It’s All In How You Say It


Have you ever answered a phone call and instantly recognized the voice on the other line without glancing at the number or caller ID? For most hearing people, a person’s timbre works as an identifying marker. Voices can be mellow, nasal, raspy, squeaky, and everything in between. Also, tone can reveal information about a person’s health, gender, age, and even their emotional state. But what happens when the sound is stripped away?

This is one of many challenges writers face when crafting dialogue. Every character (with the possible exception of zombies and members of a hive mind) should have their own voice. Yet the readers do not have the benefit of “hearing” the characters speak. How can writers mimic the information listeners might instinctively glean from conversations with the characters?



The order in which a character arranges their words can be telling. It can convey non-native speech or even quirkiness. Yoda is a prime example.

Multiple Languages

In addition to flexible syntax, multi-lingual and non-human characters have a wide vocabulary. And as any multi-language speaker knows, there are some words that simply do not cross languages without losing some of their native connotation. Inserting words or phrases from other languages (existent, dead, or imaginary) is an easy way to set these characters apart.


Meter and sentence length can be used to express a character’s individuality or to inform the reader of their mood. Below we have two characters engaging in playful banter. The sentences are short and punchy like two friends well-used to trading casual barbs.

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Contrasting this, below there is a bit of dialogue delivered during a moment of crisis. The sentences use a repeating parallel structure which acts as a drumbeat to heighten tension, exploding into the final (and longest) sentence.

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Catch Phrase

Catch phrases are probably the easiest way to set characters apart using dialogue alone. The main problems with catch phrases is that they can become stereotypes (like the Canadian “eh” or the Valley Girl “like”) or they can become annoying to readers. Terry Prachett was a master at crafting distinct voices and made excellent use of catch phrases in a few of his Discworld characters. Perhaps the most memorable one is Foul Ole Ron who’s best known for his nonsense talk peppered with the phrase “millenium hand and shrimp” as well as variations of the phrase “bugger it.”


from “Men at Arms” by Terry Prachett


Slang words and idioms can inform a reader on a character’s background. The following examples feature characters from different fantasy worlds, but the dialogue demonstrates Ormly and the opening speaker in the Bishop novel come from similarly rough-hewn backgrounds.

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Meanwhile, the following non-human characters use a dialect that is in keeping with their rat-like point of view.

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Regardless of dialect, the words a character chooses at a particular moment can reveal a bit about them. In the example below, the second speaker’s use of the word “minions” shows they have a sense of humor and they don’t put much faith in their employees’ competence.

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And in this example, Thomas uses the five-syllable word “incendiary” followed by a word any toddler can pronounce. This tells us a bit about his emotional state (frazzled) and his relationship to vulgar language (which is deliciously ironic because he is a sex vampire).

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So what are your favorite pieces of dialogue? What do you like about them? Feel free to sound off in the comments below.


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The Butler Did It, But WHY?


Who, what, when, where, how, and why? Of the six questions, it’s the last one that really hooks our attention. We are driven by a need to understand, to frame our lives within a cohesive story. Why are we here? Why do bad things happen to good people? Life is a quest for motive, and motive is the heart of story.

In writing, the search for motive occurs on two planes.

On one plane, the characters work to piece together why certain events happen in their world. They may do this alone or in a group, but the struggle is the same. Like us, characters strive to understand what drives the world around them.

On the other plane, readers are searching for what motivates the characters. Part of the joy of reading is allowing the reader to piece together the puzzle, to judge and identify with (or against) the characters. The reader may receive the clues at the same time as the protagonist or slightly before (resulting in dramatic irony) but the goal of the game remains the same.


Life is a quest for motive, and motive is the heart of story.

Characters, like people, aren’t perfectly good or evil. Some of the most fascinating characters commit terrible acts for good reasons (at least at first) or do good deeds for non-altruistic reasons (envy, pride, selfishness). This occasional dissonance between the outward appearance of a character (what other characters see them doing) and the inner workings of a character (why they behave certain ways) is something we can all relate to.

What about characters who act in ways that are blatantly unwise? Have you ever been frustrated by characters in a horror movie who decide to split up or open the door and head toward the creepy noises? Why do characters run into traffic without looking, chase the bad guys without backup, sneak into buildings without permission, and push the giant red button marked ‘DO NOT PUSH’? Sure, all of these actions may forward the plot of a story, but they should also be anchored to motive.

