The Subtext in Dialogue

“‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings” – Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

What we say isn’t always what we actually mean. The implications of our words often have a deeper value beyond the surface. The societal conventions which most people (and many characters in your fiction) follow dictate certain codes of behavior and speech. Just as in real life, your characters’ words may have a double meaning, and many times may even be contradictory to the literal understanding. This is subtext.

Imagine a scenario of a married couple on the outs, yet attempting to maintain a facade regarding the strength of their marriage. It’s clear to see how the husband’s “Yes, dear” to his wife’s request isn’t really a “Yes, dear.” Likewise, the wife’s “I love you” wouldn’t actually mean that she loves her husband if the story shows their marriage falling apart.

Understanding subtext is one thing, but how can you translate that awareness to the page? I believe that the best way to show subtext is by amplifying your description of the character’s behaviors while they speak. If a character says “Yes, dear” through clenched teeth, your readers will have a much easier time picking up on it. Of course, sometimes you want to be quite a bit more subtle in your description. No reader likes to be beaten over the head with what can be inferred.

Without mastery of subtext, your dialogue will read as flat and unrealistic. Start giving more thought to your dialogue. Don’t just consider the right words—always consider your character’s true motivations and feelings.

Writers in Love


I dated a writer once. It was one of my best relationships. Problems did eventually ensue, but professional jealousy was never an issue. We never looked at each other as rivals. Instead, we encouraged each other in our pursuits.

If you checked out yesterday’s post, you may remember the line my friend Russell Jaffe said in jest, “Writers hate other writers.” Well, perhaps, but that largely depends on your personality. Writers can be like dogs, tensing up, barking loudly, and ready to draw blood upon the sight of another of their species, but that’s not true for all of us. If that does sound like you, you’re naturally going to avoid dating other writers (unless you’re a masochist. If you are, there are forums for that…). However, even if that doesn’t sound like you, you should still consider the following before pursuing a relationship with another writer:

1. The usual evaluation. Do you find her/him physically attractive? Do you like their personality? Do you respect them? Do the two of you have chemistry? Do you find it to fun to be around them? All the same factors that come into play when dating a non-writer will apply to dating a writer.

2. Handling their success. If you are at an unequal level in terms of literary accomplishments, could you handle her/him being, at present, more successful than you? What if you are at the same level and she/he starts rocketing up in the literary game? Could you handle that?

3. Writing time. You know that you need your time, absent of any distractions, to write. Are you okay with offering the same to your partner? Can you give another writer the space that she/he needs to produce their own work?

4. Too much shop talk. Writing is obviously important to you. If you date another writer, it would naturally be an important part of their life too. Could you handle the constant shop talk or do you require an occasional break from thinking and talking about writing?

5. Competition. Are you a Type A person who has to be the best at everything? Watch out! Even if your partner is more laid back, be careful of treating your lover as a rival. If you’re dating another writer, you need to be able to share in their success, not allow it make your blood boil.

Would you date a writer? Have you done so already? If so, did you stumble over any of these points? Please feel free to share your experience by commenting.

Why You Should Attend A Writer’s Retreat

After I wake up, one of the first things that I do every morning is check my email. Today I found an interesting message in my inbox from Rebecca Little, a friend of mine and fellow graduate of Beloit College‘s creative writing program.

Becca had just returned from a writer’s retreat in the Pacific Northwest. In her email, she expounded on how much fun it had been and that I should attend it next year. I’m planning on doing so.

We all know that writing isn’t confined to any particular space (although there are some writers who swear they can only write in a library, a coffee shop…or in their mother’s basement), nor does a writer even need to be around other writers to write something sharp (In fact, a friend of mine, Russell Jaffe, yet another Beloit creative writing alum, joked with me about how deep down all writers hate other writers. I’ll leave it to you to weigh the validity of that claim…) Still, while attending a writer’s retreat is not a must-do, it certainly presents a wonderful opportunity for an aspiring writer looking to plunge deeper into the literary game.

Here are a few reasons to consider attending a writer’s retreat:

1. To meet other writers. Okay, being around other writers doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make any new friendships, and you may even end up proving Russell right and dislike more than a few writers at the retreat; however, the possibility of establishing friendships with serious writers is quite likely. Developing friendships with other writers is important in so many ways, including: for purposes of networking, to learn from each other, to share “war stories,” and to help keep you sane in a world where, if you’re a writer, most people will assume you must be certified.

2. To learn from established writers. Writing retreats present a wonderful opportunity to learn from experienced, successful writers, and possibly even network with them. Who knows, one good contact may be the tipping point to launching your writing career.

3. To get away from the grind. Your life, most likely, has so many obligations beyond your writing. A vacation away from all your responsibilities to focus on your passion is a wonderful opportunity. Not only will you be immersed in a literary environment, but you’ll enjoy the beauty of a traditional vacation. What could be better?

Have you ever attended a writer’s retreat? What was your experience like?

