Category Archives: Dialogue

The Red Pen: Stating the Obvious that Obviously Needs Stating

I’ve been wearing my editor hat again the last couple weeks, working with someone’s raw manuscript that is pending rewrite for resubmission. For confidentiality reasons, I apologize that I can’t be more specific than I am. What follows below are merely some overarching concerns that a rookie can easily overlook (hey, I’m one, too!) and sometimes get the Monkey’s head beating against the trunk of its tree:

1. Research – They say, “Write what you know,” but one doesn’t have to live in a place or serve in a certain profession, for example, to be able to research authentic details relating to such. Writing fiction doesn’t give the liberty to entirely fabricate a place or occupation if it’s one that actually exists. The internet is a beautiful place for research, as are books, site visits, and interviews with people in the applicable locations/fields. Be knowledgeable of your story’s setting and subjects and use common sense to discern what claims need to be fact-checked, then verify them accordingly. (see also “Settingcategory)

2. Narrative – Do NOT “tell” versus “show”! That is Writing 101. Your story shouldn’t read like an extended synopsis that lists events rather than describes them in such a way that immerses the reader. Don’t say that your character is making a facial expression that looks angry, show that his brows are furrowed and lips screwed into a menacing sneer. Don’t say that the room is filled with expensive-looking furniture, show that it’s cluttered with ornately carved oak chairs upholstered in embroidered silk astride side-tables trimmed in gold leaf (I don’t know if that’s “expensive” or just tacky…). And don’t say something in dialogue that you then paraphrase in narrative—communicate the info/insight one way or the other; to do both is redundant.

Also, avoid an abundance of character introspection. Readers really don’t need to know every single thought and motivation of your character. Make them privy, yes, if it’s from a certain character’s POV, but it’s also more interesting and vivid to visualize if you concisely show their body language and actions and let the reader reasonably infer some of what they’re thinking or feeling. Telling all on characters and the labyrinth of questioning they’re wondering their way through is tedious and doesn’t let readers form questions of their own that’ll make them keep reading in search of answers. Leaving something to the imagination not only indulges one of the joys of reading but can heighten a story’s sense of conflict and climax when the reader isn’t already in the know of everything. (see alsoDescriptive LanguageandSensory Detailscategories)

3. Dialogue. In keeping with the above, character conversation can come across as unnatural when too much information is shared by this means. Be subtle when doling out back-story or insight via dialogue, otherwise it’s blunt and awkward: your manipulations of story become too transparent, and the characters don’t sound like real people. (see alsoDialoguecategory)

4. Characterization. The above narration/dialogue factors are just as important to building a strong sense of character. Do your characters sound believable? Are you showing enough description of features, mannerisms, and personality such that your reader can visualize your characters (yet not so much that you’re telling readers everything about them and leaving nothing to the imagination)? And are you giving your reader reason to remotely care about them and whether or not they reach their goals? Without any of this, characters aren’t even two dimensional; they’re stick-straight lines. Boring. Flesh ’em out and make them more interesting with flaws if they seem too goodie-goodie or benign—or with redeeming qualities if they’re otherwise the Devil incarnate. No one likes a purely good hero or a purely evil villain. (see alsoCharactercategory)

5. Story Arc. Tensions need to rise as the story progresses. Not overly telling and giving everything away (as discussed above) will help contribute to this as readers speculate character motivations and future actions and reactions; scan and replace lengthy sections of introspection with concise, external descriptions of character body language/expression and leave readers to their own interpretations. Add complexity by interweaving relevant back-story and subplot(s). Foreshadowing is also a useful device for enhancing curiosity along the way as readers form predictions, but it will blow up in your face if the seeds you plant are too obvious! Don’t lead up to your big reveal only for your reader to go, “Uh, derr!” That reeks of anticlimax.

It’s not to say everything should be a surprise for the reader—it can be just as suspenseful when the reader already knows something the character doesn’t (like in horror movies when you know the killer is lurking right around the corner from the innocent victim), but only when it’s deliberately played to this effect. There’s a craft in pulling that off, so don’t think simply telling your reader everything and leaving your character in the dark is an easy shortcut—be discerning in what you share and withhold.

Your big revelations can likewise be a let-down if your characters’ own responses fall flat. Think about what you’re wanting your readers to anticipate, to get excited about, and make sure you deliver it in a commensurately enthusiastic fashion. If there’s a big secret out there that your reader knows and is dying for your character to find out, is the character finding out in an exciting and unexpected way? Or is, for instance, another character just explaining it in a straight-forward conversation, garnering a reaction as enthralling as, “Oh.” (see alsoStory Arccategory and, more specifically, Pacing Your Pages” Parts I & II)

6. Other: Plot Elements (in general). Map out all the major and minor elements of your plot and subplot(s) alike and make sure every piece of them flows/connects logically. Ensure not a single important question they could raise is left unanswered if it’s vital to understanding and believing in the story. Loose ends that leave something to the imagination or tease for a sequel are one thing, but overlooking major gaps in how a character got from Point A to Point B (just because you want them to get there for the sake of driving the story forward in other ways) undermines a story’s entire credibility. Don’t just say something happened if it’s not entirely logical for it to have happened and assume your readers won’t notice, that they’ll just take your word for it. If something is complicated whether you like it or not, do the work to figure it out; stop writing and start reasoning through it (via outline or time-line, perhaps). Do more research if it’s necessary. And if it’s not working, accept it and change it to something that will.

Readers’ disbelief can only be suspended so far; you have to earn their trust if they’re going to follow the journey you want to take them on. Even the most fantastical of story-worlds need plausibility (working within the rules/parameters the author so designs for those worlds if it’s not the one we actually live in), so the reader must understand how plot events feasibly come to happen and tie together for the story to be realistic and identifiable.

Speaking of “Uh, durr!” and “Oh,” that’s probably your reader-response to all of the above. But you’d be surprised what we writers can’t see in our own writing that we so clearly do in others. As the author, the mental full-picture we see tends to automatically fill the gaps of the written story that our readers otherwise trip into. With that in mind, never underestimate a pair of fresh eyes; it really does pay to have others read your work. So toughen that skin and git ‘er done! Constructive criticism has groomed the Monkey’s own fur into a nice thick and glossy coat. 🙂


The Red Pen: Editing Another’s Manuscript – Part I

As a new year is about making resolutions, I realized there are still a couple promises from my November I.O.U. that I haven’t yet fulfilled. So let’s tie up those loose ends!

