Don’t be an Ejaculator

A couple of years ago, I was on a panel discussing dialog.  What? It happens. Sometimes people pity me I’m a respected, highly sought-after expert in my field. Anyway, one of the authors on the panel told the audience to avoid using bookish dialog tags, and someone asked what he meant by that. There was a momentary pause, and my good friend, author Lou J Berger, held up a hand dramatically and shouted:

“‘The front of my pants are wet,’ he ejaculated.”

We lost about five minutes of panel time due to uncontrollable, wall-shaking laughter. Needless to say the panel went downhill after that was fruitful and very productive.

Lou’s reply was hysterical, but it was also dead-on. There is no need for that sort of ridiculousness. In fact, 90 percent of the time, “said” is the right call. You know why? Because I said so. And you know why else? Because almost any other dialog tag that you use colors the novel with opinion. Or tells the reader how you want them to feel. Said is a fact. It is objective. It is transparent and seamless. To many of you, it may seem a bit plain or repetitive, but it’s not. “Said” fades into the background, which is the point, as I mention below…

And another thing…

Dialog tags aren’t always necessary. In fact, they are an interruption, and should be taken out whenever possible. If you write a sentence like this:


“How dare you steal the Eternal Llama of Youth!” Sir Galahad said, drawing his sword.

Then go back and change it to this:

“How dare you steal the Eternal Llama of Youth!” Sir Galahad drew his sword.

And consider writing a new story.

Oh, and if you do this…

“Bow, interloper! Bow to the Llama of Eternal Youth!” He hissed infuriatedly!

I’m a huge believer in Elmore Leonard’s fourth rule of good writing (the third rule talks about not using any tag other than “said,” incidentally). And that rule is: Never use an adverb to modify a dialog tag. So, if you type a sentence like this:

“Before this day is through, I will steal all seven of the Llamas of Power!” He said angrily.

…then don’t worry about deleting it or editing it in any way. Simply take your laptop into the landfill and throw it in whatever area is set aside for toxic waste. Buy a new laptop and start again, free from the contamination of that line. Jokes aside, using a word like “angrily” to modify said is worse than using a bookish tag like “he regurgitated,” or the like. But it still sucks. So don’t be an ejaculator.

’nuff said.









Can Language in Any Historical Novel Truly Be Authentic?

My historical fantasy novels are riddled with anachronistic speech.

There I’ve said it. But you know what? So are everyone else’s. Writing a medieval novel using only the language from the middle ages (even limited to dialog), would be asinine. (I had no idea asinine only had one S. Go figure). No one would understand a book written that way. I understand adding medieval flavor to a book. I get that. I do a lot of that myself. And I understand making an effort to avoid expressions that are too modern, another goal of mine. But let’s face it, we aren’t going to write a book in Old English or even Middle English. And most writers don’t know enough about the language of that time period to make a convincing stab at it. My argument is that historical language should yield to clarity.

Look at it this way. I read a period book recently that had all the characters speaking with thines and thous, saying huzza and lavishing accolades upon one another.

There are some authors who really try for that medieval flavor. And I applaud that. I try to add a taste of the middle ages to my writing as well.


But if an author tries to be historically accurate by using words like huzza and accolades, then they have failed. More to the point, very few people are really well-versed in the language of the middle ages. So by all means, try to sprinkle medieval seasoning on your mutton, but don’t ruin the meal with it.

Writing a medieval novel using only the language from that time period, would be asinine. No one would understand it.

Take the word huzza. It’s an old favorite at medieval festivals and gaming conventions, but it has nothing to do with the middle ages. Huzza came into use in the late 16th century, by sailors. The word thou is tossed around a lot in medieval novels and, though it was certainly used in the middle ages, it became a sort of insult when using it to address anyone except your close family or your lover. A tiny historical distinction that could put a glaring hole in the accuracy of your book.

Yes, I know. Just two examples. I have more. But I want to state my case here. The people who argue that medieval novels should have dialog reflective of the medieval period usually do so out of a misplaced sense of historical accuracy. When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century. Warlord wasn’t used until 1856.

If a writer has her 12th century minstrel nod to the princess, she has made two historical errors. Minstrel wasn’t used until the 13th century, and princess wasn’t around until the late 14th. Knights couldn’t charge into the fray until the 16th century (fray:14th, charge:16th). Any historical writer who has a character nod, should make sure the character is in (at least) the 15th century, when the word was first used. Want your farmer to pet his cow? Better make sure he’s in the 19th century (Famer:16th, Pet: 19th).

When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century.

But surely there are some blue-chip medieval terms that all historical writers can use, no? I mean, what’s a medieval action story without guards, right? Well, just as long as it’s a 15th century story, because that’s when the word came into use in English. And a knight should be allowed to brandish his sword, shouldn’t he? Only if the knight lived in the mid-14th century or later. The list goes on:

Stop: Mid-15th
Field (as in field of war): 16th
Melee: 1640s (it meant to mingle before that)
Road: 1590s
Groggy: 1770 (and it meant drunk at first)
Cemetery: Late 14th
Hello: 1883
Walk: Late 14th
Shout (as in give a shout): Late 14th
Haggle: 1600s
Rest (as in, rest on something): Mid-14th

