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I really need to train myself not to put two spaces between sentences since, for some strange reason, people frown on it nowadays.  Which makes no sense to me.  I would have thought it would have been less necessary on typewriters, which had font faces with equal width letters (monospaced), than today with so many fonts that are so much smaller.  So, in essence, not only are we removing a space, but the spaces are even narrower than they used to be.  WTF?  

Part of the reason for using two spaces between sentences was to differentiate between words with periods after them (a.m. for example or a name like S. M. Boyce).  This hasn't changed.  But the convention of using two spaces has.  Why isn't it still necessary?  Again, I don't understand.

Typewriters used two spaces to mimic type setters that used an enlarged space between sentences.  This wider space in type setting was phased out long ago, but the two spaces continued on straight into the computer age.  I was trained on it and I'm only 27.  So why is this enlarged space not needed, and why aren't we training our young people on it?  Shouldn't we be teaching our students in typing classes to only use one space?  But, no, we don't.

There's a lot of controversy on which is more desirable.  And the proponents on each side seem to be equally rabid.  There is no conclusive data on which is more readable.  In fact, while it has become an industry standard in publication to use one space, it has equally become a standard to use two everywhere else.  Every other field uses two spaces.  Everything.  Without fail, except publishing.

So, I get I'm going to have to reteach myself a couple of decades worth of bad habits.  I just don't understand why.  What do you think?

Photo credit: Insomnia PHT / Foter.com / CC BY-ND
 
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I've read plenty of authors say you should never edit as you go.  Write the whole darned thing.  Don't second guess yourself.  Don't go back and try to be a perfectionist right from the start.

As I'm editing and proofreading, I find myself wondering about the merits of that advice.  I say, it depends.  Most instances, when someone says things like, "Do what feels right," I cringe.  Don't do what feels right.  Do what is right.  But in this instance, it's all about doing what's right for you.


So I ask, what is your rate limiting step?  Sure, editing takes a long time.  It has to.  But ask yourself what takes longer.  Does it take you longer to do all the editing at the end or to try to get the line editing and proofreading done as you write?  I think this is a personal choice, a question of personality.  Some will be wrought with insecurities and perfectionist stall tactics if they edited as they went.  Others, like myself, find the task of editing my own work far too daunting to tackle all at once.  When I see all of my 80k words staring me in the face, begging to be edited, it seems like too big a task to take on, even in small bites.  Especially with no writing to keep me company.

But I'm pretty sure I could do quite well if I wrote a couple chapters ahead, then sprinkled it with line editing and proofreading of the back chapters.  I'm not slowing myself down because I'd be doing the line editing and proofreading while I wouldn't be actively writing, while I'm coming up with ideas.  I always have downtime, even when I'm writing.  This would allow me to chop the more annoying parts of editing into smaller bits.  This wouldn't get all the line editing and proofreading done, but it would catch the bulk of the mistakes so when I went through the entire book, it wouldn't be so bad.

At least, that's what I think.  And it's what I'm going to try with book two.  What do you think?

Photo credit: Olivander / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 
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First, don’t do it, if that’s how you plan on making a living. Sure, we all hear about the fabulous successes of the J.K. Rowlings and John Greshams, but what you don’t hear is how long they struggled to even get published, and that people who make real money writing fiction are about .01% of all the writers out there. That’s 1/10th of ONE PER CENT!

Second, if you’re still intent on being a writer and getting published by a REAL publisher, you’d better have a thick skin and be able to take rejection…after rejection… after rejection! You may NEVER find an agent or publisher for your work. Louis L’Amore, probably America’s most prolific writer of Westerns, was reputedly rejected 350 times before getting his first story published.

So, unless you’re writing for the joy of it…that you really want to get that story down on paper, no matter what…then find some better use for your time.

But if in the face of all that, you still want to write that novel, then here’s some advice.

First, pick up a couple of books on fiction writing. Donald Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel,” and Albert Zuckerman’s “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” are two of a legion of titles available. Zuckerman’s book gives you a complete roadmap, from beginning to end. You can search Amazon or www.ABE.com (good, like-new used books, cheaper) or the library. While you’re at it, you should pick up Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” which you’ll need later. Read those first, to get you on the right track.