To start, I owe Milo from In Media Res 10 random things about myself, which can be found at this link (’cause you know he’d send a guy to break my legs if I didn’t make good on that).

I’d also meant to share some of my editing notes on a manuscript that shall remain anonymous, so to the extent that I can do so without giving any specifics of the story away…

On a word level, I provided a list of frequently-recurring verbs/adjectives and noted:

Would be worthwhile to scan and determine how you might replace them with synonyms here and there for variety, or possibly eliminate altogether in the event the characters’ actions and/or dialogue already convey the same idea (thereby making description redundant). They’re great words that make description vivid, but because they stand out, their repetition is less invisible.

Try to reduce use of dialogue tags to when it’s necessary for identifying the speaker. Especially avoid overly descriptive ones – show tone instead through the dialogue itself or the character’s actions. In most cases, “said” is best, as it’s invisible to the reader.

I likewise advised on minimizing adverbs and “to be” verbs—the former “tell” more than “show,” and the latter slow down pace and sound a bit more passive. Where description was concerned, the issues that stood out most were telling-versus-showing, redundancy, and certain physical descriptions that ran too specific and frequent:

While you have an effective way of threading description through dialogue, sometimes that description can be condensed together rather interrupting the flow of the dialogue multiple times. Seeking opportunities for this will enhance the pacing and snappiness of your characters’ great dialogue rather than bog it down.

Just to interject another comment on adverbs and other description accompanying dialogue – think of how certain messages/attitudes/etc. might be conveyed through the characters’ dialogue or actions for the reader to figure out rather than be told outright. [Sometimes] it can make the reader feel like a detached third-party rather than in on the action. I definitely feel pulled into this story, but teeny moments like this can sometimes remind me that I’m reading something rather than “living” it—almost like little road bumps that interrupt an otherwise smooth experience.

And it’s not always about replacing description with description—it can be taking some description away altogether.  Your characters share such witty, snappy banter, that it may at times feel appropriate to just let them talk with minimal interruption. For example, if this first sentence of the paragraph was taken away, I would still catch on to [Secondary Character]’s displeasure and coolness by virtue of his brief first sentence and shift [in dialect].

Reduce level of description for secondary characters that do not recur. This draws attention to [Secondary Character] and makes me think I should know her well, yet she never reappears later.

Sometimes these color and make/model details seem superfluous. We see [Main Character]’s truck play an important role later, but [Secondary Character] and anyone else’s vehicles don’t really matter to the story.

Then there were structural considerations on sentence, page, and chapter levels:

Consider breaking down some paragraphs with embedded dialogue […]. It creates more white space to quicken the conversation’s pace and allows the reader’s eyes to “breathe.”

[T]he description of one character embedded with another’s dialogue sometimes makes it confusing who the speaker is. Sometimes, perhaps, a description like this could skip to the next line, provided the continuing speaker is tagged.

To enhance flow, perhaps join these two [simple] sentences using a semicolon or conjunction.

Section break to accentuate passage of time and shift of focus to [another character].

Basically, I proposed many paragraph breaks to not only help break up clunkier sections, but also separate dialogue from descriptions that didn’t correspond with it. My suggested section breaks not only helped to denote shifts, but also provide a breathable white space and prevent a chapter from becoming the structural equivalent of a run-on sentence. And in a couple cases, I recommended converting a section break to a chapter break—in the case of the very first chapter, doing such preserved the opening momentum as the second section was rather lengthy.

Such are just a few examples, but what all the edits peppering that manuscript boil down to is clarity and consistency.

This has gotten long, so I’ll save my two pence on the more developmental edits I made for tomorrow. Ta!


The Manuscript Manicure – Part I: Macro-Editing

Hiya! I’m back to redeem that I.O.U. I gave you last week. See, my word’s good as gold ;)…

As I mentioned, I attended a writing workshop with Room to Write over the weekend that was geared toward prepping a novel manuscript for submission. The full-day conference was divided into two primary parts—Editing and Publication—the first of which I’ll address in part now and break the rest down into separate posts. But, first, I’ll start with some general notes I jotted along the way to get us in the proper mindset:

One thing they stressed is that, above all:

“Editing is a creative process.”

Yes, it involves the nitty-gritty technical stuff, but we’re not merely playing the role of English teacher grading for grammar with red pen in hand—revising our work requires every bit of imagination and innovative thought as writing our initial draft does. For as they said, when the first draft is finished:

“You’re only just beginning.”

Ah yes, it does feel that way doesn’t it…my question is, when the hell does it end???

Anyway, in order to become our own editor, we have to become a “self-conscious” one. No, not as in insecurity-ridden—I think I’ve already mastered that one just fine :). What they mean is to be conscious of the kind of writer we are and the audience we’re writing for. The better aware we are of this, the better  we’ll be able to edit our work with this focus in mind.

Macro-editing is concerned with the overall  novel as a cohesive work. It’s our opportunity to step back from our first draft and contemplate whether it has achieved what we wanted it to and is structured effectively. They encouraged us to print a hardcopy of the manuscript to initiate this stage, as reading your words on the page is truly a different experience from reading them on screen. (I wouldn’t have expected this, but wow. There’s so much more that I catch with that ms in hand.) You will also want to list your themes, summarize your entire book in three sentences, and keep these with you as you journey back through your text to ensure you aren’t straying from any critical elements.

Key aspects your self-conscious-editing self should look for (not only in the novel as a whole, but in every chapter and scene as well) are:

– A compelling beginning, a hook that makes the reader want to continue. The first chapter in particular should be compelling in an action sense, but also in a literary way—it needs to be beautifully written. Subsequent chapters likewise need their own hooks and should be varied in how they start (i.e., beginning with dialogue, beginning in the middle of action, etc.)

– Action, drama, or “trouble,” as they called it.

– Appropriate pacing.