Okay, so writers may use some words that are not accurate to the period. But surely we should stay away from words we know aren’t accurate. Modern sounding words obviously don’t belong in a period piece. I mean, you wouldn’t want your knight calling out, “Hey!” right? Or using words like baboon, or calendar or susurration?  In truth, hey and calendar were around in the 13th century. And susurration was around in the 14th. And there are many others

You see, when writing a historical novel, period speech is the last thing you should worry about. The reader knows that you are translating. You are providing a version of the text that is understandable to your reader. It’s the same way with movies. Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. Often, they simply have the characters speak a little of their language, then break into English and it’s understood that they are still speaking their language. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I can hear grumbling out there, and I know I risk being misunderstood. I am not saying that your historical novel should read like a James Patterson book. The reassuring cadence and diction of medieval speech is part of why we read these types of novels. And I think writers should strive for that. I work hard to avoid using words that I know were not around in the time period I am writing in. I do not use expressions/figures of speech that were not around in their day. But how can contorted would my story be if I couldn’t use the word road? Or stop? Or shout?

Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I try to give my characters the flavor of medieval speech, while making sure that readers won’t stumble. Some people have said that my characters sound too modern when they speak; I wish they knew how religiously I check my word usage, and how hard I work to balance accuracy with readability. Do my characters say things in a way that wouldn’t have been said in their time period? Hell yeah. I know that my book would be completely incomprehensible to a person from the 14th century.

But then again, so would any other historical novel.




“More Dialog!” he shouted. “Extrinsic vs Intrinsic!”

As I mentioned yesterday, I *love* dialog. It’s probably the best part of writing for me. But  it is also something very delicate. Like origami birds, or those really flimsy urine sample cups that you are certain will fall apart as you bring them to the desk. 

Yes, I just compared dialog to a urine sample. Deal with it.

Dialog is like a urine sample. Christ, I should write for Hallmark.

Continue reading


“Dialog!” he shouted.

I thought I’d take a break from my marketing adventures to talk about something that I really love.

“You’ve already told us what it is, you dolt.”

“No,” I say. “Not directly, I haven’t.”

“But we know already. It’s in the damned title of this post. In dialog, never tell us what we already know.”

“Oh,” I say. “Well, I just thought that –”

“And don’t tell us boring stuff that we don’t want to hear. If it’s dialog, it better be gripping. So, you were saying?”

“Never mind.”

Dialog, in my opinion, should be the high point of a story. It is the point in the movie trailer when the music stops, the camera zooms onto the character’s face, there is a dramatic pause, and the movie character says …

Well, I don’t know what the movie character says. That’s just it. I know it’s going to be something brilliant, or hilarious, or at the very least lewd. And I can’t wait to hear what it is. *That’s* dialog. And now you know a little secret of mine. When I need a good line, when I need the character to absolutely smash the next bit of dialog, I imagine the scene as a movie trailer. I add music in my head, I let the camera whirl around the characters, then I dolly in for a close up and the character says….

One of them is going to say something, and it damn well better be good.

Try it. It really works for me. If you imagine the line of dialog as a line from a movie trailer it puts you in the right frame of mind. At least it does for me. And it often works. Want proof? Here are a few lines from some of my writings that I came up with using just this technique:

The archer expanded the arc of her swinging bow to include all of them. “I have heard enough Laraytian promises,” she said. “Rape. Torture. Mutilation. I have seen what Laraytian soldiers do to the women of Gracidmar.”

“Aw, don’t take it to heart, luv,” said Shanks smiling. “We do that to all women.”

From, The Beast of Maug Maurai, Book One, The Culling

Hammer nodded sagely, drank. “My mum used to say that every lie eats a little ‘a your soul.”

     “She said that, eh? Well, sometimes the truth makes someone feel like horse dung. Did she ever talk to you about lying to make someone feel better?”

     “Aye. She said them lies are even worse. ’cause the person you’re telling the lie to knows the truth, deep down. And so, deep down, they know you’re a liar.”

From, The Beast of Maug Maurai, Book Two, The Forest

Grae sent everyone away except for Sage. He sat on the ground and gestured for the scout to join him.  Sage knew the look on Grae’s face, spoke before the brig could. “Am I in trouble?”

“Should you be in trouble?” asked Grae.

“I shouldn’t,” said Sage. “And yet, I always seem to be.”

“You’re not in trouble,” said Grae.

“You’re just saying that to prove me wrong.”

From, The Beast of Maug Maurai, Book Two, The Forest


“I wish to dance,” she said. “Play for me, fool. Something wild and romantic, fast and meloncholy.”

     Sage took the fiolys and plucked a few strings. “Any suggestions?”

            “Yes,” she said. “I suggest you play well.”

From, The Beast of Maug Maurai, Book Two, The Forest

Just some fun dialog twists. Maybe not brilliant, but fun and, I think, interesting. 

Don’t use dialog to do your menial work. Dialog is the gem in the setting. Use it to make what you have written sparkle. Let yourself enjoy it. Think about the best possible way a character can say what you want him or her to say. The most interesting way.

Too often I see writers using dialog for the “Hello,” he said. “Hello,” she replied, sort of stuff. We don’t need that in dialog. If a character answers a phone, don’t put “Hello?” in quotes. I’m pretty sure we’re all clear on what answering a phone involves. Unless the character answers it in a truly interesting way. That’s what we want to hear. The dialog then will not only entertain, but help to define your character.

He fumbled for the ‘answer’ button and mumbled,”I need a new proctologist.”

 That’s all for now. More on dialog a little later.

Thanks for listening.