

What tools or methods do you use to keep track of all the details of your world?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have a details sheet with names, dates, and locations.  I keep it pretty simple.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I read back through what I need to. I’m terrible at keeping notes, I lose anything I do make, so it’s easier to simply read back if I need to confirm a minor detail.

RA Winter

RA Winter I keep a series bible.  Every character’s physical, mental, plot bits, etc are kept tucked safely inside.  I also use it for descriptions and will keep house plans, pictures of objects, models and the descriptions I’ve used.  It’s essential in any story for keeping your facts straight.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I have a notebook full of information.  I used to create a PowerPoint for each story because I am obsessed with using PowerPoint.  That meant a lot of slides to click through.  A notebook is easier…but less fun.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Notes are very important.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t do anything special to keep track. If I need to know what I said about a place before I just go back into the novel and reread what I wrote already.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil All those are kept in my story boards, where I outline the story by chapter.  Locations are put in there so that everything stays consistent.

Sensory Details

How do you pick the right sensory details for your story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I slip into character.  Almost every character can see things, but different people have different experiences of how their senses interact with the world.  I have a musician character who hears things more than I do.  I have a character with synaethesia who tastes colors and auras.  Some characters are texture characters, they feel things with their hands.  Others do a lot of smell.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I just want to say before I start answering, that I found these sensory questions the hardest to answer. For me, this sort of detail comes instinctively to me, and to answer these questions I had to think very hard about what I actually do in my writing to provide the answers to these questions.

I always ask myself what the main aim of the story is. The whole feel I want from the story influences which sensory details that I would concentrate on. Referencing back to my Australiana story Miracle In The Dust, the weather in itself is a main driving force behind some of the story. The sensory details I concentrate on is not only the weather itself, but the effects of the weather on the landscape. There needs to be a sense of desperation to the beginning of the story that allows for the miracle that I have planned to shine through.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I think about somewhere I’ve been in real life that is similar.  What did I smell?  Could I taste the air?  What did I feel?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Knowledge helps. Imaginations also helps. Knowing which way water flows from the Great Lakes if your story is set in that area. What is the best fish to eat in Canada. Hint, they don’t eat mud cat.

What kind of sight details might be important in a story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Ones that are almost painfully specific, rather than generalized.  You can’t write every visual detail, but the ones you pick should lean toward the specific.  A shirt isn’t “red,” it’s “fire-engine red.”  A tree isn’t a “tree,” it’s a “contentedly conical Douglas fir.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Again, anything that helps to emphasis the main goal of the story, details that help building the right tension or feeling that will only improve the story and help to immerse the reader into the story. Moving back to my earlier answer where I shared with you the opening lines of Miracle In The Dust, and I referenced the cloud of bull-dust that billowed behind the truck. It’s a visual element that anyone who lives in outback or regional Australia takes for granted as being an every day element of life, yet it’s an integral visual element that helps me create depth into my story.

What methods do you use to add sound details to your stories?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I have the sound occur and make sure characters react to it.  That whole thing where you read, “Susan heard the sound of a pin drop” is for the birds.  “A pin dropped on the wood floor, bouncing several times.  Susan flinched, pulling up her feet” is much better.  Likewise any other sense.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Descriptive words. Adding the sound in as a tension builder or a climax to a scene, for example when there is a gun shot is it a short sharp crack in a bar, or a long drawn out echo across the land. Here is an example of how I used sound within my writing in An Unexpected Bonding:

Rance watched in disbelief as the young man turned and watched the approach of the wolf. He must be stunned to stand there as the wolf launched in the air.

He squeezed his finger.


The shot resounded across the land.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I try not to write out the sounds.  That seems too much like a comic book to me.  (I love comic books, by the way, but its not the feel I want for my novels.)

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Let me show you instead: From Pangaea: Eden’s Planet:

The outer wave struck the giant ship with incredible force.
Suddenly, they could see nothing but ebony blackness in the view screen, and then the ship began to shake and vibrate violently as waves of immense energy tossed the Galileo Two from side to side like a small boat in a hurricane. The controls fought them, and the machinery whined like a screaming Banshee on a dark, moonless night. Warning lights flickered, dimmed, went out, came back on with a flash, and then repeated the sequence like a floundering fish out of water.

Someone screamed, but it was impossible to tell whether it had been a man or a woman. The safety harnesses held everyone safely in their seats, but a few loose objects had been lying near some of the computers, and these went flying through the small cabin, colliding with seats, computer panels, and sometimes—an unprotected hand or head.

Lightning bolts of pure energy sparked and crisscrossed the tornado-like funnel in a spider-web of violent beauty, at the far end appeared to be a gaping monster’s mouth. But the plasma would not let them go, tossing them around like the prey of some monstrous space creature.

In what ways have you incorporated touch details into your writing?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak At first I had characters look at textures and note them, or touch things, but lately I’ve been adding elements that the character really has a reaction to, like the feeling that it’s cold and one’s sweater isn’t warm enough, or the touch of a spiderwebs that you’ve brushed off but can’t stop checking to make sure.  Someone who has to clean a milkshake off a barnwood door is going to have a distinct opinion about the texture!
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman As a romance writer touch is such an important factor in creating a sensory moment for the readers to feel as if they are as intimately a part of the scene themselves.
Touch isn’t just about a intimate moment, but something as simple as providing more descriptive imagery for a wolf, such as when a character sinks their fingers into the soft thickness of the wolf’s neck.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I enjoy describing the ground or clothes.  Usually I’m describing the ground because the character just fell!  I tend to abuse my characters.

How do you factor in taste and smell details?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak My characters are always eating something, for one, maybe because I’m often at the computer writing and wondering when it’s time for lunch. Sometimes I have to have them smell things with a strong taste associated with them, like “chocolate chip cookies.”  Smell is easier.  I always wonder how people can write without it; people have such emotional reactions to smell that smell is almost a writer shortcut that you can abuse at will.  You don’t even have to be specific with smell details.  All you have to do is say, “the smell of sewage” and people the world over will be like, “Got it.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Where ever it has an impact on the depth of the story, such as during a meal, providing a description that is “mouth-watering” and makes the reader want to actually be eating that meal as well. Of course, taste and smell doesn’t have to be pleasant. If you think about a thriller or a murder mystery story, discovering a crime scene can be filled with smells that are so offensive they end up having a taste element as well.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I write about smell a lot, but taste not so much.  I’m going to make a note here to work on that.

I love adding in scents.  You don’t get a lot of that in stories.  Even if the reader can’t actually smell it (because its a paper book or e-reader), they can remember what a flower smells like…or a field after a rain storm.