Three-dimensional characters that are brought to life and desire something;

— Characters are “thinly veiled versions of the writer” (sound familiar?), but we must immediately establish distinction between them and from ourselves if they are to appear as separate people; if they’re all clones of us, then they’re clones of each other.
— If you can “see” the character in your mind (consider gathering clippings from magazines and such for reference), then they will come across on the page.
– Provide physical descriptions of your three main characters, enough to help visualize their traits, but not full-bodied detail. Leave something to your readers’ imagination.
— Characters should be consistent from start to finish (i.e., if you reveal or yourself learn something new about them later in the novel, are these traits present at the beginning as well? If not, try to introduce them at least subtly).
— We should see growth in the main character.

– Clear sense of when and where each scene partakes.

– Long sections of description/exposition that could be cut.

Changing up the writing between exposition, narrative, and dialogue.

– A sense of atmosphere and appeal to the senses that lends texture.

– Something in each chapter that surprises the reader.

Continuity between scenes and chapters; ensure nothing is missing.

– Evaluate the “shape” of your novel/chapter in terms of story arc. Shapes can vary, but there should in general be a rising sense of action/conflict until the climax, then a dip toward resolution (so check for any sagging in the middle).

– Evaluate the ending and ensure a sense of resolution. They advised us to look at six novels we personally enjoy and look at their endings as a guide for managing this successfully. They also admitted that, in the interest of keeping your ending brief (the resolution should just be a “flick” after the climax) as well as ensuring your reader understands what has happened, the resolution may indeed warrant more telling than showing.

Throughout your macro-editing assessment, then, you will want to sit back and assess whether this is the story you wanted to write in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if ends up morphing into something even cooler than you thought it could be, but if it seems to fall short in some way, pinpoint where it diverges and contemplate how to get it back on track. Another very important point to consider outside of yourself is if it is the story your reader will want to read—how will they experience it?

I’d better cut this off here until my next installment. Many thanks to author Avril Joy for guiding us through this session of the workshop! More to come…

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


Schoolhouse Crock

In the wake of my previous post on “taboo” words, I came to a horrifying realization: writers are going to put Lolly’s, Inc. from Schoolhouse Rock out of business!!!

A three-generation family business…I just don’t know if I can live with the guilt!

I therefore reemphasize what I said last time about still using the supposed no-no words like adverbs—just do so within reason—and I think dialogue or 1st-person narration deserves some leeway as well if it’s authentic to how a person would really speak.  So I guess I’ll still be unpacking my adjectives, too, but with discretion.

Working through this experience has introduced me to writer rules that *gasp!* I wasn’t necessarily teaching my high school students…when it came to dialogue tags, I confess I’d tell them that “said” is boring, so their characters should “exclaim” or “sneer” or even “smirk” something—I gave them a worksheet, in fact, that listed up to 50 different tags!  Gah!  And in looking at said worksheet, go figure the examples I used for dialogue punctuation:

I asked, “Did you see the monkey fall out of tree?”
Did you just say, “The monkey fell out of the tree”?
I screamed, “The monkey is going to fall out of the tree!”
He had the nerve to ask me, “Why didn’t you catch the monkey when it fell?”!

I will say this in my defense (not of subjecting my students to endless monkeys in their grammar examples ;), but of how I taught descriptive language):

– First of all, children and adults alike who are not naturally expressive in their writing do benefit a great deal from first learning what vast options their language provides them so they can later practice restraint when making more sophisticated stylistic decisions.

– Second, I certainly wasn’t teaching them that more words are better, merely that each of the words they are using should pack a punch.  It’s not about being redundant, it’s—for example—saying that someone “saunters” rather than “walks” or that the fish in the garbage smells “putrid” rather than “bad.”  These one-to-one swaps are sufficient in themselves to strengthen a sentence.

Thus, in their revision workshops, I’d ask them to comb through their writing and seek out any general nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs and replace them with more specific ones.  They were also to identify which senses their descriptions appealed to and strive to address all five at some point.

“Writers with style never just eat breakfast.  They munch on granola, wolf down hotcakes, savor Frosted Flakes, or gorge on jelly doughnuts.” – Art Peterson, The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose

I must say it’s very fun, let alone ironic, playing the pupil and trying to follow my own and others’ lessons, and I’m grateful for the new perspective I’ll eventually bring back to the classroom.  I’m not only strengthening as a writer, but also as a teacher.


The Shotgun-Shack Story: Nowhere to Hide

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I’ve been sitting on a topic for a while that a recent blog post on Lethal Inheritance  has spurred me to finally write.  In Tahlia’s post, “Is writing the second novel easier than the first?“, she discusses how she has started writing her second book while her first manuscript awaits publishing.  She mentions ways in which this second story line differs from the first:

“[I]t takes place almost entirely in one set of adjoining suites in a castle, whereas Lethal Inheritance’s scenery is always changing. Thirdly, it’s character, relationship and emotion driven, rather than action driven. For me, that’s a harder brief, and that’s why I’m not sure at this stage if I can make it work.”

To which I responded:

“What I’ve been working on to date falls in that [same] category; there are not dramatic changes in setting or adrenaline-rushing action as it’s very concentrated on the psychological/emotional variations in my protagonist as she questions identity and her perceptions of reality.”

I proceeded to say that, though this is the type of story I’m personally drawn to, I realize it doesn’t necessarily have the mass-market appeal that would get it snatched up for publication.  And that’s okay—I am definitely writing the story I want to write; I started rereading it from the beginning yesterday and am all the more convinced of that.

So, today I’m dedicating this post to those incredible stories out there that capture our attention without catering to the modern-day ADD bred by MTV-esque rapid editing and car chases and explosions.  I’m not saying I’m not likewise entertained by the action-packed tales, just that they are not the only ones capable of, in fact, entertaining.

I attended a writing seminar last year in which a panel of agents, publishers, and authors spoke on the craft of writing in conjunction with getting published.  Someone in the audience had asked about commercial versus literary fiction, and an author responded that “commercial” fiction is story-driven whereas “literary” fiction prioritizes language and ideas—it is read for the beauty of the words and provocation of thought.  She attested that many authors try to combine both.

This got me thinking, then, about the more character-driven stories that I enjoy.  Where films go, I noticed a trend in my collection of one-setting movies; indeed, some partake in just one room.  Think about that!  One room.  If a film or novel can captivate you all the way through by virtue of situation and dialogue without having to change settings, that is a brilliantly written manuscript, in my opinion.

