Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Talking Dialogue

Dialogue is one of those things that gets newer writers in a knot. "I can't write dialogue," they say. I don't get it. If you have ears and you can eavesdrop, you can begin to work on your dialogue. Eavesdropping tells you a few things - how people really speak (repetition, half-sentences, ums and ers, more 'likes' than you can poke a stick at, cliches, rambling) for one. So you learn not to write dialogue like this (no, not even if you have a mentally deranged character - readers will only put up with so much stylistic rubbish like that - get on with the story!) But you can get some great story ideas from those half-heard, half-unspoken conversations. The writer in you just fills in the gaps.
Listening to daytime soaps will also teach you about dialogue - how to be boring and repetitious and explain everything three times. That's the job of dialogue in soaps. It's not what you do on the page, because a reader who fell asleep and missed a bit can just flick back a couple of pages and read them again.
Watching movies with lots of silence in them - that's often very useful. Why? Because usually when there is some dialogue, it's packed with meaning and subtext.
Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do. I think that's why people freak out about it. It has to show character, provide information, move the story along, show emotion (so you don't need all those adverbial tags) and create action/reaction. And more. One way of looking at it is to think, Wow, dialogue is such a great tool. I can use it for all that stuff and I can avoid the dastardly disaster commonly known as [telling].
Why am I thinking about dialogue this week? Because this novel I'm playing with seems to have an awful lot of dialogue in it, and the suspicious, editorly part of me is shaking its head and saying, You need to watch that - remember how you complained about Jonathan Kellerman's last novel (Rage) because it told too much of the story through the characters chatting to each other?
Not to worry. I've run out of things to write for now, so I'm going to let that bit of fun and frivolity sit and contemplate its own toenails for a while. And go back to working on a rhyming picture book, just to make myself feel creative (not).
Finished Kathy Reichs (very enjoyable, apart from a bit at the end where the sheriff did a big explanation/info dump so us readers would know what happened - clunky). Am now reading "Fragrant Harbour" by John Lanchester. I've had it there for ages - lost under a pile of other stuff, like many things in my house - and suddenly found it the other day and thought Hong Kong! I have to read this. Because I am going back to HK in November to do more things with our new training business (writing and editing mainly) and would really like to know more about the history of the place.
How are my Mandarin lessons going? Very good (hen hao) thank you (xiexie). In last week's class I learned how to ask where the ladies' toilet is. And I know how to order two beers. Two vital sentences.
Maybe I should write my picture book in Mandarin. It might improve it.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Problem Child Novels

When do you abandon a novel, or a story, or a poem? A poem is easy to let go - and by let go I mean give up on it and put it away, probably forever. There are many poems that I write just for me. Sometimes they are warm-up poems - I might not have written any for a little while, and I need to write a couple of awful, cliched ones to get back into the language and the rhythms. Then I'll write one that I'm happy with, that I'll keep reworking.
Short stories take more time. Often with a story what I will have is a beginning, and the abandonment happens because I can never come up with the rest of it - the middle and the end - in a way that satisfies me. If you read enough short fiction, you come to see how much has been done before and I find now that unless I can create a story that feels different to me in some way, that is at least new for me, it won't hold my interest long enough to be completed and reworked.
The other problem story is the one that starts well, moves into the middle, then launches off into something that threatens to become a novel and I can't figure out how to rein it in. Or if I want to. That kind of story (I have one that's been sitting on my laptop for about six months now) becomes "I'll tackle that one tomorrow".
But what to do about the problem child novel? If it's not working because you don't care about it enough to wrestle through the problems, it's easy to put away and forget about.
It's when you've written six or eight drafts of it, the story still won't leave you alone, but you believe that you've done everything possible to fix whatever is wrong with it - and somehow it still is not working ... What then?
One solution is to put it away for a couple of years. Then read it and decide if it's worth another draft.
Another solution is to re-vision it - make it into something else entirely so you can see it with new eyes. This might mean changing from first to third person (or vice versa), changing the POV character, changing the genre, taking out the first three chapters and starting in the middle. What is sometimes needed is a huge shift in how the novel is going to work. A huge shift in the writer's own perception of it. Not always possible.
A novel contains a huge number of words, a huge investment of time. You look at the pile of pages and remember all the hundreds of hours you spent on it. How can it not be "right"? It must be, you think. It's just little things that another edit will fix.
But your heart and/or your gut tell you that it's something fundamental, something that maybe is not fixable. The voice is not convincing, the concept is laboured or boring or been done a million times before, the characters never really come to life. These are major problems. The kind that cause abandonment.
Hmmm, that all sounds very heavy and depressing for a Saturday morning.
On a lighter note, a writer friend and I have been discussing, via email, two stories recently published in the New Yorker. One is "Black Ice" by Cate Kennedy (an Australian short fiction writer whose first collection is just out) and the other is "Kansas" by Antonya Nelson. We've had opposite reactions to both stories! Email comments such as competent but not totally engaging, too much telling, characterisation too obvious, have been really interesting - and a good reminder of how everyone engages with stories in different ways. This often happens in class. A story can divide everyone down the middle, sometimes into hate and love!
I've just started the new Kathy Reichs novel, and am very relieved that she's moved away from the current obsession with religious artefacts and "what they really mean". Ergh. Wasn't the Da Vinci Code enough for anyone's lifetime?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What Else I Do

