Puttin’ It on the Stage

Part 1 in the series, “Tricks to Making Dialogue Sparkle

Before my latest book was released, I received a call from my publisher. “You’re saving us a lot of money,” he said.

My response was instinctive. “Add it to my next royalty check.”

“I’m serious, man. We hired a scriptwriter to convert your novel to a script for an audio book. She had it back to us in three days. She said your dialogue was so natural, she pretty much just transcribed it.”

“You know what they say: ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’”

“Well,” he said, “yours is on the page, so we’re puttin’ it on the stage.”

Although novels, short stories, and works of narrative nonfiction are venues of the mind, I try to write dialogue as though my readers will be in an audience listening to a performance. It forces me to keep the dialogue crisp, witty, poignant, and supported by the right stage business. In this new series I’ll share with you some tips from scriptwriting that will enhance your prose.

Begin by reading and studying other writers’ scripts. And by that, I mean reading them aloud. When I was in graduate school as an English major, one of my profs made us read out loud in class. We read long passages from plays by George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, and Agatha Christie. I was amazed at how this approach to understanding literature also served to sharpen my ear in regard to writing dialogue for my short stories. I still do this today with TV and movie scripts, musicals, and stage dramas. You can do likewise by obtaining play collections from the library or downloading public domain scripts from the Internet.

Next week: “Try a Flip-Flop with Dialogue”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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From Back-cover Copy to Tweet

Conclusion of the series, “Selling Your Book in Descending Sound Bites

To illustrate what we’ve discussed about how to condense promotional copy, here are four versions of promo I wrote for the same book.

Long Version (for back-cover copy)

Jesus in the 9 to 5

Synopsis

Would you be delighted if, upon pulling into the parking lot of your place of employment each day, you knew you would walk inside and work shoulder to shoulder with Jesus Christ? Or, would it be overwhelmingly intimidating to work for someone who knew your every thought, your every move, your every ambition?

Such is the situation in Jesus in the 9 to 5. Successful motivational speaker and author Dr. Dennis E. Hensley allows you to step into a twenty-first-century company being run on a day-to-day basis by none other than Jesus Christ himself. You’ll be there as Jesus hires new personnel, establishes company training, and sets a quality-control system in place. You’ll observe as Jesus is asked to judge a matter of employee theft, is defied by his employees about business management practices, and is forced to make plans to hand over his business because of his pending departure.

Along with providing riveting scenes of Jesus running a company, this book also offers insightful chapters on life-management skills, as drawn from the teachings and actions of Jesus. You’ll be shown how to improve your time-management practices, your communication abilities, your goal setting and long-range planning skills, and even your sales and outreach talents.

With wit, wisdom, and continuous momentum, this book reveals specific ways in which you can enrich your life, expand your personal and business horizons, and add new vitality in reaching your goals and aims in life. It’s also just a lot of fun to observe Jesus in action as the director of a contemporary business operation.

So, clock in. Your first day on the job with Jesus is about to get started.

50-Word Version (for online book reviews, newsletter inserts, blog posts): With razor-sharp wit, penetrating wisdom, and fast-paced teaching, Jesus in the 9 to 5 not only reveals the lessons Jesus provided on how to manage life and business, it actually lets readers see Jesus in action, running a twenty-first century company on a day to day basis.

25-Word Version (for e-mail blasts): You’ve made Jesus the Lord of your life. Now, make him the boss of your company. Turn the pages and see how Jesus would manage a twenty-first century business.

10-Word Version (67-character tweet): Open this book and become a twenty-first century employee of Jesus.

There you have it: the essence of my latest book condensed from an elephant to an ant in four simple steps. Now try it with your own book.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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How to Shrink Promotional Copy

Part 2 in the series, “Selling Your Book in Descending Sound Bites

My publishers’ publicists coached me on how to write very tight promotional copy. I was told to imagine I was a potential reader trolling the Internet in search of something good to read. What about my book would set it apart from all the other books being promoted to the reader? How could I summarize it in a way that would pique the interest of a reader? How could I woo the reader without having to reveal too much content? Also, if someone had just finished reading my book and wanted to tweet a friend about it, what do I think would be the book’s most exciting aspect to talk about in one sentence?

