Seashell Virgin was nominated in the short list of books published by Indiana authors between 2020 and 2022.
In this interview, the author talks (18 mins) about his experience of traditional publishing and self-publishing and shares what he values as the greatest freedom of a writer.
Seashell Virgin is the third book in the Nacho Mama’s Patio Café series. Set in a small Indiana college town, it tells the story of an eclectic group of LGBT friends who gather once a week at the bar to gossip and watch TiaRa del Fuego’s Parade of Gowns drag show.
In Seashell Virgin, crooks, politicos and scoundrels scheme to close the bar, rape a forest and get rich in the process. Break-ins, kidnapping, blackmail and the world’s most spectacular drag show thrill and delight as the friends once more answer the call to set things straight … as it were.
All the Nacho Mama’s books are available through online retailers, on the AnySummerSunday.com website and at favourite local bookshops who can order them through Ingram.
OK, here goes – I write posts for my website, but what is in this post applies across all other forms of writing too.
10 am: I am writing the blog post. It is about time-wasting. I have started this post in my head so often that I have become an expert, an addict even, of procrastination.
10:05 am: Look up the definition in not just one dictionary, but three (in case, perhaps they differ).
So what is it?
Cambridge Dictionary online defines it as ‘the act of delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring’.
Being a lifelong practitioner, I’d say what really is at the root of the delaying is fear – fear of failure. If you do get it written, then it can be criticised, and you can be seen to have got it wrong.
10:15 am to 11:20 am: Check for famous folk who’ve said anything about the subject, collect their quotes and select the best. (Why did that take so long?)
Many people have written about procrastination. Probably most people have suffered from the problem. No resist! – I shall not spend the next three hours looking up more things to confirm this.
If I let myself, I shall fall into the disappointingly familiar place of making notes on what I shall write one day. I do have to acknowledge that this would be replacing the doing of the writing.
Reading is another activity I often resort to instead of doing the writing. I often exceed my budget for buying books and often traipse off to the library, either in the real world or online, in search of yet one more authority on the subject.
How to stop procrastinating
Some things which do, I think, help to bring the shining searchlight beam of focus necessary to overcome procrastination.
Be clear that the standard is notto write anything perfect (write roughly for your first draft – it can be edited later).
Tightly reduce any media you engage with until you have done the writing.
Turn off the likely distractors (phone, internet).
Only allow yourself to make a limited couple of extra notes.
Plan how long you think it should take and only give yourself that time plus five minutes.
Plan to reward yourself when you complete the writing by the deadline. (Perhaps plan something you know you’d like, perhaps a cup of coffee, a turn at the crazily addicting computer game you have on your phone or a check of your email accounts).
In the company of Dickens?
It seems that many renowned writers can relate to the problem of time-wasting, as Charles Dickens (writer of fifteen novels) mentions in David Copperfield: ‘My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.’
How do you collar him and keep on track when you are writing? And what is your go-to reward when the writing is done? Do get in touch.
Writers who have asked for a quote for an editing service sometimes, on reading the fee, responded with either endless silence or disappointment that the cost will be more than they had imagined it would be.
I get that professional editing does cost and is likely to be one of the more expensive elements of publishing a manuscript. But as with evaluating any service, it is helpful to understand what is involved and what you are asking for.
What is professional editing doing for a writer?
Getting a manuscript professionally edited helps save the embarrassment of presenting later readers with a story which contains a distracting number of gaffes, inconsistencies or mistakes. By this, editing works to improve the impression readers will have of the quality of the writing, which is a direct reflection of what they will think about the author. Professional editing can help a writer improve their writing craft, not just for one manuscript but across subsequent writing too. This can lead to your book reaching more readers and better reaching its potential. If you send your book out to agents and publishers without a professional edit, this can appear less than professional and may reduce the offers made for the manuscript.
These things have a value and that is what you are paying for with editing services.
Qualities in Editing
Consider what the editor needs to have set up to offer the service. They run a business which has set-up costs and running costs, and they have trained to be able to offer professional standards of work. They are likely to be in a process of continually updating their training and skills with additional courses, being member of professional bodies, conference attendance and experience. Then, of course, editing is a service which takes time; quite considerable time. Along with thoroughly reading your manuscript, the editor will be making thoughtful assessments and suggestions to provide advice and pointers to improvements through the whole process. This takes time and cannot be rushed, as it is not possible to focus on this level of concentrated work for much more than five or six hours a day. The longer the manuscript, the longer it will take to edit, so word count will have a bearing on how long the edit will take.
