Archive for the ‘Dialogue’ Category

10 Tips for Winning Writing Contests, Scoring an A, or Attracting an Agent/Editor

January 27, 2014

1. Hook your readers with a vivid scene right away. How? Read on.

2. Specific senses will get your reader to experience your story.

Example: Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy begins like this: Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for fifteen minutes shy of six hours. He had dipped his hand in its waves and licked the salt from his fingers. He had smelled the sharp resin of the pines. He had heard the low rhythm of the bells on the buoys that balanced on the ridges of the sea. He had seen the fine clapboard parsonage beside the church where he was to live, and the small house set a ways beyond it that puzzled him some. Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for almost six whole hours. He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

3. Show the protagonist’s problem right away. Turner’s is shown in his feelings shown in the last sentence.

4. Character dialogue must move the story forward. If it’s just talking back and forth to talk, remove it.

5. Use adverbs sparingly. Change them to verbs.
Example: He said loudly. Change to: He shouted.

6. Create suspense with tension. Author Steve Mooser employs the element of time. He says, “If the bad guys are due into town at sunset, if Friday is the day of the school play – that’s the easiest way to build tension.” In Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, the hourglass shows how much time Dorothy has to live.

David Almond created atmosphere with action verbs and specific images in Heaven Eyes:
Mud. Black, sticky, oily, stinking mud. It was January who dared to lean out of his raft first. He dipped his hand into what should have been water. He touched mud, black mud. It oozed and dribbled from his fingers. The raft settled, and mud slithered across its surface, onto our clothes. It seeped through to our skin. It seeped through the tiny gaps between the doors. I took my flashlight out, switched it on, saw the doors disappearing as they sank . . . saw that we were being slowly sucked down into the sodden earth . . . Our feet, our hells, our knees were caught in mud . . . I grunted, whimpered, groaned. I slithered forward. . . My head filled with the mist and darkness.

7. Everyone loves humor. The unexpected is funny. Two unlike characters or objects placed together can be funny.

8. Read your piece out loud. Is it balanced? Not big chunks of description or pages of pure dialogue, but evenly paced?

9. Eliminate vague words: Possibly, many, pretty, terrible . . .

10. What has the protagonist learned or how has your character changed in some small way?

After several drafts, put away your manuscript for a while. When you return, read it aloud with fresh eyes. Are you having fun? If not, rework the story until it’s just right. You’ll feel that tingle of excitement when it works!

What secret elements make a quest/adventure book great?

November 25, 2013

If you’d like to read a great new middle grade, choose Clare Vanderpool’s Navigating Early, a quest adventure story about a boy dealing with his mother’s death after WWII. Sent to a Maine boarding school, protagonist, Jack, is unhappy and feeling friendless until he’s intrigued with Early Arden, a unique character with a fascination about pi, who leads him through Appalachia.

Vanderpool’s poetic style lures the reader forward. Here is a scene where they fish with Gunnar, a minor character they meet on their journey. Gunnar carries an emotional, heart-wrenching past.

“You have a fine cast,” called Gunnar.

“I know. My brother taught me before he went to the war.” Early swished his line back and forth. The motion seemed to take him away somewhere.

Gunnar’s expression registered what he knew, what we all knew, of the fate of so many of those brothers who went to war. He looked at me, asking the question he didn’t want to say out loud. Did Early’s brother make it back?

I shook my head in answer. No, Fisher was dead.

Gunnar allowed the quiet to take over as Early moved farther out into the water and into his own thoughts.

Finally, Gunnar spoke, his voice so fluid and moving, it could have come from the river itself. “I once hear a poem about angling. It say when you send out your line, it is like you cast out your troubles to let the current carry them away. I keep casting.”

I liked the sound of that. The river pressed and nudged, each of us responding to it in different ways, allowing it to move us apart and into our own place within it.

Notice the unique dialogue of Gunnar, creating a fully formed person in just a few lines and a second layer of meaning within the words, so you’re not just reading a scene about fishing.

Another aspect which is fascinating about this book is how this Newbery Medal-winning author broke the rules. (In order to break the rules, you must first establish that you know them.) Although in writing adult novels (and nearly always in the movies), authors (and screenwriters) are allowed to fictionalize history for the sake of character and plot. In children’s books, this has been a distinct no-no. Why? We don’t want to confuse nonfiction facts with untruths for kids. But at the end of this book, Vanderpool has a page: PI: FACT OR FICTION? Here she lists the truths about this captivating number, since she has bent the truth within her story.

Writing Prompts:

1. Write a quest/adventure short story with the above elements in mind. Before you begin, think and wonder about your story, developing the plot and characters within you. Daydream, jot notes, and free write about the back story of each character first.