Don’t believe me?  Try watching Rear Window, 12 Angry Men, Rope, or, hey, even The Breakfast Club—all of which take place in a single room (with the exception of maybe a minute or two outside)—and tell me that you aren’t entertained.  These are carried by characterization and dialogue, just like other favorites of mine:  Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset (which both admittedly change settings, but the respective cities of Vienna and Paris are just backdrops to the characters’ ongoing conversation), The Anniversary Party (an ensemble cast in a Hollywood couple’s home), and Gosford Park (in the vein of the Agatha Christie books I loved as a kid that transpire in a single setting—a mansion in And Then There Were None and a train in Murder on the Orient Express).  And it doesn’t take dramatic, in-your-face action and cutting from setting to setting to get the blood rushing, as not only evidenced by these mysteries and the two aforementioned Hitchcock films (Rear Window and Rope), but in haunting thrillers like Dead Calm and The Others as well…which coincidentally both star Nicole Kidman, the first taking place on a sailboat and the second in yet another old English mansion.

In speaking on setting, the visual examples of this most readily come to my mind through film, but the success in capturing even a viewer’s attention in this case comes down to the writing.  The writer scripts the dialogue and envisions the setting and behavior of the characters—in film, the director then works to capture this audiovisually.  Yet in a novel, it is all on the writer to convey these elements entirely in words.

Stripping away the attractive actors, elaborate sets, and soundtracks does not render mere words dull, nor is a single/minimal-setting book a bore.  If that were the case, where would that leave the classic works of authors like Austen or Bronte, whose stories don’t deviate far from the character’s homes.  Think of the chill sent down the spine by novellas like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw or Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (houses), the adrenaline and fury aboard Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (boat), or the intimate existential conversation in Salinger’s Franny & Zoe (the entire second part moves only from the bathroom to the living room) or Boethius’s 6th-century The Consolation of Philosophy (a prisoner speaks with Fortune in his cell).

What is it about the single-setting that so fascinates me?  I suppose it’s in part the appreciation I feel for the effectiveness of story-telling that doesn’t rely on bells and whistles.  And it’s the great experiment of what happens when you isolate people in a room—throw in a dash of tension, stir, and bring to a boil.  It becomes a study of humanity when characters aren’t able to escape each other or even themselves:

There is much heart, soul-seeking, and thrill to be had within four walls.  A writer can most certainly pull it off, though the impact can only be as strong as the writing itself in bringing it from the corners of a room to the corners of the mind.

How about you, readers and writers—do you gravitate toward the story-driven or character-driven?  What are some examples that successfully combine both?


Are YOU Talkin’ to ME?

We all have them.  Those heated exchanges (or ones that are on their way to becoming heated) when we bite our tongues rather than spew what we’d really like to say.  Well, I must say I’ve gotten much, much better at speaking my mind over the last decade, so it’s hard to think of any recent times I’ve muzzled myself (quite unfortunate for my husband)…but still, there are times when we’ll do it for whatever reason:  to be tactful, to spare feelings, or maybe just to save time until we can regroup and come back with a better debate strategy.

The Prompt:

Page 24 of Room to Write asks us to think back to an argument when we’ve held back.  Let it all out now, considering what you censored or reworded at the time.  Develop it as a dialogue in which you likewise speculate how the other person may have responded.

Response:

I’m going to cheat on this one.  I’ve been trying to dig up some great conflict from my youth, but it isn’t coming to me right now.  The first hot topic that does come to mind, however, is one that I addressed three years ago by writing a letter that I knew I would never end up sending.  The file name I’d saved it under was, “If I Ever Have the Nerve to Send it,” so I could at least have it at the ready if need be.  The act of writing it out was in itself therapeutic and, as of this year, perhaps financially rewarding.  I’m still waiting to hear the latest update, but as of March I signed a release to have the letter included in an anthology entitled Best of Unsent Letters (I’m doubting the intended recipients would discover it under my pen name). We’ll see.  Maybe publication is delayed.  Maybe they forgot about me.  At any rate, until I know, I can’t share it here, but if it gets posted on their corresponding blog, I’ll retroactively add the link so you can see what spiteful things I have to say when someone crosses my family. “NOBODY puts Baby in the corner!

To make up for lack of creativity this fine, lazy Sunday, I’ll throw this out there.  When I do have a bone to pick but not the commensurate nerve to say it to the applicable person, I have a habit of carrying out the exchange in the mirror.  Of course, this could mean that I’m senile.  Regardless, I ended up incorporating this into one of my character’s list of quirks to rationalize why she (me) does it. Here is the draft excerpt of such a scene:

She really did spend inordinate amounts of time standing [at the bathroom mirror].  Not cleaning it, Heaven forbid, nor was it time reserved for inspecting pores or removing blackheads from her small, upturned nose; most of the time, she spoke in whispers.  Whenever her brain felt the size of a walnut or, conversely, enlarged to the point of bursting with thought, she just vomited out the swirling words and conversations verbally, wishing she [could] deposit them in a physical, external reservoir where they could be left behind and visited when desired, rather than confronted involuntarily and often when unprepared.

Eyes locked on her own, the visual reminded that her identity did lie in something more than just her own awareness.  Her presence meant something.  Her absence meant something.  She was here, in your face, and she mattered.

And so, she resumed—partially whispered, partially mouthed—the conversation she’d recently begun in her mind, a monologue finally telling John how she felt about their relationship and threatening him with how much her absence would absolutely matter to him.

“I’d feed you the ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ line, but it’s not not you, and it surely isn’t just me.  It’s both of us and our mutual inability to ‘get’ each other.”

The figure opposite her served as an acting coach, giving Margaret feedback on her body language as she fine-tuned the script to perform later.  Satisfied after thirty minutes that she’d thoroughly convinced her reflection with her eloquent articulation, she was too exhausted and bored with the effort to even consider repeating the words to John anytime soon.  Such was the way with all the actual face-offs that never actually happened, especially because she’d lose her nerve without her reflected self as guide.

Reflection:

So…for whatever that was worth.  I’ll try to get my mind back in gear next time to churn out something new.  How about you?  What have you left unsaid?


The Art of Lying

Okay, then.  Getting me arse back into gear with my writing prompts now that I’ve concluded my grand U.S. tour.  I had a productive writing/revising day yesterday, though, so hopefully this will help me accomplish even more later today.

