Tag Archives: writing

Tag! Who’s It? (L. Stewart Hearl)

When writing blocks of conversation between two or more characters, you should use tag lines now and then to denote which person is speaking. A simple “Tom said” (or “said Tom”) will do nicely, following or preceding a line of dialog by Tom.

There are thousands of variations you can use, but if you have written distinct characters with their own speaking style, you won’t need many of them.

Examples of dialog tags:

Tom yelled, mumbled Tom, shouted Tom, Tom whispered, Tom asked, Tom demanded, etc.

“Said”, however, is the best tag line. Why? It’s invisible to the reader. “Tom said” simply denotes that a person has spoken without any unusual emphasis.

Many writers go back over their stories and decide that “said” has been overused. Then they start replacing it with synonyms with more color and excitement. This can be a mistake, because many synonyms will sound wrong to the reader and become an irritating distraction. “Said” (or “asked”, when it’s a question) is almost always best.

Publishers and editors like action tags. An action tag is a bit of action that is either followed by or preceded by some dialog.

Examples of action tags:

Tom pulled the hammer back on his .38 and pointed it at Jerry. “Take one more step…and it will be your last!”
Jerry sneered at his brother. “You think you can take me? Don’t make me laugh!”

Note that when there are only two people in a conversation, it is not necessary to have a tag line on every piece of dialog. Why? Each piece of dialog is in a separate paragraph. If the first line of dialog tells the reader who is speaking, then the next paragraph must be the other character’s line.

Sometimes you will want to break up a paragraph with a dialog tag and then continue the same character’s speech. If the character is still the same, you won’t put the continued dialog in a separate paragraph.

Example of continued dialog:

Tom pointed his pistol at Jerry. “You sniveling snake! I should never have trusted you with Mom’s money,” he said. “And if you’d steal from her, you’d steal from anyone.”

Also, a tag need not be directly attached to the speaker. In the examples shown above, it’s clear which character’s talking. As long as you have the speaker’s name within the paragraph with the dialog, your audience will figure it out.

—–  Exerted from “How to be a Professional Liar – Creative Writing Essential for Young Writers” (Now available on Kindle)


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Finding Inspiration (Debra Black)


Puss Caterpillar, Cute and Fuzzy



I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into the heat of an adventure or become some embattled heroine struggling to persevere. I just happened to find a really strange THING stuck to the door of my friend’s apartment, right under the door lock. It had adhered itself to the dirt brown paint and was doing a very good impression of a furry booger. Teardrop shaped and motionless, it had what appeared to be gray fur with a brown stripe that led to what could be a tail on the end. Other than the hair I was at a loss to identify it as a living creature, much less a caterpillar.

I had already knocked on the door to see if my friend had noticed it there when he got home, but less than a minute later he walked up to the bottom of the stairs and I had my answer. It was hard to notice something on your door if you hadn’t arrived yet. I asked him if he knew what it was when he finished his ascent to the second floor and he stepped slightly back with key in hand as I brought the puff of misplaced fur to his attention.

Cluelessness abounded and we both stared at it for a few seconds before I got the bright idea to bring out my pocket knife and pry ever so gently at the bottom of the unidentified object to see if I could at least detach it from his door. It twitched.

There is something you have to know about me. I am not at all fond of bugs. Most of them scare me. A wave your hands around in a panic, scream, and run in pointless circles or rapidly off into the distance, kind of scared. Yes, I know… not exactly dignified and definitely wimpy. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a total coward. I can handle reptiles, rodents, amphibians, and various other animal life forms that would leave a stereotypical female standing on the nearest table. There is just something about most insects that engenders complete terror in me.

This fluffy-looking ball of cute, however, had yet to bring forth my usual abhorrence of creepy crawly things. I persisted in my attempt to pry the now slightly less motionless bug off of the door and get it to land in my hand so that I could take a closer look at it. The lighting was horrible as it was night and the complex managers obviously had a typical lack of concern that poor lighting was conducive to higher crime rates.

Suddenly the caterpillar decided that letting go of the less than tasty surface it was stuck to was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for the sudden transformation from suctioned spot to rolling fluffy donut. It bounced off the side of my cupped palm and fell several feet to careen to a stop in the slight gap between two planks of the weather-beaten wooden landing. I’m not sure if it would have fallen had I not scooped it back into my hand, but I couldn’t let it unintentionally suicide by uncoiling only to find the gap led to a rather impressive fall (for an insect with no wings).

