Tag Archives: literature

Great (F.) Scott!

Sooo…this is going to be one of my nerdier posts. I’ve been a creative writer since I was a kid, but it really wasn’t until recent years that I devoted substantial time and effort to it. Before I was writing novels, I was writing essays, and sure enough I think the latter is a big obstacle I’ve been working through in order to improve at the former.

I had a professor once in grad school who’d given me an A on my biographical essay on Henry James. But he’d written something to the effect of, “You are a good writer. You could be a great one if you loosened your writing a little.” So no surprise that among initial feedback on a super-early draft of novel manuscript #1 was that its language was very “erudite” and needed relaxing to appeal more to readers. My writing has also been described as “dense” where one of my short stories is concerned—not necessarily meant in a bad way, but, well, I wasn’t really sure how to take it. My years in academia and business certainly did nothing to help my writing take a chill pill, so every new story I write, every revision I make (in my or others’ work) has been an exercise in smoothing and tightening my wording—which I’ve finally learned is not dumbing it down.

Anyway, with Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out now, I’ve been reminiscing about the ol’ days as a student and teacher. Having approached this particular novel from both sides, it’s long been on my Top 5 list of favorite books; the pages of my paperback copy are covered in my chicken-scratchings, the well-creased binding falling readily open to certain scenes.

So needless to say, I was prepared to be critical of the film. (I viewed it in the apt setting of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema, an opulent and crazy-cozy experience on the Portobello Road—I’m talking leather chairs with ottomans and a bar in the back. I could have fallen asleep from wine and comfort if I weren’t so dazzled by the film.) I’d seen early reviews disappointed in Gatsby as yet another miss in trying to bring the story to the big screen, but I have to say that, for what I personally take away from the book, I was satisfied. My vote is that Luhrmann captured its essence–including beating you over the head with its symbolism just like Fitzgerald does (hence, why it’s such a good book to teach in high school!). I even forgive the diversions it makes. Film is a different medium that requires different approaches, for one, and just because a film can’t be perceived as the definitive interpretation of a great story doesn’t mean it can’t be appreciated as an interpretation. And I adore the timelessness it evokes in blurring past with present, akin to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, which is yet another of my faves.

So what does this have to do with my stodgy academic writing? Well, after watching the film and mouthing along to lines I knew by heart, I went digging through my archives and found an essay I’d written about Gatsby in grad school. It compares Fitzgerald’s themes and characterization to another American novel, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! And providing the thematic framework for this analysis is a third book we’d read that quarter: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. O’Brien when he did a reading as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” initiative. I also got rather intimate with Willa Cather for a literary research class, spending many hours curled up with her primary documents—many personal letters written and received—at Chicago’s Newberry Library. So for all these reasons, even ten years later, this essay still holds a special place in my heart.

Allow me, then, to share this Ghost of Writing Past with you. Below is only the intro paragraph, but the complete essay can be found at this page: http://wp.me/PLJnP-Ys

The Things Men Carry Inside

“It was very sad…The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.”—The Things They Carried (TTTC), p. 25

The above quotation from Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, provides a philosophical commentary on the inner struggles of mankind that transcends the war context. Addressing the universality of the human condition, O’Brien’s tales depict soldiers who, while facing a different physical landscape than that encountered by the characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, nonetheless map out an emotional frontier tread upon by their Western pioneer and Eastern society counterparts. Specifically, Emil Bergson and Jay Gatsby embody all the hope and ambition characteristic of the American spirit, yet also the fear and despair that can accompany fleeting ideals in the face of unrelenting reality. Such dreams prove the torment of not only their beholders, however, but of the other men upon whose lives they encroach. Frank Shabata, Tom Buchanan, and George Wilson likewise grapple with their own vulnerabilities, and, when they are crossed with Emil and Gatsby’s parallel romantic aspirations, primal instinct conquers civilized decency. As these five men do what they feel they must in order to achieve or thwart their dreams and fears, they become a study in what brings happiness and value to one’s life. [Read more…]


State of the Zoo-nion Address

Image from cafepress.com

Hello, my fellow Simians.
Today, I’d like to brief you on my current state of affairs, not as your faithful Primate President, but as a Reader, Writer, and Editor.

