I spent my weekend at the Florida Writer’s Conference, put on by the Florida Writer’s Association. I submitted a couple proposals last year, around New Year’s which is generally when I remember that I should start acting like the kind of professional who takes running a business seriously, networks, gets her name out there, etc. All last week, while I pulled my presentations together instead of writing, I regretted it. My enthusiasm was at level zero or below.

I had a really good time.

I also learned a lot.

This should have been obvious but a conference with people who are interested in the same things as you are is a lot more fun than a conference with people who are passionate about a subject that you get paid to pretend to care about. Good life lesson there, yes?

My favorite session was given by Allen Gorney, speaking on Dialogue in Every Medium. (I’m so surprised to discover that he’s local and a Full Sail person — I don’t know why, but I didn’t realize that.) Less than halfway through his presentation, I went ahead and bought a book he recommended, while everyone else tried to scribble down notes as fast as they could write. The book is Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. I’m reading my notes and oh, there was so much good stuff that I want to remember, but I also wanted to write about the other sessions I liked and I also should be writing a book and I’m also really tired because it was a long and busy weekend. *sigh*

But here goes: Allen said, “We speak in thoughts, we write in sentences.” I took from that permission to let go of forcing correct grammar on my dialogue. I’m always fighting with that need anyway. I do let my dialogue be casual and relaxed, I do use words in it that I try to eliminate from the rest of my writing, like just and really, and I do let characters speak ungrammatically, but I spend a lot of time second-guessing dialogue that comes across as thoughts. An example from today’s work: “EMDR, that’s what they’re doing now. It’s some eye motion thing. You like stare at a light or something.”

If I hadn’t just been to this great presentation on dialogue, I’d be tweaking that. I might turn it into, “They’re doing this thing called EMDR now.” Or “Have you heard of EMDR?” Or something else entirely. Plenty of options, but if I spend my precious time thinking them out–the way I usually do–I’ll never get to all the other good stuff I learned. But what I definitely learned is that “EMDR, that’s what they’re doing now,” is okay because it’s a thought being spoken, not a sentence being written. (I’m wondering now if I completely misunderstood the meaning of what Allen was saying, but I refuse to believe that, despite the fact that the sentence is written.)

So more good stuff, including an explanation of the Actor’s Thesaurus which makes me wish I hadn’t gotten rid of that book the last time I cleaned out my shelves. I didn’t find it useful, but I wasn’t using it right. The basic idea, though, is that you should be able to put an action verb by each sentence of dialogue that conveys the goal of the sentence. So “EMDR, that’s what they’re doing now” might be pleading or arguing or… well, if I hadn’t gotten rid of the book, I’d be able to look for more options. Drat. But “if explain is the action verb, rethink the sentence.”

On pacing, the longer the line, the slower the pace. To have a really quick pace, use back-and-forth, short lines, no dialogue tags. I think I knew that intuitively, but I like having my intuitions validated by being stated outright. But Allen also suggested removing words in dialogue. There are the obvious ones to remove — the “well”s and the “um”s, the “like”s, and the “some”s–but it seemed like he meant more than that, so I asked for more explanation, and he did. His example dialogue was:

“Do you have any pets?”
“Yes, I have a dog.”

The second line would be more natural, more reflective of a real person, if it was “Yeah, a dog,” or even, “A dog.”

Finally, he suggested that in the revision process, the author should determine two adjectives to describe each character’s speech that reflect their surface traits and two that reflect their inner struggle. And then look at a single character’s dialog against those two adjectives. The thought of adding an easy half dozen revision passes to my already insane revision rounds sort of terrifies me, but I do like the idea of establishing adjectives that should reflect the character’s voices. Grace is an efficient nurturer. I’m going to have to think more about what her subtext is.