We don’t always think clearly when we’re terrified, stressed, or under pressure. Sometimes our curiosity and impulsiveness can be overwhelming. Maybe we like the thrill of danger or feel like we have something to prove. Any and all of these can lead us to make less than stellar choices. And characters are no different.


Part of the joy of reading is allowing the reader to piece together the puzzle, to judge and identify with (or against) the characters.

The study of motive is, in essence, a study of human nature. And there is no other human we understand better than ourselves. So why do you choose to write? If you asked the people closest to you what they thought your motivation for writing was, would their answer be the same?


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Writing for Short Formats: 3 Free Sites You Should Know


Something that was impressed upon me earlier this month was the importance of being rejected. Yes, you read that correctly. Rejections happen for many reasons and a productive writer will collect more than a few. Literary Hub has an excellent article about why it’s important to set rejection goals.

Rejections (and acceptances) mean you’re actively writing and submitting your work for publication. But how do you choose where to send your work in the first place? If you’re working in a short format (essays, short stories, flash fiction, microfiction, and poetry), there’s a broad array of digital and print magazines and anthologies looking for submissions. Some publications have a rolling submission acceptance period while others have a small window. Some accept unsolicited submissions while others do not. Wading through the requirements for each one can become overwhelming. Luckily, there are a few filter sites that can help you narrow this process down. The following are free, but there are subscription-based ones out there, as well.

The Review Review

This one is my personal favorite so far. You can filter your search by reading period, response time, reading fee, payment level, format (digital or print), and whether or not the publication accepts reprints. Not only does it filter magazines who want fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but it also searches for art and drama. They also have an in-depth blog which I highly recommend.

Poets and Writers

This was one of the first sites I found. You can search for broad categories such as fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction. However, you can narrow this search by the following subgenres:

  • Autobiography/Memoir
  • Commercial Fiction
  • Cross-genre
  • Erotica
  • Experimental
  • Feminist
  • Flash Fiction
  • Formal
  • Graphic/Illustrated
  • Healing/Health
  • Historical
  • Humor
  • Journalism/Investigative Reporting
  • LGBT
  • Literary Fiction
  • Love
  • Micropoetry
  • Narrative Non-fiction
  • Nature/Environmental
  • Political
  • Pop Culture
  • Prose Poetry
  • Regional
  • Religion/Spiritual
  • Serialized Fiction
  • Translation
  • War

The advanced filter options allow you to search by payment level and format (web, e-publication, print, audio, video). I did run into a couple of instances where the magazine’s information had changed from what was listed in the database (submission window suddenly closed or a publication had gone on hiatus due to financial difficulties) so be sure to read each website thoroughly before attempting to submit anything — which you should be doing anyway.

The Grinder

This site is for fiction only. You can filter your search by genre, story subject, story style, and story length (flash, short, novelette, novella, novel, story collection, novel excerpt). In addition to these, you can specify word length, minimum payment (cents per word), average response time, whether they accept electronic or postal submissions, and whether the magazine has won or been nominated for awards. This can be narrowed down even further by magazines which accept simultaneous submissions, reprints, and multiple pieces. You can also ask the search to only show anthologies or contests. If fiction is your specialty, this is the place to go.


Once you’ve found a magazine you’re interested in, be sure to read their submission guidelines thoroughly. It also helps to read through a few of their previous issues to get a sense of what they are interested in printing. If you’re submitting a short story and their site doesn’t have special formatting requirements, it’s a good idea to stick to Standard Manuscript Format.

Many of the magazines I’ve come across so far use Submittable to handle unsolicited submissions. Creating a profile is free and simple. (If you haven’t guessed by now, “free” and “simple” are two of my favorite words.) Not only do many publications require you to have an account before submitting, Submittable helps you track what you’ve sent where and when. They even tell you where your work is in the process, which is pretty great.

One last note. You may not receive a personal response after submitting to a publication, and any response you do receive may not be for several months down the road. Editors and publishers have a huge workload, and it takes time to wade through all the mush. So instead of obsessively checking your Submittable profile to see if your work has been rejected (or accepted) yet, try submitting to another magazine.

Do you have any favorite literary magazines or submission filter sites? Share them in the comments below.



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Free Character Building Template


Whereas plot is the framework around which a story hangs, a character is what drives a story forward. Good characters anchor your audience in the world you’ve built, giving them something human (or an anthropomorphic equivalent) to latch onto. Whether they’re the main character or a minor one, every character should come across as “human.” And what is something we humans do best? Why, build stories, of course!

