Cooperative? Controlling? Dialogue Reflects Character

In revising my WIP, Candlelight Confessions, I discovered a glaring instance in which dialogue didn’t fit the character. (I’m positive I’ll find more such instances as I get deeper into revision.)

To put this example in context: Irina Taylor has just revealed to friends that her sister, Christina, has written a novel that will expose their darkest secrets. She describes how Christina fictionalized their characters, and after explaining how she, herself, is portrayed, gets this retort from Jocelyn: “I doubt that people in Riverbend will recognize the character in the book as you.”

That’s what she said in the first draft. But she’s a woman who speaks her mind and rarely equivocates. So in revision, Jocelyn says, “You’re wrong. You’re not like that character.”

By contrast, in the same scene their friend Mercy says, “I know Christina needs a success after the failure of her last novel, but I wish she hadn’t taken our secrets. I’m praying that book never gets published.”

Jocelyn and Mercy represent people whose dialogue almost consistently falls near one end or the other of a continuum from control to cooperation. But most people, while they have a tendency toward one extreme or the other, adapt their behavior to their environment or situation. The general who barks with authority at work might be a pussycat at home.

What I find especially interesting in depicting characters through dialogue is to have a person who always speaks on one end of the continuum until a situation arises that forces him or her out of their comfort zone. E.g, take a worker who is the quintessential team player. She accepts the hardest assignments, almost never calls in sick, and works overtime without complaining. But when her supervisor’s request challenges a core belief, out comes her inner pit bull. “It’s not my fault you can’t control your labor costs. I refuse to work off the clock. And if I hear you get someone else to do it, I’m going to management.”

Quotable

We should only read those books that bite and sting us.

–Franz Kafka

Note to Self: Ixnay Contrived Plots, Stock Characters, and Boring Stories

When it comes to writing fiction, most gurus advise knowing your audience and delivering what they want. I take a different approach. I write stories I would want to read. (That’s not as simple as it sounds, and it’s certainly not a solo exercise. Achieving something I’d want to read requires many hours spent learning the craft and listening to feedback from others.) And I’m not tone deaf to readers’ preferences and complaints, which they sometimes address by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites.

I think a writer can learn more from the one- , two-. and three-star reviews than from the glowing four- and five-star reviews. So, for this post, I cruised Amazon reviews, and here’s a sampling of what readers didn’t like:

“The main characters were not believable and I felt nothing for them but disgust.”

“I cannot understand the overwhelming, unmitigated praise for what seems an almost (“almost” because I hate to say it) cliched novel with stock characters . . .  contained in an outlandish plot that defies all credibility. Long on meaningless detail (let no research go unpublished) but short on character development. I could hardly make it to the end. I felt like one of the characters lost at sea for days on end without a credible character in sight.”

“This book was nothing but contrived situations with PC caricatures.”

“I did not feel anything for the characters.”

“Really wanted to like this but had to put it away after a few chapters. Contrived is the best word to describe her writing and the story.”

“The writing was very simplistic and did not contain any depth in the character development. There were no surprises and the problems were solved in a simplistic manner.”
“You could cut 100 pages from the book and not miss anything. It dragged and I couldn’t finish it.”
What amuses me about this sampling, is that I’ve been guilty of every sin mentioned. But I hope, that by the time my book made it to print, I had atoned for those sins. And now I’m in the midst of writing another novel, making mistakes, revising, getting feedback, revising, getting feedback. Rinse, wash, repeat.
You might be interested in a somewhat related post, “Three Questions Readers Ask.”
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
Quotable
 Anytime you write something, you go through so many phases. You go through the ‘I’m a Fraud Phase.’ You go through the ‘I’ll Never Finish’ phase. And every once in a while you think, ‘What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it’s received as such?’
–Lin-Manuel Miranda

Tweet Your Story

 

I once wrote a blog post entitled “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” It was about Six Word Stories, and a few blog readers came up with some good ones of their own. Other than that post I’ve never done anything more with the subject of flash fiction.

I was trolling Twitter recently and came up with a few things to pass along.