Now, imagine the story you want to write, think of where it’s going and the characters who are going to take it there…and how you want it to end. I write a brief outline, often chapter by chapter, and make up 4 x 6 cards for each major character. Those cards should show each character’s physical appearance (eye color, hair, nose, height, build, distinguishing features, etc.), and who they are (personality), and a list of their various interests. The more complete you make these, the more your characters will take on real-life dimensions. And if while fleshing out your story, you add something to the character, add it to their card. You don’t want a blue-eyed gal to have “emerald” eyes later. Believe me, it happens.

Time to begin writing. Everyone does this differently. Personally, I’ll write the entire story before I do much editing. I don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar while I’m getting my story down. I try to get emotionally involved with my protagonist, and I let him (or her) take over the plot. Each of my four novels changed substantially as I wrote, from my original outline. Even the endings on a couple got changed. In collaboration with my editor at TAG, Dee Burks, I made substantial revisions to much of the end of TRAPPED, although I preserved the very ending. 

The hard work comes when you’ve finished the first draft. My immediate task is correcting mechanical errors: spelling, punctuation, grammar and sentence construction. Then look at the story. Did you create tension? Donald Maass asks, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters?” After coming up with that trauma, he asks, “What can be WORSE than that?” Wow! Even worse! Okay, you finally think of something really bad, and then Maass asks, “What’s even WORSE than that?” If there’s no jeopardy…no anxiety…no one will bother reading it.

Okay, now you’ve built lots of tension. Now read the dialog out loud. Does it sound contrived or natural? Join a critique group where you can read some pages, and listen to other read theirs…and develop a sense of what sounds good. Good dialog requires few tags. Readers should usually know who is talking, but if you need a tag for clarity, keep it mostly to “he said; she said.” And use contractions. People rarely say “I do not” instead of “don’t”…unless it’s used for emphasis.

Then, go back and find “static” words, replacing them with vibrant words. He “scurried” from the room, not “ran.” She “studied” him, not “looked.” The sun “burst” over the horizon, not “rose.” This is how you punch up your prose, and develop you own “voice.”

Finally, review your descriptive areas. It’s important for your readers to have a mental picture of how someone or someplace looks…but don’t over-do it. Some writers spend a half-page describing how a person is dressed. That’s way too much, and takes your readers out of the story. Find the middle ground.

Don’t think one edit or revision will do it, either. I removed a complete side plot from my original version of TRAPPED. It was exciting, but just didn’t add to that story. But it wasn’t a loss. I’m using it in one of my new Al Warner detective novel, so that manuscript starts out already half written.

In the end, writing the first novel will be a huge learning experience. Few authors get their first novel published. While in a sense, I’m bucking that trend, since TRAPPED is my first novel. But I’ve written three others, and TRAPPED is so rewritten from my first draft, it might as well be my 5th…or 6th !

That’s what it takes to succeed. 

About The Author:

George A Bernstein is a youthful seventy-six-year-old, with a B.A. from Northwestern University, now living in south Florida, and the retired president of a publicly-held Chicago company. George's main interest is as a serious novelist. He has attended numerous writers’ conferences and seminars, including that of famous fiction agent, Donald Maass, and he has worked with independent editor, Dave King, all with the goal of improving his craft.

George is also a “World-Class” fly-fisherman, and has held a dozen various IGFA fishing World records. In his life before writing, George ran Outdoor Safaris, a World-wide fishing & hunting tour operator, working with airlines and travel agencies promoting premier sporting trips. He has also published the definitive book on fly-fishing for pike & musky, Toothy Critters Love Flies.

George's first novel, Trapped, is published by TAG Publishers, after being a finalist in their Next Great American Novel contest. Dee Burks and her staff really love the story, and her revision suggestions helped make Trapped the best it can be. Trapped was also a finalist at the 2012 Florida Writers Association RPLA fiction contest in 2012. Trapped has received virtually all 5-Star reviews on Amazon.

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Book Description:

The darkness is still, silent. Jackee Maren’s heart pounds reverberating through her body as fear sears her veins. Someone’s coming. No way out. This time they will kill me. Her breath is short, her chest burns. Must run. Faster. Faster! Her eyes fly open, her heart still racing with blinding fear. Jackee breathes deeply with relief and stares at the ceiling desperately trying to calm herself. The same dream. Something, someone is watching . . . and waiting.