Every person frames their own life into a story in which they are the main character. It’s how we grapple with understanding ourselves and our place in the world. Every character thinks they’re the main character; every character holds a slightly different version of the story.

Years ago, when I was still working with Spectacle Publishing Media Group, LLC (which I also co-founded but eventually left due to my hectic piano teaching schedule) I was offered the opportunity to write a guest post for Morgen Bailey’s Creative Writing Blog. (Morgen is a fantastic British author with several writing workbooks and online courses. I can’t recommend her work enough.) In that post, I proffered five aspects of character writing.

A great deal has changed since I wrote that post. I’m no longer at SPMG, the blog my name was linked to has been retired, and Poetry As Told By Robots is off the shelves. However, the content of the post still holds true. Character building takes work.

Recently I’ve developed a template to streamline my own character building. It’s not all-encompassing, but it’s customizable enough to meet my needs. Whether you’re in the market for free templates or are looking for ideas to help you build you’re own, this character sheet is free for the taking. Enjoy!

character sheet

The PDF version is available for download here: Character Info Template



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When Should You Edit?



Prewrite, freewrite, rewrite. Such has been the order of the writing process since time immemorial. Prewriting encompasses a wide range of planning activities from research to plot outlines and everything in-between. Freewriting, on the other hand, is where pen meets paper. Here, a writer spews a story out onto the page with guidance from materials created during the prewriting stage. Rewriting, an outgrowth of self-editing, is what traditionally occurs after the first draft has been completed.

But what if these stages are more intertwined than we’ve initially been taught to believe?

Let’s face it: rewriting an entire novel can be a daunting task. Even if you focus on a single scene or a chapter at a time, the knowledge that there are tens of thousands of words you haven’t gotten to yet can really weigh you down. This is especially true for writers like me who suffer from anxiety disorders.

But there is a way to tame this overwhelming task.

After some experimentation, I’ve adopted a writing system loosely based on the psychological concept of chunking. Rather than waiting to complete an entire draft of a novel before reaching the editing stage, I’ve begun drafting a chapter at a time. (This, of course, requires solid and detailed prewriting, which I will address in a later post.) Reducing a larger work into smaller chunks puts less strain on energy levels while simultaneously reducing anxiety. Combined with thorough prewriting, this technique switches the focus from how far you have left to go to how far you’ve actually come. For me, chunking has switched my rewriting process from a ‘glass is half empty’ to a ‘glass is half full’ mentality. And I’m a more confident and productive writer because of it.

If you struggle with anxiety and the traditional writing process isn’t meeting your needs, don’t be afraid to give chunking a try.


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How to Write Like a Pro: Doing Your Homework


There’s an old adage in the writing community: write what you know. Danny Strong, writer of the show ‘Empire’,  refutes that notion in this video where he encourages people to write what they’re passionate about. To me, the answer is a combination of the two concepts. Writers should choose stories and subjects that interest them, and writers should put forth the effort to properly research these ideas. Due to the communal nature of writing for television, there is almost always someone within arms’ reach (writers, technical advisers, actors, etc.) to supply additional information and correct grievous errors. Solitary writers do not have that luxury.

Research is something with which every writer struggles. Do too little of it, and the results can be comical. Do too much of it, and run the risk of never actually writing your story. The trick is to find a healthy balance somewhere between the two, and that line will look different for everyone.

Here are two examples of authors who used varying degrees of research in their works. We’re going to focus on the setting: Savannah, Georgia (where I lived for about fifteen years).

The first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, was expertly researched, even bordering on over-researching. The author, John Berendt, lived in the town on and off for eight years, taking copious notes before assembling this book. Though set about twenty years before I arrived in Savannah, the descriptions still ring true in many ways. Consider this quote:

He turned off Victory Drive and drove down a winding road through the gates of Bonaventure Cemetery.

It’s not life-shattering, but it’s a fairly accurate description of what it’s like to get to Bonaventure from Thunderbolt (an area many native Savannahians know).

In contrast, here is a mention of the same location by Jocelynn Drake in her debut work, Nightwalker: The First Dark Days Novel.

“You were at the Bonaventure cemetery three nights ago,” he said.