My friend unlocked and opened his door and I requested access to come inside and get a good look at what I was now mostly sure was a caterpillar, although the coat of hairs was making it hard for me to tell. I was met with an immediate and resounding no. I understand the lack of enthusiasm to invite insects into one’s house, so I told him I would be back in a minute and headed down the stairs to place the now uncoiled and slightly more active bug on a less inhospitable location.

It occurred to me in a vague fashion that some caterpillars were known to sting and that I might be courting a sustained fear of all future caterpillars. I quietly whispered a request that it not do so and continued on my mission to rescue this helpless little creature. I will refrain from snorting at my own naiveté for now.

I positioned it on the patio wall of the downstairs neighbor and proceeded to take several pictures of it for future reference… and because it was so darn cute. Now it didn’t occur to me at the time that I was using a flash to take pictures of a bug on a balcony in some other person’s apartment space. I took several. The couple who lives there must have thought I was some sort of stalker or pervert now that I think back on it. Whoops.

I proceeded to climb back up the stairs and knock for admittance feeling that I had saved the day for at least one living soul. Then it occurred to me that I had just left that innocent, adorable little guy crawling toward the inside of a patio that houses a couple with a small child. It struck me that the likelihood of something as squishy and slow as a caterpillar to survive the ravages of a curious toddler was not very high.

My friend opened the door and I looked at him and said, “I think I have to move it again, I left it on the patio wall and it might be in danger there. I’ll be right back.”

This earned me a puzzled look and a shrug. I proceeded to tromp back down the stairs and scoop up the hapless insect, who responded to this fresh assault by coiling back up into a ball again. I placed it in a nearby holly bush, where it promptly fell between the leaves. I’d have to guess being coiled into a ball makes it harder to get a grip on a bush, and it disappeared into the darkness between the foliage. I could only hope it wouldn’t be found by fire ants and devoured before it could recover itself and continue on its way.

I spent the rest of the evening relaxing with my friend and the night passed uneventfully other than some zombies startling me at random points in the game he was playing. This was to be expected.

The next evening I finally got around to looking up the strange and wonderful new friend I had made the previous day. I traced the name of this mystery bug down. It was a …. puss caterpillar? How could something so cute have such a gross name? I continued searching to satisfy my curiosity and found a menacing fact. It sure looked cute, but this bug had a reputation for being venomous to a painful extreme. So much so, that the spines hidden in its fur could raise blisters that would fill with puss. Eeeew.

Suddenly I felt like I had battled adversity and triumphed. I had not only relocated and possibly saved the life of an insect; I had also overcome my fear of bugs while somehow miraculously avoiding being traumatized and poisoned, and possibly even kept a child from being stung by this adorable but not-so-harmless caterpillar.

Sometimes you become the hero in your own story. It doesn’t matter if you don’t happen to be famous or have a following for all of your valiant moments in life. Share a moment where the ordinary turned extraordinary for you! You never know what might turn out to be a really interesting story to share later.



Debra Black


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Finding Time (Debra Black)

It is easy to say “I’m too busy right now.” or “I will sit down and write that in a few hours.”  However, the challenge to take up the proverbial gauntlet and actually let the creative ideas pour forth has yet to be answered.  Perhaps you only have a few short lines that may evolve into a poem.  Maybe you want to get started on a novella that touches a subject close to your heart.  Possibly the idea of scaring your friends with a good old fashioned horror story makes you snicker.

Finding the right time to place the words somewhere concrete can be a daunting task.  Daily life can take up a significant chunk of our attention span.  I wake up, go to work, squeeze in a lunch break if I can manage it, drive to the gym, work out, drive home, shower, dress, and head over to hang out with my friends on any given evening.  We spend the time talking about work, eating dinner, working our way through video games, watching movies, or settling in for a commentary on various subjects to be found on YouTube.  Sometimes we discuss our writing, or lack therein of.  This doesn’t even take into account the various tasks like shopping and laundry that eat up precious moments we would rather spend doing something more entertaining.

Here is the point.  If you are reading this I assume you want to write, but to be successful we are going to need to change our habits.  This may require giving up something else, such as some of that video-game mania (I don’t wanna!).  It could also be accomplished by waking up a bit earlier, or going to sleep a bit later, and dedicating that time to sitting in front of a preferred writing device.  Another idea would be to invite someone else who enjoys writing to sit with you at a chosen time during the week. They could work on something for themselves while you simply enjoy each other’s company (or use each other as sounding boards if you feel like it).