2. Can you write a quest poem? Any style you choose!

3. Create a piece of art with a quest/adventure theme.

4. As you begin reading a book, use post-it notes to mark the scenes that are evocative. Why do they work so well?

Workshop on Writing the Novel in Contra Costa County

April 8, 2013

WORKSHOP & BUFFET LUNCHEON

Architecture of Long Works in Fiction and Nonfiction

Saturday, April 13, 2013

9am to 1:30pm

Jane Vandenburgh is the author of two novels, the award-winning Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset. Her nonfiction includes the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century and The Wrong Dog Dream: A True Romance, a memoir recently published by Counterpoint Press.

Based on many years of teaching writing, Jane wrote Architecture of the Novel on the craft of structuring the longer narrative.

From it she will share such tips as:

*The elemental nature of narrative: a story consists of its events, told in scenes

*Placing scenes along the natural arc of the story in an order that provides suspense and mystery

*Drawing characters toward the inevitability of their destinies

*The maps and mechanics of any long work

Sign-in is 9 – 9:30 am, workshop 9:30 – 12:15, and luncheon from 12:30 to 1:30 pm Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant, 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill, CA. Registration is $35, or $40 for non-CWC members; contact Jean Georgakopoulos at jeaniegpops@comcast.net, or phone 925-934-5677 for reservations.

This Dog Shows Character!

March 12, 2013
Who did this?  The answer is obvious by the reaction of the characters involved.  
 
http://www.maniacworld.com/which-is-the-guilty-dog.html
 
Writing Prompt:
1.  Using a character’s facial expression, action, thoughts and/or dialogue, show guilt or innocence in a story or poem.
2.  Choose a character you know in your life.  Show this person or animal’s character through action, details, and/or dialogue in a personal narrative. 
3.  Write a poem showing character.  Author Jane Yolen defines poetry as “compressed emotion.”  Take out any words that aren’t absolutely necessary.

Memorable Movie Moments Help Our Writing

February 5, 2013

Every great movie has one or more ultimate memorable moments. A few lines of memorable dialogue:

* In “All About Eve” Betty Davis says, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
* In “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy proclaims, “We’re a long way from Kansas!”
* In “The Wizard of Oz” the witch cries, “I’m melting!”

Then there are the images which stay with you forever.

*Also from “The Wizard of Oz,” the sand running through the large hourglass timer
*E.T. and friend riding their bicycle across the face of the moon
*Wile E. Coyote hanging suspended in air

Every scene, whether it is from a short story or a movie, must include four things:
Desire, Action, Conflict and Change. (Thank you, Robert McKee!) Your character desires something more than anything in the world, takes action in some some or large way, runs into someone or something creating conflict and the character changes. The change can be slight, but there must be change. At the end of the scene, to be truly memorable, it should have a punch – a line of dialogue or an action that gives it an extra oomph.

Writing prompts:

1. What is a memorable moment from a movie you have recently seen? Why do you think it is indelibly etched within your memory?
2. Learn to identify these memorable moments within movies and the books you read as well as the desire of the characters, their actions and conflicts and their changes.
3. Write a scene with a character you have created or know well. After you write your piece, identify any memorable moments within it. If you can’t find any, structure the pacing of your story and the tension so as to create them. Remember desire, action, conflict and change.
4. Write a personal narrative scene with these same elements.

Writing Realistic Dialogue

October 5, 2012

“So, like you know Nick’s mom?” the teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.

“Yeah, like she’s blonde  right?” said the girl in the middle of the three, her short-shorts hiking up oh, so far.

I huffed and puffed behind them on the walking trail and made sure I kept up so I wouldn’t miss a word. 

The girl on the right chimed in with awe in her voice.  “She’s really good-looking.”

“No kidding,” said Ms. Pony Tail.  “She looks exactly like Carrie on Sex in the City. Her body, anyways.” 

All three murmured their agreements. 

Just a tidbit of conversation, but a goldmine for a writer.  Why?  Because if you’re not around teenagers, you don’t know how they sound any more.  Whether they’re in your  young adult novel or in another work of fiction, their dialogue needs to sound real.  Nothing worse than phony characters!

Ever read a book for adults with a child who doesn’t  sound kid-like?  The talking doesn’t match the character, where they live, or time period?   Fake.     Or lines of useless talk without a purpose?   

So what makes dialogue good?

Dialogue should show character and move the story forward.  Talk should be action.  Can you get your characters’ words to heighten conflict?  Sometimes great dialogue has subtext, or a secondary meaning when  words that mean one thing on the surface, but underneath they have a deeper emotional meaning.    And occasionally dialogue is important because of what isn’t being said.   The elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

It reminds me of an incident once years ago when my husband, young son and I traveled to see his parents, brother and sister-in-law.  We talked in the living room for a couple of hours and then took separate cars to meet at a restaurant.  In our car I mentioned to Bob that his mother was upset with his father and my sister-in-law knew, but I hadn’t figured out the reason yet.  And my sister-in-law was irritated about my mother-in-law over an issue too, but we’d learn why at the restaurant.