Did you catch it? As a former Savannahian, it jumped out right away. Nobody says THE Bonaventure Cemetery. It sounds stilted and awkward. Many of Drake’s descriptions throughout the book are this way: close but not quite. Phrases like “historical district” instead of “Historic District” and “Victorian district” instead of “Ardsley Park/Midtown” make the book seem like they were written from the perspective of a weekend tourist rather than a keeper of Savannah’s nightwalker (vampire) domain. Though some of these changes may have been the work of her editor…

…some of the lackluster descriptions could have been easily corrected with more research. A weekend visit and Google Maps is not enough to immerse your readers in a set location. Contact some natives. Watch some local news broadcasts. Listen to what they’re saying and how they say it. Do your detective work. Your readers (and your stories) will thank you for it.


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How to Write a Critique


Critiques can be a valuable asset in the writing world. They can also be incredibly unhelpful if done wrong. Though everyone’s analytical approach is personal, here are some general guidelines for writing a constructive (rather than destructive) critique.

1.) Relax and Read

The first step of critiquing is somewhat analogous to free-writing. Read the work or section all the way through to get a sense of the overarching structure, mood, and pacing. You can jot down a few notes if you’re absolutely compelled to do so, but this step is more about absorbing the work. Stopping every few lines to scribble your own thoughts detracts from the flow of the piece and interrupts this process.

2.) Line By Line

Now that you’ve read the piece, go back and complete a detailed line by line assessment. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll produce notes for every line of writing, but it does mean you’re closing a more detail-oriented eye on the work.

3.) Focused Passes

Ideally, you’ll comb through the work several times to ensure you haven’t missed anything. This becomes easier to do when each pass is assigned an express purpose. Rather than becoming a tedious re-reading of a work, each pass becomes transformed into a scavenger hunt for tense usage, punctuation, dialogue, or any other item you feel needs addressing.

4.) Don’t Fix

Remember your task is to critique the piece not rewrite it. Your suggestions should clearly state why you feel a word, phrase, or section does not work as well as it could. “Fixing” the problem instead of merely pointing it out both hampers the original writer’s creativity and insults their intelligence.

5.) Be Specific

This one is a pet peeve of mine. Saying “I liked it.” or “It was okay.” is an expression of an opinion not a critique of a work in progress. The difference is subtle, but important. Using abstract expressions to generalize the work as a whole (like “It didn’t pop for me.” or “The flow was good but then it fell flat.”) is maddening. You’re writing a critique to help the writer improve their work so don’t use the broad-stroke, spoiler-free language found in online book reviews. In these examples, a much more effective use of both your and the writer’s time would be to pinpoint dialogue that didn’t pop or highlight a scene where the flow was good.

6.) Don’t Troll

It’s crucial that comments are aimed at the work not the writer. State your notes succinctly and clearly without reverting to cruel or overly flattering language.

7.) Point Out the Good

Critiques aren’t all about pinpointing errors. They are also about celebrating good writing. Most writers are extremely critical of their own writing and sometimes have a hard time recognizing moments when their words shine. A thoughtful critique can serve as a reminder and fuel for the creative fire.


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Why It’s Important to Write Good Critiques


Humans are social creatures, and writers are no exception. At some time or another, every writer has experienced the desire to share their work with a reader, to receive praise for their hard-earned manuscript or gain some insight into a scene or passage that feels wrong. A thoughtful critique can help an author bridge the gap from a mediocre work to a scintillating one.

And this is fantastic if you’re the one receiving the critiques. But how does critiquing other authors help you grow as a writer?

1.) Exposure to new voices

It’s easy to get caught in a literary rut when your only reading materials are a handful of your favorite authors and your own WIP. Lack of diversity can lead to stagnation whereas interacting with different perspectives can boost your creativity and ability to problem solve.

The mere act of reading another person’s writing can help you improve your own.

2.) Discover what isn’t working

Writers are human beings, and humans make a ton of errors. Big mistakes, tiny mistakes, and everything in-between. We’re so talented at messing up that sometimes we create the same problem in slightly different ways. Keeping an eye out for what isn’t working in someone else’s manuscript can give you an idea for something to avoid in your own writing.

3.) Reacquainted with old ideas

As I’ll discuss in another post, there are many layers to a good critique. Constructive critiques don’t simply focus on flaws, but they highlight features, as well. You may stumble across an old word you once loved. (Be sure not to overuse it, okay?) Perhaps the writer introduces a pacing mechanism or handles a descriptive element with such fluid grace that it serves as a reminder of why we write in the first place. But beautiful moments in writing don’t simply let us fall in love with writing again. They place vital tools back into our toolbox, tips and tricks that had somehow fallen into the cracks of memory are brought back into the fore.