Many of your readers have been to or even lived in locations where your stories are set, so they are able to relate when you get the details right, but if you get something wrong, it’s almost guaranteed that somebody will catch it and let you know about it.
Have you ever had a reader tell you that you missed the mark with a certain detail?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak Not yet!  Fingers crossed.
Lilly Rayman
L Rayman Nope, I haven’t. I’ve been fairly lucky that I have been able to create stories the evoke memories of being there for readers that do have experience of my locations.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne One reviewer mentioned no one from California would ever refer to the state as “Cali” as one of the characters in Blood Ties did, which I found humorous. I grew up in Orange County, as did my mother, and we still have relatives there who use the expression. Another reviewer gave low marks for Whispered Pain because the story takes place in Arkansas, in the winter, during a freak snow storm. The person actually wrote they “researched weather patterns” online and it “never snows in Arkansas” which still makes me laugh. I have lived in Arkansas for over thirty years and experienced many snow and ice storms. I am sure the folks working for insurance companies processing thousands upon thousands of storm damage claims would agree with me!

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Yes!  They usually do it nicely, but I have had some people rip me to shreds over the setting of COGLING.  The setting is a fantasy kingdom.  The main character is living in a dusty, dirty city, and she must travel through the woods into the swamp to save her brother.  I’ve had people send me the rudest emails about how I missed the mark on describing London or England in general.  Um, it isn’t London or England.  I’m not sure why I get so much hate mail about that because I clearly state the names of the city and country in the text.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture No, but I do it all the time, so get it right and you won’t hear from me.

Effective Dialog

Dialog tags can be helpful in identifying who is speaking in the story. Good dialog tags should be almost invisible, so the reader brushes right over them, but still knows who is talking.
Do you prefer to use dialog tags, or do you find them a hindrance? If you don’t use dialog tags, how do you let the reader know who the speaker is?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak I use dialog tags.  I’ll use a more distinct dialog tag when I want to bring the reader’s attention to something–usually when the character is lying or there some other subtext but that’s really rare; I’ll usually handle it in the dialog itself.  Generally I stick with the “he said” pattern.  I would like to note that putting a dialog tag at the end of a sentence if the reader will really not be clear on who is speaking is lame.  Put it at the beginning.  The reader should have zero words of going, “But who is talking?!?” in a normal scene.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture If your characterization is good, you don’t need a lot of dialog tags. But when you have four or five people speaking, you’d best use tags.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy That’s tricky. I hate alot of “he said” and “she said” type of stuff. Writing dialogue is one of my strongest attributes as a writer so I just let it flow naturally using tags if I find I need to.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I use too many dialog tags and have diligently working to replace them with an action.

Do you feel that dialog tags beyond the basic ones like ‘said’ and ‘asked’ can be distracting and draw away from the story?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak “Which is sometimes exactly what you want,” the dowager countess snapped.  “Some stories ought to be drawn away from, they are so terribly written.”
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I tried to avoid the basic he said / she said dialogue tags. I do like to use some sort of description to identify the speaker, even if it is as simple as an action that someone does as they speak. It makes for a scene that moves along without being static and identifies the speaker.

RA Winter

RA Winter Action tags work well and serve a dual purpose of bringing the action closer to the reader.  A write just has to be careful that the action tag dedicated to the person speaking.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I use some dialogue tags.  I like to describe what’s going on instead.  Its a great opportunity to add in a smell or texture, or something the speaker is seeing.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture I’ve only known a few authors who are good with dialog. The rest of us struggle with it, and I don’t think tags that go beyond “said” and “asked” are all that distracting.

Amy Cecil

Amy Cecil I do. That is why I try to avoid them.

Dialog should be believable, in that it is realistic of something that not only a real person might say, but something that your character would say. I’ve found though, that if you use a piece of dialog that occurred in real life, many feel it is not realistic.
How do you write believable dialog which reads smoothly?
DeAnna Knippling
deannak The same way you write an accent:  accurately like 20% of the time, suggestive of accuracy rather than actually, um, like, accurate.  But I’d like to note that the process of learning to write believable dialog generally starts with sitting down at a coffee shop and writing down what people actually say.  Writers tend to start out with a problem of forcing characters to say useful things in a direct fashion that sounds stilted.  In real life, people talk around what they want and feel and replace it with small talk.  High fantasy writers and hard sci-fi writers are the worst!  I’ve judged some contests, and I’m always coming across writers who have Big Things to Say and who can’t handle the polite nothings that are required in order to get to the point of communicating.  I want to see a high fantasy novel where the heroes talk to the villagers about the weather and they come away knowing that that Evil Sorcerer has been there because the wheat looks scraggly from all the damp.  Or a sci-fi epic where people are like, “So how about them Bears?”  Of course in the future people will still follow professional sports, duh.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman I try to write dialogue as I would speak, and ensure that all speech is contracted, meaning people doing in real life don’t say “do not” they say “don’t”. I also try and write appropriate slang into my dialogue for the characters background.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne As I mentioned before, when I am in full writing mode, I try to close my eyes and watch the story unfold as though viewing a movie. From there, I write what I see, which includes the dialog between the characters.

RA Winter

RA Winter Cut anything that isn’t necessary, it slows down the reader.  Don’t do the phone conversation of “Hello?”  “Hi, is so-and-so there?”  “Who’s calling please?”  “Oh, it’s Mr. Jones.”  Why?  Don’t.  It’s boring.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I repeat it out loud to myself.  If it sounds good, I leave it.

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Again, I’ve only known a few writers that could write good dialog, Warren Murphy and Dan Cushman. The rest o us struggle.

Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy I disagree. As a writer I spend alot of time listening to people talk and I pick up subtle nuances that stick with me so when I go to write I deliver a more realistic aspect to a character because of those bits and pieces. When it gets forced is when you start trying to write in accents. I say just mention that someone has a specific accent and write the dialogue as you would for anyone else. Alot of choppy words will just get confusing. I know it worked in alot of classic novels but hey…I’m not in that caliber yet!
Amy Cecil
Amy Cecil I act out the dialog as I’m writing it.

You write about real people and places. How do you assure that the cultural and physical settings are true to the story? 
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Don’t mess with that much. More interested in primary source information about my main subject and those who make the story compelling.
Do you ever actually visit the places you write about?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Yes, for both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much and the upcoming Denial of Justice, I visited New York City. Actually went to locations where Dorothy Kilgallen frequented including my sitting next to the table at P. J. Clarke’s where she sat on the last night of her life.
Much of the writing you do is about people and places of the past.
When writing about historical places, how do you find and work in the details to make it authentic?
Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Use only primary sources but again, the subject is the story, not so much the historical places.
As you can see, there are many approaches to drawing readers into our worlds, whether real or imagined. At times the approach may depend on what genre we are writing in. Certainly, my approach to creating and portraying Delilah, which is a western and required historical research for accuracy and visiting certain locations to get the details right, is quite different from my approach in portraying my science fantasy world for my Playground for the Gods series, which explored myths and legends of old using landscapes mostly created in my head. But even when writing about real places, such as in nonfiction, the author must find ways to draw readers into the story, and add those special touches which bring the setting to life is one way to do that. This information can be conveyed by using dialog between characters to help readers learn what we need them to know, or through sensory details that make the setting seem more real.
I want to thank our author panel members for sharing their ideas and techniques with us. I hope you’ll pick and choose the ideas that work for you. And I hope you’ll join us next Monday, when our author panel will discuss writing action scenes and pacing.

