6 Ways Authors Over-Dramatize

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

As novelists we need to dramatize our writing. Fiction is NOT the same as boring real life. Fiction is larger than life. Think about friends or family who are especially good at retelling an ordinary event. They have the ability to make us hang on to every word or make us laugh louder. Those kinds of story-tellers usually embellish their stories or make them more intense or funnier than perhaps what really happened.

But that's what good story-telling is about–taking the ordinary and making it entertaining. Fiction writers spin words to make readers laugh, cry, gasp, smile, and bite their nails.

However, as I was recently listening to a novel through Audible, I realized that sometimes authors can OVER-dramatize. To the point of distraction. To the point that the writing quality begins to suffer.

As I listened to this particular book, I wrote down some of the ways I thought this author was over-doing it (and realized that sometimes I'm guilty of using some of these techniques too!). (Sidenote: That's why we authors should read voraciously! The reading helps us grow in our own writing abilities either by helping us pick up good techniques or see issues to avoid.)

Here are six ways we writers are sometimes guilty of going overboard in our dramatization:

1. Over-doing emotional reactions:

Over-dramatizing emotions can happen on two levels. The first is on a micro-level. This happens when we are continually slipping in phrases like "my heart swelled to the point of bursting" or "her stomach fluttered like a thousand butterflies." Not only are such usages cliché, which we want to avoid, but we want express deep emotions sparingly so that they don't lose their impact.

The second way we can over-do emotional reactions is on a macro-level. We can do that when we keep bringing up an emotional reaction during a scene or across multiple scenes. For example, in the book I was listening to, the main character had just lost her parents. Yes, that's sad. But for the first few chapters, the author kept having the character crying, sobbing, and used phrases like "tears poured down her cheeks." I didn't feel more sympathetic toward the character. Instead I started to get annoyed.

2. Over-doing descriptions:

Writers can over-describe by adding in setting details that have no purpose or giving too many details that read like a catalog description.

Another way writers can over-describe is by mentioning the same description too many times, like "he had beautiful hazel eyes" and a short while later refer to his "gleaming eyes had an effect on me."

Saying something once is usually enough, especially if in short succession. There may be points later in the story where we can refresh the reader on a description. But we have to be careful about continually describing the same things.

3. Over-doing a scene:

Over-writing a scene happens when we drag a scene on for too long. Usually we only need a play-by-play of a scene when we want each detail to count for something later in the book (for example we're foreshadowing). Otherwise, if our character is saying good-bye to her friends, we don't need to drag out the scene for too long, add in every detail, and have her think numerous times how bleak her life is going to be without her friends . We have to decide what are the most important and impactful moments to include and then stop there.

4. Over-doing action beats connected to dialogue:

We have to be wary of adding in too many action beats (the small motions or actions that come before or after dialogue). It's all too easy to have our characters smiling and grinning every few lines. Or sighing. Or rolling their eyes. Or having thudding hearts.

If we're running in to the trouble of having repetitive action beats, we may need to look for more unique and varied beats. Or we may not have enough going on in the scene around them to lend to a more natural outflow of the dialogue (so that we can limit our beats).

5. Over-doing repetitive words:

We all have pet words that begin to crop up too many times in our story words like "gaze" or "smirk" or "race." While self-editing, I usually do a search for my pet words and either cut some or replace them with synonyms. A good editor can also help us spot those.

In addition, we have to be careful about over-using less common words. For example, if we use "amble" several times in the same chapter or even across several chapters, the repetition will be more glaring to readers than if we over-used a common word like "walk."

6. Over-doing unanswered questions:

I'm a proponent of using unanswered questions as a plot technique. I think dangling those unanswered questions in front of readers is a great way to keep them turning the pages. However, we need to be careful about leaving too many questions for too long which will only begin to irritate the reader.

In a literal sense, I find it especially annoying when the character has questions and asks the people around her and they continue to make excuses for why they can't answer the questions. Such dragging out begins to feel like author intrusion especially when there's no good reason given why the person can't answer the questions.

