Okay, So I’m an Addict and Other Tidbits

No deep thoughts today, so I’ll get my schizophrenic groove on with an interview…

Mini-me: How you doing?

Me: Wow, great interviewing skills.

Mini-me: Just answer the question.

Me: It took me all day to write four pages, one tortured paragraph at a time, and I’m sick again to boot. My throat’s at it; my lungs are congested; I haven’t been sleeping well; I’m headachy and parched—

Mini-me (whispering in an aside to imagined audience): Get out the violins. (Louder:) Right then, tell me about the scene you wrote today.

Me: It was a lighter scene centered around two clerics and a parishioner who lets his dog defecate on church grounds.

Mini-me: Sounds plain silly to me; I trust you wrote this scene for a reason.

Me: Of course, what do you take me for? The dialogue hides a bigger point. In fact, in my previous posts about dialogue I could have discussed this — that dialogue is best when it functions on more than one level.

Mini-me: Enough with the dialogue blah-blah-blah already, yeesh. If I read between the lines correctly on this blog, you suffered a rough writing patch during the holiday season. The writing is flowing better now, I take it?

Me: Slower than I’d like, as usual, but steady. In fact, this week I broke 200 pages on my first draft. Woohoo! (Momentary break to get coughing under control.) For me, that’s a significant milestone — the halfway mark, the light at the end of the tunnel — you get the picture. I’m already looking forward to revisions. Now, THAT’s fun stuff.

Mini-me (sighing): You don’t get out much, do you?

Me: I’ll walk out right now if you don’t quit with the attitude.

Mini-me: Will not.

Me: Yeah, you’re right. Next question?

Mini-me: In a post earlier this month you mentioned your moratorium on reading novels until your first draft is complete. How’s that going?

Me: Okay, so I’m an addict. I fell off the wagon for about a week because I’d forgotten about my book group, the Sassy Lassies. We convened last Saturday to discuss Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (don’t ask). Long story short, while in the library to fetch the book, I had to peruse the Latest Arrivals shelves…and, well, you know. But I’m back to nonfiction again. However, I’ve decided that I was a little extreme; I’ll now be a weekend fiction warrior until the first draft is complete. 

Mini-me: Good luck on that. Next up, I heard through the grapevine that you spoke to a writer buddy this week—

Me: Wow, news travels fast. J– said something interesting about her current project. Namely, that she realized that she was writing her novel with her agent in mind. Basically, J–‘s creativity went haywire because of thoughts such as: Will her agent like this novel? Will she still want to represent J–? And so on. Luckily, J– found a way to disentangle herself from these external considerations. She’s since restarted the novel and likes this version much better. Our conversation stuck in my head — as you well know — because it was a vicarious learning lesson for me.

Mini-me: And, last but not least, do you have a favorite quote these days?

Me: Funny you should ask, because I do.

       “The secret of happiness is freedom;
           the secret of freedom, courage.”
                                         —  Thucydides     

I’m Still Thinking About Dialogue…

In 2002 I participated in my first writers retreat. A fancy one on Maui. I was nervous about going public with myself — scary! — especially because I suspected I’d gotten in over my head with my chosen retreat course — called “Writing from an Idea” — which was all about the process of evolving an initial concept through many phases of story and character development to the point where you can start the first draft. Theoretically, I should have started with the beginner fiction retreat, but I wanted the instructor I wanted, period.

(Sidenote: This retreat also interested me because I’d previously written a novel willy-nilly and ended up with a 600-page first draft — talk about a learning lesson!)

End result: The instructor’s positive feedback — and as a New York Times bestseller she’s no slouch — started me on my slow path toward accepting that I might have talent and toward admitting aloud, “I’m a writer.”

But, lest you think I was riding high on a teacher’s pet wave (hardly), let me get to the point, which is the raw, painful, ego-busting lesson for all newcomers: dealing with critical feedback. As the culmination of our week, our instructor treated us each to an in-depth critical analysis of our imagined novels’ first scenes. After three paragraphs of positive feedback on mine, she hit me with my weakness. You got it: pesky, tricky dialogue!

And here’s the sad truth of it in her words:

Where you’re currently a little weak is in using dialogue well. Here, you run into several difficulties. I get the impression that you’re in a huge hurry to get to the end of the scene and, consequently, you tend to rush things a bit when the characters are speaking. You fall into the jumping conflict trap as a result of this tendency on page four, and the brief spurt of dialogue on page seven suffers from a lack of cohesion. I realize that, as Andrew is a dying man, his discourse might be wobbly and illogical. But art does not imitate life in all circumstances and in these circumstances, each line of dialogue could serve you much better if it’s causally related to the line that goes before it…Generally speaking, if you’re going to shift to another topic like that, you need to interrupt the flow of dialogue with some sort of related action.

(Another sidenote: She also mentioned that in places I went overboard with the figurative language. Oh, my injured ego!)

As you can imagine, I’ve given much thought to dialogue since then. Hopefully I’ve internalized many of her lessons: slow down, don’t jump to conflict without proper build-up, don’t write dialogue as people really talk (as described in last week’s post), strive for clarity and cohesive flow.

Funny thing about that first scene: It’s no longer in the novel! Over many revisions I ended up sprinkling its essence throughout as part of my protagonist’s backstory (Andrew being her father and not a nice guy).

Dialogue and Ye Old Authorial Intrusions

urbangrind1.jpgA few days ago I met up with BigD at Urban Grind, a trendy coffee house with a warehouse feel and interesting art. I was glad, once again, for the excuse to leave my home office, where I had so far accomplished nothing but staring out the window and bugging my ever-patient cat.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about a comment from BigD. Gazing at me from across our laptops, he wondered aloud how to create snappy and realistic dialogue — which is to say, dialogue that achieves a state of verisimilitude; which is to say, dialogue that reads realistically without being realistic; which is to say that if we were to write dialogue as we heard it in everyday life: boring, snooze, zzzzzz. For example:


“I told that guy Todd that we’re, like, so over, and, like, you should have seen his face. I was like, whatever.”

I ask you, who wants to wade through a novel written the way people really talk?

But back to BigD: He provided a sample sentence in which character x says to character y, “You are always so stubborn.” The sentence is awkward, but why exactly? I realized today that if I’d written it, I’d have to accuse myself of an authorial intrusion.

The sentence tells us that character y is a stubborn person, which I might indeed want the reader to know. However, I could convey the same fact through implication, such as having character x state “you stubborn fool,” which implies the same thing and provides information about character x (his opinion about said stubborness). Also, my simplistic example is a bit more snappy and realistic.

urbangrind3.jpgMy point is that dialogue that smacks of authorial intrusion often lacks verisimilitude. I don’t know how many novels I’ve read where dialogue was used to convey a fact that the author obviously wanted the reader to know. For example, good friends sit in a diner and one says to the other: “But you remember Todd; he’s the investment banker who married my sister Claire last year and then divorced her two months later because he fell in love with me.”


One: If they’re such good friends, why does the nonspeaking character need an in-depth reminder? Two: Even if a reminder is apt, who really talks to a good buddy like this? Three: There are more graceful ways to weave in backstory.

I’m differentiating between using dialogue to pass on data to the reader and using dialogue to show one character passing on data to another character. Hopefully, the latter scenario forwards plot, creates intrigue, develops characters, something.

Dialogue is great fun, but in the end BigD and I agreed that writing it can be tricky. I’m still learning how to tease out my own authorial missteps.