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Ask the Authors: Final Answers

Books and Coffee

We’ve reached the final segment of Ask the Authors, which will bring our series to a close. This has been a fun series and we’ve covered a lot in regards to writing. In this segment, our panel members will answer follow-up questions for each segment and wrap things up, so let’s get started. We’ll skip over the introductory segment, as there are really no follow-up questions as to the panel members identity, but if you missed that one, you really should pop in and check it out.  Our panel had a great line up, with DeAnna Knippling, Chris Dibella, Carol Riggs, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Janet Garber, Art Rosch, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili and Jordan Elizabeth.

I want to thank each and every one of our panel members for their participation. This blog is a labor of love for me, which means I can’t pay for guest posts, etc… The time and energy each author took to respond to all of my, sometimes lengthy and open ended questions is greatly appreciated. When asked if they would be up for another round in the fall, many said yes, so it looks like we have another round of Ask the Authors still to look forward to.

Our first segment takes A Look at the Writing Process, where each of our panel members found different things most challenging, from sharing and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to self confidence, to marketing and finding readers, to the actual act of writing. The process is never the same for any two authors. Some prefer to write without distractions, while others like to write with music or other things going on in the background. Many authors like to write in public places, such as coffee shops, while others like Tim Baker find this too cliche or just need their privacy for writing, like Carol Riggs. We approach our writing in different ways, as well. While Janet Garber writes in vigenettes, Cynthia Vespia writes her first drafts by hand, and authors like DeAnna Knippling just let the characters go and see what happens, and most of our panel members are morning writers, like Chris Barili. Most of our panel members claim to lean toward character driven stories, but I’m with Cynthia Vespia in thinking that all stories must be a little of both. Most, like Art Rosch and Chris DiBella say the titles of their books just come to them, usually before actual writing begins, while the book is still in the design stage. Be sure to check it out and see what each of our panel members’ best pieces of advise for upcoming authors.

The follow up question for this segment is: What are your top five writing rules for success?

Cynthia Vespia: 

1. Write what you want, don’t follow the trends

2. Characterization is key

3. Have fun with world building

4. Think outside the box

5. And of course show don’t tell

Chris Barili

1. Learn your craft. Whether through college studies, mentorship, reading a lot, whatever. Learn what makes good stories.
2. Learn the business of your craft. All the writing in the world does you no good if you don’t know how to get it sold.
3. Find your writing tribe. A support crew of fellow writers is crucial for keeping you going.
4. Submit. Everywhere. You don’t get published if you’re not submitting.
5. Get your ass in the seat and do the work. Don’t wait for the stupid inspiration fairy or muse to sit on your shoulder and whisper bullshit in your ears. Write. Then write some more.

Janet Garber: 

1. Jot down phrases and ideas when inspiration hits no matter where you are.

2. Work on making the language sing.

3. Submit like crazy

4. Don’t take rejections personally. Just move on.

5. Don’t ever give up!


Art Rosch: 

One, be yourself.  Write to please yourself.  There is no other way to achieve authenticity other than to make your writing a means of exploring yourself, your humanity and the nature of your life experience.

If you’re writing fiction you need a great villain.  Nothing propels a story like a character that you hate, someone whom you want to see brought to justice.  I pay special attention to writing my villains.

Write with feeling or your readers will not feel anything.  Emotion is the fuel of story.  Be a storyteller, engage readers with plots that invoke high stakes.  The ultimate investment in a story can be the life or death of the characters, or the survival of a society, or the triumph of a civilization.  All the elements of story break down into conflicts of virtue versus destruction.  What makes a story interesting, however, is when it’s difficult to tell who is good and who is evil.  Things aren’t always simple.

A good book has three attributes.  It should be entertaining, informative and inspiring.  I can loosely define inspiration as the evocation of insight.  Insight feels good and you know when a writer provokes an understanding of the human condition.

That’s not exactly five rules, but it’s an overview of things I put in my writing.

Tim Baker: I really only have one rule…keep writing. If you want to be succesful as a writer you have to keep writing. Not only is it the best way to hone your skills, but the more you write, the more chance you have of being succesful.

Chris DiBella: I don’t have any rules for writing “success” because the term success will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for other writers, and vice versa. There are a million blogs posting the same 5 to 10 rules for how to be a writer, but none of them seem to be putting out any books themselves, so why take advice from someone who isn’t successful doing what they are trying to tell you to do? There’s no secret magic formula, but you can’t be successful if you don’t write… just go write.

Carol Riggs: 

1. There ARE no rules.

2. Everyone writes lousy first drafts; get the words down on the page and learn to revise.

3. Always have other people check your work for inconsistencies, grammar, punctuation, etc.

4. If you truly love to write, never give up!

5. Not everyone will love your book; it’s subjective and there’s no way your writing will speak to every single person.

Margareth Stewart: 

1. Write. Don´t stop.

2. Don´t copy anyone else. Find your own voice.

3. Craft your stories.

4. Be humble. Be proud.

5. Keep it up.

P.S. Just write if you have something to tell, and then forget about it all. I don´t believe so much that we can predict success though we need to do our best for it. I see authors who might be famous, and they might not be the best ones, or even the most influential ones, or the ones that are still going to be recalled a century from now. I would rather quote Jorge Amado and say that writing is like living: 

“The world is like that – incomprehensible and full of surprises.” Jorge Amado – Brazilian Author. 

Jordan Elizabeth:

  1. Never give up on your dreams.
  2. Write what you know.  Write a book that you would want to read.
  3. Don’t write a shocking scene just for the shock value.
  4. Don’t write in a genre just because its selling; write in that genre because you’re passionate about it.

DeAnna Knippling:

1. Read.
2. Study what you read.
3. Practice what you study.
4. Get what you practice published.
5. Honor the people who read what you published.

The second segment was on Character Development. Many of our author panel develop characters from real people and composites of people they know, or at least give them realistic qualities and flaws to make them feel more human, easier to identify with, and most admit to having a little of themselves in their characters. Chris DiBella, Jordan Elizabeth, Janet Garber and Art Rosch even offer up real life examples. None of them openly admited to creating characters from archetypes, but I maintain that all characters fit into archetypes, whether the author does it consciously or not. Chris Barili offers his method of character development using a character triangle to determine what the character’s motivation is, what the character’s fear or flaw is, and what it is the character truly needs. It is clear that for all of our panel members and myself, our characters often come alive and take over what happens on the page, surprising even their creators at times. While Art Rosch and DeAnna Knippling like to take a more psychological approach to character development, authors like Tim Baker use life observation to ‘keep it real’. And I don’t think any of the panel members would disagree with Carol Riggs when she stated, “The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.” After all, that is what we’re striving for – characters that readers can relate and identify with.


The follow-up question for this segment: How do you evoke emotion in your readers?

Cynthia Vespia: This is one of the most important parts of storytelling, and one of my favorite parts as well. Developing characters that readers resonate with is what stirs emotion. If they can see part of themselves in the character they will gravitate towards them more and that makes them care what happens to them in the end.

Chris Barili: You do that by creating a character they empathize with, then killing him or her, usually. No, wait. That’s the George Martin approach. Seriously–build a character about whom readers care, then put them in situations where they are threatened.