Naturally, in the longest of the promo-copy four versions, you can delve into specific key elements of the book’s content. If it’s a novel, you can mention the setting, the era, the major plot conflict, and the central characters. If it is nonfiction, you can refer to teaching points, target lessons, and insightful knowledge. As you write in more constricted venues, you will have to prioritize the most important elements and discard lesser factors. It’s painful, but it helps if you think of it as a metaphor: present the bull’s eye, not the entire target.

When it comes to creating the tweet, I can share a tip my pal Larry Weedon taught me when he was an acquisitions editor with Thomas Nelson. He told me the best way to summarize a book in one sentence was to imagine it was like a movie being described in a TV listing. For example, Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October could be encapsulated as, “Russian nuclear submarine captain defects to America, bringing his submarine.” That is so enticing, an audience would be won over instantly.

In the next installment, I’ll you how my book Jesus in the 9 to 5 went through this shrinking process from back-cover copy to a single tweet. Even if your book has not yet been accepted for publication, going through this writing exercise will help you when you pitch it to agents and editors. You’ll be four steps ahead in the eventual process.

Next week, “From Back-cover Copy to Tweet”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Sell the Book … Quickly

Part 1 in the series, “Selling Your Book in Descending Sound Bites

Remember when you were a kid and enjoyed playing pirate with a toy telescope? Sooner or later you would turn it around, look through the wide end, and see all of the distant objects reduced to very small sizes. That, my friend, is what the twenty-first century world of pitching books has become. I speak from experience, for in working with my publicists at AMG Publishers, I had to condense the essence of my latest book so tightly, it went from an elephant to an ant in four simple steps.

Here’s what is going on. Publishers still need authors to help come up with excellent back-cover copy. After all, who knows the book better than its author? Additionally, however, the author now has to provide even shorter promotional copy for use in paid advertisements or blog posts or website promotional listings. Furthermore, the author has to be able to reduce the entire book to one paragraph for use in online reviews, e-mail blasts by the publisher, and newsletter inserts for book groups and writers clubs. Most difficult of all, the author must summarize the whole book into a tweet of no more than 140 characters.

Next week, “How to Shrink Promotional Copy”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2015 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Flip Your Creative Switch for Story Ideas

Any writer who has ever stared at a blank screen or sheet of paper, unable to come up with a story idea, knows the feeling of being creatively comatose. Try as you may, nothing comes to mind.

If that is ever you, don’t blow your brain out in frustration. Instead, feed it new ideas and have some laughs along the way. Here is an idea from childhood that will help you put the creativity back into creative writing.

As a youngster, you may have had a fold-over book that was divided into three sections. For example, the first scene shows a normal-looking man. Then you flip over a new top third section, and the man is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch and has a parrot on his shoulder. You then flip over a new bottom third; and the man is dressed in policeman’s trousers with handcuffs, a billy club, and a pistol hanging from his belt.

Rev your imagination

Creative writers can play a mental version of this game. Imagine a business executive in a suit and holding a briefcase. Now, flip a new bottom section on him, and suddenly he’s wearing jogging shorts. Why? Well, maybe it’s because he’s actually a model on his way to a photo shoot for men’s sports gear. Or he’s an avid jogger who runs every day during lunch hour. Or he’s a bachelor and is so far behind on his laundry, he wore jogging shorts under his suit. Jot down all those ideas.

Now flip over the top section. Suddenly he’s wearing the upturned collar of a clergyman, has a neatly trimmed gray beard, and is wearing conservative wire-rimmed glasses. Why? Well, maybe he’s a reservist with the Army and serves part-time as a chaplain, or he’s a seminary professor who teaches ancient languages. Or perhaps he’s a con artist who travels from city to city posing as an evangelist. Write down all those ideas.

Now flip the middle section. Whoa! Look! Now he has on a brightly colored vest with a watch chain extended from one side pocket to the other. Why? Maybe he’s a riverboat gambler or a circus sideshow barker. Or perhaps he sings in a barbershop quartet. Add these new options to your list of notes.

Pause a moment; and in your mind’s eye, look at this silly person your mental flip-book has created. How could one person ever combine such diverse appearances and occupations? Ridiculous! Funny! Silly! Unbelievable! Or is it?