On a deeper story level, an author can leave out information (hence placing questions in the reader's mind about what really happened). But again an author has to begin to satisfy the reader's curiosity, perhaps in stages, without leaving too much to the end. Or again the reader may become frustrated.

Those are just a few of the ways we can over-dramatize. Are there others that I missed? In what other ways have you seen authors go over-the-top?

Why You Need a Reader-Friendly Website (And How to Get It That Way)

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Today is the release of my 10th full length novel! Whoo-hoo! Can you believe it? It seems like just yesterday my debut book was releasing and now book number 10 is hitting shelves!

I'm super excited about this particular book, Luther and Katharina. I wrote the book about seven years ago (around the same time I wrote my debut book). But for many different reasons, this book languished in la-la land. All the waiting has made this release day even more special.

My author copies!
(Sidenote: A word of hope for those who are seeking tradition publication for a specific book–don't give up hope if that's your dream! It can happen, perhaps just not the way you expect or as quickly.)

Every time a book birthday draws near, I begin to strategize my marketing plan, not only with my publisher, but I also come up with a brainstormed list of things I can do as well. I try to vary what I do from book to book. Sometimes I do blog tours. Other times I do social media sharing contests. This time I'm doing daily trivia questions and giveaways over on Facebook.

While marketing plans change from book to book, there's one thing I do with every single new book–I update my website and make sure the new book page is ready for readers. And no I don't just add the book, the blurb, a few reviews, and the "buy now" tabs and call it good. I go beyond that to make sure the page is reader-friendly.

Why is it important for authors to have an up-to-date, reader-friendly website? 

There are lots of reasons, especially in today's current competitive market. One of the main reasons is that a website is an author's "home." When we have visitors into our physical home, first impressions often stick. Visitors get a glimpse of our personality and tastes by what they see. And if it's unwelcoming, our visitors will sense that too.

Likewise our online homes reflect us as authors. If our sites are disorganized, hard to navigate, and out-of-date, that will speak volumes. If our site is all about the "hard sell" with only the "buy now" buttons, chances are readers aren't going to feel all that welcome. When they leave our site, they'll have no motivation to return.

Ultimately we DO want readers to return, over and over. We want to have a welcoming atmosphere that fosters an ongoing relationship.

In other words, our website is much more than a showcase for us as authors. Yes, it's important to have our bios, pictures, etc. But it can't stop there. Our website needs to meet the needs of our readers. What can we give to them? How can we enhance their reading experience? What will help them connect more deeply with our stories?

As I prepared for the release of Luther and Katharina, here are a few simple ways I made sure the book page was ready for readers. The page includes:

Book Club Collection package. All of the items are free and easy to download: introduction letter, discussion questions, famous Luther quotes, a fun quiz to do before or after the meeting, and background information on the characters.

Playlist of songs and hymns. This particular playlist consists of hymns written by Martin Luther. I chose more contemporary renditions to reflect my tastes.

Famous Quotes download. I put together a list of famous Martin Luther quotes and also highlight some of the ones I use in the book.

Martin Luther quiz . I used for an easy format.

Pinterest Gallery. The board is full of various pictures that relate to the book.

Reader Photos slideshow. Whenever a reader takes a picture of herself or her pet with the book, I add it to the slideshow.

Reader Creation slideshow. I love when readers make graphics of quotes from my books or even just to showcase the book itself. I put those graphics into a slideshow as well.

Authorgraph widget. I make it easy for readers to have their e-books signed by including an authorgraph widget at the bottom of the page.

I invite you to stop by my Luther and Katharina page to browse around to get a better idea of all of the above. My website is always a work in progress and I welcome additional ideas of how I can make it more engaging.

What about YOU? How reader-friendly is your website? What are some other ways authors might make their websites more engaging for readers?

What's the Difference Between a Historical and a Historical Romance?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

My first historical, Luther and Katharina, releases next week. Already early reviews have been pouring in to Goodreads from readers who received ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies). I don't normally browse reviews of my books because I don't want to become overly puffed up or overly deflated.

