Writing dialogue presents a terrific challenge in that no two conversations are alike, even if the words are the same, and no two people are alike, and the words used are only half of it. Crafting good dialogue is part of the art of characterization. Eavesdrop on or watch any conversation you can. You will notice:
a. speech patterns, regional accents, vocabulary and slang, speech impediments, volume. Re "accents": One hint of an accent (incorrectly known as "dialect") goes a long, long way. Do not write at length using misspellings ("Ah cain't make head ner tail o' whatcha' all talkin' 'bout, brutha"); it's hard to read. Your reader will soon give up. Use such things as a spice, not a meal. Better: "I can't make head ner tail of what you're talking about, brother."
b. nonverbal portions of conversations: hand gestures, scratching an itch, punching fist in hand, eye-rolling, "air quotes," and so on.
c. About half the time, people don't talk back-and-forth as much as they talk "across" each other, impressionistically: Person A: "So, how's your husband these days?" Person B: "I can't believe how fast the laundry's piling up."
d. Note the proportions of time taken up by the speakers. Half and half, or does one person talk far more than the other?
e. nonverbal portions of oral communication, such as laughter, hooting, Bronx cheer, making the sound of vomiting, yawning, "Eh?", "Huh?", whistles, and so on.
f. A huge percentage of conversation is "canned" or pre-fabricated phrases: "How are you?" "Fine, and you?" "I'm hangin' in there." Unless there is a reason to include those pre-fab greeting exchanges, don't put them in. Also frequently appearing in conversation are quotations, cliches and advice. Some people often say "It's a dog-eat-dog world," or "As my father always said," or "Garbage in, garbage out,"and so on.
g. People who are acquainted rarely address each other by name except as a strategy, often a selling strategy. Nervous writers do this to make sure the readers know who is speaking. Most of the time if dialogue is between two people we know who is speaking (the more so if their speech patterns are correctly differentiated). We do not say to a co-worker "Good morning, Susan. Say, Susan! What happened after I left last night?" "Marsha, you are just the person I wanted to talk to. You won't believe it, Marsha!" "Susan! Wait! There's a dead mouse beneath my desk! Susan, call maintenance!" "Oh my God, Marsha, I will call right now!"
h. People have pet words and phrases. Some always say "Okey-dokey." Some employ a word or phrase over and over, such as "bizarre," or "twee" or "inappropriate behavior."
Use dialogue only when it's important to do precisely that. Perfunctory or tangential exchanges can be deleted or rendered as indirect dialogue. "She told him she'd waited for the tow truck for an hour."
Okay, now you are educated!
Stress Management for Poets
by Christopher Scribner
Growth in online education is healthy for creative writers. When I say I teach in Lindenwood University's online Master of Fine Arts in Writing program (just named by Wordfocus.com as one of the top ten in the nation), I am often asked:
How do you teach online? We have a dedicated course site open only to enrolled students, and the syllabus, assignments, and workshop discussions are posted there.
Do you ever meet with your students in person? No. But the consolation is that online courses attract students from everywhere: Virginia, Mississippi, California. This wakes up the locals who write "Billikens" or "Lambert" expecting all readers to know what those are.
How does an online workshop work? Students post the current drafts of their projects, and the instructor and all other students post constructive comments and discuss those too. I also personally email each student to discuss issues specific to his or her work.
What do you teach? Advanced Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay and Memoir, and Poetry Workshop. Other faculty teach fiction writing, prose poetry, narrative journalism, and more.
How good is online instruction? For creative writing, online instruction is excellent, because we communicate only in writing. We have a textbook and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board.
How good is an online M.F.A.?Lindenwood's online M.F.A. program is strictly monitored by an accrediting agency, our faculty is tops, and online courses require serious personal discipline; always good training for writers. Because an online class is open 24/7, students don't have to excuse themselves because their niece's birthday party is on a class night.
Fiction writers at writing workshops often hear, "Get rid of the exposition." "There's too much exposition in here." "Exposition" --it can be good, but in fiction class it was always bad, and I understood the concept from examples, but never had it explained to me in a convenient nutshell.