Build your character’s dossier

Start to play detective. How might all these elements be combined to form a dossier on this man? Hmmm. Perhaps he’s a youth minister (upturned collar) who works at a church camp (jogging shorts) and whose hobby is singing in an old-fashioned gospel music group (vest). Or perhaps he’s a hospital chaplain (upturned collar) who assists disabled children with their physical therapy regimens (gym shorts) but who is also ready to help raise funds for the new hospital wing by being part of a vaudeville night benefit show (fancy vest).

Let your imagination run wild. Have fun. Come up with several different profiles for this character. (Note: If it is hard for you to do this exercise in your imagination, create a real flip-book. Open magazines and catalogs, and use the photos of chefs, pilots, mechanics, parachutists, barbers, cowboys, and firefighters to stimulate your thinking.)

Once you’ve developed one set of profiles for your lead character, run through the process two or three more times—for a villain, a sweetheart, and maybe even a sidekick. Then start imaging how the various characters might come head to head in a conflict strong enough to evolve into a plot.

For example, could the aforementioned chaplain face an ethical challenge when, in privileged communication, the director of the hospital fundraiser tells him he has stolen some of the show’s earnings? Uh-oh, what does the chaplain do now?

All sorts of mix-‘n’-match scenarios are possible. Keep on “playing” with the flip-book until you’ve matched the right characters with the right plot conflict.

When that happens . . . you’ll just “flip”!

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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A Long Distance Team That Works

Conclusion of the series, “Your Critique Partners

If you are fortunate to discover the perfect critique partner, do all you can to nurture that relationship. Saturday Evening Post editor Holly G. Miller and I have been professional colleagues and critique partners for more than thirty years. We’ve coauthored seven books, and we’ve team-taught writing workshops more than 250 times. Humorously, Holly will say that it is a good thing she and I live one hundred miles apart because sometimes we are so bluntly honest in evaluating each other’s work, it takes a day or two to heal from the wounds. But, the point is, we can trust each other to give precise, accurate, valuable evaluations. We don’t pull punches. Yet, we also are quick to praise the other person for well-written passages.

These days Holly and I work together maybe three times a year, but we stay in touch via technology during the interims. Professionally, we are equals, but we are not clones. She is a female from the East Coast originally, has a very rich background in journalism, and is left-handed. I am a male from the Midwest, have a doctor’s degree in classic literature and linguistics, and am right-handed. We bring different skill sets and perspectives to the table when we critique each other or teach together. If you can find someone like that, you will be blessed.

Developing a turtle-shell hide is one of the qualities that make a writer succeed. We all need to have our writing evaluated by competent second readers. Usually, they will make us look better than we really are. I’m certainly all in favor of that, so I’m going to get my wife to proofread this piece, and then I’ll submit it to my editor.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Finding the Right Partner

Part 2 in the series, “Your Critique Partners

Whether you meet in person, over Skype, or via email, make the most of your time. After you receive an edited manuscript, go over the corrections and the suggested revisions carefully. Let it all “stew” for a couple of days. Then, make a list of specific questions. You may not have recognized a certain editing symbol, or understood why a line of dialogue was rewritten, or comprehended why an entire paragraph was struck. As your partner responds, take notes so that you won’t keep making the same mistakes in the future.

The longer you work as a writer, the more you will discover that various people have different specialties that can be of help to you in different situations. For example, Lin Johnson, editor of Christian Communicator, is one of the sharpest writers and editors I know. Nevertheless, even she uses diversified critique partners. She has one person who proofreads the final draft copy of her magazine. She has two other people who partner with her in running the Write to Publish conference, and they proofread the brochures and conference materials.

I have similar practices. My wife Rose has a master’s degree in education and is a licensed teacher. For many years, before word processors, she also was my secretary and typist. As such, before I ever turn in a new book to my agent or publisher, I ask Rose to read the whole manuscript to check spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, transitions, and continuity. The woman who serves as my webmaster also reads the manuscript to make sure it is in correct Chicago Manual of Style format and to give me an outside reader’s opinion of the content. Then, of course, my agent will eventually offer feedback regarding marketability, narrative flow, and take-away value. Each of these specialists, as noted earlier, protects me from my blind sides.

