Attributing Words to Characters

We are often in need of indicating who is speaking and/or how. In doing so, beware of distracting—or irritating—your reader. Here are my personal Rules of Thumb for making attributions.
attributing words characters
Use “said” 99.44% of the time. It calls least attention to itself. If you are desperate to find an alternative, it may mean that you are making too many attributions. When only two people are talking, you need only the occasional attribution to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Also, if you embed dialogue in a paragraph of narrative, the subject of the narrative is—and should be—the speaker, so no attribution is needed. For example, Sarah turned to the window. “Whatever do you mean?” N.B. that in this instance, you needn’t add she asked; the question mark says that.


Use an alternative only when it clarifies delivery—and then sparingly. Personally, I’ve been known to have a character murmur, whisper, or mutter.


Let punctuation do its job. When you’ve used a question mark, you needn’t say the character asked. When you’ve used an exclamation point, you needn’t add that the character shouted, exclaimed, etc. Using ellipses at the end of an incomplete sentence conveys that the speaker trailed off.


If you must use an alternative to “said,” make it the most common alternative available.


attributing words characters thesaurus
say,  acknowledge, aver, babble, badger, bemoan, brag, comment, enunciate, express, harangue, interject, interrupt, moralize, observe, pontificate, preach ramble, spout, state, vent, voice, articulate, blab, recite, relate, unfold, utter
accuse, blame, charge, impute, rant, rebuke, reprimand, reproach, reprove, upbraid
answer, agree, acknowledge, deny, react, reply, respond, retort
ask, appeal, beg, beseech, inquire, entreat, implore, interrogate, pester, plead, pump, query, question, quiz
assert, adduce, affirm, allege, announce, attest, avow, bemoan, boast, brag, crow, declaim, declare, deny, emphasize, exclaim, gloat, gush, insinuate, insist, intimate, justify, maintain, mock, plead, proclaim, profess, pronounce, purport, rave, refuse, retract, spout, state, swear, testify, voice, vouch
demand, beg, bid, charge, command, enjoin, entreat, importune, insist, order
deny, blame, contradict, demur, deride, disclaim, minimize, protest, refute, scoff, scold,tattle, taunt
describe, define, delineate, denote, detail, outline, paraphrase, portray, recite, recount, relate, state, summarize, tell
discuss, argue, belabor, communicate, consult, debate, deliberate, gossip, jabber, jaw, rehash, talk
explain, account for, admit, apprise, clarify, confide, elaborate elucidate. enlighten, excuse, illuminate, own, prove, rationalize, specify


These examples are substantially fewer than half of those listed in a thesaurus. Use them seldom, if ever. As I said before, they call attention to themselves. In addition, using many different words to replace “said” creates a pathetic tone of an amateur just trying too hard. And, finally, most of these variations in meaning are better handled by the dialogue itself, the setting, the narrative, and the punctuation.


Last but not least, don’t replace said with words like giggled, snorted, groaned, moaned, etc. These are separate actions, not the method of delivery.


attributing words characters
Bottom line: Use your thesaurus and dictionary as aids to narrative and dialogue, not for varying attribution.

Interested in learning more about writing? Join me at Agile Writers for my class on Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-Based Fiction. For more information, visit the Agile Writers website.
Vivian Lawry Agile Writers

Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-based Fiction

write life memoir based fiction vivian lawry

Exciting news! I will be leading a class at Agile Writers, called Write Your Life: Memoir and Memoir-based Fiction. Anyone interested in writing about their life events is welcome to join. You can be any age, at any writing level; however, we will not be writing novels or poetry, so if those are your interests, try one of the other great classes Agile Writers has to offer!

The class will run for six weeks, April 23 to June 4, from 5-7 p.m. By the end of the six-week class, you can expect to have five short pieces ready to develop, one of which has been revised based on class critique. Each assignment will be crafted for this specific class. All members of the class will be expected to write for each class (up to 3 typewritten pages, double spaced) and to participate in the critiques. All assignments will be handed out the first day, so missing one class won’t put people off-track.

Date and time: 

Sun, April 23, 2017 to Sun, June 4, 2017

5:00 PM – 7:00 PM


Agile Writers Offices

221 Ruthers Road #204

Richmond, VA 23235

Price: $180

Tickets available here!

