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Preparing to Tell Lies


f you’ve never told lies for a living—that is, been paid to write fiction—a whole new adventure awaits you. The fact that you are willing to take the leap says you’ve realized there is a lot to consider: dreaming up a complete cast of characters, plotting, dialogue, painting the backgrounds through which your characters stroll, perhaps even creating your own world.

There are thousands of articles and nearly as many books that can guide you through the steps you need to take. They will also advise you to consider the marketplace.

Ah, the marketplace.

Unless you plan to self-publish or go with small publishers, both of which equal minimal distribution, the marketplace is your starting spot.

If you wish to make money writing fiction, the best way to do so is to dive into one of the book-length popular genres. Yes, there is a literary market, but it is small and the chances of breaking in are, well, bleak. Your chances improve if you can write in the top selling genres: children’s, romance, mystery/suspense, and sci-fi/fantasy. And if you have money in mind, the major publishing houses are your main target. The meat and potatoes of their fiction lists are the popular genres.

“Your chances improve if you can write in the top selling genres: children’s, romance, mystery/suspense, and sci-fi/fantasy.”

Perhaps you’ve settled on a genre, a length, and have visions of thousands, even millions of dollars dancing in your head. Sorry, I’ve got to rein you in and ask a few questions. The money you make writing novels hinges on how many copies sell. Oh, sure, there are advances paid upfront against those possible royalties, but they aren’t paid by every publishing house, and some advances are quite small.

So let’s shelve the money issue and answer some questions. After all, before the money, comes the writing of the masterpiece.

  • Is there an author (or two) whose style you admire and feel would be a good role model, someone to emulate?
  • What do you enjoy most about their stories: main character, situations, the surprises in plot, the dialogue, the description?
  • What type of fiction do you read for enjoyment?

If you already have a couple of favorite authors and wish to write their type of story, you’re ahead of the game. You know what you like style-wise, even character-wise, and have a genre already.

But, reading only their books won’t help you. You need to read other authors in the same genre, in the same category. There are subgenres everywhere, niches, and you need to find which suits you best and discover who is already being published in it. You need to read authors whose first book has just hit the stands. After all, didn’t they just impress an editor enough to offer that first contract? That, in itself, is a coup. Ask a knowledgeable bookseller for guidance to these newcomers’ books, or pick up copies of review magazines, on and off line. There are many that are genre specific. See if Amazon has reviews posted. Pick a couple of these newcomers’ novels based on the reviews.

Now, select a few of your favorites—recent releases, please. The market does change and reading Jane Austin or Geogette Heyer and emulating them might not get you in the door when it comes to writing a Regency era tale today. You might want to swing by a used book store and get an extra copy of your favorite authors’ most recent books because you’ll be marking these up as you analyze how they write.

Make notes about the type of characters, the plots, the twists, the balance of action to interaction, the amount of dialogue and description, hooks, background given and when it is given, and how often the POV shifts, if it does at all. If you’ve never written fiction before, these are your story tools. If it will help you, use colored markers to track these elements.

While you’re at it, do a word count. Count every word on the first five pages of the book, preferably in the first chapter. Divide that number by five, then multiply the total number of pages in the story. Don’t include excerpts of other books added as a teaser. You’ll want to round to the nearest 5,000 words because most novels run between 75,000 and 120,000 words. A lot will depend on the genre; some category romances run less but fantasy frequently runs over 120,000.

Now with some parameters, you can gauge how long your story needs to be, how many chapters it should be broken into and how long those chapters should be.

Time for more questions.

  • Is there a subplot, or more than one subplot?
  • Are the characters engaged in their daily life as well as events in the storyline?
  • Do you have characters that make an appearance only in one book, or do some of them continue on in a series of stories?
  • What are their strengths and their weaknesses?
  • What do you know about the world they live and work in, and what don’t you know?
  • Will the stage upon which your characters play be one you are familiar with?
  • Will you need to do some research? And if so, what does it deal with?

It is much, much easier to work within a world you already know. I’m not saying you can’t write fantasy because you don’t personally know any fey folk, but if you haven’t seeped yourself in the genre, or read the old legends and the mythology, it will be more difficult to work within the natural boundaries of that world.