Options in Editing
Decide when your manuscript will be helped by being edited professionally; some authors will make many more passes through their writing before requesting professional editing; others will see their time better spent by getting started on their next book idea. There is considerable variability within the process, but to give your writing the best chance of succeeding smoothly, professional editing is something many writers see as an essential and worthwhile investment in their writing process. Feeling that it helps them to produce better books.
Beyond the very first draft of a manuscript (where a writer is getting down the ideas in as flowing a manner as possible) there are certain words which are almost always be better substituted out. When these are swapped for a more precise, descriptive and interesting terms, the writing quality improves. Here I point out half a dozen of the ripest for replacement.
This must go because it is standing in for words which will give the reader a context for what is about to be described, whether that be events or feelings. It is not necessary because if something happens suddenly, telling us this will be slowing the pace down at just the time the action is happening, and the pace has sped up.
This term is okay in a first draft with the excuse that the writer is in their flow and will replace it later. By the second draft, this term should usually be replaced by a more descriptive term, as it is vague to the point of almost meaningless. Substitute with a more precise term which will make the writing more interesting, more rhythmical and more enjoyable to read.
Anything which is really obvious does not need mentioning, and if it is mentioned, it does not need signposting. If the term is left in, it can seem like unnecessary telling, which no reader is likely to appreciate. Any sentence which is obvious can be removed to improve the writing, making it more relevant and more punchy.
There are so many words to choose from to convey what the writer wants the reader to know, and including ‘actually’ is often irrelevant. It rather belittles the rest of the sentence. In editing, actually, is a term, I regularly cull.
Thought to herself
Thought alone says it, there is no need to add the to himself/their self etc. How do you think ‘to anyone else’? No, it is just thought.
Well, sometimes this word has something to add, but more often than not it is best left out. It often points out the obvious, and as such, gets smoothed out in a second draft, best removed.
Trim this lot, and editors will prefer to see your more interesting, fresher word choice. The revised draft will be livelier and tighter. Readers will find your writing more engaging – what’s not to like?
Writers place characters in stories to have an impression on their readers.
“As I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”
– Lauren DeStefano
When creating main characters in your writing, they need to be make an impact on the reader and should be believable and engaging. Main characters are more believable and arguably more interesting if they are multifaceted and show identifiable personality with motivation to pull them through the events of the story.
Memorable main characters
Unlike side characters, the main characters in most novels will have memorable names which clearly distinguish them from other people. The main characters will also be developed through the story and undergo some degree of change, this process is often described as the character arc. This arc is most pronounced with the main character, especially the protagonist.
Your main character is so important that they are likely to be introduced within the opening section of the novel. They will be introduced in an active scene, making them relatable for the reader, who will witness the character making a decision, or reacting to something, rather than reflecting on events in their backstory.
What makes a character different from everyone else, is characterization. Describing direct characterization, Janet Burroway highlights a character’s qualities as speech, action, appearance and thought and to these Matthew Salesses adds that we should think about our character’s attitude. In this, we develop understanding of their actions and decisions. He suggests an exercise a writer can carry out to focus on the character’s attitude by considering as broad as possible ‘They [the character] were the kind of person who … ’ by answering this question repeatedly about the character, the writer focuses on what attitudes the character holds. The significant features will be the basis of what makes that individual different from others, and it is that which will make them interesting and engaging.
For the protagonist, this attitude is likely to include some of several positive and appealing features.
Orson Scott Card reminds us that some characters are drawn as relatively flat characters, which was pointed out by E.M. Forster, who suggests that, in fiction, flat characters can be just as important as rounded characters. An example of a flat character would be Mrs Micawber, who never deviates from supporting her husband.
