Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Those who can, do...

I'm sure you've heard that old saying:
Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.
It's meant to be a criticism, but damned if I know why. I think about it in a different way: if you're struggling to learn something, the best way I've found to learn to do that something is to teach someone else how to do it.

I thought about these words recently when I was struggling to write. Writing can be a beast—and it seems that, especially during the summer months, I'm stalking that beast, chasing my words to try to capture them on paper. I have an overworked brain because of the change in schedule with my family that comes with summer—by change I mean the complete lack of any kind of schedule whatsoever.

This does not bode well for my creativity.

However, even with my own words stymied, I have found ample opportunity to give advice on writing to others—good, solid, helpful advice that I know I should maybe be following but I'm just... stuck. And I don't think I'm alone in this, many of my writer friends are in the same boat I am, home with the kids and trying to fit a creative life into the cracks left in each day. And while I was talking with these people is when I realized—even if we can't write right now, we can teach. We can inform one another of the truths we know that should be helping us to write those pages (if we only had the available brain cells to task them thusly).

Another thing I've found is that the more you immerse yourself in writing—in talking about writing, in thinking about writing—the more the words will come to you. Maybe not the words you want to find, but words; you have to listen for them. Lately, my words are coming to me in ways they've never come before; I'm compelled to write poetry—a type of writing last seen in the specific angst that occurred in my late teen years, but now has apparently returned in midlife—haikus and unrhymed verse and pages of couplets that stick in my brain like pollen.

If you're feeling blocked, it might just be a simple matter of putting pen to paper, putting expectations aside and letting the words that need to come out rise to the surface. My critique partners had the idea to try to write to different categories every month to try to stretch our abilities and skills. What a great idea! Thinking outside the box is usually a great idea.

I've come up with a list of words: nouns, adjectives, actions, places and times—to give me story prompts, such as: "The confused ant boarded the train yesterday" or "The sick dog glared angrily when they met at the rodeo." It's all about stepping outside of the box!

So, feeling like the words aren't flowing?
  1. Talk about writing to someone else and teach them your writing tips.
  2. Quiet yourself to better hear the words that come forward and don't try to tell the words what they need to be.
  3. Try something new—write in a different genre than normal or make up a crazy premise to shake things up.
How do you go from can't to can?

Friday, June 20, 2014

You talkin' to me?

One thing I've learned over years of freelance writing and editing is that writing dialogue? Is not easy. It's bad enough that as a writer, you're expected to create characters—poof!—just out of thin air! You also have to bring them to believability in your story, use them to provide information and make them sound like actual people and not just random words that fall out of your brain (even though that's basically what you're doing as a writer).

Another thing I've learned is the value of resources. I don't have all the answers, but I have access to them. When I'm trying to consider what makes for good dialogue, I know that the best resource available to me is close at hand—my own bookshelf. Reading is a necessary part of writing, whether you read for fun or with the strict purpose of bettering your craft, there are likely books within easy reach that can help you succeed.

From the "Reading for Fun" Pile

Novels and short stories reveal (usually) effective and compelling dialogue in action. There are some snippets of dialogue that stay with a person forever. Good dialogue, really good dialogue ... you don't even notice it. It's just so natural and easy to read. Think of the scenes that stick with you from your best-loved classics (my own include Alice in Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird). Reading well-written dialogue, you won't find yourself confused as to who said what to whom and why; the words in quotes, the dialogue tags, the emotion; it all comes through.

Dialogue isn't just your characters interacting with one another; it's how you bring your story to life, literally breathing voice into them. Through dialogue, you can relay a sense of place and time simply with your word choices.
“What does one do in town?” I asked.

“Oh, there’s so much to see at the stores,” Alice gushed. “New fabrics and trimmings, new hats and stockings.”

“And the nicest treats,” said Lelia, her pretty face widened by a grin.

“Cookies and ice cream—”

“Or salted peanuts!”

My stomach growled.

“And don’t forget the boys!” Fannie Bell batted her eyelashes. “That’s the best treat of all.” *
It's clear in the sample above that the events don't take place in the current time. The words aren't overly out of the ordinary, but the author took care to use them in such a way that she's illustrating the time frame. Something as simple as a word choice or the order of words spoken provides more information  to the reader as it reveals the mindset of the characters in question.
“Camille. Come sit.” She beckoned her cloudy hands toward me. “No! Get a glass first from the back kitchen. You can have a drink with Mother. With your mother.”

This should be miserable, I murmured as I grabbed a tumbler. But underneath that, a thought: time alone with her! A leftover rattle from childhood. Get that fixed.