I was just watching the film The Invention of Lying last night, and, funny enough, the next prompt in Room to Write is about lies.  The movie is about a world in which no one lies until one man discovers the possibilities of doing so, and it’s hilarious the utterly dull impact the inability to lie has on advertising, literature, and film—fiction basically can’t exist!  The fact is, everyone at some point tells a lie.  Our motivations for doing so can vastly vary—it might be out of kindness to spare someone’s feelings, or it might spring from more ill intentions like self-gain or pridefully covering up that we are not as all that and a bag-o-chips as we’d like to think we are.

The Prompt:

In light of the different reasons why a person might choose to tell a “good” or a “bad” lie, our characters’ motivations in doing so can be very telling about them, even more so than the actual lie that they speak.  Bonni Goldberg tells us that we can more convincingly portray our characters’ lies by considering our own motivations for lying.  So, page 20 asks us to write only lies.  We have these options:

1.  Write silly lies, like you’re confirmed to pilot the next shuttle to the moon;

2.  Write more realistic lies that you have told or would actually tell to yourself and those you know;

3.  Write lies you have told and reflect on why you chose not to tell the truth in that instance; and/or,

4.  Write a scene in which one of your characters considers telling a lie.

This is one opportunity we have to tell lies without judgment…well, I guess I’m setting myself up for more judgment than if I were privately scrawling these in a journal vs. publishing it in cyberspace.  As I’m concerned this might hold me back from revealing certain truths through lies (odd how that does make sense), I’ll do a variation on #4 and share a scene in which my protagonist tells a string of little white  lies, and reflect on her motivations thereafter.  As in my earlier post, “Dialogues of Destiny“, I’ll call her “Margaret” and likewise alter my other characters’ names.  I will also highlight her lies in red font (that’s red, right?  Or is it orange?  I will not tell a lie and confess that I’m color weak.  Not proud of that fact).

Response:

To provide some context first, Margaret (an American) is temporarily living in her British friend Ron’s London flat.  They have had a recent, inexplicable falling out while standing in the doorway of her room.  Afterwards, he goes out for the night with his girlfriend Wendy while Margaret takes a nap.  She has just woken up and been writing in her journal when he returns, and this is what happens:

Margaret started when a dull thud on the door sharpened into three knocks of increasing conviction.

“Margaret?”

She adjusted the dimmer to fill the room in starker light, bracing, and the desk chair answered on her behalf with a creak as she lifted her weight from it to open the door.  Dread permeated her heart as she stepped into the threshold with a clammy hand still on the knob.  In the silence, it took several seconds before she could raise her meek eyes to his.  The face she met was not the darkened, scowling countenance of the Byronic hero she’d imagined; Ron’s visage, perhaps shaded in uncertainty to counteract its enhanced pallor, was otherwise unaltered.

“Are you all right?”

His tone conveyed that he had not analyzed this to remotely the same extreme Margaret had, if he’d even given it more than a second thought before embarking on his planned evening.

Sure.”  Feeling short of breath and sickened by their resumed postures in the doorway, a déja-vu she could control, Margaret suggested they relocate to the living room.  Averting an instinct to go to the sofa, she sat timidly on the club chair like a child sent to the Principal’s office.  A chair for one could be safe, personal space for her.

“Wendy was here just briefly, then we went for dinner.  Pizza—seventy-five centimeters of it.  I have the leftovers here for you if you like.”

The simple act of kindness pressed her eyes from behind.

“Oh, that’s so nice of you.  I’m fine, though.”

“You did eat, then?”

No.  “Yeah.  But thanks.” Not wanting the gesture to be thought in vain, she added, “Maybe tomorrow for lunch.  Cold pizza’s always been a national favorite.”

“What were you up to tonight?”

“Oh, I just slept.  I’ve been really lethargic lately, and just taking advantage of the fact that I can.”

“You have appeared positively knackered.  I assume you’ve had some late nights studying.  That can take its toll.”

His words sound so sadly strained…forced.  “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been to class in over a week now.  I never ditched class in high school or college, but, again, just finally realizing that I can, so I do.  It’s nice for a while to just be.  Whatever ‘being’ is.”

He rubbed his chin slowly between thumb and forefinger as speculation shadowed his piercing blue eyes.  “Well, you’re an adult.  I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

Not likely, but she was grateful he did not get didactic on her.  Still, she tried to salvage her studious reputation to an extent.

“Well, Ive still met with my project-mates, so they bring me up to speed.  A lot of this stuff is innate, or like something straight out of work experience, so I’m making good headway.”  This was half true; she had sporadically returned their phone calls and emailed bare-minimum contributions so at least their credits would’t be sabotaged.

“Interesting project?  Challenging?”

“Not really.”

Ron didn’t probe further, even though it was an area in which he himself had expertise; Margaret appreciated this in him, that he knew where to draw lines and let her be.  To a degree.

“What were you working on just now?”

“Huh?”

“You looked like you’d been at the desk writing.  In a notebook.  Documenting your stay here?”

Mm, sort of.  Just a blurb about something on my mind.”

“What is on your mind, may I ask?”

Shit, I handed him the perfect segue, garnished on a platter.

She was sincerely at a loss for what had come over her, remembering all the actions, but none of the motives, and she didn’t know where to even begin explaining something like that to her friend.  But she owed him a try.

“Not much.  I don’t know.”  She audibly expelled air from her lungs at the point of conceding defeat.  “Look…I’m…really, really sorry for my behavior earlier.  I don’t pretend to have an excuse.  I have reasons—I was tired and starting to feel positively nauseous.  But this doesn’t excuse me for my rudeness.  I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, you were a bit of a prat, weren’t you?  Rather unexpected.  What made you fancy laughing in hysterics like that?  Only to slam the door in my face all in a paddy the next instant?”

So he had thought about it.  Just took some classic British passive-aggressive beating around the bush to get down to it. “I’m really embarrassed; I’m not sure.  Did Wendy hear?”

His brows elevated. “Quite clearly, yes.  I believe that was the point, was it not?”

FuckBlame it on my hormones? “At the risk of making you uncomfortable, I think I’m approaching the end of my, you know, ‘cycle,’ so my estrogen levels are outta whack.”