I once had a student in my novel class who had worked out an amazing number of details for her fantasy world, but she launched her book with a glaring problem within the first couple pages. Her dragons gave birth in mammal fashion, rather than lay eggs as dragons of legend do. Now, there is nothing wrong with that if she set up her fictional world to run with different rules than Earth legends laid down, but she hadn’t. All she needed to do was read more fantasy novels that involved dragons and legends about dragons.

Once she had those basics down, she could go back to the drawing board and save her storyline. If she wanted to change her dragon lore, reading Shana Abé’s tales of dragons who shape shift into human form would have given her an example of how to mutate her own dragon forms to her original premise. Or she could dip into Naomi Novik’s Tremeraire series and see an entirely different treatment of dragons, one that rewrites the history of the Napoleonic Wars. Both might well have given her a glimmer of what could have been done, and how to do it.

“Even if you are using locations or occupations you are familiar with, there will be elements in your storyline that require research.”

Does your interest lie in a historical period? At a book signing, a reader picked up one of my historicals and then proceeded to tell me I would sell far more copies if I wrote stories set in the highlands of Scotland in the Middle Ages. Easy for her to say, but my interests lie in the 19th century American West. It is that period, that locale, that I know about best because I love to lose myself in researching the old mining towns, reading things like the Cheyenne Daily Leader’s 1870s issues, and I already have a large collection of research books and notes relating to wardrobe, slang, and colloquialisms of that era. While I thanked her for her input, mentally, I asked the characters in my head, who were gathered around a scarred table, whiskey and beer glasses at their elbows, cigars or self-rolled cigarettes between their teeth, and a spread of playing cards in their hands, what they thought. My hero nudged his wide brimmed hat back an inch and asked if I was in this game or folding my hand. I anted up.

Moral of the story: To your own interests be true. Just because CSI stories are in demand, if merely thinking about what your characters must do or see makes you turn green, don’t plan to write that type of story. Even if you are using locations or occupations you are familiar with, there will be elements in your storyline that require research. Dive into that research only if it already interests you. And set time parameters—you need to come back to the present and write the story, not get lost in the fascinating world you’re researching.

For some writers, answering these questions and doing time-consuming preparation is often the best way to prepare to write fiction. There is no one right way to write anything, and if you are coming to fiction from a strong nonfiction writing background you already know that.

The best tools to have at hand are an excellent command of the English language, the sense to step back and see if your story is progressing in a logical fashion, and the ability to tell one heck of a tale.

Using other writers’ published work can help you through any snags you encounter along the way. And snags there will be. Writing fiction means stepping into another world, one of your making, but one that still needs to adhere to certain elements. Recognizing those elements in what you enjoy reading, and in what is selling in the marketplace, puts you ahead of the game.

For a game it most definitely is, this business of telling lies for a living.


Beth Henderson has been published by seven different publishers and is the author of 25 published books in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats. Her books have sold over 600,000 copies worldwide, and been translated in twelve languages. Among these titles were tales of romantic-suspense, historical romance, contemporary romantic comedy, and young adult romantic comedy based on the "Saved By The Bell" television series. She holds a bachelors in History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a masters in Composition and Rhetoric from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.  Currently she is working on historical romances set in the American West, romantic comedies, romantic suspense ideas, and a couple short stories.

Visit her website:


Tips for Making Dialogue Stronger

eople's voices—including their words, diction, and inflection—reflect who they are. A word of caution here—a little bit goes a long way. What your character says is usually more important than how he says it. Your main focus should be on staying true to your character. In order to do that, you must know your character.

When I was editing the first draft of my novel, Photo Finish, I ran across a line said by the photographer Louis Giraud. As soon as I read it, I realized it was not something Lou would say. Another character might have, but not Lou. I changed the line to one more in keeping with his character.

Sometimes it helps to read your dialogue aloud. You might even want to record yourself reading your dialogue in order to go back and hear the emotions conveyed through your words and to determine whether or not you can distinguish between your characters without using tag lines. Does each of your characters have a distinct voice?

Example: The scene below is from my book Anything For A Buck. Roxanne has called Ethan, a veterinarian, and he has come to treat the injured deer.

Certain the sedative had had time to take effect, Ethan took out the splint and some surgical tape.

"Can you hold his leg while I splint it?"

Roxanne suppressed a shudder. Blood and guts were not her forte. She took so long to respond that he looked back around at her.