ShareAStory InOneTweet

Here are two of my favorite examples from #ShareAStoryInOneTweet, where all the stories have a medical theme:

From AbbersMD:

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

U collapsed at work (Home Depot).. u were dead when my ambulance arrived. I got u back. U have no idea who I am. I visited Home Depot just to see u during my darkest hours in medical school… ur a reminder that I can do it You saved me back.

From Ali S. Raja, MD :

You: Student nurse who asked me to come to bed 24 to help you clean up a geriatric patient who had soiled herself, just to see if I would.

Me: Intern who took one look at you and ran right over. 14 years later, we still laugh when people ask us how we met.

Serious Flash Fiction

Serious Flash Fiction’s contest is open to anyone, with no restrictions as to genre or theme. Write a 269-character story, end it with #SFFiction, and submit it by June 23rd. The best entries will be published in an anthology.

Onward

Onward, the literary zine of English Department students at Universitas Padjadjaran (that’s in Indonesia), is currently inviting six-word-story tweets. Send them to #SWOnward.

Can you write a story in 269 characters? Or write a six-word story? Tweet it and post it in a comment here. I’d also like to hear about other flash fiction opportunities.

Quotable

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.

–Ray Bradbury

 

 

 

A Most Exquisite Scene

 

 I am reading Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan, for two reasons: 1) the book blurb grabbed me, and 2) it’s my book club’s current selection. Ordinarily I wouldn’t write a blog post about a book until I’ve finished it, but I wanted to share a most exquisite passage, just a piece of a moving scene, and my take-away.

Excerpt: “Hello, Liddy,” he said stiffly. “How was your day, kiddo?”

It was hard not to sound mocking, knowing she couldn’t answer. When Lydia did talk, in her way, it was senseless babble–echolalia, the doctors called it. And yet it felt strange not to talk to her. What else could one do with an eight-year-old girl who couldn’t sit up on her own, much less walk? Pet and greet her: that took all of fifteen seconds. And then? Agnes would be watching, hungry for a show of affection toward their younger daughter. Eddie knelt beside Lydia and kissed her cheek.

The Take-away: There’s much more to the full scene that reveals Eddie’s conflicted feelings for his daughter and the deeper family relationships and foreshadows a plot point. I am struck by Eddie’s struggle, his effort to connect with Lydia and falling short.

That said, I would not have reached this beautiful scene had the novel not been a book club read. I (I should say we because Tim and I are reading it together) slogged through the first chapter or so wondering why we should keep reading. I call the style “a day in the life of” because it relates characters’ actions and interactions without a sense of purpose or intrigue. What does Anna, the twelve-year-old protagonist, want? What does Eddie, her father, want?

There’s a hint of something sinister in Eddie’s meeting with Mr. Styles, a rich man who  owns nightclubs. Now, that’s interesting. But here’s where I have a big problem. We’re seeing things through Eddie’s eyes, yet he doesn’t let us in on facts that will come out later, such as this meeting is not on the up-and-up, and, oh, Styles is a mobster. I know this doesn’t bother some readers, but for my part, I find it a major cheat.

I should add that my go-to writing guru, Donald Maass, loved some of what I didn’t about chapter one. He wrote a piece entitled “When Worlds Collide” for Writer Unboxed in which he cites Anna’s experience at the home of the super-rich Mr. Styles.

I’m reminded once again that readers are not a homogenous group.

Your thoughts. Leave a comment.

Quotable

Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last. and it always tells the truth.

–Margaret Atwood

Cracking the Bestseller Code: Who Cares?

For today’s post, I set out to write a review of The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers. But I’m abbreviating that review because as both a writer and reader I don’t care much about bestseller lists.

Abbreviated Review

Writers are bombarded by countless forces that influence what goes on the page–dreams, real-life experiences, snatches of conversations, cousin Fred–and it was merely a matter of time before it came to this: an algorithm purporting to tell us how books hit the top of the charts. Believing that books don’t just randomly make the New York Times  bestseller lists, the authors set computers on a quest for patterns to explain how it happens. They (the computers) explored this frontier with a tool called text mining.

Topic, plot, characterization, style–the authors coded for all of these qualities and interpreted the findings. For example, in terms of topic, the top two authors were John Grisham and Danielle Steele. If putting those two authors in the same bucket seems odd, the book offers an explanation. Among the shared characteristics found in books by Grisham and Steele, the most striking is what the computer model found to be overwhelmingly present in bestselling books: human closeness and connection. “Scenes that display this most important indicator of bestselling are all about people communicating in moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.”