Janet Garber: This is admittedly not always easy. I concentrate on creating relatable and sympathetic characters.

Art Rosch: If you write with feeling your audience will respond with feeling.   Fiction is mostly about overcoming obstacles.  You cause your heroes to act bravely and unselfishly and your villains to act with malice and manipulation.  If you create a lovable hero, (that is, someone with flaws who intends to do a positive thing) your readers will respond. I don’t know if emotion can be taught.  Writing is a very psychological pursuit, and our emotions are unpredictable and all but uncontrollable.  So…be a psychologist.

Tim Baker: By giving my characters real emotion and letting the reader see it. Whatever emotion the characters are feeling in a particuklar scene I try to have them think and react the way any of us would (as much as allowable for the story anyway).

Chris DiBella: I just try to make my characters as real as possible and hopefully my readers like them enough to care about what happens to them.

Carol Riggs: I write in first person for (what I think is) the most close, personal experience. I also try to include a lot of sensory images—smell, taste, sounds, and sights to make things more real. With crying and sobbing and sad emotions, often less is more; otherwise it starts feeling melodramatic. And if the character is going through general experiences the reader can relate to (betrayal, loss, anger at a friend or parent) that helps make an emotional connection.

Jordan Elizabeth:  I rely on my own experiences when writing.  Many of the emotions I write about are ones that I have experienced, so I’m able to write from the heart.  If its a funny scene, then I’m laughing out loud.  If its a sad scene, I have tears drenching my cheeks.

DeAnna Knippling: One of my pet peeves is when an author is obviously playing for my emotions rather than letting the combination of plot, character, etc., do the work in a more logically consistent fashion.  You’ve seen it every time a beloved character gets wiped out and it really doesn’t affect the narrative, other than to “inspire” the rest of the characters to carry on or set the grounds for “anything could happen!!!!!!!”

If I want a reader to cry, I better have already wept bitter tears over the manuscript as I was writing it.

Our third segment was on Action and Dialog. While all authors want dialog that flows smooth and sounds realistic, different authors take different approaches to the task. While most of our panel members agree that listening to people and being able to hear the dialog spoken in your head are great ways to approach this, Carol Riggs offers the really great advice to read your work aloud, and Art Rosch offers the advice that dialog should always serve a purpose, rather than being just a space filler. In true life, we tend to talk just to hear ourselves sometimes. In writing, that sort of thing just takes up space on the page and the only purpose it may serve is to bore the reader, and of course, we don’t want that. Achieving a balance between action and dialog seems to come natural for many of our panel members claim the only trick or secret is to keep the story moving and not let it get too bogged down with details. Tell readers what they need to know, but keep things moving. If you missed this segment, be sure to drop in and check it out, because it features excerpts of dialog scenes from authors Chris Barili, Janet Garber, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Art Rosch and Margareth Stewart.

The following is a reader comment left regarding Dialog. While a couple of our panel members replied directly in the comments, DeAnna Knippling’s reply seemed spot on to me and I wanted to include it here.

Reader Ken Hughs said:

Lots of excellent advice there.

I’m always on the lookout for ways to analyze dialogue a bit deeper than that. For instance:

Who talks more? Does she say a lot on her favorite subject (an expert, or just concerned about it) and less on other things, or is she nervous or social enough to chime in a little after everything– or so full of herself she does both?

How organized are his sentences? A longer sentence can mean he has a more complex complete thought, unless it’s a run-on; several short sentences could each mean new thoughts still coming in behind the last ones. Or the most eloquent person might be the one with the simple line that says it all.

Adjectives and adverbs? Someone passionate, or more in tune with their senses, is more likely to pile on the modifiers, while others are plainer-spoken. Similes and metaphors take this even further– if you can keep someone from becoming cliche about using their job or background to compare things too.

DeAnna Knipling: It sounds like the commenter, Ken Hughes, is doing some good things with pacing.  Huzzah!  Once you get past the point of being able to make dialogue that sounds natural and gets the point across in a scene, the next step is to start working on the pacing of the dialogue–and all the issues Mr. Hughes mentioned are relevant there.

To back up a bit for writers who aren’t quite down in the weeds of studying pacing yet:

  • Pacing is the art of connecting content (what you’re writing about) to form (the layout of the little black marks on the page, for writers).  When the word lengths and patterns, sentence lengths and patterns, scene lengths and patterns all line up with the meaning of the story somehow, the story is “paced well.”  Pacing is about building your story like a woodworker, choosing your material and construction techniques to fit the final purpose of the project.  Any element of a story can have pacing.
  • Each character’s dialogue will also have its own pacing, just as Mr. Hughes says, and it should depend on the nature of the character.
  • The examples that Mr. Hughes gives are excellent examples of what to consider with pacing dialogue.
  • I’d like to add that anything that you add between pieces of dialogue also reflects the pacing of the dialogue, so if you have chunks of description between bits of dialogue, the reader will take them as pauses in the conversation, or as the POV character’s mind wandering during the conversation.
If you can handle the things Mr. Hughes brings up, you’ll be doing well indeed 🙂

Mr. Hughes and DeAnna bring up another issue here, which we haven’t really touched on.


Naturally my follow-up question is:What methods do you find effective in controlling your pacing?

Cynthia Vespia: I don’t. I just write what comes to me.

Chris Barili: I don’t know. I just go with what the characters are feeling, I guess. Their tension tells me how to pace a scene.

Janet Garber: Ah. You must make every scene count. Have it lead readers somewhere, to the destination you intend.

Art Rosch: I’ve watched a thousand Samurai movies.  They’re great for offering templates for action sequences.  Samurai didn’t waste effort in useless display and they were completely focused on surviving the next duel or battle. Unless you’re writing about super-heroes your characters need to operate within reasonable physical parameters.  I act out movements and gestures at my chair in front of my computer.  Does this look reasonable?  Can my characters do this-and-that?

In my novel Confessions Of An Honest Man, I have a 70 page battle sequence that takes place in Afghanistan.  It’s a much admired passage with editors and readers. It has an arc, or several arcs.  There’s the build-up to an initial confrontation.  A mini-climax occurs early in the scene.  But it doesn’t end there.  A greater threat appears unexpectedly and my hero must cope with expanded dangers.  Each time a resolution seems to occur another and greater threat appears.  The point of this sequence is that my hero learns things about himself, learns that he has more courage than he thought. There’s outer action but there’s also my hero’s thoughts and emotions as the scene(s) unfold.  This pendulum between action and a character’s inner dialogue offers a means of pacing.

Tim Baker: When writing action I try to write only the action. By this I mean if I’m writing an action packed scene I don’t stray away from the action with anything that will slow the reader down. I want the reader to be able to be in the action.

Chris DiBella: I’ve never thought about trying to control my pacing. When I get to action scenes, I just try to write them in a way where I’m describing enough that it paints a picture for my readers. I don’t have a formula for how many pages an action scene should be. I just write them until I feel it’s time to move on with the story.