Bob’s mouth dropped open.  “You are nuts.  We talked about the weather, everyone’s health and what the kids were doing in school.  How did you get all of that out of mindless conversation?”

“You weren’t paying attention!” I said.  “Watch the body language, the eyes, listen to the voices.” 

My husband shook his head in disgust.  “You are wrong, Liz.  Totally wrong.”

Of course, we discovered the source of my mother-in-law’s irritation with her husband, and my sister-in-law’s problem with my mother-in-law.  Later, he grew to appreciate my “women’s intuition.”  But I don’t think it’s limited to women.  All writers have this when they are working. 

And when aren’t we? 

Writing Tips: 

1. Don’t use substitute words for “said.”  I just unearthed a beginning writing piece of mine from a trillion years ago and I’m embarrassed to say each time someone talked I used gasped, murmured, whispered, indicated, questioned, etc. so often it was embarrassing.  Occasionally it’s appropriate but generally, use SAID.  it will make your writing flow more smoothly.  

Or, skip the tags and employ an action.   (See above.  Bob’s mouth dropped open.  The teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.)

2.  Don’t use dialogue to tell information a character would already know.   Example: 
“Mary, you are my very best friend.  I’ve known you all my life and your mother is our horse’s vet.  She saved his life two times.”  

Writing Prompts

1.  Listen to real dialogue wherever you go.  Keep a journal.  Jot it down after you hear it so you won’t forget.  (But try not to write it down as you walk, or you’ll be caught like Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.)  Choose a piece of real dialogue and create a story with it.

2.  Write a story with special buzzwords.  These are words that each and every hobby or occupation has.  Does your character love horses?  Research horses.  Interview a horse lover.  Read horse books.  How does a horse lover talk about them?  What are the “horse words” that would go with this character?  

My husband was an engineer and he wrote a recommendation for one of his secretaries and said she had good “phone presence.” This time I thought HE was nuts.  But sure enough, in that industry, it was exactly what they called good phone etiquette.

3.  Write a story about you with real dialogue.   Read your dialogue out loud.  (In fact, read ALL dialogue you EVER write out loud!) 

4. Check a recent project of yours.  Do you have long narration that needs to be broken up with dialogue?  Make sure your piece is balanced.  Dialogue helps provide a balance and is good for pacing.  Need faster pacing?  Write short dialogue and skip tags.   But don’t have huge blocks of dialogue, either.  Make sure you have a balanced story that flows well.  Read it aloud to make sure it feels just right.

Workshops to Learn Writing

September 20, 2012

One wanna-be writer asked me why I was attending a poetry workshop if I had no intention of ever becoming a poet.    Writers of all genres have many skills they can impart.

Apply their techniques to your own paragraph/scene/chapter/project.  Ask them probing craft questions.  When you have a thoughtful problem within your own work,  make it into a universal question in which the others in the workshop can benefit from the answer. 

In the case of the author above, I did my own research by typing David Corbett onto Amazon. He received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, not easy to accomplish. 

Are there any spare minutes in the workshop for extra questions? It looks like his books are a master of suspense, so although his workshop focuses on character and plot, I’d ask him a question on his suspense technique, because EVERY book, nonfiction or fiction, requires this important element. 

What do you need to know about plot and character?  How can you be enriched by another author’s take on it?  His advice?  If you are fortunate to be in an area where an author is speaking or teaching, take the opportunity to listen, learn, and write. 

Do you feel like your writing isn’t fresh and unique 100% of the time?   We all feel this way.  Do something about it.  Learn from other authors.

Writing Beginnings and Character

August 8, 2012

On Beginnings

A question from a writer:  I know the basic premise of my story, but am uncertain exactly how to begin the story.  (She writes the specifics to me.)  What do I do now?

Writers often think there is a magic formula to writing.  There isn’t.  No one can prescribe an elixir for your story.  It’s TERRIFIC when you already know your premise!  This writer is ahead of the game.  Now the fun begins!  She knows her conflict, so all she has to do is throw her two characters together into a scene and let them talk, act, and REACT to each other.   Keep on writing and sooner or later,  the writer will instinctively know where to begin.

What if you don’t know?   Read what you have written aloud.  By hearing your own voice, you will feel the rhythm of your pacing and feel what should come next.  Do you have too much dialogue chunked together?  Or too much narration and not enough action? 

Revision is your best friend.  Play with your words.  Have fun with it! 

Sleep on it.  Time is another savior.  Go back to your story and you will discover hidden insights later. 

Talk with other writers.  Sometimes our community can help one another in our progress.