“I comprehend the feminine chemical imbalance that occurs monthly, but, really now.”

This was a male attitude that never failed to royally tick off Margaret.  She lifted the tail from between her legs and automatically ignited.

“What the hell is with men being incapable of understanding that!  It would save your kind so much trouble if you’d just learn how to track a fucking calendar and know when to stay the hell away.”

Ron laughed through his teeth at the re-flaring of her incomprehensible temper.  “And what calendar is that?  How am I supposed to know your menstrual cycle, pray tell?”

“You could ask.”  Margaret realized this was an idiotic comeback.

“Oh, yes, quite right.”  He affected a Californian Valley Girl accent: “So, like, Margaret…when’s, like, your next period?  Need to borrow a sanitary towel?”

As funny as it was hearing the phrase “sanitary towel” articulated in an American accent, she was provoked.  “Well, hasn’t Wendy trained you to follow hers by now?  Or is she just bitchy all the time?”

“You’re out of line.”

Sorry.”

“No, you’re not.  And according to your own earlier statement, you don’t know Wendy.  So where do get off insulting her, offending me in the process?”

I was just making a joke.  I apologize that the humor doesn’t translate.”  The arrogant bitterness infusing her reply rendered the value of this apology null and void.

“What has come over you?”  She had never heard his voice raised before.

“This is getting all blown out of proportion.  I don’t even know where it started.  All I know is, I’m sorry for whatever misunderstanding is occurring right now.”

No, you’re not,” Ron repeated.  “Margaret, in just a matter of days, you have become a completely different person.”

Reflection:

And scene…well, to be honest in the midst of all these lies, that isn’t really the end of the scene, I just don’t want to give too much away about the plot and central conflict of the story.  In any case, beyond this point, Margaret shifts gears and becomes truthful to a fault, with more jabs below the belt.  But I will divulge what is hopefully apparent in this scene—Margaret’s emotions have become more erratic than usual, which, in all fairness to her, is just as perplexing for her as it is for us readers.  So, in her defense, when she tells Ron she isn’t sure what came over her earlier when she snapped at him, she really isn’t—nor does she understand why she’s becoming more disorganized and irresponsible.  However, she is not secure enough with herself to admit this to anyone just yet.  Rather than confront the possibility that there may be something psychologically imbalanced about her, she grasps for a commonplace explanation.

What is evident earlier in the scene is Margaret’s repetitious assurances that she’s “fine.”  Her motivations in this case also relate to her insecurity; she wants to hold up a brave face rather than show further vulnerability in front of someone she respects and in whose presence she just recently embarrassed herself.  This further explains why she half-lies about her coursework (she is taking a leave of absence to pursue summer professional development studies).  What is also going on here, though, is what I mentioned above about Margaret’s own confusion over why she’s acting the way she is lately.  In light of this, she is not only lying to Ron in this scene, but to herself.

When her temper begins to flare yet again, she spits out nasty comments (revealing her instability as well as tinge of jealousy over Wendy) and tries to backtrack by lying that she’s sorry; while he might not have noticed her dishonesty earlier, it is at this point Ron is able to call her out on it.  He knows she does not regret saying the spiteful things she does, and while it is offensive to him (and, oh boy, does it only get worse when the rest of the scene that is not posted here unfolds), his genuine concern encourages him to try to work through it with her.

One more white lie highlighted above centers on something Margaret wrote in her journal.  I’m not going to reveal what that’s all about, just that her deliberately vague response is likewise inhibited by her fear of revealing too much about herself that could be considered strange.

So that’s that for today.  I hope this dialogue comes across as natural and that the motivations underlying Margaret’s little lies do indeed say something about her character, regardless of whether it makes her sympathetic or not.  In closing, below is a tiny window into what the world might be like if nobody lied.  As it will reveal, lying is not an altogether bad thing in certain circumstances!


Walking the Talk

My previous post addressed beginnings of stories/novels, yet before I get to endings, it is worthwhile to comment on the dialogue that might not only span all the in-between but, in fact, could very well be our means of beginning and ending if utilized effectively.  Yet again, I am drawing from the specific advice proffered at the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), lessons we may have learned time and again through various sources, but that I found particularly insightful when distilled during this focused workshop.

To begin with, dialogue is essential to a successful novel because it:

– teaches us about characters and what they might be feeling the second they open their mouths through tone, accent, dialect, and word choice.

– conveys information

– moves the story forward and quickens its pace

– gives immediacy/brings readers in by appealing to senses of sight and sound

– creates white space, which gives us a chance to visually “breathe”

To maintain this significant impact of dialogue, we must therefore keep the following in mind:

– When using dialogue to convey information that we do not through narration, keep the information provided brief.  Otherwise, it may come across as more than would be natural in a conversation.

– Voices engaged in dialogue need to be distinguished from one another—

* Test this distinction by reading dialogue out loud.

* Consider overdoing sense of voice (e.g., through dialect or word choice), as you can always go back and take it away.  Spelling phonetically or using curse words to add color to a character’s voice can be effective in distinguishing him/her, yet it can also be distracting from what they’re actually saying.

* With this previous point in mind, be aware that while dialogue more closely resembles natural speech, even in the best of books it is not exactly the same as we would really talk…and that’s okay.  Again, it may be due to avoiding distractions in exact pronunciation or errors in grammatical syntax (we don’t obey convention 100% when we talk vs. write).  Yet I also feel it may relate to the artistry of language that we might infuse through our characters’ speech—think of the TV series Mad Men…those characters certainly do not speak like ordinary people, but there is something clean and lyrical in everything they say that is a joy to listen to and truly raises the program to a higher plane of thought and reflection.

* Not every line of dialogue needs to be tagged.  This is more easily done, though, when only 2 characters are involved and it’s easier for the reader to track who is speaking the alternating lines.

* Regarding tags, you are better off using plain and simple “said.”  Also, avoid adverbs—whatever description you could provide of how a character says something should already come across through the dialogue itself.

– Incorporate the “business” that goes with the dialogue. (In the excerpt we read from Ian Rankin’s Let it Bleed, for example, one character prepared a cup of coffee for the other as they conversed.)  In doing so, you will:

* help the reader “see” the scene by bringing in movement and showing versus telling through the characters’ actions

* reinforce the reality of the situation, make it more authentic to real life

So, talking of talking, I’ll stop my yammering on this topic.  It is a critical one, though, to writing an effective, engaging, and believable piece, so bear these pointers in mind while also just having fun with bringing your characters to life when you grant them the gift of individual voice.