First of all, in the wake of my whining two weeks ago (“Hedging an Investment in Myself“), I was delivered from my woes. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but I was sitting on a Christmas gift that I was about to crack open and rediscover inside it my love of reading. My new muse is Kate Morton, whose The Forgotten Garden I just finished over the weekend and whose debut novel, The House at Riverton, I purchased the same day. Her stuff might not be everyone’s bag, but this book was like a more accessible Possession meets The Secret Garden—a family mystery spanning generations and set largely on a Cornish estate with a maze and hidden garden—which suits my literary gothic fancies just fine. Her skill in structuring a story and incorporating detail (that richly fleshes out her settings and characters without seeming superfluous) is not only providing me new writing guidance within a genre and style that appeals to me, but has also at long last delivered me into a storyworld I can submerge myself in. I’ve read many books that I’ve enjoyed recently, but it’s been ages since I absolutely got lost in the atmosphere of one and didn’t want it to end. I came out of it feeling very satisfied as a reader and inspired as a writer.

Which brings me to the next talking point of my address here. The writing. Because (contrary to the bratty little rants I might have now and then) I do take constructive criticism to heart, I’ve lost myself in my own story again to overhaul its beginning. Whole sections have been hacked and the remaining ones rearranged, so the manuscript is looking a bit Frankenstein’s Creature-ish until I go back through and stitch up some of those fleshy seams and smooth it out. I’m now starting my novel with what was originally the third chapter as it involves a more critical turning point for the protagonist and gets on with the main story more quickly at not much sacrifice of backstory (which is just reinserted other places). I’ve heard this advice given to newbie writers countless times, and I’ll be damned if I’m not surprised it finally came my turn to follow it. Not as great a sense of loss as I thought it would be, though I’m being extra cautious not to throw any babies out with the bath-water.

And wouldn’t it figure my mother tells me over Skype last night that the lil’ stinker found an old copy of my manuscript on her computer, has been reading it, and loves the beginning just as it was. Doh! I might have to comfort her more through this revision than myself :).

In any case, I’m up against a March 1st deadline for both polishing my first chapter for feedback at an upcoming writing festival and completing my developmental edit, so I’m concerned I won’t have a new February story to submit for Write1Sub1…yeesh, time to crank. But never fear; the zoo is not yet in a state of crisis, merely raised to an alert level of **Yellow**.

How are YOUR current projects going, everyone?


I.O.U. – Going, Going, Gone Until Next Week

Writing a blog post here to tell you what I’m going to write in blog posts next week. Why do something so asinine? Because I’m shorter on time than I’d like to be today, and after my previous lapse in blogging, I really wanted to get a post in this week to represent, yo.

What I was going to write about this week (and will now have to next week) was the beginning of my editing process on someone else’s manuscript now that I’ve received my first assignment as freelance developmental editor. I respectfully will refrain from discussing this author’s specific plot and leave it purely to the general suggestions I’ve noted that are likewise duly filed away in me noggin for my own manuscript (and may be useful for yours).

Which brings me to another topic I was going to write about…my manuscript status. Not super interesting at this stage, other than I’ve had it printed and bound as-is to whisk away to the English countryside for another workshop with the Room to Write organization I met in March. This is the first time I’ve seen those words in print, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t catch a typo and sentences begging to be cut on first cracking it open. It’ll never end will it…Ah well, the focus of the workshop is manuscript revision and submission, so it’s just as well that mine is still a work-in-progress.

Which brings me to what I was going to write about next week anyway: the workshop. I promise to share what insights I take away from it (and I can cram an extra scone in my pocket for ya if you’d like).

Ah, and in catching up on some of your blogs, I see that I’m going to fulfill the reqs of receiving the “Honest Scrap” award from Milo James Fowler over at the always-enjoyable In Media Res blog. Thank you, Milo! So now next week in addition to the usual fur balls, I’ll be coughing up 10 random things about myself.

Until then, I owe ya…Happy Weekend, everyone!


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part I

Sentimentality is both a blessing and a curse.