Friends and Lovers


“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

If you’ve seriously committed yourself to your writing, by the very nature of the task, you will have to have to spend a great deal of time working alone. If you’re fortunate enough to be a full-time writer, you may have no reason to come into contact with anyone, other than at readings, when networking with other writers, or perhaps through meetings with an agent or publishing representatives. If you have a job or are in school, the bulk of your time away from your professional responsibilities may very well be spent writing.

To join the literary game, to get readers to discover your writing, to get publishers to take you seriously, to maybe make a bit of money from your writing, you need to be serious about work and make writing a consistent part of your life. However, sometimes writers can take their profession so seriously that they become recluses, avoiding friends, disregarding or not seeking out lovers, and distancing themselves from supportive family.

I urge all writers to try to find a balance between their non-writing obligations, their writing, and their life and the people who love them. You’re not a machine, you’re a person. You need love, the same as anyone else. You have to embrace the love around you, not run from it because you have a “greater task.”

The isolation will destroy you. It’s not tenable over the long haul for producing good writing either.

Make sure that you value your loved ones. In a solitary profession like ours, they can be your cheerleaders and confidantes, but it’s not just about you. Humans are social creatures. Scientists have proven that without love, your DNA becomes damaged over time. Embrace the love. It will keep you whole.

How do you balance your writing, your professional obligations, and your relationships? Have you ever had any problems doing so?

Do Your Homework Before You Send Out Your Writing


If you were unemployed, what would be a better use of your time, sending out 100 unedited resumes to different positions, many wildly outside of your skill set, or sending out five targeted resumes to positions that are a match for you based on your skills, experience, and possibly even contacts within the company?

The answer to this rhetorical question is obvious.

The same rule applies when submitting to literary journals, agents, or publishers.

It really is not in your best interest to submit your writing everywhere. Why?

1. It shows a lack of respect for the agent, publisher, or literary magazine. You’re expecting them to work with you, but you’re not spending even the slightest bit of time finding out what they’re about. If you think about it, it’s a pretty classless move.

2. It can seriously damage your reputation. Even if your writing improves dramatically, once you’re inside, you’ll realize that the literary game is a small world. You don’t want people remembering you as the aspiring writer who carelessly sent work out to everyone in the industry.

3. It will bruise your ego. Facing countless rejections without any acceptances mixed in will hurt. That’s not to say that you won’t get rejected if you strategize, but you’ll mix those rejections with more than a few acceptances.

So, how do you research publishers, agents, or literary magazines?

Two websites and one book can help you to target effectively. They are, (Poets & Writers), and the 2014 Writer’s Market.

With that information at your fingertips, you can begin the process of researching good fits for your writing.

A Letter to a Young Author


Please, whatever you do, never give up.

I know it may seem like all your efforts lead to absolutely nothing, but please don’t give up.

Believe me, I know that it’s hard rolling the boulder up the mountain to get everything going, it may even seem like a Herculean task, but please, don’t give up.

As best as you can, try to get over the initial hurdles, the ennui that keeps you from writing, the hurt feelings from the rejections, the fact that you know just how many other aspiring writers are out there.

And, please, stay calm. I know that it can be incredibly challenging for an aspiring writer to break in. It takes time to get the technique right, it takes time to know where to publish, it takes time to get the respect of other authors.

But please, try not to let your current situation get you down. So many other aspiring writers get discouraged. They could get to where you’re going, but they won’t because they are choosing to give up. You can take their place. You can get your work out there.

So please, don’t get discouraged by all the hurdles along the way. You have work to do, lots of it, to push that boulder up the mountain. It may seem immovable, but it isn’t. Just please stay calm, regroup when you fail, and keep pushing.

You could be great, but the world may never know if you give up…

Announcement: Hey everyone. I want to thank you all for reading The Literary Game. I’m honored by how much support I’ve received since starting this a little over a month ago.

I write a lot about writing here. I hope you’ll want to read a bit of my actual writing. My piece UFO, a work of flash fiction, was just published in Farther Stars Than These. I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks!

How To Maximize Your Chances of Getting Published

Here’s a scenario: You just completed a short story or poem. Now it’s time to start sending it out to literary journals, right?

How about this one: You powered through and completed your manuscript. It’s time to hire a literary agent or start sending your manuscript to publishers, right?

I applaud the enthusiasm of most aspiring writers, but please, SLOW DOWN.

There are two things that you must do first, before you can reap the rewards of a job well done:

1. Have your writing carefully edited.

2. Find a few literary magazines or small presses that could be an appropriate fit for your writing.

Sadly, even if you follow these two steps, the odds are that you’ll still face some journals or presses that will pass on your writing. However, if you choose not to follow this advice and submit poorly edited pieces to literary journals and small presses that are wholly inappropriate for your type of work, it’s likely that all you’ll meet with is rejection—and much of it.

Save yourself the stress. Do the right thing. Slow down. Have your piece edited, find a good home for it, and then watch how easy it can be to start building a name for yourself in the literary game.

