Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Editors and a Comma: Dialogue Workshop

Betsy Thorpe and Carin Siegfried
"Two Editors and a Comma"

"Am I punctuating this correctly?"

"Do I use quotes or italics when I write internal dialogue?"

"How does point of view impact dialogue?"

These are just a few of the questions which Betsy Thorpe and Carin Siegfried answered in their recent writing workshop. 

Here are some of my takeaways:
  • Italicize internal dialogue. 
  • Match dialogue to the tone of the scene. 
  • Practice writing dialogue to convey different meaning and/or circumstances between the speakers. 
  • Don't lecture; avoid  "info dump".
  • Weave dialogue together with narrative, the characters' actions, and their thoughts. 
  • Make sure each character sounds different. Use different words, idioms, and expressions. Create a style guide for each main character.
  • "Said" is the invisible tag. Use it!
  • You can't "laugh" a sentence. In other words, it can't be: "What a silly child you are," she laughed.
  • Dialogue tags in the middle of a sentence makes it choppy. Don't write: "Are you," she asked, "coming with us?"
  • Use an em dash when the speaker is interrupted. 
  • Action/description beats should vary within a story and be distinctive.
  • Interior dialogue consists of nonverbal thoughts that a character wouldn't say out loud; self-analysis; or inner conflict. Interior dialogue is honest, reveals backstory, and shows a character's emotional state. It is best used when characters aren't saying what they truly mean.
I asked Carin to comment on a snippet of dialogue from my current draft. I wondered which of these two examples she liked better and why:
  1. Kate must be looking for clues too! Lillie’s heart beat hard. She forced her voice to stay calm. “Wonder what she’s doing up there?” she asked Frank.
2. Kate must be looking for clues too! Lillie’s heart beat hard. “Wonder what she’s doing up there?” she asked Frank. Lillie tried to make her voice sound casual, almost as if she was barely interested.

Carin replied: 

I would go with option 2, although it really is a close call. I like “casual” instead of “calm” as it implies more. And I like have the description both before and after the line of dialogue, instead of just before. But it’s really your call, depending on exactly the tone you’re looking for. As with more things in writing, there is no right or wrong answer! 

Which goes to show that word choice is extremely important and that tone in dialogue and beats is something writers must practice, practice, practice!

How about you? Do you have any dialogue tips that we all need to hear?
No pun intended!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

World Book Night 2013: The Phantom Tollbooth

As a part of World Book Night, this year I will be giving away copies of The Phantom Tollbooth to students in my tutoring program. I regret not reading this book with my father--a true lover of puns, imagery, and wordplay--but I am glad that I finally savored it myself.

For those of you who have never read Norton Juster's classic tale of   Milo, the young boy who goes on a quest for something to enliven his boring life and returns enriched and ready for his next adventure, this post is a list of my (some!) favorite quotes. I hope they will entice you to share the book with another reader--old or young--who will enjoy Milo's adventures, Juster's imagination, and Jules Feiffer's illustrations. 

So, without further ado and some brief explanations:

"I never knew words could be so confusing," Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog's ear.

"Only when you use a lot to say a little," answered Tock. p.44
At the Word Market Milo tries to decide what word to buy:

"Maybe if I buy some I can learn how to use them," said Milo eagerly as he began to pick through the words in the stall. Finally, he chose three which looked particularly good to him-"quagmire," "flabbergast," and "upholstery." He had no idea what they meant, but they looked very grand and elegant. p.47
A small wagon is sent to pick up Milo and Tock. Milo is perplexed.

"How are you going to make it move? It doesn't have a--"

"Be very quiet," advised the duke, "for it goes without saying."

And sure enough, as son as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets... p. 79
King Azaz the Unabridged has just asked Milo what he can do. When Milo admits he has no special talents, the king replies:

"What an ordinary little boy," commented the king. "Why my cabinet members can do all sorts of things. The duke here can make mountains out of molehills. The minister splits hairs. The count makes hay while the sun shines. The earl leaves no stone unturned. And the undersecretary," he finished ominously, "hangs by a thread. Can't you do anything at all?" p. 85

Milo asks a stranger where he is:

"Do you know where we are?" asked Milo.

"Certainly," replied, "we're right here on this very spot. Besides, being lost is never a matter of not knowing where you are; it's a matter of not knowing where you aren't--and I don't care at all about where I'm not." p. 110

Milo meets the Soundkeeper who invents sounds:

"But how do you invent a sound?" Milo inquired.

"Oh, that's very easy," she said. "First you must decide exactly what the sound looks like, for each sound has its own exact shape and size...

"Take laughter; for instance," she said, laughing brightly, and a thousand tiny brightly colored bubbles flew into the air and popped noiselessly. "Or speech," she continued. "Some of it is light and airy, some sharp and pointed, but most of it, I'm afraid, is just heavy and dull." pp. 156-157
Milo lands on the Island of Conclusions and queries a man named Canby:

"But how did we get here?" asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.