I’ve demonstrated before to what extent I can cling onto the past in my guest post for Real Bloggers United, “CSI: Chronically Sentimental Individual.”  Now, in the spirit of the recently passed Halloween, let’s just say my memories continue to “haunt” me…

But in good ways (hence, a “blessing”), though sometimes they hurt so good (hence, a “curse”).  I first conceived this topic last week when my parents’ visit came to an end and they returned Stateside.  Though the effect has had a few days to wear off, I remember how I walked home from the tube and almost couldn’t bear how everything I saw reminded me of them because of our recent walks around the neighborhood together.  Forget that I’ve traversed that same route for over two years now and between their two visits they haven’t even been in London a total of two months…the memories with them seemed to replace my collective everyday experience.  Same went for when I returned to the flat and sobbed over little things like the coffee remaining in the French press that we’d shared earlier that morning.  I know, I know…it’s passed now, though tonight I’m jolted with another stroke of sweet sentimentality from home, as I just checked my Facebook messages and saw one from a former student I taught my last year in the States. She was a freshman at the time and is now a grown-up senior about to graduate…simply cannot believe it! My babies! Anyways, she had the sweetest things to say, which made me really pine for those happy teaching years.

In view of such “ghosts” from my past, I find that they appear in some incarnation or another in my writing, perhaps in special homage of these special people and moments.  “Write what you know,” they always say, and I do, knowing full well I am clearly not alone.  I’m constantly reading intros to novels that state how they’re the “most autobiographical” of the author’s works, and, really, isn’t every work of fiction arguably so?  Just ways of telling our truths “slant”?

At the time I started my current manuscript, I was in need of emotional healing to follow leaving home and career, so the tale I began to spin was much more so a “therapy” than an ambition. I didn’t care if it was unoriginal; I let my first chapters draw very much from my own background, which resurrected the spirit of my earlier happiness and allowed it drift and swirl around me in my new atmosphere. The words brought it alive, brought the people and the values back to me and reminded me who I was in an otherwise unfamiliar context that sapped me of purpose. The story certainly evolved from there into a terrain highly unlike anything on which I myself have embarked, but those early chapters gave my protagonist her core, and in doing so assured me of mine.

Among the sentimental inspirations from real life, there are very direct ones that creep up in sentences reflecting the comforting closeness of my family like:

“They weren’t the stuff best-sellers and blockbusters were made of, and prayed they never would emulate what society spent its money on or turned its channel to.”

“Her mom multi-tasked concern for her child with rescuing bacon strips from their spitting inferno.  She wore her short, hairsprayed curls like a helmet ready to combat any threats to her family head-on.”

I’ve also incorporated actual snippets from childhood diaries and adulthood travel journals. Plucked entirely out of their original contexts, though, it’s crazy the way they fit in and communicate something entirely new and different and had inspired new offshoots of sheerly imaginative thought, not that from experience.  It’s been like dismantling a clock and using some of its gears to operate, ooh, maybe something like the Happiness Machine in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine (which, in keeping with our theme here, is a valentine to Bradbury’s own childhood).

It’s all about our frames of reference.  No one could possibly perceive the world in exactly the same way that we do individually because we occupy separate space and move differently through it. This gives us our own private reality, then, and this is what writers constantly tap into to construct their fictional realities.  And there’s more I’d like to say on this, but am realizing this is getting long, so I’ll break it into two parts.  Fair enough?  Cool.  See you tomorrow.


Remote Control

Today’s post comes to you via my new netbook, my new key to freedom!  Or is it… 


When my first iBook laptop went kaput after 5 years in 2007, I have since been desk-bound with my newer  iMac.  Yes, I am on Team Mac, but unfortunately don’t wish to shell out the quid on another iBook.  But this is beside the point…

My new lil’ Sony netbook is liberating me from my hybrid home office/guest bedroom.  So far, I’ve made it all the way to the living room.  Baby steps, baby steps.  What I’m getting psyched about is the ability to work on my writing project remotely in London cafes, pubs, parks, and even cemeteries, such that I can still get out and about and explore this city in the newly-turned gorgeous weather without the eternal guilt over neglecting my writing.