Dialogues of Destiny


On page 10 of Room to Write, Bonni Goldberg informs us that, whether we’re intending to explicitly address it or not, our views on “destiny” inevitably come through in our writing.  I suppose on now considering this, it does seem avoiding it would be nearly impossible, as such a perspective would be firmly rooted in our worldview and how we approach setting our life goals.  Whether our belief in destiny is definitive or something we’re exploring, our characters will ultimately portray that belief or exploration themselves, even if to the contrary as our little Devil’s Advocates.  As a matter of fact, in one of the more recent chapters I’ve written, my protagonist does outright discuss her views on destiny with another character, so perhaps I was destined to get this writing prompt so soon thereafter, to help me revisit and develop that concept further.

The Prompt:

As for what today’s prompt does indeed ask us to do, we have two choices:

1)  Write about “destiny” for two pages; or,

2)  Write a dialogue between characters  from one or more of our pieces discussing their respective beliefs in destiny.

I’m opting for numero deux.  However, my spin on it is going to be as such–in homage to the recent passing of JD Salinger, my character will be speaking to none other than Catcher in the Rye‘s own Holden Caulfield.  I’m also going to conceal my character’s actual name for demented reasons known only to me.  Let’s call her, “Margaret” for now.

Response:

Seated on parallel wooden benches in the echoing open hall of a grand urban train station, Margaret is no longer able to ignore the penetrating glare  narrowly skimming her shoulder, fired from a bench directly in front of her.  Normally, she would retreat into the safe cavern of her shyness around strangers or move seats altogether, but she senses something troubled in this young man’s gaze akin to her own melancholy.  He doesn’t appear threatening; he is quite clean-cut and looking smart in a well-tailored overcoat.  It is only the red hunting hat that he dons that signals a mild alarm that something about him might be off.

Overwhelmed in fearful curiosity as to what his attention may be directed to at her side, Margaret summons the confidence to speak.

“Are you all right?”

Perhaps the ear flaps of  his hunting cap muffle the sound from reaching his notice.

“Are you okay?”

The young man’s eyes dart up with a start as he recognizes he’s being addressed.

“Sorry?”

“Sorry, I know I’m being random, but I was just wondering if there’s something near me that’s bothering you.  Hopefully, it’s not me.”

“How’d you be bothering me just sitting there?” he notes, trying to affect a blank expression, though unable to conceal an innocent bewilderment.

“I don’t know.”  Margaret reddens, feeling silly that she brought this all upon herself.  “I guess I might remind of you someone you don’t like.”  That sounds logical enough, she thinks.

Becoming conscious of his hat, Holden takes his turn to flush, and as he slides it back genteelly off his short, unexpectedly graying hair with his left hand, he extends his right over the back-rest to invite Margaret to shake it.

“Holden.  Nice to meet you.”

He’s a gentleman; and soft skin. “Margaret.”

“Sorry if I creeped you out and all.  It’s nothing to do with you.  I’m not a madman or anything, I was only looking at the graffiti.”  He gestures to a word carved in the wood a mere couple inches from her right arm.  “It’s nothing to do with you.”

Margaret interprets this repetition as a polite way of telling her to butt out.  “No, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to pry.”

Picking up on her embarrassment, Holden replies, “No, don’t worry, I don’t think you’re being nosy or anything.  I shouldn’ta been looking like I was staring at you and all.  I mean, I don’t mean to be rude.”

Seeking to get past this mutual awkwardness, Margaret rotates her head and leans forward to better read the carving.  “Destino,” she reads aloud.  Huh.

“Means ‘destiny,’ I guess.”  When Margaret doesn’t speak, Holden nervously rambles on.  “You know, I hate graffiti.  I hate messing up stuff that’s supposed to look nice.  Just the idea that some phony would sit there and have a goddam knife to pull out and slice into this nice varnished wood that’s here for everybody else too depresses the hell outta me.”  On observing her furrowing brow:  “Pardon me, ma’am.  Excuse my language.”

Conscious of her expression, Margaret tries to shake it off flippantly.  “Oh!  No, no.  Not at all.  Takes a lot to offend me, trust me.  I was just thinking about what you said.  I totally understand.”

Encouraged, Holden continues.  “It’s just that I see this stuff everywhere, and it depresses me, if you want to know the truth.  I saw a goddam ‘F*** you’ written on a wall in my little sister’s school, for Chrissake.  I hate that.  It’s lousy to write something like that in a kid’s school.”

Margaret grins inwardly at Holden’s critical cursing about cursing, and  she finds her interest piqued by this complex youth approximately half her age.  It seems he might be game for waxing philosophical for a brief while, at least to kill time.

“Well, I’m not a fan of graffiti either, but you have to admit this is a nicer form of it.   I mean, maybe the person wasn’t ‘phony’ at all, but seriously contemplating what that word means.  Maybe they were celebrating that their destiny had just been fulfilled, or praying so.”

“Believing in destiny is phony.  There isn’t any such thing, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a goddam phony bastard himself.”

“You’re quite cynical for your age!  I take it you see yourself as the master of your own fate, then?”

“I don’t think I’m the master of anything.  We’re all stuck falling through this phony world, laughing at jokes we don’t even think are funny and taking an exam or doing work that we’re brainwashed to believe is important and stuff, and for what?  Money?  Reputation?  Pay a dime to dance with a pretty girl?  None of it adds up to a pile of beans when all’s said and done.  We work ourselves to the bone to end up dead, and then what?  We can’t take it with us.  No, I’m no master of anything.”  Just then, Holden looks off into a realm of thought invisible to Margaret and quiets to almost a whisper.  “I’d like to be.  I think I could be.  If I could just catch those crazy kids when they came falling.  I could be the master of that.  I really think I could.”

Trying her best at interpretation without being too invasive, Margaret asks, “You’d like to help those that can’t help themselves.  The ones that Destiny hasn’t been kind to?”