Carol Riggs: I try to keep some sort of tension, question, or compelling forward movement on every page, whether internal for the characters or external to them. I use cliffhanger-type chapter endings to keep the reader turning pages. It’s also important not to rush the “big moments”—sometimes the pace needs to be drawn out on powerful scenes to heighten the impact or emotions. In an action scene, short punchy sentences help move the pacing along.

Margareth Stewart: Word count and daily targets; otherwise, it does not flow. Sometimes, I feel like I am a General to myself: “for instance, no chocolate if I don´t finish 2.500 word count today”, and there it goes. Other times, I need to be a little more flexible because things do happen in between word counting, not with the plot or story itself, but in terms of living – ordinary living – bills to pay, a tire to fix, and so on. Another good and productive management is during November Writing. Besides that, I use the same method for editing – this week I have to review 50 pages and by the way I am late, so I will have to do extra work at the weekend. Therefore, I have told my kids, we can only go to the cinema if I can complete the goal before Sunday. By the way, that´s another point about being a writer, we feel quite weird and funny.

Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to just write, write, write.  I don’t plan my stories ahead; I just go off a basic plot idea in my mind.  Pacing falls naturally into place.

In our third segment, our author panel members discussed Setting,  where author Carol Riggs suggests basing fictional worlds on real life places as a good method of world building, and travel for authors is recommended in order to expand on their true life experiences that shine through in their writing, although most of our panel members have written about places they have never been or don’t really exist, like Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA fantasy. DeAnna Knippling loves to write about Victorian England, and all agree that sensory details should be added to make the setting feel more real. This segment also features setting excerpts from Cynthia Vespia, Art Rosch, Chris Barili, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber. (Strangely enough, I just realized I gave no follow-up question for this segment, although we could do a whole series on world building and setting. Wow!)

Our fourth segment covered the topic of Publishing, which many authors opt to do themselves these days. Our panel members were a nice blend of traditional, small press and self-published authors, with three strictly self-published authors: Art RoschChris DiBella, and DeAnna Knippling; one author who is strictly small press: Jordan Elizabeth; and five who have done a hybrid combination of small press and self-publishing in one form or another: Cynthia VespiaMargareth Stewart, Tim Baker, and three authors who have done a combination of traditional and self-publishing: Janet GarberChris Barili, and Carol Riggs. Together, they bring their own experiences to the table to talk about the pros and cons of each publishing venue.

I have two follow-up questions for this segment: 

Are your books available in print or digital format, or both? Why?

Cynthia Vespia: Both. Because I like to have my work available in as many formats as possible to appeal to different readers. Next I’ll do audio books.

Chris Barili: Both. And why wouldn’t you do it that way? You’re robbing yourself of readers if you ignore one medium.

Janet Garber: My books are in print and in digital form and the first traditionally purchased book is on audiotape as well.

Art Rosch: I need to emphasize a huge fact with regard to the whole publishing venture.  It takes money to market books.  I don’t have money, I’m living on a fixed income.  I started my enterprise by going to and e-publishing three of my books.  I did the same at Amazon.  An author can publish digitally for free.  I designed my own book covers, using my stock of personal photography and my skills in Photoshop. Such as they are.

I am now about to turn my novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man into a paperback on Amazon.  I have no illusions about getting sales.  I just want to have a physical object, MY BOOK, in my hands and have it be available to people in my environment.

Tim Baker: My books are available in print, digital and audio (not all of them are currently available in audio, but the ones that aren’t are in production.) The reason why is simple…give more options to people and increase your chances of being read.

Chris DiBella: Both. There are still people out there (somewhere) who like to read physical copies of books.

Carol Riggs: All my books are available in both print and digital formats. This is important, because some readers prefer print and some prefer digital.

Jordan Elizabeth:  Both (except for Kistishi Island.  I have to sell 500 ebooks before it will be in print).  I like having a combination of formats.  Some people prefer print and some prefer ebook.  I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they have to use ebooks because of eyesight problems.  Print books are great for book signings.

DeAnna Knippling: Yes and yes.  See writing rule #5.  I really ought to be working on audio as well.  Readers should be able to read conveniently.

Which publishing platforms do you use? Which do you recommend? Why?

Cynthia Vespia: I’m focused on Amazon at the moment because that’s where the majority of buyers/readers go. I’ve also used Smashwords and Barnes and Noble for digital.

Chris Barili: Amazon and Smashwords for my self-published stuff. I prefer Smashwords because they distribute to a bunch of other retailers, saving me time.

Janet Garber: I used and was satisfied with their speed and the look of the final product.

Art Rosch: I think Smashwords is great.  There’s all the support and information you need.  Amazon is, of course, the giant, but as with everything in digital publishing, it’s all automated.

Tim Baker: I use CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and ACX (for audio). Since those are the ones I use – those would be the ones I recommend.

Chris DiBella: I use Amazon and CreateSpace. It’s easy to set up and get my books out to potential readers from those sites.

Carol Riggs: Three of my books are traditionally published, and the publishers distribute in various ways (Entangled Teen uses Macmillan, for instance). For self-publishing, I use CreateSpace and Amazon KDP; it’s relatively easy to release a book on these platforms.

Jordan Eizabeth: My publishers use Ingram and CreateSpace.  I can’t speak to the ease of use.

DeAnna Knippling: It’s not so much which ones, as how you decide which ones to use.  I’m starting to look at these things as, “How does this company treat its readers?  Are the readers happy with the experience?”  Another good set of questions is, “How does this company treat its writers?  Does it pay them promptly? Does it have good reporting?  Do they have good avenues for books that aren’t bestsellers to reach readers? Is the damn site hard to use?”

I’ve dropped a number of publishing platforms that don’t adhere to these things, or at least stopped using them directly, but approach them through other distributors.  [Cough] Barnes & Noble [Cough]

Our fifth segment of Ask the Authors covered the topic of Genre Differences. Again, we had a nice mix for this topic. Among our author panel members we had: Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA Fantasy and Steampunk; Carol Riggs, who writes both Fantasy and Science Fiction; Tim Baker, who writes crime action adventure novels; Cynthia Vespia, who writes speculative fiction for adults and teens; and those who dabble a little in all of them: Janet Garber, Chris Barili and DeAnna Knippling. They discuss the use of tropes when writing in the different genres, and also the differences in the creative process, the different types of research required, and the differences in audience and marketing. No follow-up questinos for this segment.

In the sixth segment, our author panel discusses The Business of Writing. According to Jordan Elizabeth and Carol Riggs, marketing can make or break you in the world of writing, and in today’s digital world, much or all of those duties fall upon the author, requiring us to treat writing not only as a job or a passion, but as a business. Today’s author may be responsible for everything about their book, from writing the book, to editing and cover art, to publishing, to marketing and promotion, and everything in between. While many of these tasks can be hired out, not all authors can afford to do so. I didn’t have any follow-up for this segment, mainly because the next two segments were follow-up to this.