Craft complex protagonists
The delight in a complex character can be their unpredictability. It is this ability to surprise which intrigues and engages, as Mary Kole points out, the best characters are those readers either love dearly or that intensely. For igniting of this passion within the reader comes from the same passion for the character in the writer. The level of care the writer has about their character can be increased by them getting to know that character in detail. Writers might list their answers to questions about the individual to build up a clear picture of what the character. This could include what the individual looks like, what food they like, what the main events were in their life, who they mix with, where they live and who they in love with. From this bank of information, some detail will be used in the writing, but like the tip of an iceberg, most will just inform the writer. This will help to build up a more rounded personality. This leads to a more nuanced set of characters to carry out the events of the plot and interact through the story.
Another technique for developing character is to decide on a character and in a scene then, as an exercise, write what that character would be thinking – their internal monologue. By doing this for several characters, you begin to hone in on the differences between those characters, which will help to find those you are most passionate about and most interested in writing about. Awareness of the internal monologue could also be the basis for incorporating some of that thought within the novel. This can increase how the reader relates to a character, allowing them to witness internal conflict and personality more closely.
Often characters are made to stand out by having a memorable quality or quirk and this can be used to differentiate individuals, to surprise and bring both interest and uniqueness.
Make marvellous antagonists
To bring conflict to a story, the protagonist is likely to be up against antagonistic forces, and most often this will be in the form of an antagonist. This character will be interesting if they are much more than one dimensional. The stronger or more objectionable your antagonist, the more powerfully they can work against your protagonist. This will lead to more extreme measures being required by to overcome the conflict the protagonist will find themselves in.
Antagonists are more satisfying if they possess their own morality, which the reader can see playing out. This may be part of their backstory or a feature of their personality, but it needs to make them seem rounded and believable with their own consistent objectives and motivation.
The same questions could be used to build up a bank of information on antagonist characters, or you could develop a specific set. Such a set could include, what their weakness is, what they secretly enjoy and what are they like most about themselves.
Whatever the conflict and struggle between the two main characters, readers do not want the protagonist to succeed easily, so the villain must have skills and allies to work to mount a convincing and enduring challenge to sustain the story. The stakes of your story can increase where the two main characters are pitching against each other, strong opposing forces lead to higher stakes and greater reader engagement.
Authors seek to make their main characters lifelike, but as David Morrell points out, fiction is a paradox here as we have never known any living person in the way we can feel we know a written character. In fiction, we can access someone’s innermost thoughts and emotions, an experience which Morrell describes as ‘… totally unrealistic, however magical.’ He also cites Forster saying that one of the central appeals of fiction is that novels suggest a more comprehensible, and thus more manageable, human race.
Morrell, D. 2008 The Successful Novelist, Sourcebooks Inc. Naperville, Illinois
Boulter, A. 2007, Writing fiction, Palgrave, Hampshire
Forster, E.M. 1956 Aspects of the Novel, Mariner Books,New York
The CIEP 2021 online conference is not long over, after a year of planning by the conference team, led by Beth Hamer they pulled off a fantastic event. I attended the SfEP conference in 2017 in person when the event was held in Bedfordshire, at Wyboston Lakes, and remember that as an excellent conference.
Many months ago, I’d decided to attend the Glasgow CIEP conference of 2021, but that was moved online, so it became my first online conference. It ran from Saturday 11 September to Monday 13 September, and it was a triumph.
I attended much of it live and since then, have watched Crystal Shelley’s interesting talk on representation and authenticity reading. I look forward to watching other recordings over the next few weeks. Being able to watch sessions later is a great bonus of an online event.
What we got up to
Hugh Jackson, a most capable, self-effacing and amusing chair, made entertaining introductions, talks and commentary through the whole event. The business element, with the AGM, was conducted efficiently.
There were some fascinating speakers, including the poet and very amusing presenter of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, Ian McMillan, who’s from Yorkshire. Arguably the most famous copyeditor, Benjamin Dreyer, from New York in conversation with Denise Cowle, from Scotland. This gave us an intriguing insight into how publishing has changed, the ways Random House nurtures their editing talent (including their freelance staff) and we heard what it is like to edit for Elizabeth Strout.
As some of the sessions I have yet to catch up on, my listing is not comprehensive, but I watched Malini Devadas present a session on the marketing mindset. In this, she talked about how to consider marketing and your mindset about it as an important facet of business. She had tips on how to overcome the mentality which may hold freelancers back from actively marketing their business.