Regional Reading

 regional reading

A high school friend of mine recently visited from California and he came bearing gifts! One was this unique bowl from Sweet Creek Pottery in Ohio. The other was Voices From The Hills: Selected Readings of Southern Appalachia.
regional reading voices from the hills
He said his elderly aunt is downsizing and offered him anything on her bookshelves. He chose this one for me, and felt mighty pleased with himself when he saw Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance) on my coffee table. He has read it, too.


hillbilly elegy jd vance
So then we got into a discussion of our Appalachian roots, speculated about who in the current generation—or even our generation—lived with outhouses and no indoor plumbing as we did. Like Vance, we both went on to professions. We both got Ph.D.s in psychology, though I ended up an academic and he ended up a software programmer in Silicon Valley.
And therein lies one of the joys of regional reading: taking one back to one’s roots.
regional reading foxfire book
Fifty years ago, The Foxfire Book became a runaway bestseller. In case you are not familiar with Foxfire, high school students in Appalachia interviewed local people about traditional mountain skills, crafts, food, and lore. It was so popular that one volume followed another.


regional reading foxfire
More recently, the series has faded, and now—as far as I know—is limited to anniversary editions.
regional reading foxfire
The Foxfire books especially appeal to me because they remind me of skills my grandmothers had that I have lost. I helped each of my grandmothers make lye soap, for example, but would have no idea how to do so today if it weren’t for instructions in books of this sort. In any event, this series is excellent reading and I recommend it to you, whatever your background.
regional reading chesapeake
A second region I’ve been particularly interested in is the Chesapeake Bay. This started with sailing there more than twenty years ago. When I decided to write mysteries set on the Chesapeake (Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart), my interests expanded. Another joy of regional reading is knowing a new place.
regional reading chesapeake boy
Some people make a career of regional writing—think Tony Hillerman mysteries or Ellen Glasgow in Richmond.
regional reading chesapeake splendor
Of course, one can focus on regional history or geography, politics or industry. But my strongest reason for regional reading is hearing the voices of the people.


Whatever your interests, there is regional writing for you.  Just focus on a region you love or one that fascinates you and go for it!

Writing that Irritates Readers

I recently wrote a blog on CUT THE FLAB and since then, I’ve been noting the various and sundry ways writers irritate readers—or perhaps I should say, this reader.


Going off-key on tone. This is when something just doesn’t feel right. It is especially likely when reading something supposedly set in an early time which contains language that is too modern. For example, a story is set in 1812 that contains references to teenagers and babysitting. It’s also common when using slang that is inappropriate to the time of the story or the age of the character: totally awesome, gag me with a spoon, and grody to the max scream the 1980s. An important part of tone is choosing the right form of a word—as in spittle if you want it to seem older, spit if you want it to be more modern.


writing irritates readers
Close but no cigar: Using the wrong word. Fiancé (masculine) versus fiancée (feminine). Blond (masculine) versus blonde (feminine)—although recently there is a trend toward going with blond for both. That/who: Use who for humans. “The man that walked in” is totally wrong. That should be for objects or animals, as in “The cat that ate the cream.” And/but: and connects two things that are in the same vein while but signals a turn. “She stifled a grin and spoke sympathetically” gives a different impression from “She spoke sympathetically but stifled a grin.” The former sounds sympathetic, the latter hypocritical.


Who/whom: whom always needs to be preceded by a preposition, such as by, for, of, to, etc. Who is without a preposition. So, “The man who came to dinner,” but “For whom the bell tolls.” Imply/infer: a speaker implies something but it’s the listener or observer who infers. Sit/set: a person, animal, or object sits in a resting position; sets is the act of putting something in that position. She sets the vase on the table and then it just sits there. What/which: “That what he would not dare” is wrong.


writing irritates readers
Redundant verbiage: I talked about this in the blog on flab, but here are some recent versions. Minutes/seconds don’t need modifiers: A brief second or a long minute are no-no’s. Expansive in the large magnitude. I resumed the previous ideas that…  I wanted to stomp the floor with my foot.