The guilt…oh, the guilt.  I am wondering if other writers out there will gasp at what I’m about to confess or own up that they sometimes feel the same way.  When I speak of liberation, this applies to writing as well, as, along with reading, it is the ultimate way to escape into the free life of the mind at any given moment, taking me into other locations and minds and hearts. 

Yet as of recently, I’ve been more conscious of the limiting effects of indulging this pasttime.  Rather than free, I can feel trapped…for one thing, there is the guilt I mentioned above when I heaven forbid do something else with my free time after work or on the weekend and have not planted my bum in my desk chair to crank out at least a couple more pages or revise what has already been written. 

Adding to this, I once thought it freeing that I could work through my plots and characters even away from my computer and pen and paper, as ideas and revelations will come to me in the shower or during my commute. 

“The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”   –Agatha Christie

“What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out of the window.”  –Burton Rascoe

This has had the effect, however, of overwhelming my thoughts, exhausting me noggin when it’s set in hyperdrive and I find myself trying to figure out how to get a character into or out of a situation while I simultaneously need to get my work done…my brain needs to be in on that, too, after all, and my high levels of distractibility ever since I took on writing as a primary and ongoing endeavor are leading me into some embarassing situations. The other week, I was working through a plot line in my head as I was exiting the Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and, realizing I should probably top-up my Oyster card—my prepaid public transport pass—I walked up to a kiosk touch-screen and cancelled a stranger’s transaction, not realizing he’d been standing there and about to finish adding £50 to his card!  I’d never felt so foolish and kept apologizing profusely from the adjacent kiosk as I saw him restarting his transaction all over again in my peripheral vision. 

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.”  –E.L. Doctorow

Even when I try to escape into reading to calm my overworking mind, I find I’m not enjoying it in the way that I used to—reading as a writer, there is the tendency to analyze the character and plot development, the descriptive detail and overall style and construction, not in analysis of the text itself (which is perfectly okay and necessary to truly engaging with it), but in comparison with my own style and approach, which is maddening.  Yes, reading can inform our writing, but what if I just want to read for reading’s sake?  Can I recover this ability at some point, or in taking on writing have I forever altered the relationship I have with other people’s stories?  And most importantly, should I feel bad to be feeling this way, or is it natural?  Writers of the world, please advise 🙂

In the meantime, I’m hoping that I haven’t just substituted a ball and chain with a house-arrest bracelet that permits me more mobility, but still holds me prisoner to obligation and guilt. I think instead my wee netbook and I will have many happy travels together as we get back out there to resume control of my everyday and observe life for it’s own sake—and, sure, if it provides good material for a story, that’s not too shabby either even if it does serve to feed my aforementioned neuroses.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”   –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851


Chairman of the Bored

“An author is a fool who, not content with boring those he lives with, insists on boring future generations.”
– Charles de Montesquieu

Uh-oh…my worst fear is happening right now, so I have to take a break from my story.  And yes, I’m sure you have guessed it:  I’M BORED.  Not with writing it (though that sometimes happens, too), but in rereading it.  Yet I can’t figure out if I’m getting bored because I’ve already reread and revised these same parts several times before or because these are just genuinely boring scenes that readers would get even more bored with.

Is it bad that my first instinct is to get up and walk away for the night rather than keep plugging through?   I mean, it’s not like I’m a published author against a deadline, after all…yet I know that real writers do not wait for inspiration to write; it’s a discipline, and part of that discipline is trudging through when the going is difficult.  That said, I’ve been looking at it for hours now, so if I mentally step away to dash off this post right now and then go crack open someone else’s novel to read, that’s also an investment in my writing future, no?  And to continue over-rationalizing for myself, life has to exist outside of the storyworld as well if we’re to accumulate any authentic experience and emotion to be able to draw on for those stories—living life, versus only writing about it, is how we get our ideas (consider this post of inadvertent character-finding in “Of Characters and Other Weirdos” from the Write in Berlin blog).

