Writing Lessons with Joanna Bourne

My Lord and SpymasterIf you’re looking to tighten up your prose, or if you find that grammatical and structural lessons on the art of writing serve as fascinating leisure reading (I do, I do!) go check out Joanna Bourne’s growing series on the top 100 best of the worst writing mistakes.

So far there are four or five entries, but they reveal as much about the writer as they do about the craft and labor of writing itself. I find writing about writing, particularly examinations which pick apart structure to reveal meaning and vice versa, utterly addictive.  Well played, Ms. Bourne, well played.

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  1. 1
    LeaF says:

    So far there are four or five entries, but they reveal as much about the writer as they do about the craft and labor of writing itself. I find writing about writing, particularly examinations which pick apart structure to reveal meaning and vice versa, utterly addictive.

    Ditto!!! I have a dog eared version of “The Elements of Style”, by William Strunk, amongst other numerous books of the same ilk at home. It is great when a published author “writes about writing”, giving insight into the technical aspect of the craft.

    Have to admit, this type of information is one of my addictions as well – along with caffeine. lol

    Thank you for sharing the link Sarah!!!

  2. 2
    LeaF says:

    100 best of the worst writing mistakes.

    In J. R. Ward’s latest book, “Lover Enshrined”, it is explained that the vampire community has no “penial system”, where vamp criminals can be incarcerated. I’m sure someone, somewhere has added that hilarious faux pas to the “top 100” annals (not anal – I know, bad pun but it begs to be made fun of). If it hasn’t been added, it should be!!!

    I know, off topic, but I had to comment after reading this article on Joanna Bourne’s site.

  3. 3

    In regards to something Ms. Bourne mentioned…
    I despise when people insist that writers should only use the word “said” as a dialogue tag. My characters sigh and hiss and laugh their words all the time. If you whisper “You bastard!” under your breath as you pass your asshole exboyfriend at a party, are you “saying” something? Are you even whispering it? Or are you “hissing” it at him like a venomous snake about to strike? I loves some crazy dialogue tags.

    Man, I think I’m gonna go blog about this.

    Anyway, great link. Thanks!

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    I agree with you, Victoria. I laugh and talk at the same time frequently, and I’ve heard other people do it. Some people hate creative dialogue tags. Other people think they’re spiffy. I’m in Camp Spiffy.

  5. 5
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I’m with Vicki and Sarah (and Heyer!) in camp spiffy, though I honestly try and use as few tags as possible. I prefer to use some kind of physical movement to ground the dialouge. But Vicki is spot on that sometimes “said” just won’t cut it.

  6. 6
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Afraid I’m with Ms Bourne (and Stephen King) on this one.  Creative dialogue attribution belongs in c. 1930’s pulp fiction.  If the writing is good you should be able to tell how something is said from the context.
    -Liz

  7. 7
    Silver James says:

    *packs for Camp Spiffy* I vote with the current majority, though I’m like Kalen. I try to use as few as possible, using the action/physical movement to denote the mood and method of delivery, but sometimes, a writer just has to cut loose. That said, Bourne apparently advocates describing the action the speaker takes, much as Kalen mentions doing.

    Thanks for the link, Sarah! It was an interesting article, especially as I’m in the middle of a serious edit and I’ve caught a few of the things she mentioned (Yoda-ism, etc.).

    And personally? I groove to 1930’s pulp fiction, and 1950’s and 60’s romance.

  8. 8
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Elizabeth: Just how would you show that someone was whispering (for example)? I’m not going whole hog into the land of “he chortled” or “she laughed” but sometimes you simply DO need more than “said”. Unless you want to go the “ly” route and use “she said softly” instead of “she whispered”; but I honestly don’t see the adverb as an improvement. Nor does it give quite the same impression, and sometimes that impression is key. 

    I’m just saying . . .

  9. 9

    I’m of two minds on that. On the one hand, I think it’s pedantic and irritating to insist (to use the current example) that only sibilant words and phrases can be hissed. A furious whisper is a hiss. We all know it. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the words themselves do not convey how they’re spoken and there is no way to indicate that through action. “Whispered” is another great example; what are you supposed to say there? “She covered her mouth with her hand. ‘We need to be quiet.’”? No. Just use “whispered”. And no , adverbs are generally not an improvement.

    I feel the same way about those who insist eyes can’t follow people across rooms or whatever. Some idioms are colorful and clear, and therefore useful.