This sort of irritation can do much to undermine what is basically a good storyline or plot. On the other hand: This is Act Happy Week, so maybe it’s time to put irritation aside!

Jane Austen 200 Years Later

jane austen portrait
On March 18, 1817, Jane Austen wrote (and dated) her last lines of fiction. She had begun the work on January 27, 1817, and in less than two months had written some 23,000 words! That alone is enough for me to put her on a pedestal. She has been a favorite author of mine since college.


Austen had not titled her unfinished novel but it has come to be known as Sanditon, named for the location of the story. The unfinished manuscript was first published in 1925 and is still in print.


last laugh jane austen
The March 13, 2017 issue of The New Yorker has a well-written and informative article (need I even say that about a New Yorker article?) about the book, with biographical notes on Austen.


According to Anthony Lane, Sanditon is filled with Austen’s signature humor, wit, and unerring eye for human folly—in this case, focusing on a town full of hypochondriacs. He also comments, “Austen knew as well as anybody that, in the long run, hypochondriacs aren’t wrong. They’re just early.”


At least seven writers have finished Sanditon—according to Lane, with varying degrees of success. No doubt some of these are available.


Austen died four months after penning her last fiction lines, on July 18, 1817. The cause of her death is still debated, perhaps Addison’s disease, perhaps Hodgkin’s disease. Lane calls her last book an “exercise in courage.” I’ve just ordered it!

Cut the Flab

Earlier this week a writing friend of mine, Fiona Quinn, invited people on Facebook to share their pet peeves. I shared two, one of which was characters who nod their heads. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I can’t think what else a person might nod. Shaking one’s head is a completely different matter, for all sorts of things—some of them body parts—can be shaken.


Which brings me to today’s blog. I get really annoyed with flabby writing—writing that includes unnecessary words or phrases. I’ll talk about four common types of flab: stating something for which there is no alternative, saying the same thing twice, naming characters or relationships already known, and stating an action that is inherent in another action.


Stating something for which there is no alternative. A character nodding his head is one of these. Here’s more flab.


cut flab edit
She rose to her feet. She stood up. She sat down. A bouquet of flowers he had gathered himself, by hand. He thought to himself. Who else could he think to? The usual or inevitable need not be stated, only the exceptions.  For example, if she stood aside it isn’t redundant.


 Writing redundantly. In such a short span of time. At this point in time. He hesitated for a quick minute. With sudden haste. She quickly tore open the letter. Bickering back and forth. Opening a letter, “Now I shall see what my father thinks in his letter.”


Naming characters or relationships known to the characters and the readers. “The toll taken on him, her father, a man who…”  “Your invitation to my sister, Kitty…”  “Boasted to Mrs. Johnson, your mother…”  “Turned to her husband, David…”


Writing an action that is inherent in another action. “He stood and walked to the door.” Can one walk to a door without standing? “She started the car and drove away.” “He took the pot from the stove and served the potatoes.”


And then there is writing that just makes no sense. He inwardly exhaled?


cut flab scissors
[Source: openclipart (Public Domain)]
The bottom line: All sorts of unnecessary words and actions slip into writing, especially first drafts. Cut them mercilessly. One good exercise is to try to shorten every paragraph by a line, or every sentence by a word. He rushed to the door is much stronger than he walked quickly to the door—and it’s more concise.

The Value of Writing Classes and Workshops

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer is to join a writing group or workshop. The people you meet can offer fresh perspectives on your writing and help you evolve in your genre and beyond. Not only is it great to have another set of eyes look over your work, but going to a workshop every week helps you stick to a regular writing schedule. That discipline, coupled with the skills you pick up, are a great way to bring your writing to the next level.


value writing classes workshops
I had no formal writing instruction from high school through retirement, but after I retired I began to take classes at the VMFA Studio School. In addition to all sorts of arts classes– drawing and painting, photography, pottery, printmaking– they offer creative writing courses. Coming up soon are two such courses: one in memoir writing, and another in blog writing.


Besides the classes at the VMFA, I’ve had classes and/or workshops at the University of Richmond and, of course, Nimrod Hall Summer arts programs. Registration for Nimrod is already open for week-long or weekend workshops, if you’re interested.