A tragic car accident leaves beautiful, vibrant Jackee Maren completely paralyzed, in “Locked-in Syndrome,” able to move only her eyes. Jackee’s husband, Phil, is devastated and her two young boys left with nothing but a shell for a mother, but still, Jackee senses the foreboding of an evil presence and knows time is short.

Slowly, Jackee learns to communicate with her physical therapist, Kevin, by blinking her eyes. As evidence comes to light that her car accident was no accident, Jackee doggedly strives to expose the person who wants her dead before they get a second chance.

While Jackee struggles to put all the clues together, she’s stunned to discover she has the ability to sense the thoughts of others, but she hides this talent from everyone but her sons, not knowing whom she can trust. By actively exercising her new psychic ability, Jackee finally learns who masterminded the “accident” but feels helpless to stop them from trying to kill her again.

Desperate to survive, she slowly concocts a psychic plan to not only ensure her boys are safe forever, but to exact retribution on her would-be murderer. Jackee vows not to rest until this villain understands what it is to be TRAPPED! But she must hurry. Her psychic manipulations of the players in her “skit” of revenge are sapping her meager reserves, leaving her with only months to live.

Buy the Book:
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Excerpt from trapped:

Turn signal flashing, she eases into the right lane in front of a large, battered pick-up, with less than a half-mile to the Old Orchard Exit Ramp. Jackee Maren rarely drives so aggressively, but first delayed by her two sons’ late departure from school, and then navigating around a minor fender bender on Dundee road, she is already ten minutes behind, and she’s never late. The Northern Illinois Chapter of the United Way won’t start their planning session without their chairwoman, and Jackee hates the idea of keeping so many busy people waiting.

Peeling onto the ramp, her attention is drawn to her two boys, bickering and shoving in the back seat. Glancing back at the road, a ridge of goose bumps cascades down her spine. They’re hurtled toward a string of glaring taillights… cars unexpectedly stopped by a red light at the first intersection off the expressway.

Jamming a foot on the brakes, she’s stunned when the big Mercedes slews sharply right, smack into the path of the huge pickup truck, which had exited behind her. It slams into the rear fender of the sedan, sending it careening off the road, the seatbelts gouging her shoulder, crushing the breath from her lungs.

“Hang on boys,” she gasps. Oh God! My sons! They can’t die here.

They spin down the embankment like an eccentric top, ricocheting off a bridge column. The wheel torn from her grip, the air filled with the screech of rending metal and the stench of burning rubber, the car rears like a great angry beast, its rear legs hamstrung. Slamming down, it hurtles backward into the culvert, bucking and skipping along the steep embankment.

Despite seatbelts, Jackee is flung around like a rag doll in the jaws of some huge terrier. The air bag erupts in the midst of their tumultuous downward plunge, rushing out at 200 MPH, just as frontal impact slings her forward.

Her face catches the brunt of the blow, skewering lips on her teeth, smashing her nose. A searing bolt of pain fires across her brain, igniting a burst of red heat behind her tearing eyes. A sharp pitch right crushes her left cheek against the window, knocking her momentarily senseless. The sedan teeters, enveloped in a cloud of dust, hunkering precariously on its haunches before crashing down on its wheels, coming to a thunderous, grinding stop.

She awakens to wailing and blubbering from the two small boys in the rear seat.

“Mommy!” The call gasped through ragged breathing.

“Mommy!” Now a frantic screech.

“I’m…I’m here.” We’re alive! Thank God, we’re all still alive.

She sags against the seatbelt, every joint singed with agony, unable to will herself into action.

Help should be coming. She moans.  Gotta hang on… She slips out of consciousness.

The continued bawling and moaning of her sons stir her, drawing her out of the fog of semi-consciousness. One of her eyes is swollen shut, but the other flickers open, glazed with shock.

Where the Hell’s Fire/Rescue. 

 
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Dialog can be a tricky thing.  A lot of people talk about proper use of dialog tags and I've  talked about proper voice before (not overdoing accents and such), but I frequently see writers fall into another pitfall - making their dialog sound the same as the rest of their writing.  