For the seventh segment of Ask the Authors, our author panel discusses the many ways there are to Building an Reader Platform.  Most of our panel members prefer face-to-face events, over online activities, but it seems they continue to use the Internet and social media to promote their books, feeling that both are needed. Some panel members come up with some very creative ideas, like Tim Baker, who had a tire cover made for the spare on his Jeep with his logo on it, or Chris DiBella, who had customized tee-shirts made telling the world that he is their next favorite author. Who knows? It might work.

Book Reviews

The follow-up question for this segment is: What methods have you found successful for obtaining reviews?

Cynthia Vespia: Asking. I ask other writers, or I seek out bloggers who do reviews.

Janet Garber: Approaching authors who write in a similar humorous fashion; writing reviews myself as a pay-it-forward tactic; bugging people who enjoyed the book.

Art Rosch: I completely suck at this and it’s my own fault.  I must have social media halitosis.  There are billions of people who don’t know about me.  I’ve been hammering at this for many years and haven’t cracked the code yet.  I do recommend one author-marketing guru (among the many who haunt my email inbox).  That’s Mark Dawson.  He refunded my money long after the expiration date for one of his courses and he didn’t have to.  He teaches at a good pace and he has much to offer to authors who want to market independently.

Tim Baker: I haven’t found a successful way to get reviews. People generally don’t like to write them. I’ve done everything from blog posts, social media requests and even offered to include people in a book if they wrote enough reviews. It’s the thing I find most discouraging about writing.

Chris DiBella: I don’t like to hound people for reviews. There are some authors who post constantly about it, and I find it annoying. We all want reviews, but it seems some authors will only ask for reviews from people they know will give them a favorable review. I simply do not like that approach. The way I look at it is the reviews will come in time – or maybe not. They’re nice to get, but I don’t stress about it. I also have my own little rule of thumb of not to trust any book with less than 15 reviews of all 5-stars (unless there’s some bad reviews in there too). Anyone can get 15 friends or family members to write a good review. It’s that first bad review I usually trust the most. Same goes for my books. My first bad review was actually pretty spot-on with the critique. She liked the story, but drilled me on editing. No friends or family members would have left a review like that. I pulled the book and re-edited it. Of course it sucks to get bad reviews, but they can be turned into a positive. And for the love of everything you consider holy, please stop arguing with readers who give you a bad review. Let your fans battle it out for you.

Carol Riggs: My publishers used NetGalley for obtaining reviewers from bloggers. A newsletter also works decently for requesting reviews. I try not to ask for reviews too much, however, because it’s off-putting. Either a reader will leave you a review or he/she won’t. No one should be obligated; an author doesn’t get honest reviews that way anyway.

Jordan Elizabeth: Author friends have told me they have good luck when posting free books on Facebook in exchange for reviews.  I haven’t had luck that way.  I usually reach out to bloggers.  Most of the time, they are willing to review.

Just a note: I also see the other side of this issue, as I do honest reviews in exchange for ARCs right here on Writing to be Read. The problem I’ve run into is that since I’m supplied with a free copy, at times Amazon will not aknowledge my reviews because they can’t verify the sale. I imagine those exchanging reviews on Facebook might run into the same type of issues. So, even if you can give away some e-copies in exchange for a review, there is no gaurantee that Amazon will acknowledge it.

DeAnna Knippling: Asking nicely.  I was using Instafreebie for a while, but I think that exhausted its readers fairly quickly, because it was mostly a platform for trading newsletter subscribers, not a sustainable model.  What new readers was Instafreebie bringing to the table?  Not as many as the authors themselves had brought.  I did well by it, but I think that was a matter of getting in at the right moment and not “what a great site for reviews!”

I think your best bet is to treat reviews like a pyramid.  At the base, write good books and make it easy for readers to read more.  Next level, make it easy for your newsletter subscribers to get review copies.  I have an ARC list.  Up from that, whatever social media sites you’re on, keep an eye out for ways to attract reviews OR newsletter subscribers.  At the top of the pile is a review that will be seen widely, a review on a radio show or in a newspaper, things like that.  Go for it when you see it.  But be more loyal to your base of writing good books and making them easy for readers to read them.

Don’t put all your eggs in a basket that’s essentially just moving piles of email addresses around, or reviews that you have to pay for (and that Amazon will delete as soon as they get a chance), begging for reviews from your writer-friends (which screws up your also boughts something fierce), or whatever short-term solution everyone is chasing at the moment.  Play the long game, take advantage of what you can when you can, then drop back into your long game.
Believe me, I know how freaking slow this all goes.


In the last segment, our author panel members discussed many of the issues involved in Book Marketing and Promotion. This is a big topic for many authors, including me, because unlike writing, it does not come natural to us. It is such a big issue that a couple of our panel members, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber, bowed out of this segment, rather than express the frustration of not having the answers. But those panel members who did participate had some insightful things to share. They talk about their favorite social media sites for promotion, marketing and giveaway sites, marketing platforms, the effectiveness of author websites and blogs, newletters, press releases and interviews. Be sure and catch this segment, or you’ll never know why Chris DiBella’s mother is his greatest marketing tool.

Book Sale

The follow-up question for this segment is: Many of you said in last week’s segment that you preferred face to face events over Internet and social media marketing and that you found face to face marketing to be more effective. What type of face to face events have you found to be effective?

Cynthia Vespia: The reason conferences don’t work is because there are waaaayyyy too many writers all vying for attention at these things. Also, the majority of the writer conferences only alot 1-2 days for signings and sales that are usually only a few hours long. That is not enough time to make a dent in sales or really do any type of networking with your readers, especially when there are so many other authors there doing the same thing. Some of the more popular ones get all the attention. So imagine you’re a little fish in a sea of whales…how do you get noticed? I’ve run into some very bad etiquette at some of these things before, as well. The guy next to me would skate every sale I tried to make by talking over me and offering a free book. How do you compete with free? You don’t.

So the face-to-face events I prefer are my own individual signings, smaller book fairs, or (and I hate to mention this because it was a well guarded secret before) but I do the comic conventions and they work the best. Plus, they’re alot more fun.

Chris Barili: I’ve found genre cons to be MUCH more effective at selling books and gaining followers than writing conferences, and if you think about it, it makes sense. A genre con is full of fans of whatever genre you like. They’re LOOKING for genre stories. At a writers conference, writers are there looking to SELL stories.

Janet Garber: I find book fairs and readings most enjoyable as I get a chance to speak with the potential readers. Being a guest at a book club meeting is great too because you hear your characters discussed as if they were real people and you learn what readers liked and didn’t like.

Carol Riggs: I personally like/prefer book fairs or festivals over bookstore signings, because they’re more informal. I feel less “on the spot,” and I don’t have to make a microphone presentation. Instead, I can conversationally chat with people who come up to my book table. It feels more like a relationship that way, instead of a “buy my book” spiel. For instance, last summer (as well as this coming summer) I will be participating in the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon, with a book table. Last fall I was also part of the Literacy for Libraries author event in Eugene, and I enjoyed schmoozing with fellow authors and with the crowd who wandered through the building. Sometimes authors can band together and create their own events at libraries and bookstores; it’s less intimidating than going it solo. The purpose of these events aren’t to sell as many books as you can, but rather get to know your readers and get your name out there—that’s an important marketing tip that a seasoned author shared with me.