"Yes," she said. "Okay."

"Just like this."

He brought his head close to hers as he showed her how to hold the deer's leg. He wore a white shirt and khaki pants that looked immaculate. Either he hadn't had any patients today or he'd worn some type of smock. Maybe he wore surgical scrubs. He looked sorta like a dog's answer to George Clooney. And he smelled wonderful. Unlike George's hair, Ethan's was thick and curly, and it smelled like…. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent again. "Apples."

"Excuse me?"

She didn't answer.

He glanced over at her. Her eyes were closed, and despite the dirt on her face, she looked pale. "You all right? Don't faint on me."

"Do you get that a lot?"

"People fainting? Only the queasy ones."

"Well, not me. I'm not a fainter. I can take anything you can throw at me."

Notice how use of action negates the need to use so many tags. When editing, I've actually seen dialog like this:

"Hi, April."

"Hi, May."

"April, do you know where June is? I haven't seen her this morning, and it isn't like her to be late."

"No, May, I don't know where she could be," April answered.

When one woman saw her heavily-edited passages of dialogue, she was appalled and asked, "How will the reader know who's talking?"

Think about this: in your normal, everyday conversations—especially, when there are only two people in the room—how often do you say the name of the person you're addressing? I might go all afternoon and talk with my husband but never say his name until our children come into the room. My one exception to this rule is conversing with my cat, Pepper. She often lies on my lap or near me when I'm working; and when I talk out a problem with her, I'll go as far as to ask, "What do you think, Pepper?" I'll sometimes use a nickname. "You need to get up, Peppy-doo. I have to go get the laundry." Granted, this is probably the weird behavior of a woman who spends too much time alone with her computer and her cat. But this is the one instance I use lots of name tags in my actual dialogue when I'm addressing only one…er, person. If there were other people in the room, I might be writing this with a crayon from a padded cell, but that's another article altogether. My point: your written dialogue should mirror natural dialogue.

If, like me, you don't get out as often as you should, watch some movies or television to get a feel for the flow of dialogue in various situations or from different regions. But, whatever you do, do not watch soap operas for this information. I read somewhere that writers should avoid "soap opera dialogue," and I agree wholeheartedly.

Example: "Jack, isn't that Charles, the son you had by JoAnne while you were married to Elizabeth?"

Are the words you're choosing conveying the emotions your characters are feeling, or are you providing adverbs?

Example: "I'm not taking this abuse any longer," she said angrily.

"I'm not taking your crap anymore!" she yelled.

Which is stronger?

If you have a foreign character or a character with another sort of accent (Southern drawl, Cape Cod accent), define this without being too heavy handed. In my book, Photo Finish, I had a Greek character. I listened to Greek language tapes in order to get a feel for the cadence of the language. I also chose words Jay could use to give credibility to the nationality of his character. For example, he calls the heroine "oraia" throughout the book. "Oraia" means "beautiful."

If you have a character who is a child, it's wise to make her the same age as your own children. If you have no children, you might want to volunteer at a school for an afternoon to get a feel for how children today talk. Let's say your child is a girl in kindergarten. If you go to the school and read to a class or simply observe, you'll come home with plenty of research—and not only in how children talk. You might just have enough material for two books!

Another good idea is to read classic children's books that have stood the test of time. Beverly Cleary's "Henry Huggins" and "Ramona, the Pest" books are terrific, as are Judy Blume's "Fudge" series. Trust me on this one. You move into different phases with your children. My children are twelve-year-old boy/girl twins. It's no coincidence that the children in my most current book Murder Takes the Cake are eleven-year-old boy/girl twins. I can speak their language. I can write authentic middle school children, because I live with them and their friends. If I were to write a younger child character today, I would literally need to go back to elementary school.

Just remember, the most important thing about your dialogue is to keep it real.


Gayle Trent is a full-time author. She is currently at work on a new cozy mystery series involving her hobby, cake decorating. The series features Daphne Martin, a 40-year-old divorcee who has begun the second phase of her life with a new home and a new business venture—Daphne's Delectable Cakes. The first novel in the series is Murder Takes the Cake, which was a semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. Gayle lives in Bristol, Virginia with her husband, daughter and son.

Find out more about Gayle by visiting her website:


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