4.) Reciprocity

If you take the time to analyze someone’s work and provide them with meaningful feedback, they are much more likely to do the same for you when the need arises.

If you don’t have a writing group, sites like Scribophile can help you safely match up with other writers to practice your critique-giving skills. Scribophile has a particularly nice feature where writers can rate the critiques they receive, too. Not sure how to write a thorough critique? Stay tuned for my next post.

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Are You Making This Mistake in Your Writing?


Writers have a unique relationship with language. Though each writer interacts with the written word differently based on past experiences, culture, and language, I’d like to think there are some aspects we all share. When a new word enters my life or I am reminded of a word I haven’t used in a while, I usually ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over it a bit. It echoes in my mind like a magical spell. (Please don’t let me lose track of this word again. Please don’t let me forget it.) Sometimes I research its definition and etymology. The word creeps into more and more of my sentences. It becomes a slight obsession, a silent love affair, and I don’t think I’m alone in this experience.

But sometimes we can get too attached to certain words.

A few months back, I was reading a science-fiction novel with an endearing set of characters. The book was well-paced and had an artful plot. Unfortunately, this book had one glaring flaw: the word ‘scuttlebutt’. When I first saw the word on the page, it was like seeing an old friend that I hadn’t thought of in a while. When the word was repeated at least five times over the next page and a half, I was ready to fling the book away in disgust. It was a classic case of overuse.

Senseless repetition will kill a word’s effectiveness.

It’s boring. It’s annoying. It’s ineffectual.

Of course there are words to which this doesn’t apply because they are functional and, essentially, invisible to the reader (‘a’, ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘said’, to name a few). Also, an exception can be made in dialogue with certain characters who may have a vocal tic or specific speech pattern (such as ending every sentence with the word ‘mate’).

However, presenting a word in different conjugations does not count. Note the differences between these two sentences.

Too Much Repetition:

The birds singing in the woods inspired Carol, and she sang a song of her own.

A Better Option:

The birds chirping in the woods inspired Carol, and she hummed a song of her own.

So how can you combat verbal redundancy?

  1. Vigilance. Awareness of the problem is a vital part of preventing it.
  2. Use a thesaurus. Remind yourself of alternative words. You may even find some new ones.
  3. Read as much fiction as possible. In addition to other benefits, it is a fantastic way to stretch your vocabulary.


Comment Time

Do you have additional tips or suggestions for increasing vocabulary and avoiding needless reiteration in your prose?

Do you have a favorite thesaurus site?

What’s your favorite word? Does it sneak up too much in your work?

Did you find this article helpful?


Sound off in the comments below.

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1 Easy Trick to Help You Keep Your Story Straight


Writing the first draft of my WIP was a test in endurance. I planted my butt in the chair every day and sloughed out 3k words. A day. Some of the resultant scenes and dialogue were passable. Most of them were not, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it at the time. First drafts were made to get all the garbage out. Did I mention it was also the first time I’d written a story over 100k words long? By the time I got to the editing phase there was quite a bit of garbage to wade through.

All my initial drafts and pieces of drafts were done through Google Docs. It was liberating for me. I could write from my laptop, my computer, even my phone. But after sharing a sample of my work with a professional editor, she suggested I transfer my work to Microsoft Word. At the time I didn’t have access to Word and was loathe to purchase a copy, but I finally bit the bullet. And boy, am I glad I did.

Word allowed me to “search and destroy” words I habitually overuse. (Like ‘that’ and ‘just’.) I didn’t have to burn my eyeballs out digging through page after page looking for every unnecessary instance of the word. Despite the convenient search feature, editing was (and still is) an overwhelming endeavor. But one thing, in particular helped me wade through the slosh: the table of contents*.

I went through my work and formatted the beginning of every scene with a heading marker. With Word’s navigation feature, I suddenly had access to a panel with links to important parts of my story. It created a living outline of the story as a whole and allowed patterns to pop out at me like never before. My TOC also highlighted several flaws in my story arc as well as plot points which could be better addressed in a different order. I am now well into my third pass of rewriting (not editing, but actually REWRITING) my entire story. It’s a fairly overwhelming task. But with my linkable TOC and handy navigation panel, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.

(P.S.: This post has not been endorsed by Google or Microsoft.)

*A new update to Google Docs includes a similar navigation feature.

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