Jordan Elizabeth: I prefer craft shows and library events.  The crowds are manageable, and as I write young adult, many teenagers and children come with their parents.  Parents and grandparents are also eager to buy gifts.  Because these events are smaller than most conferences, you’re able to have a one-on-one conversation.  You get to really understand what types of books these people read and you can gear them toward the book like might like the best.

DeAnna Knippling: Some people are great salespeople.  I am not.  That’s not some kind of subtle insult or anything.  I’m learning.  But I’ve always found networking more valuable to me than selling per se.  If a sale comes out of it, great.  And I’m not like, “Here’s my business card, call me!”  To me, a face to face event means that people are far more likely to put their hair down and tell me things.  Interesting things.  Gossip.  Rumors.  Scandalous lies!  And I love connecting other people and providing a safe place to talk.  I have a SF/F/H writer group, the Colorado Tesla Writers, that is basically just a Facebook page and a monthly meal for people to hang out and feel like Real Writers(tm) and let our hair down.  That’s it.  I’m not sure what it’s effective at, but people tell me that it is, so I keep doing it.

To wrap up this last segment, I want to thank our panel members for the great writing rules. If you create characters who are not only realistic, but who the readers can identify and empathize with, and if you write with emotion which comes from your soul, you can evoke in your readers and make them care about your characters and your story. And while pacing is important and can be controlled with tension, conflict, action and dialog, most of our author panel don’t consciously write with pacing in mind, but rather it seems to come naturally. Also, we may need to pace ourselves to get the story out, as well as controlling the pacing of the story itself.

It does make sense to offer your books in as many formats as possible, because readers aren’t all the same. Amazon and Smashwords appear to be the favorite for digital publishing and CreateSpace was preferred for print publishing, although I believe they have made some changes and now Amazon is also providing print books as an option, so that may change.

Reviews are an author’s calling card these days, and it seems the best way to get them is to ask, whether in a newsletter, in person, or in the book itself, but it’s best not to be pushy. Genre conventions, book fairs and festivals, book signings, and library events are the preferred face to face events to make connections with readers. 

Well, it’s time to bring our time with our Ask the Authors panel members to a close. I do hope we’ve provided some helpful information and advice for all you authors out there, and maybe even made you smile once or twice. Thank you all for joining us. Be sure to watch for round two, this fall, where we will have several of these panel members back, as well as inviting other authors to join our panel. The best way to be sure not to miss out on this and all the other great content here on Writing to be Read is to sign up for email notification of follow me on WordPress. I hope you all will drop in frequently.

Next Monday, on Writing to be Read, I’ll be interviewing author Mark Shaw, who has optioned his book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, for film. Something all authors dream of and some actually get the opportunity to do. How exciting. We’ll also be talking about his new book, Courage in the Face of Evil, which is to be release in June. Don’t miss it!

I want to extend a big thank you to our panel members, Carol Riggs, Tim Baker, Jordan Elizabeth, DeAnna Knippling, Chris DiBella, Art Rosch, Janet Garber, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili, and Cynthia Vespia. You guys and gals were a great panel and together we created a great Ask the Authors series. I feel it was very successful and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope all of you did, too. Until next time.



Ask the Authors: Action/Dialog

Writer Frustration

When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as  real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.

Is it difficult to produce dialog that is natural and realistic?
DeAnna Knippling: If you think really, really hard about it and remove every possible flaw…you’ll end up with craptastic dialogue.  I maintain that good dialogue is about listening to how other people talk.
Jordan Elizabeth:  I’ve always been told that my dialogue sounds realistic.  I don’t try; I just write what I hear in my head.  Sorry if that sounds conceited!
Carol Riggs: Sometimes. I find I have to pare down my vocabulary so I don’t sound like my characters are reading from a dictionary. Again, reading the lines aloud help me catch those things and make the interchange flow better.

Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…

“What can I get you?”

“Heineken. Thanks.”

As opposed to…

“What would you like to drink?”

“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”

What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?

DeAnna Knippling: A playwriting teacher made me go out to a coffee shop and write down every word of dialog that I heard for at least half an hour.  I haven’t been the same since.  I “hear” a voice saying things as I type, and I can “see” text as people talk.  “How would I tape out that grunt?”  “How would I punctuate that pause?”
Jordan Elizabeth:  I see the scene playing out in my mind and I hear what the characters are saying.  I also have a certain critique partner who is awesome at pointing out stilted sentences.
Carol Riggs: Reading it aloud! I also paste chapters into Natural Reader and let it read to me. Awkward stuff pops out pretty easily that way, if it doesn’t sound natural.
Chris Barili: Listen to real people talk, then apply the filter of your character’s personality, and you should have realistic dialogue. Unless you’re writing speculative fiction set in another time/place, of course.
Cynthia Vespia: Listen to the way people talk in real life. There are subtle nuances to every person, whether they have an accent or not. But when you write the dialogue, don’t try to be fancy.
Margareth Stewart: Very much – so very much. I have enrolled myself into screenwriting courses and also plays, so I can really master them. Besides that, I´ve also got some second-hand books with some masters of playwriting, you know from Shakespeare to Molière. So I guess by now, I´m on the way to crafting really good talking (lol). Let´s see!
Art Rosch: Once I had a dream in which a voice said, “Max wouldn’t say that.  It’s not in his nature.” So, I was getting dialogue guidance from the Dream Coach.  Dialogue must emerge from a variety of factors, and by the time I’ve got characters speaking their lines, what they say is almost pre-ordained.  I believe that words are objects, that they contain illimitable power and energy.  What people speak influences the world around them.  The dialogue between and amongst my fictional characters always serves a purpose.  Does it further the plot?  If it doesn’t it’s useless.  Is it stimulating, original, powerful?  If my characters are stimulating, their words ought to be. Dialogue emerges naturally from circumstances.  It’s organic.  The conversations that people have in fiction can be more interesting than what passes ordinarily in daily life.  They only sound forced if they don’t hew to the character’s true nature and the needs of the situation.
Dialog tags. Some authors, especially those in academia, will tell you that good writing only uses said, and maybe asked, or replied, while other authors prefer a more varied reportoir. Some say use them, others say use them as little as possible. Is there a right way when it comes to dialog tags? Let’s see what our panel members think.
Do you use dialog tags? Do you stick with the basics, or use varied tags?
DeAnna Knipling: By dialogue tags, you mean he said, right?  Of course I use them.  Why would I want my reader to be confused?  I only mix them up if it’s something satirical,” she pontificated.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to use varied tags, but I’m trying hard to use “said” more.  Most of the time I just use action tags.
Carol Riggs: Yes, I use tags, but usually the basics (she said, she asked). I do throw in a few mutters, whispers, and shouts; but I TRY not to overdo those. I’ve heard it said the best tags should pretty much be invisible, so the reader doesn’t even notice them anymore after awhile. I omit tags if it’s clear who’s talking, however. Not everything needs to be tagged!

Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”

I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.

Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.

For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”

But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”

Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.