Conscious and inclusive
Crystal Shelley gave a second session which was on conscious and inclusive editing – understanding conscious language and the editorial role. With it, she shared copious resources to help support us deliver well-informed and enlightened services to our clients.
Two sessions, fiction line-editing essentials: narrative distance, delivered by the force of nature that is Louise Harnby and guiding principles of developmental editing presented by Sophie Playle, were rightly very popular and with both it will be marvellous to receive the slides to pour over again to absorb more of the excellent learning.
There were lightening talks which brought snippets limited to five minutes from editing superstars of great variety. We were assured that English editors are the most powerful and urged to work compassionately, editing photos was examined, as was the learning of Korean and how football commentary is connected to proofreading.
The session on blogging (making it work for your business) with Liz Jones, Claire Bacon and Kia Thomas was like having a place at the table while these experienced bloggers discussed their approach to blog writing and hearing what they felt worked for them.
Who better than John Espirian to give the presentation on being a LinkedIn leader? Packed with advice and tips, the time flew by, so it is good that there are chances to revisit his session.
Easy English and what editorial professionals can learn from people with low literacy was spoken about by Cathy Basterfield, and career development for freelancers was presented by Suzanne Collier.
A big thank you to Janet MacMillan from Canada who graciously introduced the session I ran from Hampshire, on Styles in Word. Thank you also, to the lovely folk who attended the session live and asked follow-up questions, both at the time and later over LinkedIn.
There were themed networking sessions on different forms of editing, educational publishing, marketing and time management which involved small-group discussions in breakout sessions. These were good places to meet new faces and share experiences.
Many of us had our first visit to the Wonderoom networking space where, having prized ourselves out of zoom, floating avatars could be dragged into circles, or just bumped into each other in a sort of virtual corridor. Once in the same space we could talk and, although some found there were some bandwidth issues and glitches, it largely worked smoothly enough to feel there was connection and further opportunity for conversation. It was there I met, among others, a proofreader originally from the UK and newly setting up their business in Melbourne, a friend of old from Devon and a fiction editor living in Spain.
Delegates and speakers got together from seemingly all over the globe without the unimaginable carbon footprint that the same conference, conducted offline, would have left. I’d usually expect a conference post to be accompanied by a photograph of a conference centre filled with delegates but as there wasn’t one, and I did not ask anyone whether I could take their images, I can only show myself at conference – the one at the top of this post is me puzzling over the quiz questions, perhaps we weren’t taking it seriously enough to win, but it was fun taking part.
The organiser’s choice and use of the technology platforms was certainly effective for putting out learning materials and delivering sessions to a very large group. There was the added bonus of staggering some of the delivery beyond the conference with materials including not just digital handouts but hours of recordings to watch back.
As a mainly introverted soul, used to working alone, I did wonder whether the networking side of an online conference could work at all, but it did. I even found that, as I was sitting in my normal workplace (true for most delegates I suspect) this was conducive to relaxed interactions where I really felt at home, wait – I really was at home.
I am left feeling that the CIEP community is great to be involved with, and their team create excellent conferences.
What will the event be like next year, I wonder. Certainly, the in-person format is an experience we should strive to hold on to, but there are some outstanding benefits of the online model too. I’d vote for some form of hybrid if that’s doable, and with the track record, I believe they can do it. One thing is certain, there is a kind of magic when we come together and in the words of the chair, ‘… something unites us in our delight of the written word.’
To see how I can help with your fiction or creative nonfiction do get in touch.
Mmm, I wonder how those started and who had the inspiration to run the first accountability group – no, stop! I must not allow myself to drop into my preferred research mode and out of the sleeves-rolled-up-action state. So still I could not tell you who ran the first one, but I did it – I took action!
I asked for advice about why I am stuck with a marketing problem. I have great respect for those who gave the advice and I felt heard by them, which compels me to act. So immediately (without overthinking it and going off the boil) I asked on a forum whether others would wish to join an accountability group.
Someone responded by asking for more information.
Now I need to detail what I mean by it, and that’s fair enough.
As I see it, the accountability group would be rather small (perhaps no more than four people).
By putting the question on the special interest group of a forum of a professional body, I would hope to reach like-minded people so that our circumstances would be similar and relatable without the need of too much explanation.
The group would meet online, as it is far too complicated to meet in person.