You Are The Final Arbiter of Your Writing

“Beware of advice—even this.”
—Carl Sandburg

This message may seem a bit counterintuitive coming from a man who runs a blog that offers writing advice, but it’s the truth—don’t take my blog posts for gospel truth.

I love writing The Literary Game. I love the opportunity to help aspiring writers through this simple daily blog. I hope that some of my posts are useful to you, wherever you may be in your literary journey.

But know this, I am not the final arbiter on good writing.

I may have published some poems and stories in a few good literary magazines—so what?

But it’s not just me…

Stephen King said to do such and such in On Writing—so what?

A professor in your MFA program said you should consider doing this and that—so what?

It’s not that my advice or their advice is bad. You should want to learn from those around you, from your friends, from other writers, from your professors, from esteemed authors, but at the end of the day, don’t forget that it’s your writing. While the advice that you may read or hear may be spot on, there’s a possibility it may be wildly inappropriate for your writing or situation. 

You know yourself and you know your writing better than I do, better than Stephen King does, better than a professor in your MFA program will. Yes, it is important to embrace the possibilities to learn that are all around, but please don’t neglect your inner compass. Measure the information in front of you. If it works, go ahead and embrace it, but if you know it’s not right, never be afraid to blaze your own path.

Have you ever listened to others’ advice and took a wrong turn because of doing so? Have you ever had a major accomplishment because you disregarded others’ well-meaning advice? I’d love to hear your experiences.

The Five Critical Mistakes That Aspiring Writers Need To Avoid


When you’re new to the literary game, it can be rather easy to fall into some (or all) of these traps. For your own sake, please don’t. Things can change. You can achieve your literary ambitions—but that won’t be likely to happen if you’re afflicted by the following:

1. A Lack of Confidence – You may not have had your work published in any literary journals. You may have had to self-publish that first book. You may not have even completed that first book. So what. Where you are today is not where you have to be tomorrow.

2. A Lack of Writing – You may talk a lot about being a writer, but how much are you actually writing? Aspiring writers turn into emerging writers through writing a great deal. Your work may be rough at first, but like anything else, with practice you’ll grow into a better writer.

3. A Lack of Control – You can’t write because your life has gone awry. If so, you need to take steps to fix your life before anything else. Once your life has some semblance of order, you can turn your literary dreams into your reality.

4. A Lack of Technique – Unfortunately, many aspiring writers don’t read much. You can’t write if you’re not a reader. Reading teaches technique. While blogs like this one, helpful books, and creative writing courses can teach a great deal, it’s an uphill battle if you don’t love to read. Truthfully, reading teaches technique better than any of the aforementioned resources.

5. Treating Writing As a Chore – The world won’t end if your book isn’t completed. Your world won’t end if your book isn’t completed. Writing should be a lot of fun. Writing shouldn’t feel like work. If you treat writing like work, it’s going to start to feel like a job. Writing should never feel like a job. Please don’t put that much pressure on yourself!

Have you made any of these mistakes? How have you overcome them? I’d love to hear your story of how you overcame these challenges.

Brainstorming Your Plot


A little backstory: I quit a good job as an academic to devote myself entirely to my fiction (and poetry and screenwriting). After cutting the cord, the first step I took towards building a literary career was deciding to take a visit to the Clarion Free Library in Clarion, Pennsylvania.

Once there, I pulled an assortment of books written by many of my favorite authors off the shelves. I brought these books over to a table and started analyzing how these authors constructed sentences and paragraphs, how they segmented their stories into chapters, how they wrote description, how they wrote dialogue, how they fleshed out character. I tried to understand the “bones” of quality writing.

After this exercise was complete, I penned my first short story in years. Rairigh Drum, my friend and editor, told me that this story was good enough to be in The New Yorker (not quite yet, I’m afraid). However, there was one problem that continued to come up as Rairigh edited my short stories. The plotting in my stories left something to be desired, necessitating numerous rewrites.

Rairigh shared this one secret with me that has made my job (and her own) quite a bit easier. When you’re plotting your story, always think of the possibilities of what could happen immediately after a major action.

For example, imagine that your story is about a firefighter in love with a plumber’s daughter. You might start the story with the plumber taking the firefighter aside and telling him in a cryptic fashion that marrying his daughter isn’t advisable. You want to end your story with the firefighter and the plumber’s daughter getting married with her father’s blessing. You know the beginning and you know the ending, but how do you fill in the middle?

Rairigh explained that for every starting point, you should brainstorm an assortment of possibilities of what could happen next. I would add that it helps if you put yourself in your character’s shoes. What are the possibilities of what you would do if you were the firefighter? List as many ways that the story can go as you can imagine (I hope you’re good at divergence tests), and then for each action brainstorm the many possibilities as to what would happen if you take that road and keep doing so until you reach the finish point.

You may have a great idea, but it can be hard to sustain it to the end without a strong outline. This fun exercise makes plotting easy, which in turns really speeds up and improves the writing process. I hope this practice helps you as much as it has helped me.

How about you? What fun strategies do you use to plot out your stories?