I found The Bestseller Code to be of interest to writers and readers in terms of not just what qualities bestsellers share, but also in terms of the authors’ analysis. That said, bestseller lists don’t drive the choices of many of the writers and readers I know.

Who Cares?

I wouldn’t object to seeing Compromise With Sin land on a bestseller list.  But I’m happy that some people are reading and talking about it. If asked what audience I intended when I was writing it, I have to say, “I wrote a book I’d want to read.” Similarly, the books I choose to read are usually recommended to me by friends.

Many of the indie authors I know write books that appeal to a niche audience, a fact that almost guarantees they won’t have mass popularity. While the best of these writers strive to learn craft and meet professional standards, they don’t have to twist themselves and their work into virtual pretzels to satisfy agents and publishers.

And that’s the joy of going indie.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.

–E.L. Doctorow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirror Neurons: Connecting Writer and Reader

Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into  her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .

Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.

A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.

The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying  as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

–Gustave Flaubert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domesticating the Paragraph

I have a confession to make. In writing my novels, I tend to take an intuitive approach to paragraphing, except there are two rules I follow religiously: 1) a shift in speakers, time, or place  requires a new paragraph, and 2) the end of the paragraph is the power position and to add anything beyond dilutes the power.

 

What’s Wrong With This Paragraphb

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?” “I’m on it,” Dan said. Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and went to the guest bathroom. She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.” That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”  “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

I don’t think I can count the number of problems with that paragraph.  Now read this version:

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?”

“I’m on it,” Dan said.

Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and headed for the guest bathroom.

(location shift) She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

(speaker shift) That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”

(speaker shift) “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

To add clout to the topic of paragraphs, I consulted my friend and fellow writer Gaylon Greer. I asked him specifically about handling stimulation and response, and he provided insight on how paragraphs control a novel’s pacing, and, hence, influence the reader’s experience. Here’s what he said:

Short, snappy paragraphs generally pick up the story pace; long, winding paragraphs slow things down. For that reason, action scenes rely heavily on short paragraphs, with stimulus and response boxed separately. Whether the action scene is dialogue or physical action, the short paragraphs give it snap and momentum. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, to give your readers a breather, perhaps, you will want to use longer paragraphs, perhaps combining stimulus and response in the same paragraph. Consider this example:

“Stop it,” Carla screamed.

 Beatrice, too terrified to hear her, clung to Carla’s back, her arms clasped tightly around her neck.

Carla fought to free herself, but Beatrice’s panicked grip was too strong to break. It was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

 

 

If the writer wanted less tension or a slower pace, she might write:

Carla screamed for her to stop, but Beatrice was too terrified to hear. She pasted herself against Carla’s back, her arms clasping tightly around her neck. Carla fought to free herself, but it was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

Both snippets communicate the same facts, but the first does so, it seems to me, in a manner that is more fraught with tension. The rational is that the initial stimulus creates tension because the reader wanders what the other character will do in response. The paragraph breaks in the action version of the scene serves two purposes:

  1. It emphasizes what has gone before by isolating it. In the first example, Carla’s scream is stark—it stands out. In the second example, the scream is buried, made secondary to Beatrice’s action.
  2. The end of a paragraph is a signal for the reader to pause briefly. In this case the pause permits her to savor the building tension. Using separate paragraphs keeps the tension building.

 

For another example, consider a tennis game. One player hits the ball; that is a stimulus for the other player, who must react. The reaction becomes a stimulus for the first player, and so on. If the stimulus and reaction are in separate paragraphs, each described in enough detail for the reader to picture the action, it becomes more dramatic. If the back-and-forth action is presented in a single paragraph, the tension is dissipated.

 

The issue is the same as for dialogue. There is no grammatical reason for two characters’ dialogue strings to be in separate paragraphs; the purpose is to emphasize each characters’ comments.