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
– Ben Franklin

I hear you, Ben, and will try my best to make the most of this night if I do, in fact, shut down the computer until tomorrow.  And when I do revisit this little yawn-factory that is the last quarter of my story, I will be refreshed and ready to infuse some oomph into it.  And I think corresponding with this boredom is my great knack for comparing myself to others’ writing again.  And if the latter is the case, then maybe I need to adopt this mentality and just get over myself:

“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine.  Everybody drinks water.”
– Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Well, hopefully I can work on becoming water and not the sleeping pill the water is washing down.  Okay then, I’m off to get my sight back. If you ever encounter this same feeling, please cure my boredom with your comments!


The Story of Moi

In my last post, I referred to a pop-up book I had created at the beginning of a graduate school course.  At the time I was pulling a 180 in my career path—after a few years in Finance, various signs pointed me in the direction of teaching, so I quit my consulting job outright to become a full-time student again and earn my masters in Secondary Education to teach English.  The actual book I made for the project is an ocean away in storage, so I can’t include photos here of my lame attempt at the craft, but I did scrounge up the brief reflection I’d written for it and thought I’d share it here since my mind is on it, and I’m still grateful for the perspective it reinforced within me:

As a child, I adored Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand for Robert Lawson’s lovely ink sketchings of Ferdinand, the bull who did not like to romp and fight, but, rather, sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers.  As an adult discontent in my former Finance career, I randomly recalled this book a couple years ago and consequently became aware of how much the corporate bull-fight in which I was participating ran contrary to my nature.  My resultant epiphany prompted by this simple picture book centered on the realization that books have always been my way of smelling the flowers whenever the world seems artificial and harried.

The literature I read has the capacity to provide emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation (denoted in my project as a heart, cross, and brain, respectively), as well as contributes countless other aesthetics that enrich my daily life such that I am better able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Among the flowers blooming within [my project’s] pages are:  keys to understanding new knowledge or ideas, keys that open doors to other ways of thinking or to various corridors within my soul; airplanes that transport me to imaginative, enchanting lands and experiences when the everyday becomes mundane or challenging; the music of poetic, figurative expression as issues of life are harmonized (or made dissonant) in the sounds and rhythms of words; telescopes that foster awareness as I am enabled to see distant worlds and plights beyond my own backyard; and mirrors that force me to confront who I am and muse in self-reflection.

The multi-faceted impact that reading continues to have upon me is perhaps as infinite as the varieties of flora, rendering a library a virtual garden.  Just as Ferdinand left the bustle of Madrid to reside once again beneath his tree, so I left my job to pursue a teaching career that would let me read as much as I always wished I could (and then some!) and try to inspire the same passion in others.  Thus, The Story of Ferdinand has become that of my own.

And since then, I’d devote the last day of each school year with a read-aloud of this book (yes, to an audience of teenagers), leaving my students with the message to not go against their grain in life—“Find your way of smelling the flowers, and be very happy.


The Beginning of the End

To conclude my brief series of posts relating back to valuable lessons reinforced by last weekend’s Room to Write writing conference, how fitting will it be to end with endings.

I shall be brief.

Basically, a couple things were emphasized:

First, not all loose ends need to be tied up in a pretty, perfect bow; for the central conflict, yes, but other conclusions might be better left to the reader’s imagination—think Rhett Butler walking out on Scarlett O’Hara.  Do they  eventually get back together?  Your romantic optimism/pessimism will determine that, but Margaret Mitchell didn’t need to in order to effectively give her epic saga adequate closure.

Second, the ending of a story/novel should connect back to everything significant about the beginning.  The successful novels that we reviewed all shared in this aspect—they related back to character, setting, and conflict in creative ways, providing a sense of balance and resolution to our story’s main conflict.

In this way, the beginning and end stand together as “book ends” with all that good stuff in between, and as our climax tops out and falls toward denouement, we should keep that falling action brief—end it with a “flick,” as author Wendy Robertson put it succinctly with a visual flick of her wrist.  And as author Avril Joy stressed to me during some one-to-one consultation time, if I’m rising toward the climax of my novel (which I presently am), I should resolve it in a matter of a few pages or a chapter and not drag the ending out further than that.

I’m going to execute that advice in not dragging the ending to this post out…on that note, cheers, and keep writing!


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.


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