Probably people in the same time zone, or near enough. Not weekly as that seems too frequent, so I suggest once every two weeks.
I envisage a rather short meeting, certainly all done and dusted in under an hour.
To prepare for this meeting, each would have decided which goals or tasks they would like to have completed and may, for whatever reason, be stuck with actually getting done. The nature of the task would need to be:
Specific – rather than ‘work quicker’ maybe ‘find and use a macro which will speed up deciding whether a manuscript is written in US or UK English’.
Measureable – quantify the achievement, so instead of ‘do more on my marketing’ maybe ‘write and post a new blog post’.
Achievable – this will depend very much on your circumstances, but if you are studying a course it could be (rather than get a superb grade) complete the latest module and hand the assessed work in.
Relevant – the task should be one which is linked to the bigger-picture direction you want to go in. So rather than ‘learn to cook’ an editorial professional might have a goal to revamp their website and a relevant task could be to find a professional photographer for some headshots.
Time bound – so rather than the airy-fairy ‘take on more work’ a time-bound task could be to ‘update my CV by Friday’.
How would it run?
Once a group was formed across whatever online platform, or by email, the invitations would go out to the group. There would be a first meeting where each member would briefly introduce themselves and state the SMART goal they would work on in the following two weeks. The new meeting would be set up.
After the two weeks, the accountability group meeting would have three parts:
In turn, each would tell the others, in one sentence, how they are (so allowance for this could be made by the group)
Next, in turn, each would restate the goal they had set for themselves and say whether they had done it or not. If others had ideas of how to help with an under-achieved task, they could mention this but only that they have a helpful suggestion (and will get in touch later with more details – outside the accountability group itself).
Then, again in turn, each would tell the others briefly what their SMART task would be for the following two weeks.
The person who would arrange the next meeting would be appointed, and the meeting would close.
The timing would be brief so sticking to the outline would be important and this would be maintained by the leader, who could be the person who set up the meeting (and this could rotate through the group).
The intention of keeping the timing bish-bash-bosh is to prevent it becoming arduous and therefore difficult to maintain enthusiasm for. If group members wanted to do more, this could be arranged separately, outside the accountability group.
Once your first draft is done, and you have taken a well-earned break, the manuscript will need some more work. You may make further drafts and do some self-editing. Then could be when you feel it is ready for someone else to read. If your presentation lacks uniformity, you should consider resolving this before anyone else reads it. This standardisation will reduce the reader being distracted from the meaning of the words.
Who will the next reader be?
Who you choose to read through your manuscript could be a family member, a beta reader, a friend, a publisher, an agent or any combination of these. Maybe you will decide to collaborate with a professional editor, as you could feel that the writing would benefit from their expertise and fresh eyes. Whoever you present your writing to, you will want them to form an opinion and probably offer some feedback, advice and their suggestions for improvement.
Why good presentation matters
How your manuscript looks to a reader will make an impression, favourable or otherwise. Clear writing will take the reader less time to read. This would be desirable even if they were family, but if they’re an editorial professional, a difficult-to-read manuscript could end up costing you more in their time. Presenting your manuscript well will reflect how seriously you take your writing and how well you respect their time.
How to set out writing clearly
Some agents and publishers offer authors a predetermined style, in the form of submission guidelines or author guidelines. Experienced authors may have a style or convention they like to follow for all their writing as their own preferences or guidelines.
If you do not have a documented format that your manuscript should follow, there is flexibility, but aim to be consistent. As a general guide, the following choices will present a clear, readable manuscript:
Use a title page (unnumbered)
Begin numbering on the first page of the text
Typeface: keep to one font throughout and use a commonly available one such as 12 point, regular (not bold in text), Times New Roman, Black
Margins 1 to 1.5 inches all round
Each chapter on a fresh page, following a page break (not multiple spaces down to the start of the new page)
Line spacing 1.5 or double-spaced
Align left (also called ragged right)
Only one space between sentences
Do not use tabs (use Word Styles with indents of five spaces for each new paragraph)
Care with formatting your manuscript will make your work easier to assess and eventually to typeset. This level of presentation will help with reader experience, and reduce distraction from the message of your writing.
By doing this, you will come across as having a professional attitude to your writing and help everyone concentrate on what you have written rather than how you have written it.