 

In an article for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop (Writing Fiction, New York, Bloomsbury, 2003) Hardy Griffin makes the point by contrasting a work by Joyce Carol Oates (“The Fine Mist of Winter”) with one by Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”). Throughout her story, Oates employs long, winding paragraphs that combine stimulus and response in the same paragraph. But Roy achieves fast-paced drama by employing short paragraphs that separate stimulus and response.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

–Jodi Picoult

 

 

 

Hollywood Bidding War for Compromise With Sin

Rumors floating for weeks have just been confirmed: Compromise With Sin, the debut historical novel by Leanna Englert, is at the center of a fierce Hollywood bidding war. Said to be vying for the rights are Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Sheldon Shackleford, III, Roseanne Barr, and Norman Grabowski.

The novel, set in the early 1900s, tells the story of one woman’s betrayal and search for redemption after her loved ones are tragically ensnared in her web of deceit. The story is set amid a fictional account of the controversial campaign to prevent blindness in newborn babies, and presents Helen Keller as a confidante of protagonist Louise Morrissey.

“I was recently asked what my wildest hope was for this novel,” Englert said. “I truly hope it will bring about world peace. Barring that, I’d want people to say, ‘The book was better than the movie.'”

Happy April Fool’s, y’all.

 

 

 

The Sounds of Onomatopoeia

Do you remember where and when you learned about onomatopeoia? The word itself sort of knocks you down on first hearing, and then you get exposed to a very cool concept, the idea of words that sound like what they represent.

I  went web-surfing to find examples. The obvious words were sounds animals make, like meow, woof, and oink.

In the post “Onomatopoeia Examples” at EReading Worksheets, you’ll find some onomatopoeic words used in sentences:

  • The lunch lady plopped a scoop of something on Kristen’s tray.
  • The paintball splattered against the windshield.
  • The lawyer chased after the wail of the siren.
  • Did you forget to flush the toilet? (my personal favorite)

In “Onomatopoeia” on the site Literary Devices, there are examples from literature and song lyrics:

From the poem “Come Down, O Maid,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, and murmuring of innumerable bees . . .”

From the song “The Marvelous Toy,” by Tom Paxton: “It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped, and whirr when it stood still.”

And not to be overlooked on the same site is “A Huge List of Onomatopoeia Examples:” There you’ll find words like raspy, sizzle, belch, and swish, and citations from literature, such as this one from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare: “Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices.”

Fair warning: the sites I mentioned are seductive.  I could lose an afternoon on the Literary Devices’ pages, where there must be a hundred such devices listed, ranging from ad hominem to didacticism to nemesis to verisimilitude. Each  provides a definition and good examples.

Not to leave this post without a nod to the headline, if you didn’t know the definition of onomatopoeia, what would that word sound like?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

“Meow” means “woof” in cat.

–George Carlin

 

 

 

 

Stories Unfold in a Season, not a Vacuum

Photo credit: Shannon Richards, Unsplash

I’m not fond of novels in which the author compulsively overuses weather and seasons or begins every chapter with atmospheric descriptions of clouds, sunlight, etc. That said, characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I like getting a sense of their natural environment, especially if it has an impact on them.

Here’s an example of how seasons matter. I live in Austin, Texas, where one of my favorite things about the Easter season is the profusion of wildflowers, which bring out legions of families plopping kids among the bluebonnets for iconic photos.  But the season also brings out a plethora of snakes on the move. This is the time of year you’re most likely to see them. They’ve just awakened from hibernation, they’re hungry, and they’re hunting for food.

I’ve just given you two facts. Do one or both matter if your novel is set in Austin in late March or early April? Maybe or maybe not. After all, most of your readers don’t live in Texas. But if you’re aware of these and other seasonal characteristics, you’re better equipped to craft a scene that will feel real to readers.

I could write more about seasons here, but the topic has been covered very well in this post, “Seasonally Adjusted Writing” on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova althistory thriller series, the latest being Carina.

Here’s something else to consider. Brad Whittington, prolific author of novels such as Muffin Man and The Reluctant Saint, uses actual information about weather, and the hour the sun and moon rise and set to inform his writing. His sources are The Farmers Almanac and the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Check them out.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

A Request

I could use your help in promoting Compromise With Sin. I’ve posted a trailer on YouTube. I’d appreciate your taking a look and sharing it with friends. Thank you.

Quotable

Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.

–Mae West