But since this is my first historical, I was curious to gauge readers reactions to this slight step away from the normal historical romances that I write.

You might be asking (like many of my faithful readers): Exactly what is the difference between a historical and a historical romance? Both are fiction. But what sets them apart?

The importance of the romance.

For a historical romance, the romance elements are front and center stage. While there may be other external and internal plot elements going on throughout the story, the romance plot rises above them all. Avid readers of romance will expect the book to have all the elements important in the romance genre including likable hero/heroine, romantic tension all the way to the end, a happily ever after, etc.

In a historical, however, there may or may not be romance. Most authors include at least a little bit of a love interest. But the historical genre as a whole doesn't have a required expectation of having romance in it. If some kind of romantic relationship is there, it doesn't have to be a large part of the plot and is often overshadowed by other story elements (like in The Orphan Train by Christina Klein).

The amount of historical detail woven into the story.

Again, since a historical romance focuses on a developing relationship between the hero and heroine, the historical details a writer includes should all help support that goal. Of course readers who pick up a historical romance love being able to learn about a different era and appreciate accurate historical details woven into the story to add flavor and depth. But readers of romances (historical or otherwise) don't want other elements to detract from their enjoyment of the romance relationship.

Historicals, on the other hand, have more liberty to explore historical elements, to bring them a bit more to life, and to center the plot on an event, era, or historical happening. The focus is on what his happening historically rather than romantically (like in Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein).

However, I would caution historical writers not to get too carried away with the historical details at the sacrifice of plot and story-telling. Just last week in a Facebook Group that I'm a part of, a reader said this: "I tried to start a book, but the long paragraphs of descriptions of their hair, their clothing, the food etc. got me down." With historicals, readers are still looking for a riveting story, not a textbook description.

The research process.

Those who've read my historical romances, know that I do a lot of research for them. I value having a story that deeply reflects the time period and gives readers an accurate picture of what life was like during that era. I want them to walk away from my book having learned new things but in an entertaining way.

However, with historicals, I've found that I have to delve much deeper into the research  especially since my plot is broader than the romance and encompasses so much that is going on in that particular era. The scope of research is more intense and takes longer but is necessary to add a richer historical perspective.

 So . . . how are readers reacting to my new historical?

As I've been watching those early reviews roll in for my new historical Luther and Katharina, readers have expressed that they started the book with some uncertainty. They weren't quite sure what to expect or whether they'd like this historical as much as my other books.

One reader said this in her review: "To be honest, I was a little nervous when I first started it... I was afraid that because it wasn't the same type of book Jody Hedlund had previously written I wouldn't like it as much and I really, really wanted to like it! After the first chapter all my fears were put to rest...It was just as great as her previous books and dare I say, more awesome."

Fortunately for my current readers, I'm in a unique position with my historicals in that they're still romances at heart. Not only am I hoping to bring forgotten women to life (women who've been overshadowed by their more popular husbands), but I'm also showcasing little known but incredibly amazing love stories of historical couples.

Yes, Luther and Katharina is historical full to the brim with all that was happening during that era. But it's also a love story.

Created by one of my awesome readers, Shannon Gonzalez!
How about you? Are there other differences I missed between historical romance and historicals? And which is your personal preference and why?

Seven Dialogue Basics That Can Help Tighten Our Stories


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Whenever I critique manuscripts or judge for contests, I always pay particular attention dialogue techniques. Dialogue can say a lot about the skill and maturity level of a writer. In fact, really good dialogue can draw me into a story faster than anything else.

As I thought about the kinds of things I like to see in dialogue (and as a reminder to myself of how to write my own dialogue), I came up with seven dialogue basics. They’re NOT hard, fast rules, but more like good principles we can apply in order to tighten our stories.

1. Don’t over-address characters in the dialogue.

Over-addressing people makes dialog sound stilted.

“Mother, won’t you please pass me the salt.”