    But…I do hate most “creative” dialogue tags. Expounded, interrupted, retorted (okay, that one is okay once in a great while), explained, orated, questioned…I once critted a ms where every single tag was something other than “said”, including useless motion (She tapped her fingers/he ran his hand through his hair/she shifted in her seat/he folded his arms/she played with her necklace, all in one short dialogue scene—every single sentence had an attribution) and it drove me insane. The tags called so much attention to themselves I couldn’t focus on anything else.

    It’s a showing vs. telling thing, really, and like everything else, it’s fine in small doses. Sometimes the words do not show; you have to tell. And if you’ve done it well nobody even notices.

    JMO, of course. I’m no expert.

  10. 10
    Kalen Hughes says:

    What Stacia said. *grin*

    My all time favorite Heyer dialogue tag hands-down is “ejaculated”. No way will I ever use it in a book, but I do smile when I see it in hers.

  11. 11
    Chicklet says:

    My all time favorite Heyer dialogue tag hands-down is “ejaculated”. No way will I ever use it in a book, but I do smile when I see it in hers.

    HEE. I was thinking of a comedy routine I saw on TV where the comic enacted a scene from an old Hardy Boys book where Joe reacted to Frank “ejaculating” some dialogue: “Geez, Frank. [wiping off face]  No need to get so excited!”

  12. 12
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Elizabeth: Just how would you show that someone was whispering (for example)? I’m not going whole hog into the land of “he chortled” or “she laughed” but sometimes you simply DO need more than “said”. Unless you want to go the “ly” route and use “she said softly” instead of “she whispered”; but I honestly don’t see the adverb as an improvement. Nor does it give quite the same impression, and sometimes that impression is key.

    <

    < "Don't move." He saw, rather than heard, her lips form the words. "They're coming.">

    >
    OK, granted that won’t win any literary awards, but I prefer it to “she hissed” or “she whispered”.  (And for what it’s worth, I love vintage pulp myself.  Didn’t mean to come off as a snob.:)
    -Liz

  13. 13
    Eva Lynn says:

    My critique group calls those ‘saidbookisms’ and dislikes them.  Unfortunately, I’m a longtime camper at Camp Spiffy.  Possibly because I once had a teacher who wanted to wean us all off ‘said’ and onto more evocative verbs… and they work for me as a reader.  They give more information than a bland ‘said’.  That said (ha), I’ve been trying to cut back somewhat and make sure that every expression-verb needs to be (a) more than ‘said’ and (b) there at all.  I still think the “said or nothing at all!” crowd are wasting a whole lot of useful words, though.

    I’ve noticed, reading a number of my favourite authors, that they do indeed use non-said expressives—not constantly, but not vanishingly rarely either.  So I think there’s a happy medium to be reached.

    I do think if you start writing Tom Swifties within your fiction, though, you have definitely gone too far. :)

  14. 14
    Mary Lynn says:

    Well done indeed Ms. Bourne!

    Thank you for sharing the link.

  15. 15
    Kalen Hughes says:

    <

    < "Don't move." He saw, rather than heard, her lips form the words. "They're coming.">

    >

    But that’s mouthing, not whispering.

  16. 16
    Ellie says:

    My feelings (and education) on the said-isms phenomenon are that it’s like using vanilla in savory cooking—it can add flavor and sometimes it’s exactly what’s needed, but you have to be very judicious and skilled in your use of it.

    What saidisms should be thrown in the pot, and when? Here are my four rules on the subject.

    1. The only verb that can be used in a saidism is one with an auditory component.  He laughed, she shouted, he snapped?  Fine.  He smiled, she shrugged, he nodded?  No. 

    2.  Don’t use a saidism if it is—or should be—obvious from dialog what the person is doing.  When the character is whining, you shouldn’t need to say, “he whined.”  When a tag is needed to avoid ambiguity—the character might be serious or sarcastic, say—a saidism is acceptable.

    3.  You have many tools for tagging dialog. Use them evenly. Too many saidisms on one page gain a mounting hilarity, but that applies for other kinds of dialog tags, too.  Mix it up!

    4.  Consider using saidisms in place of said/asked + adverb.  Better to shout than say loudly or tease instead of say playfully.

    I actually ended up writing a whole essay about this on my LJ, to spare you a book-length comment.  I think I need to slip my inner editor-nerd a few Benadryl and knock it out, now.

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