This is a major no-no.  Why?  Because you are falling into one of two pitfalls.  Either you're writing the entire book without proper grammar or your dialog is jerky and awkward.

Most authors I read fall into the second category.  They apply the same rules to their dialog as the rest of the writing and you end up with dialog that doesn't feel right.  It doesn't feel natural.  It isn't actually how people speak.  Now, I'm not advocating making speech too realistic.  As I said in a post back in October, it's painful to read (a portion of the post is quoted below).

The other point has to do with readability and accents or ethnic origins.  We all want to be true to the background of our characters.  You want that Latino to ring true in the reader's mind.  However, you don't want choppy dialog like, "Eeees good ju don go, vato."  That wasn't too bad and there are far worse examples (that was hard enough for me to write but, again, I've seen worse).  The above should never, never, never, never be done.  It's choppy and hard to read.  It's painful to read.  Instead, if you want the ethnicity to ring true.  Pay attention more to how they forms their sentences than how they form their words.  Like, for example, in the Spanish language, they rarely ever use pronouns.  So saying, "Is good you no go, vato," is okay.  That is very close to the Spanish sentence of, "Es bueno no vas, vato," with only the you being adding in English.  It's much easier to read and you get across the ethnicity of your character.
But still, you want it to be realistic.  Having teenagers speak with perfect grammar doesn't ring true.  When writing teenagers, remove every possible word you can.  Anything that can be abbreviated, contracted, or removed, do it.  So, instead of, "Do you need help unpacking?" you'd use, "Need help unpacking?" or even, "Need help?"  Teenagers are inherently lazy.  If have you teenagers or have recently been a teenager, you'll remember this.  You don't say whatever if a shrug will do.  You don't say yes if yeah will do.  And, as my mother would attest with a fire in her eyes, uh-huh and uh-uh are the preferred negatives and affirmatives, much to parents chagrin.

But even when not dealing with teenagers, this is important.  For example, too many authors don't use contractions (or don't use them consistently) in dialog.  Listen to people.  How often do you hear someone say "there is" instead of "there's"?  What about "do not" vs. "don't"?  People use contractions constantly in speech.  We rarely use the alternate form unless we're trying to emphasize something, like a parent saying, "There is no way you're going to that party!"  So, unless you're purposefully trying to make a character sound stuffy, upper crust, or old fashioned, use contractions.

Remember, your goal is to make your characters ring true for your readers, suspend disbelief.  Dialog is a large portion of most fiction writing.  Use it.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon / Foter.com / CC BY-SA
 
Yep, that's me.  It seems I've become obsessed with proper comma usage.  And really, it's so vital to a good story.  Sure, some places, like between dialog tags and the dialog, can be forgotten without seriously impeding the meaning or readability of the sentence, but others will not only confuse the reader, but change the meaning.  It amazes me that even those authors that had an editor (with a publisher), that should have caught it, still miss this on a regular basis.

So here's a few instances where authors tend to go wrong...

  • He said, "Thank you, David."  There should always be a comma separating the rest of a sentence from the dialog.  Also, always have a comma before a name that is neither the subject nor direct object of a sentence.
  • As I hung up the phone, I leapt toward the kitchen.  A comma should be used when indicating a pause for the reader.  In this example, the reader can't run straight from phone to I.  They don't connect.  They are separate, though related, and must be connected by a comma.
  • It’s strange one of my favorite things is sleeping when I’m an insomniac but, then again, maybe not.  You can remove the intervening "maybe not" and still have a complete sentence.  This is a major one authors mess up on.  When you have a portion of the sentence surrounded by commas, test to see how removing it would influence the sentence.  If the sentence isn't right, you put the commas in the wrong place.  A common example would be putting words like "but" or "and" on the wrong side of the comma.  If I put "but" on the other side of the comma, the sentence would read, "It's strange one of my favorite things is sleeping when I'm an insomniac maybe not."  That sentence doesn't make sense.  It's wrong.
  • Eating and sleeping had always been my favorite activities, though.  This one is probably a redundancy of one of the previous bullets, but I thought I'd put it in anyway.  The sentence is complete without "though".  It's an addition to the sentence.  A pause in reading is required.