“I know it sounds crazy, like I’m some sort of madman and maybe I am, but I can’t stop thinking about those kids.”  He raises his red hat back to his head as though unconsciously and pulls it over his ears snugly.  “Goddam graffiti.”

Though she has no clue what kids he’s talking about nor where they’re falling from or why, empathetic soul that she is, Margaret attempts to soothe Holden by relating the best way she can.  “I feel that way, too, sometimes.  That life can be random, and we just have to keeping rolling with the current with our heads above water as best we can.  But overall I think that flow might still be taking us somewhere, with or without our consent.  Or not.  I feel for others’ disillusionment, too, and would like to think someone would be there to catch me if I fell.”

She doesn’t expect it when Holden looks her directly in the eye just then.

“Too late,” he shakes his head.  “But don’t worry, because it’s too late for me too.”

Margaret is perplexed at the seeming sage quality in this kid.  “How so?”

“We’ve grown up.  We can’t ride the carousel anymore.”

Margaret lowers her eyes.  “I don’t think we should give up on ourselves just yet.  I’m not giving up on me, anyways.  I think Fate has something in store for me yet.”

“So you think you can still do anything about it?”

“Yeah.  Well, I’d like to think so.  I mean, I do believe in free will.  More than just tossing my hands up to the skies and saying, ‘Ah well.  So be it.'”

“You’d sounded more like you believed in destiny before.”  Holden is looking at her skeptically now, sizing up her capacity for phoniness.

“I do.  I guess I’ve just always figured we still operate ‘freely’ within that larger structure already put in place—by God, or whatever you might or apparently might not believe in.  What I’m trying to say is that I personally think we have an ultimate destiny, even if the paths we take to get there and the experiences along the way are for the most part controlled by us.  There might be those ‘little events’ planted here and there for a purpose, then, like occasional guideposts or guardrails to keep us on track.”

Peering at her stoically from beneath his cap, Holden does not look convinced.

Margaret presses on with the proverbial college-try.  “I remember reading somewhere, in someone’s blog, that that was their theory on deja-vu, that what we see that feels so familiar are actually signs that we’re on target…like on some level we’ve already lived out our destiny, and what we see as deja-vu is the playback, in brief clips, to show us that what we’re doing, at that exact point in time, is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing and where.”

“I don’t know what a ‘blog’ is, but that’s an interesting thought.  It really is, no kidding.  I get those sometimes, too, those deja-vus, but I don’t tell anybody about them or anything because those Pencey crooks’d think I was a damn sissy and knock my lights out.   They really would.  But still, I get them.  The deja-vus, I mean.  I figure they only mean that I’m crazy and all.  Like my brain is on the fritz.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever really know what they are, but I think it’s safe to say they’re not a sign of insanity.  Whatever those ‘Pencey crooks’ say, it happens to everyone, even them, whoever they are.”

“They don’t matter anymore.  Never did, really.  You’ll probably think I’m crazy for saying this and all, but it’s my kid sister that’s got everything figured out, if you really want to know the truth.”  Holden instantly appears to glow from within at the mention.  “That kid kills me, she really does.  You would like her.  I mean, it’s not like she’s perfect or anything, but she’s really likable.  Old Phoebe’s the real deal.”

Margaret smiles kindly at the sibling sentimentality.  “So, do you think Phoebe would believe in anything like Destiny?  Does she not need you to catch her?”

The corners of his mouth turn down a perceptible degree.  “No.  She doesn’t need me for anything at all.  All I do is let her down, but I don’t know what I’d do without her, though, that’s for sure.  That kid’s pretty much got it figured out, she really does.  She’s not going to need to rely on Destiny or anything because she’ll make her own.  She’ll grab the goddam reins of that carousel horse and get it to race around the other way.  I really think she could do it, too.  If she wanted to and all.”

“Holden, if you can believe that of anyone, you can’t be a total fatalist.  Surely you can believe it of yourself, then.”

Holden eyes Margaret up and down, only just then noticing that she’s an attractive woman.  He always did like them older, but this time he isn’t feeling sexy about it.  He isn’t quite sure what he’s feeling, except that it’s the same sensation that dissipates through him when he is hanging out with his sister.

“Old Phoebe,” he says, pretending to ignore Margaret’s insight.  “She kills me.  She really does.  If I could stuff it all and put it behind a pane of glass, I’d do it.  I would.  That’s the problem with Destiny, you know.  She moves life forward, closer to being older and supposedly wiser and all that crap.  No, we’re all just tumbling through space, even Old Phoebe.  Some’ll get a softer landing than others, is all.”

Holden does not so much as jolt a fraction of a millimeter when the loud speaker unexpectedly blares its announcement of a train ready to depart its platform.  Margaret, conversely, is thrown from the jumbling and intersecting thoughts coursing through her mind in the wake of Holden’s words, the speaker’s static-y proclamation slicing through her reflection with familiarity.

“Oh my God.”  She leaps to standing.  “My train.  Holden, I have to go.”

Margaret knows she needs to flee with hyper-speed to make her train, yet the morose energy surrounding Holden is compelling.

Holden, young gentleman that he is, likewise rises onto his feet and removes his hat with a modest bow.  “Ma’am.”

“Margaret.”

“Margaret.  Meeting you just now has been sort of like–“

“Destiny.  I know.  Holden?”

He extends his right hand out for her to shake.  She makes a motion to meet it when the loud speaker bombards them again.  Distracted from thought, she operates on instinct and embraces him firmly.  On reluctantly disconnecting, she sways back and, on pivoting on her heel toward the direction of her platform, she rewinds the movement only to seize the red hat out of Holden’s hand.  Reshaping it with her fist, she finds solace in the body heat it has retained.  She briefly brings it to her lips to offer a fond peck–closing her eyes to inhale its fibers simultaneously–before affixing it back on Holden’s head.

On resuming her pivot, she turns her head counter to the spin to ask again, “Holden?”

“Yeah.”

“Catch me.  If you can.”

Holden, the warmth of his hunting hat trickling down to consume his entire being, sucks at his lower lip for a second.

“I’ll try.  I really will.”

He offers Margaret a quasi-salute behind her back as he watches her meld into the masses that carry her like a current toward her next destination.

Reflection:

* sigh *
Rest in peace, Mr. Salinger.
Find peace in unrest, Holden.  (And you, too, “Margaret”)


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