I have so many more thoughts! Too many more. One of the coolest things I got out of the conference was the realization that A Gift of Ghosts is really not a romance. I’ve always suspected that. When people ask me what it is, I don’t say “paranormal romance” even though that’s the easiest, most understandable description, because it feels wrong. I usually call it a romantic ghost story. Well, it turns out that if you try to analyze the structure of Ghosts as a romance it falls apart. It doesn’t have a romantic structure. It’s… not a romance. But if you look at it as a ghost story, the story fits a perfect three act structure, with each beat coming more or less where it should, and with the act descriptions happening exactly where they’re supposed to.

And that’s a terrible explanation, isn’t it? But okay, my second favorite session was Michael Tabb, with a presentation titled From Zero to Hero. I loved this presentation, it was great, but it assumed a level of knowledge that probably most people in MFA programs have. I am not in a MFA program. In fact, I haven’t taken a writing class except for one in high school which I hated. I’ve picked up some along the way, but I definitely don’t have the base knowledge that would have made the entire presentation meaningful to me. But to summarize some of what I learned: the protagonist is the character who’s changing. (I probably knew that already, really, but it’s one of the issues I’m having with Grace — in a romance, the heroine is, by definition, the protagonist, but in this story, Noah is the protagonist. In Thought, Dillon was the protagonist which is why that story is so confused. Sylvie’s life changes, but Dillon is the one who grows. I should probably rewrite that one as a YA, ha. Ah, well. But moving on, the protagonist needs to have both an inner and an outer journey.

To go back to my original cool realization, in Ghosts, Akira’s inner journey is about accepting her ability and her outer journey is about helping Dillon. The first chapter doesn’t end when she decides to move to Florida — it ends when she decides to lease the car that Dillon is trapped in. The love interest, Zane, is helping her on her journey by accepting her and assisting her and letting her believe she’s okay, but their relationship is not what the story is about. Ironically, the antagonist is probably invisible — it’s her dad, really, and his way of handling her ability. That’s her obstacle.

Sadly, my notes now get very messy and long. My handwriting stinks. But the screenplay structure calls for three acts — Act 1 is 25% of the story. On the third beat, there’s an Inciting Incident. With Ghosts, the first beat would be the scene in the car, the second is her meeting with Zane, the third is when she reaches out to Dillon. That’s the Inciting Incident, that’s where the story starts. Act One ends with a Big Decision. The beats are not quite right — there’s the house, the car accident, the scanner, the meal at the diner, and the movers, but Act One ends when Zane persuades her to stay and give Tassamara a chance. That’s the Big Decision. Act Two is in 2 parts and it’s 50% of the story. The first part ends with the Belly of the Beast. For Akira, that’s when she reveals the ghost boy and his father. For her, that’s taking a huge chance, revealing herself to the world, but she does it to help them. The second part of the act ends with the Worst of All Things, the threshold of defeat. In Ghosts, that’s when she convinces Henry and Rose to move on but they leave Dillon behind. If her ultimate journey is about helping Dillon, that’s her moment of greatest failure — she gave him something lovely and now she’s taken it away. But then Act 3 comes along and she makes the decision to do something very risky to help him, Climax, and then the New Normal, where they set the dinner table to include the ghosts. It’s far from perfect, but I did that story pretty close to right, working on intuition.

But knowing how to do it gives me a nice framework for looking at my ongoing work, especially when I’m stuck. I’ve read about this structure before, but not in a way that made enough sense to me to do it. It seemed so restrictive, so formulaic. But seeing it in terms of inner journey as well as outer, and decision points, not necessarily action scenes, makes it feel much more natural to me. I am going to be looking at Grace with this in mind, although maybe not until the first revision.

The timer on my chicken (baked thighs with lemon, capers, and garlic salt, they will be delicious) is going and I haven’t even started my sweet potatoes (white ones, mashed, with a little garlic and olive oil), drat it, so thus ends my FWA conference notes for the day. But those were not the only great sessions, and I really did come away from the weekend feeling inspired and excited to put learning into practice. I’m glad I went.