As often happens, the word provides its own understanding. Think of the word as "Ex-position." "Ex" means "out." So the word means "out of position." Exposition is a capsule of description or dialogue that doesn't really fit in its time and place, or fit the character. Example:
"She thinks she's Jane Austen. You know, the famous English writer born in 1775 who wrote Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice, and then Northanger Abbey which spoofs the Gothic novels popular at that time?"
That's fine information in that second sentence, and all true, but it doesn't belong there. It's out of place.
Exposition doesn't have to be factual. It can be fictional. It's an authorial intrusion: background information that has been foregrounded in a place in the narrative where it doesn't fit. The author is unsure about a choice he made, so he patches up the narrative with further information, hoping for the best.
Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud. Wittgenstein philosophized while walking. "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,â€ wrote Thoreau. Virginia Woolf wrote â€œStreet Haunting: A London Adventure,â€ about her urban walks. Countless writers take regular walks, just to walk. There must be something to it.
A google of â€œwriters exerciseâ€ turned up only writing prompts. Writers sit and write. Thatâ€™s what we do. But consider that science has proved that excessive sitting, as we do in our cubbyholes these days, not only generates health and mood problems but ruins what health you have. I could tell when a friend was doing heavy writing because his posture sagged, his neck sank into his shoulders, his gut softened and expanded and his butt took on female proportions. What you donâ€™t want is to look like that all the time. Spinal X-rays taken in my 50s showed the lower end of a formerly perfectly good spine permanently curved to the left, and some compressed disks. Spines werenâ€™t designed for sitting for 8, 12 or 18 hours. You have only one spine. Take care of it.
In the absence of health insurance for writers, try a daily 20-minute or 30-minute walk or exercise break. Consider it your treat or sanity bubble. I honestly get a buzz from the oxygenation. Writers often meet for coffee or drinks. Try walking after the coffee or before the drinks. You can chat and commiserate just as much. Do you run and wonder why you're not greyhound-slim? Running burns off sugar, not fat. Walk.
I walk 30 minutes daily, or, in crummy weather, ride a recumbent bike (spine cannot tolerate upright bikes anymore). Twice a week I lift weights to get my back and core muscles to compensate for the spinal damage and let me sleep so the next day I can write.
This past week the St. Louis Publishers Association brought in best-selling self-help author Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who started a 21-day "No Complaining" campaign at his church, handing out purple rubber bracelets. When the participants caught themselves complaining the bracelet had to switch arms. â€œComplaining is like bad breath,â€ he said. Word spread about this concept and before Bowen even wrote a book he'd been on Oprah Winfrey's show. Then he decided to write a book. He told us all about it.
After being turned down by one agent and then sucked into the scam "New York Literary Agency," he contacted the agent he wanted and got him. The book, A Complaint-Free World, became a monster bestseller--especially in China. Chinese book piracy is rampant, but Bowen's publisher undercut the six pirated editions by pricing the genuine book for less than the pirates charged, and bundling the bracelet with the book. The Chinese publishers also broadcast a weekly cartoon starring an animated Will Bowen on various positivity adventures, and booked him for a fashion shoot (heâ€™s trim, bald and wears an earring) for Asian Harperâ€™s Bazaar. â€œNow, those people are creative,â€ he said. â€œMost U.S. publishers try pretty hard but they really have no idea how to do it [marketing].â€ He went to Toastmasters to learn to speak, and arranges his own speaking engagements: one church per week. His intention for his new book is to sell 2.6 million copies.
Other things Will Bowen said:
Bowen believes in writing down his goals each day, writing daily, and having a wish board. He wanted Maya Angelou to write a foreword for one of his books, but she is reclusive and doesn't do favors. He pasted a photo of Angelou on his wish board and told everyone he met that he wanted to meet Maya Angelou. One day he told an actual friend of Mayaâ€™s who arranged the meeting. I guess they spoke about positivity. Bowen tape-recorded what Angelou said and asked if that might become the foreword to the book, and she agreed. Thus, "foreword by Maya Angelou." That's a heck of an endorsement.
Iâ€™m skeptical about lists and wish boards, but they canâ€™t hurt, and increasingly Iâ€™m becoming convinced that writing is becoming a spiritual rather than professional pursuit. I know I went home from Bowenâ€™s talk inspired, and boldly did something Iâ€™d never imagined Iâ€™d do, which Iâ€™ll blog about next.