“Oh, thank you, Mother.”

“Mother, you’re such a dear. I just couldn’t live without you, Mother.”

We don’t constantly address people in real life. And in our dialogue we need to be careful with how often our characters use each other’s names. Sometimes I throw in a name for dramatic effect or so that I can clarify to whom the person is speaking. But usually during editing I eliminate most (not all!) the names within dialogue that aren’t absolutely needed.

2. Don’t forget to use contractions.

If we don’t use contractions, our dialogue begins to sound too formal and unrealistic. Yes, even historical writers need to use contractions. In fact, when I was writing the first draft of Luther and Katharina I tried to avoid using contractions that weren’t yet “invented." But later during editing, I changed them to contractions because it was difficult to read.

If we have a good reason for not using contractions (whether for historical accuracy, voice, or formality of certain classes), readers aren’t going to know or care. They’re only going to know it sounds awkward. Sometimes I might give a formal character one or two un-contracted word (like "cannot") as a tag, but then I try to use contractions for the rest of her speech.

3. Don’t have large paragraphs of monologues.

In real life, we usually don’t speak for ten sentences straight without stopping (unless we’re monopolizing a conversation!). We say a sentence or two, take a break, and let someone else have a turn. Dialogue in our books needs to stay succinct and our paragraphs short.

4. Don’t let dialogue monopolize other story elements.

This is often referred to as “talking heads” where two people converse back and forth with nothing but dialogue between them. In short bursts, this technique can work, especially in more tense, fast-paced scenes.

But most of the time we need to intersperse internal narration (the character’s thoughts and feelings) along with action beats and setting details that can bring the scene to life. I always like to have my characters acting out some aspect of the plot and talking at the same time. I try to intersperse important details amidst the talking so that my readers still feel grounded in the setting.

5. Don’t blatantly convey story information within dialogue.

I give myself the rule that I won’t intentionally use dialogue to convey story information (usually backstory). But if the information comes up organically during a conversation between characters, then I allow it. I also ask myself: Would my character really say this? Or is she saying it for the benefit of the reader? If so, then I need to look for ways to weave that information in elsewhere.

6. Don’t use dialogue tags unless necessary.

By dialogue tags I’m referring to words like: said, asked, repeated, shouted, whispered, etc.

We should always strive to make each character’s dialog sound unique. But there will still be plenty of times when we need to use tags, and the preferred mode is “character said” (in that order and with as simple a tag as possible). The reasoning for the simplicity is that it’s almost invisible in the story flow to the reader and therefore allows for a smoother read.

I often use an action beat before or after a line of dialogue to help clarify who’s speaking. But we don’t want to stick random action beats in either, having our characters scratching their heads, nodding, and sighing every few minutes just to identify their dialogue.

7. Don’t include chit-chat.

Our readers don’t need to know everything that happens to our characters in the course of the story. Yes, our characters will go to the bathroom at some point in the book. But unless it’s part of the plot we don’t need to include it. Right?

And the same is true of dialogue. Our readers don’t have to have a word-by-word replay of an entire conversation. In other words, we need to cut out the chit-chat, the fluff, and get right to the meat of what’s important to the plot.

I rarely have my characters greeting each other, answering yes or no to questions, or chatting about peripheral issues that aren’t absolutely necessary to the story.

Summary: As I mentioned above, none of these are strict rules that will cost you a publishing contract. If your story is well-told and riveting, agents and editors won’t be counting your dialogue tags or contractions.

But if we work at smoothing out the rough spots and tightening our prose, we make it all that much easier for others to fall in love with our stories.

What do you have the most trouble with when writing dialogue? Have I missed any “rules” that you think are important for modern writers to consider when writing dialogue?

How To Get Readers To Read Your Entire Series

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I rarely read an entire series. I've started countless first books in a series but never gone on to read the books that follow. Even with popular and exciting series, I usually have a hard time reading beyond the first book or two.