"You jumped, of course," explained Canby. "That's the way most everyone gets here. It's really quite simple: Every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It's such an easy trip to make that I've been here hundreds of times.

"But this is such an unpleasant-looking place," Milo remarked.

"Yes, that's true," admitted Canby; "it does look much better from a distance." p. 168
Milo takes a trip to the land of Infinity.

"I should have known it," he mumbled, resting his tired legs and filling his lungs with air. "This is just like the line that goes on forever, and I'll never get there."

"You wouldn't like it much anyway," someone replied gently. "Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet." p.193
Milo and Tock bring Rhyme and Reason (two banished princesses) back to the kingdom and the king remarks:

"... as you've discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don't know they're impossible."

And for the remainder of the ride Milo didn't utter a sound. p. 247
I read the 50th anniversary edition which includes comments and notes from authors and educators who were inspired by The Phantom Tollbooth. If you haven't read it yet, make sure to add this playful yet provocative fantasy to your "to read" list and share its delicacies with another reader. 

To entice you further, here's a short video where you meet Juster and Feiffer:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

All You Need is Pain

    With all respect to the Beatles, I have found that more than love, writers really need PAIN in their lives.
     As an instructor in the continuing education department at Central Piedmont Community College, this week I participated in their annual Sensoria event. I was joined by two other writing instructors, Jodi Helmer and Edward McKeown, and together we quickly overviewed the writing and publishing industry.
Ed, Jodi, and I greeted students after the Author's Panel
     Besides sharing the author who has influenced me the most (CynthiaVoigt) and my writing mentors (Joyce Hostetter and Rebecca Petruck) I also told the student audience they needed to consider the P.A.I.N necessary to get published. 
     Let me explain.
     P is for the passion a writer must have in order to bring a piece to publication. Writers must love translating their ideas into words, sentences, and paragraphs. More than seeing their name in print or getting paid gobs of money (which may or may not happen!) writers write because it’s something they can’t NOT do.  They enjoy the process of discovering a new and creative way of telling a story. But passion isn't enough. Writers need skills. Which brings me to,
     A stands for the ability writers need to use all the rules learned in elementary school in order to create a coherent piece of writing.  All those boring things like correct grammar, appropriate punctuation, when to indent a paragraph, how to distinguish homonyms, choosing active vs. passive verbs, avoiding adverbs---all of these must be in a writer's toolbox. And if they're not, would-be writers can read books, take a class, or go on-line to gain instruction and acquire writing skills. 
      Although the writer's craft encompasses more than just stringing words together to form complete sentences; writers can also learn how to choose the best words, and how to use the imagery of poetic language to communicate their ideas. Which leads me to,
     I is for idea. Every article, story, poem, or play began with a seed of an idea. Half-Truths began because I observed many Caucasians and African Americans with the same surname in Charlotte, NC. The many articles I wrote about glass came out of my fascination with a material that is incredibly strong, yet fragile; as old as dirt and as modern as fiber optics. And although my book on glass was rejected by more publishers than I can count, I learned that,
     N is for never giving up. Writers must persevere in spite of critiquers recommending that a piece be re-written for the 15th time; family members mocking their work; editors or agents rejecting the manuscript; and even their own desire to-do-anything-else-in-the-world-besides-sit-in-this-chair-and-write. 
    Take an inventory of yourself:
  • Are you passionate about the creative writing process?
  • Do you have the ability to write or are you committed to learning and practicing?
  • Do you have ideas that grab you and demand to be written about?
  • Are you willing to put in the time, effort, and energy that is necessary to bring a piece to completion?
     In a recent webinar, Emma Dryden said, "Pay attention to the journey, not just your goals."
     And realize that PAIN is part of that process. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Zane's Trace

When Allan Wolf was thirteen, he lost a penny behind the baseboard in his bedroom. He grabbed a pencil and wrote, "Penny lost down here on the night of April 12, 1976 at 2 til 9 PM and 5 seconds by Allan Dean Wolf."

In some ways, that was the genesis of Zane's Trace, a poetic coming of age novel that combines elements of historical fiction, free verse, and fantasy. 

Using a combination of powerful images, prose, real places, events and people, this book documents Zane Guesswind's journey as he wrestles with his painful past which includes his mother's suicide, an abusive grandfather, and his father's desertion. If that wasn't enough baggage for any teenager to carry around, Zane also has epilepsy. 