I'd love to show some great examples of improper comma usage, but that would require posting copyrighted content on my blog, which I won't do without permission.  The one to pay the most attention to is the third bullet.  It has a massive influence on sentence meaning and can leave a reader confused, reading a sentence over and over trying to elucidate what the sentence is supposed to say.

And I was intending to make a graphic for this post, but it's after midnight, I'm exhausted, and I have to get up at 6:30a.m. tomorrow (yay, not...).  Wait, make that today.  Grrr...  I think I'm going to die...

 
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This picture looked a lot cooler when it was bigger... Oh well.
I swear, I don't know what I'll do.  I started reading a new book today.  I was really looking forward to it.  I'm about 15% done and feel like strangling the author.  Every paragraph is I said this and Uther said that.  

I've been told that, when it comes to dialog tags, an author should refrain from using tags other than said.  "Said" gets largely ignored by the reader and so it actually speeds up the flow of the conversation to use it.  But clearly there is such a thing as using it too much.  There is no excuse for using it three paragraphs in a row.  There are other ways of indicating who is speaking.  I've ranted on this before and, if you're interested, you can view my blog post, Writing Pet Peevs.

So be careful.  Even said can get repetitive...

 
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I have a tendency to balk at convention.  If something is hip and now, I might pick it up two years from now.  If something is considered the norm, I'll do the opposite.

When writing, we frequently want the readers to relate to our characters.  We want them to see something in our main character that rings true.  We might want to give little anecdotes that make them stop and think things like, "Oh my God, I nearly peed my pants when that happened to me!"  It makes the character seem more real and thus more realistic.  But at what cost?

I am currently working on a story where the main character is a vampire.  This makes the decision easy and the application a little harder.  I can't make a character that the reader can completely relate to because none of my readers (I would hope) are vampires.  But I can make them relatable in other ways.  After all, she wasn't always a vampire.  She has a past that can be related to.  Even some of her actions and mannerisms can connect with the reader's day to day life.

But while that connection to the reader is important, what makes him or her different is equally important.  First, you can't make a character that will relate to every reader, even if you have a very limited demographic.  Second, it's boring.  Readers (at least I) like seeing a person's quirks.  It gives the character depth.  Like not liking coffee or Christmas or sunbathing or liking the number 13.

 
It seems like I'm always discovering a new character.  Like a lot of writers, they "talk" to me, tell me who they are, where they want to go.  Like today, I discovered that one of my characters, who I always saw as the stalwart, put together type and the most stable member of the cast, is actually thoroughly insane.  I think I've been coming to this conclusion slowly, but it hit me today with a degree of clarity that just clicked.  Angelina Rossi is insane.  It isn't that obvious from the book as she is the main narrator and she believes that she is perfectly sane and logical.  At first, I didn't know what to do.  I wanted the reader to know this.  I thought it was important.  But I didn't want to just out and out say, "She's insane, people!"  But, by the time I'd driven to the gas station to put air in my deflated tires, I had my answer and moved on.

But that long rant wasn't the point of this post.  My point was that the best way to create exceptional characters is to start from their flaws, their faults.  With me, it is frequently physical flaws, like a hearing impairment or learning disability.  Or maybe it is internalized, like an inferiority complex or anger management issues, although these tend to arise from deeper issues so it might behoove to dig further into the character to find where these originate.  These flaws influence every aspect of who the person is, into every part of his or her day to day live.  It makes them real in the same way that a book review that points out both the good and the bad in a book makes it feel real to us, honest.

It isn't always easy to make realistic characters.  There are lots of things we, as writers, can do to help this along.  One example is listing out traits about the character (you can find lists like this online by searching character development worksheet).  Another is picking out key events to be a part of a character's past.  Was he abused?  Teased as a child?  Did he develop a love for reading at a young age or was he more into video games?  Was he popular growing up?  Was his family close knit?  Much of this doesn't matter.  You can pick things off the top of your head.  But all of it influences how the character thinks and reacts to the situation at hand.