“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”

“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”

Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”

Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.

“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”

Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.

“We have a history, you and me.”

So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.

“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”

The judges conferred, hissing.

“Agreed,” they said as one.

Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”

Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.

An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.

“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”


Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.

Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful.  I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”.  But I like a little variation.  “What did she want?” quavered Tina.”  Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me.  “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley



Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.

What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?

 DeAnna Knippling: My understanding of how subtext works is that it’s the gap between what is done and what is said.  In a play or movie script, subtext is developed by the actors, who literally act out physical cues in order to clue the audience in on what’s going on with longing glances, angry tones of voice, etc.  In fiction, you do the same thing, only through the descriptions of the characters and their actions.  As a reader or audience, you don’t always need to know exactly what the subtext of a scene is, but you do need a clue that all is not what it seems.  A lot of classic mysteries that use the noir tradition–for example, The Maltese Falcon–use subtext to tell the reader to pay attention to something in a scene, but not exactly what.  Solving the mystery of the subtext is part of the fun.
Art Rosch: It’s usually a character’s body language.  Is anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Ekman?  He invented the concept of micro-expressions.  Subtle facial tells that reveal how truthful a person is being.  If you can work with a character’s body language and facial tells, a lot of subtext will emerge.
Any pet peeves with dialog?

DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.”  In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis?  No!  Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!

Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.

Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.

Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.

Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion.  That will sound both forced and boring.


03-21_Margaret_Mahy Quote

This quote from “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley


Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.

What is your secret to finding the right balance between action and dialog?
DeAnna Knippling: There isn’t one.  What, you’re going to regulate it as 50/50?  What if no one’s talking?!?  The “right balance between action and dialogue” is really a question of beat and scene structure, and there are 1001 ways to handle it.  Beyond the scope of this answer 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth: As I watch the scene play out in my head, I write down what I’m seeing and hearing.  It tends to form a smooth scene.
Carol Riggs: I sort of have an internal “feel” for it. If I start getting bored and antsy with one or the other, I know I need to change it up! The reader would be sensing the same thing, I’m thinking. I like a good balance of both, back and forth in a natural flow.
Tim Baker: In my opinion, dialogue is action – just not “car chase” type action. Whenever characters are speaking, the scene is moving much faster than if the author decides to use prose to describe the scene. So I try to use dialogue as much as possible to set scenes and let the reader know what’s happening.
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t try too hard to make a balance. Just let the story flow naturally, without forcing it, and it will find its own way. Having action in between dialog is helpful to build the scene so it isn’t just floating heads talking. Give a sense of movement and use it to build emotion.
Art Rosch: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t have a secret.  If I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
What is your secret for making action scenes move smooth?
DeAnna Knippling:
Jordan Elizabeth: I watch the scene playing out and describe what I see in my mind. Critique partners also help to make sure my writing is coherent.
Carol Riggs: Short, punchy sentences. Active verbs. Fewer adjectives so readers don’t get bogged down. The character also tends to act more and think less.
Tim Baker: When I write a scene with lots of fast-moving action the key thing I try to do is keep the reader moving with it. By this I mean I don’t force them to read unrelated text (overly descriptive narrative). If a car is about to be hit by a train there is no need to go into detail about the car or the train. That should be handled (if necessary) before the action sequence is written.
Chris Barili: To me, an “action” scene is something like a fight or a car chase, etc. And for me, choreography is key. I have to know my setting, know my characters, and know what the end result can be. One technique I’ve heard of is writing the action scene backward from where you want it to end, which I may try sometime, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the creative flow taking over.
Cynthia Vespia: Action scenes need a certain energy to them that allows the reader to feel the pace of it. If it calls for a fight I act them out either with my own body movements, or using action figures. It is similar to the way choreographers block out action scenes in movies. You want the action to flow naturally. Knowing how the anatomy works, using the environment, and setting the proper pacing are all important elements.

Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time.  They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes.  If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters.  I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune.  Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke.  The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard.  In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground.  Zip!Sweesh!  Done.  Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction.  It’s too quick.  There needs to be stroke and counterstroke.  Tactical gains and losses.  In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory.  That’s film.  Writing a car chase?  Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene.  Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen.  Then there’s gun fights.  Why do the bad guys always miss?  Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?

I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.


03-12_CarlHiaasen Quote

This quote from It’s All About Words, by P.J. Braley

Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?


DeAnna Knippling: I have no idea what my “best” dialogue scenes are.  This one’s from a forthcoming book, Thousandeyes.  A detective, the mentor of the main character, is questioning a person of interest in a murder case that may or may not be tied to a local serial killer.  I enjoyed writing this bit because I finally felt like I was enough in control of the dialogue to layer in a number of lies and clues, even in just this short little bit:

“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy?  Before the deceased arrived?”


“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment.  Why do you say that you smelled paint?”

The woman had closed her eyes.

“It was on the dropcloths.  He had left them in a stack in the living room.”

“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”

“No, I was fussing around with a few last things.  I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”

“Were you afraid that he would do so?”



“What has this got to do with the murder?”

“Just answer the question.”



Janet Garber: From Dream Job:


At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.

“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.

“I can do that?”

“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”

Will this day never end?

“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”

I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.

“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.

“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”

Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”

“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”

“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”

“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”

“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”


Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…


“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”

Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.

“What? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”

Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.

“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”

“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”

Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”

“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”

“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”

Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.


Steve nodded.

“You’re kidding. Right?”

“I don’t kid about money.”

“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”

“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”

“Well, then…”

She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”

Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”

Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.” 


Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1


“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”

Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.

“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”


Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.



          Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office.  Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances. 

          “It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

          Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees.  Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts.  She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level. 

          Finally, the inner office door opens.  Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.


          “Yes,” she raises her eyes.  At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman. 

          She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman.  It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort.  The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling.  Rather, she is rounded and soft.  She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.

          Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman.   She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization.  She sees an easy and compassionate smile.  She sees security. 

          “Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.

          As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door.  She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”. 

          There is no desk in the office.  There is a couch, to the right of the door.  Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs.  The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern. 

          “I can see you’re having a really hard time.  Can you tell me about it?”

          As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.

          “I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs.  “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”

          She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.

          “All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages.  Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist.  She sees an emotion that startles her.  She sees sadness.  She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality.  Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace. 

          I can do that, too, Sarah thinks. 

          Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.

          “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”

          The therapist laughs, throwing her head back.  It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail. 

          “My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming.  “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”

          Sarah puts up her hands.  “No no no no, just the opposite.  I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”

          “Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we?  See what I mean about my secret weapon?”

          “Fat,” Sarah reiterates.  “Fat fat fat.  Fat fat.”  She smiles, for the first time in weeks.  “Fat fat fat.”

          Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”

and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”

          The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.

          The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.

          Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago. 

Find Me.  Read Me. Heal Me at


Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at 

He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.

An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.

“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”


It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.

“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”

The man studied him. “Hum.”

“I´ve worked before.”

“I see.”

“I´m good with books.”

“What makes you think so?”

Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.

“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”

He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.

“Because I like books.”

He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.

“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”

“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”

“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.

Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.

“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.

“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”


I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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