I’ve also had friends who’ve taken classes at VCU. They are difficult to get into for non-degree students, but it doesn’t hurt to try. While the types of courses vary from semester to semester, here is a list of upcoming courses they will be offering.


value writing classes workshops
A writing friend took a seminar with Agile Writers which she said was excellent. You can take their mini-tutorials online, or become a member for more benefits. Still others have taken classes at the Visual Arts Center. They currently have a couple of open classes: Writing from Your Senses and Writing the Memoir. Sometimes you can find classes or workshops at local libraries. I once taught a 6-week class at the Tuckahoe Branch of Henrico County Library. Such opportunities are catch-as-catch-can, but be aware!


There are also workshops set up for you to make contacts within the writing community and to help you get feedback on your writing. One such event is Writers Wednesdays through the James River Writers, where on the second Wednesday of every month writers in Richmond have a casual meet-and-greet at Ardent Craft Ales. Similarly, Writers Farmhouse invites authors to the Midlothian Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe to write, read, and motivate.
james river writers annual conference
At the James River Writers Conference in 2012
These are all in the local Richmond area, but opportunities abound. Many schools with MFA programs offer non-degree classes in the summers. For example, I know that Hollins College has an annual offeringPoets & Writers magazine gives a national listing annually as well.


If you start taking writing instruction, you are likely to fall in love with your teacher. By all means, continue to take classes with her/him. But also branch out. I’ve taken classes with Douglas Jones, Susan Hankla, Sherri Reynolds, Cathy Hankla, Charlotte Morgan, and others. Valley Haggard is also a local writer who offers classes. James River Writers has a list of classes, workshops, and writing groups for you to get more info about these opportunities.
value writing classes workshops
Each teacher offers something; they all have their strengths. Some light a creative spark. Some provide structure to get started and/or finish a specific project. Some sharpen specific writing skills. Some offer assignments and deadlines that make you keep BIC (Butt in Chair) and actually put words on paper. All should offer encouragement and support!

Sickbed Reading

sickbed reading
A horrendous bout of bronchitis has plagued me for weeks, going from bad to worse. I’m talking about coughing so long, hard, and often that my entire ribcage ached. I’m talking about such congestion that every time I changed positions, I could hear as well as feel fluids sloshing around in my lungs and sinuses, and would cough all the more. I’m talking about flushed face and frigid fingers. I’m talking about no energy, and sleeping (albeit poorly) twenty hours a day, till my whole body felt stiff and sore from lack of movement. (Yes, oh, poor me!)


sickbed reading
At times like these, I like cold drinks, something warm and cozy to wrap up in, and no body bugging me with, “How are you feeling?” And as I sleep less and ache less, I like comfort reads.
A prime requirement for my sickbed reading is familiarity. Hence, Jane Austen is a go-to choice. I know what’s going to happen and that all anguish will come to naught. I can even get this sort of read with a Jane Austen fan fiction variation. The characters remain the same and the action is still low-key. Which brinks me to another criterion for sickbed reading…


west night beryl markham
[Source: Wikipedia]
walk woods bill bryson
[Source: Wikipedia]
A second criterion for my good sickbed read is that it be low-key. Absolutely no action/adventure here. Consider Markham and Bryson. I want the emotion to be relatively mild and generally upbeat.


I’m not alone in these criteria. I have a granddaughter who recently reread Harry Potter while ill, and her sister reread the Wings of Fire series. Various friends and acquaintances go off in various directions. Here are some of the most popular, returned to again and again.


I’ve turned the corner on this bronchitis—I hope and trust. I’m ready to rebuild my sickbed shelf for next time. What do you read when you’re sick? I’d love to know.

March: A Cornucopia for Writers

march 2017 calendar
Yes, March 3 is International Ear Care Day. It’s also Bonza Bottler Day—the day of the month when the number of the day is the same as the number of the month—which is as good an excuse for a party as any. But it is so much more than these! March is rife with awareness and celebration, and these are golden opportunities for writers. Celebrations make excellent background for conflict, humor, intrigue, and the revelation of character.

Here, for your writing and partying pleasure, is a list:

Allport Syndrome Awareness Month coincides with National Kidney Month to raise awareness of kidney disease and the benefits of organ donation.