But I always start from the flaws.  I pick a flaw.  Decide when it happened (like if the character was born hearing impaired or did the impairment occur later in life).  I decide how that would have influenced her growing up.  Would she be sensitive about the way she speaks?  Would she tend to withdraw from people?  Would she be short tempered?  Would she play music loudly?  What types of music would she prefer?  Would she try to hide her impairment, if she could?  Ask yourself all the ways that your flaw would change the way they react or think and, quite quickly, you will have a very workable basis for a character, just missing the more concrete details like hair color and a name.
 
I think this is a mistake more commonly made by the inexperienced.  I've only read four novels that were written in present tense, and this should be telling to us writers that consider using it.  Three were from the same series (Shades of Grey series by E. L. James) and the other was Matched by Allie Condie.  In the case of Shades of Grey, it was clearly a case of lack of experience.  The books were poorly written and not edited much, if at all.  The books could and should have been changed to past tense.  It would have made them easier to read and better books in general.  Matched is a little harder to analyze.  It was hard to read this book in present tense, however I can understand why Allie did it.  Using present tense changed the tone of the novel.  It made the narrator seem simpler in thinking and lacking in forethought.  With a novel that revolved around people walking around like sheep and not questioning anything around them, that advantage in tone had a distinct advantage.  Was there an advantage in using present tense?  Yes.  Could the novel have been easier to read in past tense?  Most definitely.

But, you might ask, are there reasons for using present tense in fiction?  My conclusion?  If you are reading this, if you are looking for writing tips to begin with, then hell no.  Present tense is hard to pull off in fiction.  It can impact tone and can increase the impact of an action scene (I frequently use present tense in my super short, less than 1000 word, stories where suspense or action is vital), but it is also hard, if not impossible at times, to transition back and forth between.

Primarily, I use present tense when I am writing a novel where I am trying to distinguish present from past events.  More importantly, I spend most of my time in the past.  The character is reminiscing.  It could be that the book starts out with the narrator explaining their reasons for putting their thoughts in print or at the end with the narrator detailing how the events of the book have changed things.  It could be that the narrator is verbally telling his/her story to someone in a bar and I switch back to present tense whenever the present butts in (like the narrator gets interrupted in the telling and has to interact with someone in the environment).

I don't have a degree in English or Creative Writing.  I'm a science major.  My favorite subject in the whole world is Molecular Genetics.  So, what I've learned, I learned from reading.  And, as I've said before, I read a lot.  I use a lot of what I read, and what I hear from editors and other authors, to improve my craft.  Of the likely thousands of novels I've read, I've only read four that were completely in present tense.  It's a statistical rarity, an extreme outlier.  A writer isn't on the cutting edge by using present tense, he/she is simply annoying the reader.  I liked the story of the novel by Allie Condie.  I thought it was creative and unique.  I want to know what happens next.  I will likely never read the rest of the series because I can't bear to go through another book like Matched.  I just can't do it.  The book was well written, was well edited.  Its only flaw was that it was in present tense.

In conclusion, use present tense with a great deal of caution and ask yourself if it's really worth it.  Can you write it in past tense and get whatever advantages you wanted from present tense without sacrificing readability and possibly readers?
 
I read a lot.  A lot a lot.  Like, even the librarians look at me with their jaws dropped sometimes.  I think some look at me with hero worship.  The downside of this addiction to the written word is that, in my obsessive devouring, I don't always have the best selection when it comes to quality.  Granted, I never read a book that I don't like.  Or that is truly horrible.  What I mean with regard to quality has more to do with the editing quality than the writing skills and creative content.

Recently, I talked with a woman (God, I can't call people in graduate school girls, ack!) who was somewhat surprised when I said that description is not only highly overrated, it can be detrimental to a story.  Just look at Stephen King.  By far, his best books are books like Cujo and Christine - which are also his shortest books.  Longer books, like It, tend to lose people in the description (or flashbacks - oh the ridiculously long flashbacks in that book!).  Even in Fantasy novels, where world building is so very vital to the story, in depth descriptions of the side of a building aren't useful.  They don't help the character (or the reader) navigate the world.  They just confound the reader and delay the plot.  The more time you spend on description, the slower the action, the more you lose your reader to boredom or irritation.