The final arbiter is you
The more people you get to read your manuscript, the more opinions and suggestions you will collect. Once two readers have seen your manuscript, but be prepared for them not to agree on everything. Professional editors are likely to back up their suggestions with reasoned explanations, but on reviewing their edits, if you feel that you need more explanation or are unclear, you should ask for clarification. Whoever you get to check your writing before it moves to the next stage, always remember that you will be the one attaching your name to it and as author you are the final arbiter.
Often writers will ask me variations of the question ‘how many words make a proper book?’ This question suggests the questioner is probably a new writer. They may not have spent long looking at the types of books they are writing or aspire to write.
As with many questions about writing, my immediate thought is, it will depend. Although some will say that a creative should let their writing flow and produce the manuscript which tells their story and writing should not be constrained by a set word count, this is not going to help a new writer. In the early stage of getting a first draft written, flowing creativity is most helpful and story is paramount. The beginning, middle and the end need to be crafted. At some point in the writing process, perhaps still at first draft or when self-editing and editing, manuscript length is worth considering.
When does it NOT matter how long a book is?
When the words are precisely as the author wants and the intention is to self-publish, the word count does not matter. Some books may be made in this way, for example, where a poet has invested a great deal of time crafting their lines and verses and has a group of themed poems to go into a volume. The author is the final arbiter and if this is their process the reader could be presented with any word count in a book. Once an author has become established and has a loyal following, they can be less concerned about the word count of their manuscripts.
When DOES it matter how long a book is?
With digital publishing, typesetting constraints are not what they once were, but physical books still have the same issues.
Picture books are typically thirty-two pages long, as they need to be in page count multiples of eight. The words need to fit within this construction.
Most books are not tied to a fixed page count, and equally, most are not entirely free from an expected word count norm.
At any stage in the writing and publication process, the word count of a manuscript comes with implications.
Getting it written – if you know the word count you are aiming to write for a project (whether book, blog post or article) you can use it as a gauge for how far remains to completion. The word count can be helpful to break the writing down into chunks which are more manageable to consider as chapters, scenes or acts to help bring a balance or pace to the narrative. Grouping word counts within a long-form manuscript can help outline and plan.
Managing the project – word count can be used to monitor progress. Awareness of word count helps with scheduling dependent activities such as self-editing, copyediting, proofreading, beta readers, publication and marketing.
Meeting genre expectations – book genres come with standards for the number of words they require, which is based on traditional publishing. Staying within the recognised word count appropriate to the genre will prevent frustrating the expectations of others.
Word count will have a bearing on editing and proofreading costs; production costs and perceptions of value. Books which seem short may appear as poor value for money, and books that are longer than readers expect may be perceived as drawn out or demanding.
What are standard traditional publishing wordcount guidelines?
These are benchmark word counts and come from various sources including Hill (2016), and the Writers and Artists Yearbook (2020):
Children’s Picture Books: up to 500 (absolute maximum 1,000)
Short Stories: 1,000 to 8,000
Children’s Chapter Books: 6,000 to 10,000
Novellas: 20,000 to 50,000 (some recommend a maximum of 40,000)
Novels: between 40,000 and 100,000 but typically 90,000
Young Adult: 50,000 to 80,000
New Adult Novel: 60,000 to 85,000
Horror, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller: 70,000 to 90,000
Mainstream Romance: 70,000 to 100,000
Literary Fiction: 80,000 to 110,000
Women’s Fiction: 80,000 to 110,000
Crime: 90,000 to 100,000
Science Fiction: 90,000 to 125,000
For a new writer, it is advisable to keep within word count guidelines as it is less likely to succeed as an exception than by conforming, although there will always be some exceptions.
Being confident about a few style choices and applying them consistently can make all the difference to writing speech clearly. Even though it should not be a main priority for the first draft, it is good to try to standardise these decisions and aim for consistency in the second and subsequent versions of a manuscript.
Done right, speech will add to your writing and make for a better reader experience. Here I set out detailed advice with examples for:
Reported and direct speech
Quote mark styles
Choosing speech tags
Punctuating speech tags
Reported and direct speech
Reported speech within narrative is not set out with speech marks (also called quote marks):
He said that they were under arrest.