There are so many things we all do in a given week.  My challenge to myself is to pick one day a week to start.  On this day, I will dedicate one hour to writing.  I will not make it some hour squeezed out of a hectic flurry of events.  I will sit somewhere I feel comfortable, and I will make a concerted effort to take the time I have previously taken for granted and do something for myself that will make me feel accomplished and let me have some fun with my imagination.

For those of you who have conquered the time management of writing to the degree that one hour seems ludicrously short, I have a further challenge for you.  November is National Novel Writing Month. During this month (or any other month if you find yourself inspired) you can undertake the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  Log onto http://nanowrimo.org/ and feel free try your hand at being ridiculously over-productive while the rest of us find the gumption to stumble through our first paragraphs.

A final bit of advice… If you find yourself looking at the time and thinking of your assigned hour for writing with dismay… stop.  Don’t force yourself to do something that should be fun.  Find your own time and your own way to express your imagination.  A story that you dread writing will most likely be as painful to read as it was to produce.

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Writing for the marketplace—Part 2 (Cash Anthony)

What distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction, if it isn’t sales and popularity?

One of the distinguishing characteristics of literary fiction is that stories of this ilk may not have happy endings. The characters may not be likable, but the reader will get to know a great deal about them and their internal struggles. The writer will attempt to shed light on the human condition by creating vivid settings and circumstances, and by showing what relationships set inside them or against them reveal about the characters’ lives.

A second distinction that identifies literary fiction appears to be the presence of the writer’s “voice,” a writing style that is unique and memorable. Writing that feels fresh, that engenders an emotional response in the reader as the story explores symbolic and even metaphysical themes is more likely to qualify as literary fiction. Experiments with language and structure are not unusual, as the writer may provide a glimpse into another world and other kinds of relationships where even the rules of language have changed.

This is the point at which literary fiction may cross a line and become magical realism; but instead of focusing on the issue of whether a magical place could exist, the reader suspends disbelief willingly in order to learn how it affects the people who live there.

In the world of fiction readers as opposed to created worlds, there are purists lurking who so desire to elevate the consciousness of their friends, family, and other targets that they set aside time in which only well-regarded works—of literary fiction— may be discussed. Groups of such folk gather periodically all over Houston for just this purpose, though they hide their true intentions beneath benign phrases such as “book club.”

In assemblies where lofty intercourse is so highly valued, book club members actually present opinions about the writing, characters, and story arcs of the monthly selection—and may even be called upon to defend their opinions in polite debate (college English Lit, indeed, except with better wine and adult-style noshes). Knowing their preference for worthwhile pursuits, a Controller of the Book List helps members select each month’s book; but the options include only literary fiction. The Controller (and the members) disdain Travis McGee and the boat he sailed in on, as well as most authors who still breathe.

There are some happy exceptions in the world of book clubs, though, where the readers are encouraged to bounce back and forth between classics and commercial fiction, and where lively debates about the character’s choices, the writer’s voice, and his intentions still occur. Living authors visit these book clubs to tease the readers with contrary interpretations and with the promise of another story to come. Most of my writer friends like these better, as it’s hard to compete with any corpse of renown.

My work is “commercial,” by necessity of the format I’ve chosen, which is the screenplay. But isn’t everyone’s? I have learned that I must keep testing my initial story concept for its commercial potential, or else my work may wander into the category of “hobby,” and that isn’t how I view it. I take it seriously enough to continue to write, read, study, compare, test, and expose it for critique, in the hope of improving it…which means making it more readable. More—literary.

Even though it sounds somehow more serious or substantial to be a writer of literary fiction, I know by now that Hollywood loves a screenplay that clearly fits a popular genre. In fact, many wonderful books, award-winning books, have been adapted for film with unprofitable and uninspiring results because they are too literary. From the Latin littera, meaning—letters that one reads. Letters, not diary entries.

Eventually, I believe, every writer hopes that there will be a large audience for his or her stories. The moment will come when that writer will make the right neural connection between something that is interesting enough to write about it, characters that will entertain and intrigue a significant group of others, and an engrossing way to get the story across.

Lee Jessup, former director of ScriptShark.com, is a career coach for screenwriters. She advises, “Choosing your next project, be it a spec screenplay, a TV pilot or a television spec, should not only be a creative decision; it should, in a perfect, business-savvy world, represent a strategic decision as well.”

In choosing my latest project, I’m finally seeing the light.  I’m seeing the audience lining up at the box office, and this time I’m paying attention to who they are and what they say about what they expect to see. If a movie of mine is also deemed a work of literary genius—so much the better, I admit. But it’ll be quite good enough if they tell their friends, “Don’t miss it!”

Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in TexasDead and BreakfastA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.

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