It's the same reason we are discouraged from using passive voice.  Passive voice (using is, are, was and were) doesn't move the plot along.  Readers like action.  They want to see what will happen next.  The best times to use description are when you want to prolong a short scene or increase suspense.  An example would be if someone is running for his/her life.  People aren't always hyperaware in these types of situations, but it always seems like a minute takes ten (or more).  Stretching those types of scenes out with description or inner ramblings isn't just a good idea, it is essential.

But I digress (like always...).  My ramblings here today were on dialog.  There's a lot of places where authors can fall short with regard to dialog.  In general, the two most common are being able to pinpoint who is speaking and balancing readability with accents/ethnic backgrounds.

Many authors complain most about the use of dialog tags (e.g. said, whispered, hissed, screamed).  More specifically, they complain about using anything other than said.  They claim that using other tags pulls the reader out of the story.  I disagree with this.  I believe they are necessary in certain circumstances.  

But I also think that dialog tags should only be used under the most dire of circumstances to begin with.  They are fillers so that we don't get confused and lost as to who is talking.  While important, dialog tags are the worst way of accomplishing this goal.  I far prefer two other means of speaker identification: tone and action.

Tone is quite simple.  Everyone speaks a little different.  Me, I'm fond of cursing in foreign languages when in mixed company.  I also have no filter on my mouth, which can mean curse words at inappropriate times or it can mean that the first word to come to my mind to finish/start a sentence doesn't necessarily have to be in English (e.g. when meaning wait, the first word to come to my mind is the Japanese word, mate).  People have different word preferences, like maybe one person always says yeah, while another says yes.  It can be just a matter of a person's outlook and you can tell who's talking simply by how pessimistic they are.  A great example of this comes from a book series by Danika Cassidy I was just reading.  Nina is pessimistic, paranoid, and the biggest "potty mouth" on the face of the planet and her jaded, sarcastic, curse laden, biting comments are easily identified from the other characters in the book... without anything else to identify them.  This all comes out in tone and, while this is the hardest way to write, it is always the best way as it moves the conversation along the fastest, keeps the reader in the story better, and sounds the most realistic.

Action is simpler in practice, but has a few more rules.  Well, really, just one.  Never mix the action of one person in with the dialog of another.  This should never be done, even if you are not using dialog to distinguish speakers.  It is confusing if you do.  This isn't always easy and can, at times, take some thinking to word things just right, but the mix of action and dialog is very good at moving the story along quickly.

The other point has to do with readability and accents or ethnic origins.  We all want to be true to the background of our characters.  You want that Latino to ring true in the reader's mind.  However, you don't want choppy dialog like, "Eeees good ju don go, vato."  That wasn't too bad and there are far worse examples (that was hard enough for me to write but, again, I've seen worse).  The above should never, never, never, never be done.  It's choppy and hard to read.  It's painful to read.  Instead, if you want the ethnicity to ring true.  Pay attention more to how they forms their sentences than how they form their words.  Like, for example, in the Spanish language, they rarely ever use pronouns.  So saying, "Is good you no go, vato," is okay.  That is very close to the Spanish sentence of, "Es bueno no vas, vato," with only the you being adding in English.  It's much easier to read and you get across the ethnicity of your character.

Another thing to be careful of when playing with ethnic characters is use of foreign languages.  This can really apply to any use of language that is not mainstream (like using some texting abbreviations, MMORPG abbreviations, or profession-specific lingo).  Keep in mind things like newspapers are written with a person with only a 5th grade reading level in mind.  Unless you are writing a scientific journal article or a textbook for a University, be careful about word usage.  Can you use words like vato (a Spanish slang originally used among gang culture which has gradually come to mean something like dude) or bucolic (which is on the GRE suggested vocabulary list, i.e. they expect you to have at least some college education to know it)?  Sure.  Granted, I like to say, if it's on the GRE suggested vocab list, don't use it.  At least, not without proper context clues.  If there is a chance the average fifth grader wouldn't know the word, please use the word in a way that tells them what is means.  A 27-year-old graduate student with a 3.73 GPA shouldn't need a dictionary next to her when she is reading a book.  Like in the example above, the placement of the word vato clearly indicates that it is being used as a non-proper name for a person.  For something like bucolic, just saying that a scene has bucolic majesty doesn't tell the reader enough.  Following it up with an in depth description of a country scene does though.

Well, that was my rant for the day.  Ciao, bellas!