American Red Cross Month, to make people aware of the activities and programs of approximately 600 offices nationwide.
Celebrate Your Name Week (first full week in March), to honor your name and make sure it is a respected part of your personhood.


baby crying
Colic Awareness Month, to educate parents on safer soothing techniques. Colic is defined as an otherwise healthy baby crying for three or more hours a day, three or more days a week, for three or more weeks in a row.
Colorectal Cancer Education and Awareness Month, focusing on the need for early diagnosis, education, and treatment.
Credit Education Month, designed to remind people of the need to develop skills needed to manage their finances efficiently and effectively.
Employee Spirit Month urges employers to do things to raise the spirits of their employees. Duh! Apparently holiday office parties aren’t enough.


diverse female scientists
[Source: mladi]
Expanding Girls’ Horizons in Science and Engineering Month is exactly what it sounds like, focusing on middle- and high-school age girls.
Humorists Are Artists Month (HAAM) is, basically, asking people to appreciate the role of humor in their lives.
International Ideas Month, to encourage people to develop the skills needed to communicate their ideas for consideration and/or action.
International Listening Awareness Month, to promote the study, development, and teaching of effective listening in all settings.
International Mirth Month encourages more mirthful moments to help people deal with not-so-funny stuff.


Irish-American Heritage Month is self-explanatory.


[© James F. Perry (Creative Commons)]
Mad For Plaid Month: We think of plaid as originating in the British Isles, but it was really in Central Europe in the sixth century BCE. Consider more than Black Watch. Go for madras, gingham, check, as well as tartan.
Malignant Hypothermia Awareness and Training Month: Malignant hypothermia is is a reaction to commonly used volatile gaseous anesthesia, and untreated can kill a person within minutes.
Music in Our Schools Month to increase public awareness and support of music as part of a balanced curriculum.
National Caffeine Awareness Month is intended to reduce dependence on caffeine.


National Cheerleading Week (1-7)—exactly what the name says.
National Clean Up Your IRS Act Month is to focus on resolving problems with the IRS.
National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month—exactly what the name says.
National Craft Month lauds the fun and creativity of crafts and hobbies.
National Eye Donor Month: You can figure this one out! Coincides with Save Your Vision Month and Workplace Eye Wellness Month.
National Frozen Food Month touts convenience, quality, and nutrition.
National Multiple Sclerosis Education and Awareness Month: The aim is compassion as well as awareness.
National Nutrition Month—as if anyone doesn’t know about the importance of nutrition for good or ill!
peanut cookbook
[Source: Amazon]
National Peanut Month promotes peanuts in all their glory, from in the shell to pie. (I have an excellent recipe for peanut pie from The Peanut Cookbook.)
National Procrastination Week (1-7) celebrates the benefits of procrastination—but might also interfere with other activities of the month!
National Umbrella Month honors one of the most versatile and underrated inventions of all time.


march women's history month
[Source: CSCC]
National Women’s History Month celebrating women’s contributions and achievements that are too often overlooked or ignored.
National Write A Letter of Appreciation Week (1-7), though I suppose in this day and age, an email of appreciation is more likely.
Optimism Month: Research documents that optimists have better health, greater prosperity, and are happier than pessimists.
Play-The-Recorder Month brings public performances in places such as libraries, bookstores, museums, and shopping malls. You might even find a workshop on playing the recorder.
Poison Prevention Awareness Month is for the prevention of accidental poisoning.
Professional Pet Sitters Week (first full week in March): Yes, people really do make a living this way. Imagine the opportunities for everything, from romance to murder!
Read an E-Book Week: Self explanatory. Why not try Different Drummer?
Return the Borrowed Books Week: Think personal loans as well as libraries.
Sing With Your Child Month promotes families singing, dancing, and making music together.
Social Work Month celebrates the services social workers provide to vulnerable populations.
Telecommuter Appreciation Week focuses on the benefits to workers, families, employers, and society.
Vascular Anomalies Awareness Month includes hemangioma, malformations, and tumors. Who knew?
Youth Art Month promoting the value and importance of art and art education for children and youths.


kid art
Should you accept the challenge of writing a March scene, story, or poem based on something in this list, you can find out more about any or all of them online. Cheers!