My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.

“I think I finally realized why I don’t love you,” she said. **
Actions and description together can be terrifically helpful in revealing character. The damaged mother/daughter relationship can be read very clearly through these words and the last sentence of the exchange provides a verbal punch to the reader's gut.

From the "Professional" Pile

In my editing and writing books, pretty much to a number they all address the topic of dialogue. One of my favorites is from Chuck Wendig's 250 Things You Should Know About Writing: "Easy isn't the same as uncomplicated." Meaning, dialogue moves the story along quickly—it's like the straight part of the racetrack, where your reader can gain speed—details are provided along with action and setting, but it still provides something substantial to your story. Dialogue shouldn't be disposable, it should be necessary to what you're trying to say.

Elmore Leonard famously told writers to "leave out the parts readers tend to skip" and this applies to dialogue as well—maybe most of all. When you write your dialogue, consider the parts that are often left out in speech. Words are shortened into contractions, some slang, some affectation, but you mustn't overdo it. Relying too heavily on dialect or accent often proves to be more of a distraction than an effective tool. 

A few tips for strengthening your own dialogue:
  1. Read your dialogue aloud, using the words and punctuation you wrote to guide your emotion and inflection. Where do you need to add more? Delete something? What's effective?
  2. Listen to other people speak. Go to a coffee shop, a mall, some public place that puts you in the company of others—especially helpful if you're writing from a different perspective (someone older or younger, or the opposite sex, for instance). Take notes about how the voices sound, the speech patterns, words used.
  3. If you're writing in a different time period, find books, audiobooks or films set in that time frame and immserse yourself in the sound of the language. If your hero is a soldier living in 1908, he will sound much different than a teacher living in 2008. Research the words commonly used.
  4. Consult a reference. There are so many considerations with dialogue beyond what I've discussed here and even more references to advise you on creating effective dialogue.
  5. Don't stop writing!

Quoted material:
* Gensler, Sonia. The Revenant, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011 ** Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects: A Novel, Broadway Books, 2006

Monday, May 5, 2014

OWFI 2014 Presentation

Just below are the notes from my speaking session at the 2014 OWFI conference. A few people asked for my presentation, and here it is; if you click that little greater than arrow at the upper left of the box, you should be able to see the whole slides; if I find a better way to post this, I'll redo it!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Writing Process Blog Hop

I was tagged by my friend Sonia Gensler to be a part of the Writing Process blog hop. She's an incredible writer and I'm lucky to have her in my critique group, so we get to share about our writing process with each other. Here goes! 

Friday, April 18, 2014

So what are you trying to say?


Just the thought of writing dialogue puts many writers into a manic panic. How do you find that other person's voice hiding inside of you? It's complicated and probably (as in totally) can't be addressed in a single post.

I met with my own critique group and we talked about the struggle in finding character voice and writing dialogue that rings true. When it's done well, it's not something you really notice. When it's not done well, it's all you can see. How can you hone your ear to find the truth in the voice of your characters? That's a good question, isn't it? It can be tricky--but it also can be done.

Friday, April 4, 2014

It's just a blog

You're just writing online--right? You don't have that many followers (maybe that's just me). It's not a big deal--I mean, it's just a blog, right?

It's not like it matters if you use good grammar when you write, or whether you check your post for typos or the like, or that your references are correct and your images captured and documented properly. It's just a blog, so it's not like it matters!

Well, of course it matters, silly.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Writerly Roundup

What are some things that help you with your writing? I've got a list of things that I appreciate.
Sunshine ... on my notebook ... makes me happy!

First, my toolkit. This is a very unofficial collection of items, carefully curated over the years and composed of things that I find myself turning to, no matter how many other writing tools I have to move out of the way to get to them. My list of most valuable pieces:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Careful Feeding

Good advice for life ... and writing.

Ever since we saw the movie Up!, this has been shorthand to explain how we are easily distracted. It's pretty universal, I think, as my kids use it, friends use it, it's the battle cry of the overtasked! And such easy, elegant advice for a writer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When is good for you?

Sometimes it seems like I just can't get out of my own way. I have things to say, important (maybe) things to say and an eloquent (maybe) way to say them. But when I sit down and put pen or pencil to paper or fingertips to keyboard, I get nada. Zilch, zero, zip.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Rose by Any Other Name

What's in a name? Well, I guess that depends on a lot of things. I am excited (a little giddy, actually) to announce that I was asked to serve as the Book Doctor for the 2014 Oklahoma Writers' Federation Inc (OWFI) conference. What does that mean?