For example, I read The Selection and The Elite by Kiera Cass (which I liked), but didn't read the other two. I read The Maze Runner and The Scorch Trials by James Dashner. But I haven't felt compelled to read further. Even though I've read all the books in the Hunger Games trilogy, I only read the third one because I hate seeing a movie-adaptation without reading the book first.

I began to believe I just wasn't cut out to read series, that I'm more of a stand-alone kind of girl. But this summer, I've proven myself wrong. I landed upon a series that I'm devouring by Susan May Warren. I started the first book in the series, Take a Chance on Me, through Audible, and then quickly went on to read all the rest that are currently published.

I couldn't keep from wondering what it was about Warren's books that hooked me and kept me wanting to continue reading, especially with my inability to read series. Since series are hot right now and most authors are doing them (including me!), I reminded myself of a few key factors that may help inspire readers to keep reading further into a series (instead of stopping like I usually do):

1.Make future lead characters especially likable. Give readers a secondary character to root for, one that they can't wait to see brought to life and given a happily-ever-after. That minor character obviously can't overshadow the main characters, but he or she needs to be on stage and win the hearts of readers.

2. Consider having something that can tie all of the books together. In Warren's series, the large family and the setting run through all of the stories. Warren brings both to life so richly that you feel at home with the people and place. Because of that, you can't wait to return and see what will happen next.

3. Give each book in the series its own complex plot with a 3 Act Structure. I'm sure you've read books in a series that seem more like segments or scenes of one much longer book. The Ruby Red Series by Kirsten Gier was that way. All three books happen in a about a two week time span and each book simply continues the story where the last left off. While that can work, there's something more satisfying about books that have their own complex plot with a definite beginning, crisis, and resolution.

4. If main characters carry over into future books, make sure they're well developed. If readers don't fall in love with the hero and heroine in the first book, then they won't care enough about the characters to go on another adventure with them in future books.

5. Touch readers on an emotional level with each book. Draw them in so that they cry and laugh and care enough that they want to keep going. When we are able to bring readers into the story deeply, they gain a connection that makes them want to have that same emotional experience again, in the next book.

6. Keep the later books in the series simple. Sometimes authors try too hard to weave in information from previous books. When there are too many names, places, and events, readers may have a difficult time keeping everything straight. And all of that information starts to bog down the story.

7. Have smooth story-telling and smooth writing techniques. That's a given for all books. But it's even more important for a series. If readers are jarred by story-issues or awkward writing, they'll obviously think twice about picking up the next book in the series, even if they ended up liking the story.

What about YOU? What makes you move beyond book one to read the future books in a series?

A Pep Talk For Writers Struggling to Find Writing Time

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

If you've been reading my blog long enough, you'll know that I'm a homeschooling mom of five children (although my oldest just graduated and is now in college). Like most teachers, I LOVE my summers off, especially because it allows me to spend extra time on my writing that I don't have during the school year.

My school years are filled with instructing my children as well as teaching a Grammar and Composition class for high school students. Both require a lot of time and effort (picture me most evenings grading essays that my students write!). In addition to my teaching job, I also have all of the other mom-duties that come with having large family–cooking big meals, trying not to drown in laundry, running kids to all of their many activities, etc.

As a teacher and mom, my schedule is already jam-packed. But add on to that a very full time writing job. This year I'm attempting to keep up with publishing three books with three different publishers. It's been a blast! But in addition to writing the books, it's also meant more editing, more marketing, and more administrative work.

Just recently at the start of a new school year, I sat down with my calendar and scratched my head, wondering how in the world I would be able to fit in time to write. Between school, piano lessons, art class, ballet, cross country, choir, youth group and host of other activities that are starting, I had a moment of panic.

But then, I took a deep breath and gave myself my annual pep talk, which goes something like this:

1. If you want this badly enough, you can do it. You love writing. It brings you great joy and fulfillment to weave stories. In the craziness of life, your story-world is a peaceful place to escape. So don't give up. You'd miss it too much.