———

On Character

Do you want to know your character better?  Besides throwing her into scenes, daydreaming about her, and basically spending lots of time with your protagonist, make sure you know her inside and out.  Discover the quirky tidbits about what makes her tick.    You can answer these questions about yourself and later write an anecdote or personal narrative about a memory that may be inspired by them, and also use them for your characters. 

Favorite quote: 

(Mine:  “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  Groucho Marx       and

  “All who wander are not lost.”  J. R. R. Tolkien . . . oh, and one more . . . “In every struggle, there is a hidden

blessing.”  Joan Chittister )

Current photo on desk or dresser:  

(Mine: a 1940s picture of my mother)

A movie to watch over and over again:

(Me:  Ruthless People, Born Yesterday)

Quirky collection:

(Mine: water bottle labels – – I don’t drink, so when I travel, I collect “interesting” labels to tease the wine snobs in my life . . .)

Favorite book:

(Mine: Charlotte’s Web, Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1000 more)

What to save out of a burning house:

(Mine: my dog, Zoie, and old photos)

How earned money as a child:

(Mine:  babysitting)

First jobs:

(Mine: worked in a library, a factory, a liquor corporation, in a school)

Quirky jobs?

(Mine: Easter Bunny!)

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write an anecdote, story, personal narrative or poem inspired by any of the questions above pertaining to YOUR life. 

2.  Write a scene inspired by any of the questions above pertaining to your character’s life. 

3.  Come up with other questions and answers for your character – – and you – – to answer.

Writing About Unlikable Characters

July 30, 2012

My husband and I returned to our car after shopping when we discovered, adjacent to our car’s passenger door, a disheveled guy in shorts standing next to his rear view window, checking himself out. 

My husband pointed his keys at our car, and we heard the clicks.  We stood at the end of our car and waited a few moments.  I cleared my throat. 

The man picked his nose as he watched his reflection.

(Really.  Not kidding.  Or in Dave Barry’s style, I’m not making this up.) 

We waited some more.

I took in his physical looks; his belly extended beyond his tee-shirt and his plaid shorts.   As he adjusted his mirror and gazed at himself, his greasy hair flopped over his eyes.   Meanwhile, on the other side of his vehicle, his wife loaded their toddler into a stroller. 

Clearly, he wasn’t going to move an inch to let me in the car. 

Bob said,  “I’ll back out the car for you.” 

As I got in the car, I said, “He doesn’t have a clue.”

#@%!, ” said my husband. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Go to a public place with a notebook.  Jot down physical descriptions of people you see.  Be as specific as possible.  Start with general notes and then glance at small details – – the mole on a face, the brown spots on one’s hands.  How does the person walk?  Stand?  Sit?  Does the person have a way of talking that is unique?   Show emotion?

2.  Use some of those notes to create an unlikable fictional character.  Why is this person the way she or he is?  What kind of annoying habits or morals does she/he possess?  Write a backstory for the character which may show motivation for the character quirks.

3.  Write other characters who must deal with the unlikable character.  What will be the problem/conflict/plot of your story?  Is  your unlikable character the main character or a minor character?

4.  Write a personal experience piece about a person you have dealt with who would fit the description of an unlikable character.

Line of Overheard Dialogue

July 2, 2012

Stepping outside my front door, I heard my neighbor say to her Poodle,  “Oh, Xena, I wish you weren’t a dog.” 

Although I laughed when I heard her say this, immediately characters in a story began performing in my mind based on this piece of dialogue. 

Talking with my neighbor, I discovered she, her husband and Xena were embarking on a trip.  Where could they eat that allowed Xena, too?   Many wouldn’t have outdoor seating so Xena would have to stay in the car. 

We writers have a rather impolite way of poking our noses into others’  lives.  I’ve been known to follow a couple around the block – – completely out of my way – – just so I could hear the rest of a conversation.  Snoopy?  You bet.  But for the right reason.  Sometimes you discover a line of dialogue or a character quirk that is just too good to pass up. 

Ever borrow traits from what you’ve heard and saw to plop into a character?   Of course you have.     Real people have appeared in my children’s books and sometimes unknown actors from old movies pop into my stories too.  At least they have physically.  It’s helpful to have a model of someone and then you can create the personality you need.  Like Franzen borrowing his brother’s family album hobby to add to one of his characters.  Learning about your characters are part of the fun of building a story.    Why not use a line of dialogue to help you start?

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write a story or poem that goes along with the line of dialogue I heard above.

2.  Hang out in a place where lots of people mill around.  A town square, mall, airport, or a park all are examples.  Lounge around with a notebook and overhear conversations.  Jot down dialogue for future inspiration. 

3.  Use one of the lines of dialogue you’ve heard recently to inspire a piece of writing or artwork. 

4.  Build a character from one flash of a real person.  It can be from a picture in a magazine, someone you barely know, or one trait from someone you know well.  (Just don’t use that whole person.)  Plop your character into scenes of conflict to see how your character will respond.