She told Dad to climb the wall.
He asked where I went.
Conventionally, direct speech will include a vocative word or phrase (which indicates, or evokes, the speaker) and is set apart from narrative using quote marks and dialogue tags (also called speech tags).
Style of quote marks
The usual style for quote marks in UK fiction is single, as in this from Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019) by Rónán Hession, p19:
‘Indeed. And sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you want to scream or block out a scream,’ said Leonard.
Whereas in the US double quote marks are the convention, as in this from Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue, p127:
“Look,” she says, “a flamingo flying by.”
“Look, a zombie all drooling.”
“Jack!” That makes her smile for half a second.
In both UK and US styles, nested quotes (quotes within quotes) take the opposite form of quote mark to that used for the outer quote mark. Thus, the UK convention would be to use double quotes within single; an example would be this from Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, p48:
‘I was very agitated at the conference … and to look out at the South China Sea in the afternoon. Are those not beautiful words … “South China Sea”?’
Whereas, the US convention would be to use single quotes within double, as in this from The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee and in my 2016 edition, p86:
“Didn’t you write a book the first chapter of which was called ‘All Animals are Equal?’”
Smart quotes versus straight quotes
With UK and US styles, the quote marks, and any apostrophes, are smart ones (sometimes called intelligent or curly). They are favoured over straight ones (which typically came from typewriter use, where they were adopted due to space and mechanical constraints).
To make a single smart quote in MS Word for PC use ALT +0145 for left and ALT +0146 for right, and for MS Word on a MAC use Option+] for left and Shift+Option +] for right.
If you do want to enforce the use of straight quotes in a document within MS Word on a PC select the file tab and click options.
Select Proofing and the AutoCorrect Options button.
Click the AutoFormat tab and in the Replace section untick the box next to “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes”, click OK, OK.
Conversely to enforce smart quotes leave this box ticked.
In these examples, I have added bold to indicate the words that indicate speech (which is the tag). They come from What You Wish For (2014) by Mark Edwards:
‘Who do you mean by “this lot”?’ I asked softly. (p130)
‘I take it you’ve had no word from Cherry?’ I said. (p138)
‘A friend,’ I said. ‘Someone else who loves visitors.’ (p168)
These clarify that the section is different to narrative, clue the reader as to who is talking, and help create pace and rhythm. To guide your use and selection of dialogue tags, think of them as supportive of speech, so:
only there if necessary
secondary to the dialogue
Only tag where needed
Think of dialogue tags as traffic lights at a minor road junction, the sort which only operate at peak times. When there are many vehicles, they are needed, but when the there is little traffic, they would hold things up unnecessarily, so stay off.
In sections of direct speech when many people are talking together the tags save confusion, but if there are as few as two people in a scene, tags can often be dispensed with. This avoids slowing the pace, as the conversation is already easy to follow.
Dialogue is superior to its tag
Conventionally, when there is a new speaker, one would open a new paragraph. There are times when this is not followed, such as when those speaking only say a few words to one another.
This works as a rule of thumb, and is what most readers expect. Avoid over flamboyant speech tags, as these take the limelight from where it needs to be for the storytelling.
Sadly, I can remember being set a class exercise in school, which was to create chunks of writing with as many differenttags in as we could dream up. We were encouraged to flip through a thesaurus in an effort to add obscure and flowery terms. I shudder to think of it now and want my school-child self to march to the front of the class and say, ‘I have an urgent message from my editor-to-be self, “No! please don’t.”’
Mostly ‘said’ works, as does ‘asked’ with a question. These are transparent to the reader and have the subtlety of a gentle nod from a parent, leaving the dialogue front and centre.
Keep it about speech
Occasionally, you will decide it is appropriate to use other tags and, properly considered, this can be a good choice. However, if you do, remember to keep the tag relevant to the speech.
These examples from Smith (1967) by Leon Garfield all work well and do not dominate:
‘And who, miss, would you ask?’ queried Miss Bridget irritably. (p17)
‘And so say all of us,’ murmured Miss Fanny, as she might have said, Amen! (p35)
‘Oh, Smith!’ she whispered, and turned away. (p105)
Used less well, tags can be distracting and annoying and can put readers off. I have created the following examples of how not to do it:
‘Climb the wall,’ fantasised the prince.