Next week, “A Long-Distance Team That Works”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Getting Valuable Feedback

Part 1 in the series, “Your Critique Partners

We writers need feedback. We need people who can read our manuscripts and point out blind spots, such as grammar and punctuation errors, sloppy transitions, illogical dialogue, missing backstory, and confused plotting. However, selecting people we can turn to and trust to give honest feedback and knowledgeable analysis must be done with discernment and professionalism.

Finding a critique partner involves searching. You can join a local writers club and discover who the meticulous proofreaders and experienced writers are. You can become part of an online forum and do some test runs with other writers who want to swap and critique manuscripts. You can take a continuing education class in writing at a local college and meet other developing writers. You can hire professional copyeditors (services listed in Christian Writers Market Guide). You can go to a writers conference and attend night owl sessions in which writers read their manuscripts aloud and seek feedback.

Once you find someone you think will be helpful to you, it’s good to set ground rules at the start. Perhaps you prefer strict confidentiality and will not want this other person to show your work to anyone else. Perhaps you will have expectations that feedback will be given within a set time period. Perhaps you will need specific explanations about any changes made to your manuscripts. Perhaps you will be the kind of thin-skinned writer who will need to hear the good news (praise) before you hear the bad news (criticism).

Communicate these requirements up front. Get off to a good start with your partner, and, conversely, be sensitive to the requests and preferences of this partner as you evaluate his or her work.

Next week, “Finding the Right Partner”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Ensuring Character Empathy

Conclusion of the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

It’s important not to portray challenged individuals in your stories until you understand how they are challenged. I once slipped on concrete, cracked my pelvic joint, and ended up in a wheelchair for three months. I learned firsthand what it was like to have to have someone else drive for me, open restroom doors for me, even tie my shoes. I came closer to understanding abandonment when people got up to go get coffee and just left me in the classroom alone. I understood personal frustration when working in my office and I couldn’t simply jump up to sharpen my pencil or answer the phone or turn on a light. Since that time I’ve always offered help to anyone in a wheelchair. My sensitivity is borne of experience.

Thus, conduct interviews, do online research, interview therapists. If you fully understand the challenges presented by specific injuries or diseases, you’ll portray them honestly while introducing us to a character who is a survivor.

In giving a physical challenge to a fictional character, there is no element of mockery. Quite the opposite. Being able to solve crimes is impressive, but if you are wheelchair-bound, such as Chief Robert T. Ironside (Raymond Burr) in Ironside, or you are a quadriplegic, such as Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) in The Bone Collector, it is even more impressive. Our admiration of such characters rises as they amaze us in more ways than one. (Note that in the original movie of Rear Window, the central character [Jimmy Stewart] was bound to a wheelchair, but in the remake, the plot intensity was greatly enhanced by making the central character [Christopher Reeve] a quadriplegic.)

The secret to getting readers to keep turning pages is to add plot intensity. If a physical challenge can be added to the “regular” problems of day-to-day life, plot intensity is automatically achieved. Additionally, character empathy is assured. For a fiction writer, it’s the best of both worlds.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Add Character Challenges to Heighten Plot Intensity

Part 2 in the series, “The Fascination of Physically Challenged Characters

The reason physically challenged characters intrigue readers so much is because they present a quandary. We wonder, have they become fascinating individuals because their handicap forced them to overcome serious obstacles just to survive, or will the physical hindrance somehow eventually lead to their demise if they encounter a situation in which all human faculties are required? We watch these people, study them, try to learn from them. They constantly are in an adapt-or-die kind of environment, which heightens plot intensity.

It is important not to portray these individuals as pathetic, unless there is some sort of subsequent redeeming change in the person. For example, Cap’n Dan in Forrest Gump truly is a pathetic individual—drunken, slovenly, abrasive, self-pitying, and spiteful. As a wheelchair-bound double-amputee Vietnam vet, his bitterness makes him hateful to everyone around him until Gump’s love, loyalty, and friendship give Dan a new reason to live and be happy. He may still be bound to the wheelchair, but Dan no longer is emotionally “handicapped.” It makes for a good story.

Next week: “Ensuring Character Empathy”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and a Christian Writers Guild board member. His 54 books include:

© 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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