2. You can find writing time each day if you look closely enough for it. You can find a hour or two. Yes, you might have to sacrifice something else to find that hour or two (like sleep or TV or baking homemade cookies). But you can find the time somewhere if you look closely enough.

3. Block out that writing time and don't waver from it. Once you find a window of opportunity to write (even if it's different every day), block it out on the calendar. Literally.

4. Be consistent even when you're tired, sick, and don't feel like writing. Of course you can't prevent emergencies. But barring a tornado or plane crashing into your home, sit your butt in the chair and write.

5. Look for ways to get extended writing time. You need those longer chunks of time too. Work with your significant other, parents, grandparents, or friend to take the kids or watch the dogs so that you can have a writing day or writing weekend (even if it's just once a month).

6. Demote social media and other non-essential to the leftover time. Yes, social media is fun. Yes, it's a great way to mingle with other writers. But it's a non-essential to a successful writing career. Keep it in its proper place and perspective.

7. Yes, it will be hard. But you've written under crazy circumstances in the past and you can do it again.

For all those writers who have day jobs or who are balancing busy children or who are struggling to stay consistent, my pep talk is for you too. There are seasons in our lives when finding writing time can be a huge challenge. You don't have to give up. If I can make it work, so can you!

How about YOU? Do you ever struggle to find writing time? What do you tell yourself to keep going?

When You Feel Like the Worst Writer in the World

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

This past year I've spent a LOT of time editing. It seems that every time I turn around, one of my books needs some kind of edit. Earlier in the year, I spent close to 6 weeks doing macro-edits on my Luther and Katharina book which releases in October. In June I had line edits on another book. And finally just a few weeks ago I worked on macro-edits for my second YA book, A Daring Sacrifice.

Editing is never my favorite thing to do. For me it requires a different kind of energy than I use for first drafts. I have to be more focused and concentrate harder with fewer interruptions (which is hard to come by in my busy household). Editing also requires some brutality. I cut, delete, and rip the book apart. All the nit-picking is part of the process of making a story better.

But that negativity toward my stories eventually begins to wear on me mentally and emotionally, especially when I have so much editing for such long durations and in close succession. In fact I start to get depressed about my writing ability.

A host of doubts jump all over me and taunt me in their devilish sing-song voices: "What if readers don't like this story? What if it's not as interesting as your other books? What if you get bad reviews? What if, what if, what if . . . "

I've come to expect this kind of reaction whenever I'm in editing mode. But other writers may experience those low times during other stages of the writing journey–maybe after querying or reading reviews or attending a conference.

Whenever we go through our "I'm the worst writer in the world" stage, we should remind ourselves of several truths:

1. We can't expect perfection from ourselves. The truth is, we won't be able hit a home run every time we write a book. Yes, we want to do our very best to craft stories readers will like. But, we're not perfect. And there might be times when readers won't sing our praises quite as loudly.

2. The modern author faces an overabundance of pressure. While the growth of online review spots (like Goodreads) can help increase the exposure and shelf life of our books, it also makes readers' impressions of our stories readily available—for both the good and the bad. Readers/blog reviewers are turning into the new "critics." And so now we have many more critics to try to please than ever before, and we can't possibly please everyone. Which leads to the next point . . .

3. What doesn't resonate with some readers, might with others. A reader recently emailed me saying, "Jody, you are my favorite author. I have read all your books and can't wait until the next one comes out. However, the book I just read is not like the rest. It is boring and redundant. I have skipped over some paragraphs just to get through the book. What happened? I will watch for your next new book." Ouch! Even though the email stung just a bit, I realized that many other readers have raved about the book. For whatever reason, this book just didn't resonate with this particular reader. And that's okay.

4. We can always do better the next time. If one of our books doesn't do as well, we can push ourselves to grow, learn from our mistakes, and craft a better story with each book we write. As writers, the possibilities before us are endless. We just have to pick ourselves up and keep carrying on.

So, how about you? Have you ever felt like the worst writer in the world? How do you push through it?
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