Up until the story's opening Zane has dealt with his pain by writing on any non-conventional surface imaginable including his bedroom walls and ceiling. Translating his thoughts and feelings this way sometimes has a therapeutic effect on Zane:

Whatever it was, the simple act of writing
on my wall had strengthened me somehow. (p.9)
A red Sharpie made the men bleed. 
And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
The worse Mom got, the more I wrote.
The more the old man nagged her,
the more I wrote.
And the more empty spaces I filled,
the better I felt. (p. 12)

But, as a not untypical adolescent, it also gives him more power than he truly has. So, when his grandfather dies in his sleep, Zane thinks,

I did not kill him directly, yet I
was certainly the cause.
                       Last night--
the Zane-atopia scene on my ceiling,
the flash of light at the top of Mount Guesswind
the heaven holding Mom, Stanley, Zach, me
and Grandpa?
                     I smudged the old man out
with a fat, black marker--king size.
Last night I erased the old man from the light. (p. 30)

This book is a quick read, but not a simple one. It is full of powerful metaphors and layers of images--even as the writing on Zane's walls and his thoughts are layered with meaning. The line, "One straight shot" is repeated over and over again with various meanings and nuances. 

Zane's physical journey back to his mother's grave is also his emotional journey as he deals with his own deep grief. In the end, Wolff brings together the disparate elements of this poignant story as Zane reconciles the branches of his family tree. After his grandfather's funeral Zane says:

And all of us there--living or dead, crazy or sane, 
friend or foe, black or white, family or stranger--
we all crowd around and add our own names
to the twisted, crazy-beautiful family branches. (p.177)


I would recommend this book for teens, particularly those who are wrestling with suicidal thoughts or have experienced mental illness and suicide in their families. Wolf includes a number of good resources at the end of the book, as well as information on what is historically and geographically accurate. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

These are A Few of my Favorite Blogs

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein and the strains of "These are a Few of my Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music playing in my head, I thought I'd share some of my favorite writing blogs with you. 

But first, a disclaimer. This list does not include every blog I read. The ones listed here demonstrate excellent writing; they  are consistently great sources of writing instruction and advice; and are ones I point my writing students to.  For the most part, the authors of these blogs don't promote themselves, their books, or their services. They generously provide their expertise to the writing community- both for those who write for children and young adults, and for those who write for adults. 

So, in no particular order and without further fanfare here are my top picks:

Janice Hardy writes fantasy and science fiction for teens, is a former Writer's Digest writing instructor, and offers tremendous writing advice on The Other Side of The Story. My favorite posts are her Real Life Diagnostics;  "a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues." Readers send in their work with questions and Janice diagnoses them on the blog. Thus it is part critique and part example.  As we all know, one of the best ways of learning to write is figuring out what works, what doesn't, and how to change it. Janice generously offers solution to writer's problems. I am looking forward to finishing this draft of Half-Truths and submitting a snippet myself!

Kathy Temean's blog, Writing and Illustrating, was one of the first blogs I started following dedicated to writing and illustrating for children and young adults. Kathy's posts include interviews with agents, authors, and illustrators; publishing news, industry trends, contests, book reviews, and more. Each Saturday she features a different illustrator who shows the process he/she took to create a picture book. These inevitably knock my socks off. I can't draw a decent stick figure and it is a privilege to view the behind-the-scenes work these illustrators put into each drawing.  By the way, Kathy is an author, award winning artist/illustrator, and the Regional Advisor for the NJ SCBWI. I wonder how she has time to breathe. 

I met Lorin Orberweger last year at the Free Expressions Your Best Book Workshop in Charlotte which she coordinated. She is an author, independent book editor, ghost writer, writing instructor, and one of the most encouraging yet "this-is-what-your-manuscript-needs-nail-it-on-the-head-person" I have met in my writing journey. Her Write Line blog includes book reviews, a First Page feedback column, insightful articles about the writing craft, industry information, as well as writing challenges and prompts. 

Janet Reid, the literary agent better known as the Query Shark, is to queries what Janice Hardy is to book snippets. Janet invites writers to submit their queries which she critiques. Once again, writers can learn from her as to what works and what doesn't. I'm not at the query stage yet, but when I get there, I'll be hunting through her blog to glean from her generous instruction. And after I've spit-polished my query, it'll be in her submission queue. 

Emma Darwin is the novelist and short story writer behind This Itch of Writing. Each of her blogs are like mini-writing courses. They are meaty, thought-provoking, and include much of what novelists need to know. In this particular post, Emma lists 13 posts that will help writers get published. I go back and re-read her posts when I am stumped with such tricky questions like psychic distance-which I didn't even know existed until I read her blog!

Jeannie Campbell's blog, The Character Therapist, brings a unique twist to the writing blogosphere. She is a a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a freelance writer, author, editor, and book reviewer. Her posts provide writers with psychological insights into characters which they might not have considered. Since writing is all about delving into and showing the complexities of people and relationships, Jeannie's blog is a unique source of information. She recently began a series on character archetypes. Don't miss it. 

So, here's a thankful round of applause to all of these bloggers who generously feed the rest of the writing world. 

Now it's your turn. What is your favorite writing blog? 

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

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