‘This one is for me,’ gobbled the child greedily.
‘I can’t speak through this mask,’ muffled Sarah.
And some frequently seen terms just do not work:
‘I did not know that,’ laughed Tony.
‘Here take an ice cream,’ she smiled generously.
‘Catch the bus home,’ he pointed.
‘Good grief,’ they snarled.
Speech tags have to be something which can be done with words and must present the possible; otherwise they pose a puzzle.
These are not so much firm rules, as guidelines, to consider when seeking to engage readers. Ignore them, and you risk spinning readers out of your story, wondering how they would have written that sentence differently had they been the writer.
As with so much about writing, once you are aware of the conventions you may decide to go against them but with knowledge, foresight and intention.
Punctuating the speech tag
A speech tag can be placed before, in the middle of or after a piece of speech and, in most cases, is set out with a comma (although a question mark or exclamation mark might be used instead where appropriate).
These examples all come from Me Before You (2012) by Jojo Moyes.
Granddad called out something that may well have been, ‘Hear, hear.’ (p229)
‘Let’s get some lunch,’ I said to Nathan. (p187)
‘Yiss,’ he said, and broke out a smile. ‘Yes, it is let’s head for the gee-gees.’ (p181)
Where there is a long passage of speech, which crosses into a new paragraph, the convention is to place an opening quote mark at the start of the new paragraph within the speech. But not to close the preceding paragraph with a quote mark.
An example of this can be seen in The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee, which in the 2016 edition is on p56:
“Let me now turn to Gulliver’s Travels.
“On the one hand you have the Yahoos, who are associated …”
Not all speech will be neatly complete sentences, especially when a speaker is interrupted or distracted. To present this, an ellipsis is used.
Trailing off speech
Where a character’s speech either dries up or is interrupted is indicated by an ellipsis. In a part sentence, an ellipsis is placed after the last word uttered and is followed by the closing speech mark.
This example is from The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan – 2006 edition p35:
‘Yes, two of those,’ Colin said eagerly, ‘and …’
Hesitant, uncertain or tentative speech is indicated by a spaced ellipsis. There is no need to indicate this further – instead respect the reader’s ability to understand the pauses, stumbles or breaks.
This example is from Cold Sunflowers (2018) by Mark Sippings p160:
‘It’s a book about the First World War. I got it from the club – It was only two bob, well, ten pence. You wouldn’t believe what those soldiers went through; they were only youngsters. Some were even shot for desertion. It was terrible … terrible, the conditions … goodness me.’
An action beat is a short section of writing which is attached to dialogue and indicates who is speaking. The use of an action beat can add to the pace of writing and can help show a character’s voice or provide insight into their emotions and perhaps their movement in a scene.
These examples from The Snow Child (2012) Eowyn Ivey:
‘It’s her.’ She turned her hand at her throat. (In the 2016 edition p86.)
‘So you do have some fight in you, my girl.’ Esther hugged her waist. ‘You’ll need every bit of that to survive around here.’ (In the 2016 edition p140.)
And from The Crow Trap (1999) Ann Cleeves, p323:
‘This is all I could find.’ She grinned so they would know she was lying.
‘That’s very kind.’ Anne took the letter and added, ‘Do you know where Edmund Fulwell is?’
Good advice to an aspiring writer would be to read their dialogue out loud, as this helps to bring authenticity. It is also a good idea to look at a selection of titles and see how speech is presented, as some authors make unconventional approaches work well.
Some prefer not to use speech marks at all, seeing them as an interruption, distraction or perhaps slowing the pace too much. Not using speech marks seems especially popular for writing in the present tense or over a restricted timespan.
Some genres and target readerships may lend themselves to less conventional approaches; some recent books which present speech unconventionally include Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney and Summer (2020) by Ali Smith.
There is a great deal to writing well and, as the communication medium, writing needs to convey the writer’s message to the reader. The writer decides on what the message is, and the extent to which conventional approaches are used is their choice.
Where editorial assistance is sought, the author needs to consider their style decisions and present these within their project brief to enable an efficient collaboration.
These points should help you to consider what is involved in writing engaging dialogue and presenting it clearly. Get it right, and it will give your story variety, interest and pace.