Ah, the holidays. Time to dust off the pile of books waiting to be read, put up my feet and read, read, read.
If only. In fact, I have been writing, but it's a letter to a planning officer about an application, and it's one of those things you have to psyche yourself up to, because it has to be diplomatic, direct yet polite, clear and concise - and all the while I just want to have a screaming hissy fit about it. But I guess that's one of the things that's good about being a writer - I can usually use words as my swords - the death of a thousand paper cuts. That's probably a cliche (two cliches, but who's counting?), but it fits.
I've also been finalising my tax (always a joy), and then having a little splurge at the wine supermarket to celebrate when all the icky, boring, stressful things are finished.
Writing? Yes. An adult novel. Just for a complete change. I have no expectations of it, I just like the main character, I have a good plot idea as a starting point (with a novel it's always just a starting point) and I am seeing where it might go. No pressure, just words when I feel like it. If I get stuck, I leave it alone for a while until a new idea emerges or the next scene develops in my head.
Unlike a certain other middle-grade novel of mine that a very kind, very experienced writer has just read for me and confirmed what I knew in my guts - start again.
But I have been reading - a book I have been meaning to get to for ages, ever since I heard its author, Kate Grenville, read it at last year's Melbourne Writers' Festival. Only took me a year. It is as good as I thought when I heard her read an excerpt - "The Secret River". Of course, it's already won tons of prizes but that's not something that makes me want to read something urgently. It was the words I heard last August. Fabulous language, strong voice, great description. A historical novel that totally captures the time and the people.
I am also still thinking about the Elizabeth George novel I read last week - "What Came Before He Shot Her". It is not an Inspector Lynley novel, so at first I thought, Huh? But once I got into it, it was amazing. Such an eye-opener about life in London in North Kensington - if I ever get to London again, I'll make sure that's one place I avoid. When a book and its characters stay with you for weeks afterward ... what more can I say?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Living as a Writer

Don't be alarmed - this is not a post about trying to make a living as a writer. I don't have that many funny jokes in me this week. But my previous post about would-be writers not reading led one reader of this blog to send me a link to a Washington Post article. This was by a uni teacher who was astounded by the number of students who didn't know what relatively simple words meant - words such as affliction, for example. The guy put it down to a lack of reading - if you don't read enough, you simply don't come across these words in context and so you never get to "experience" them.
I've been having similar problems, and the most recent example was having to explain to a class what a canon of literature was. However, although I do see this as a problem for students who want to be writers, it's not a problem for me. I actually enjoy having to pull a definition out of my head (can't always guarantee one will be there, but then that's what dictionaries are for). I think where the issue lies for young writers is that without a good knowledge of the words that are available to them in creating their stories and novels, how are they going to write things that are a pleasure to read? Where do imagery, metaphors, similes, great description, style, tone etc come from, if not from your use of language? You can't argue that genre writers don't have to worry about that stuff, because the really good genre writers are doing exactly that!
In Short Story 2 I have recently inflicted a series of close reading and editing exercises on the students, amidst complaints. The exercises have been about examining language and sentence construction initially, delving into how a writer creates what is on the page by looking at a short excerpt, word by word (if you want to know how to do this, take a look at and also at )
One of the excerpts I used, which they had to examine in minute detail, was from the latest Janet Evanovich. It had plenty of description, a great voice, and interesting, varied sentence constructions. Evanovich might be writing humorous crime but she knows how to write well and dismissing her as a simple genre writer is a mistake.
This week I made them do close editing on their own work, just one page. I probably sound like a pedantic, boring nit-picker, but I am convinced that until you engage with what a writer is doing at the micro-level (and that includes your own writing), you won't be able to improve your use of language, your understanding of how good writing works, and raise your writing to the next level. I did get the feeling that when I told them this, there were still disbelievers around the room, but at least I tried!
The other thing that we discussed briefly was what I call "living as a writer". What you do in order to become a better writer. Under this heading, I listed: reading widely and critically; writing lots and then writing more; being in a good critique group; being aware of the world around you and finding ideas in it; giving up other things in your life in order to have a decent amount of time for writing; informing yourself about the world of publishing, how it works, who does what and why, and then updating your information regularly; researching markets for your work so you don't waste your time and money or the publisher's.
I also know from experience that people don't take in information and knowledge until they are ready for it (usually at the moment when they need it), so I recommend a good library of books about writing. Not to read slavishly, but to delve into when I want someone else's point of view on point of view, or setting or dialogue.
It can take a few years to build up to a point where all these things become a natural part of your writer's life, but it's worth the effort.
P.S. One of my favourite student misuses of language is still the novel where the main character put moose in her hair. After a rewrite, the character then proceeded to put mouse in her hair.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reading for What?

I've been on a literary fiction reading jag for about two months now, initially reading "The Dogs of Babel" and then moving on to other recommended books, including a list from Miss Snark's blog. Latest Snark book was "Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell. Not what I expected at all. It's set in the Ozarks and is a stark novel about a girl trapped by her family and the environment - the family includes a crazy mother and two younger brothers, a father who has disappeared so that they are about to lose their house, and an extended family and community of hillbillies (sorry, can't think of another word to describe them but think Ozarks, isolation, closely-linked families), most of whom are high on crank. Reading this straight after "Diamond Dove", which was a similarly stark novel set in Aboriginal communities and an outback town, I needed a break. Both of these novels, by the way, were terrific in their own way, not what I thought they'd be, and strong reminders of what a writer can create when they really know the places and people they are writing about.
So I've launched into "Twelve Sharp", the new Janet Evanovich. The writing is clean, tight, funny (no, doesn't have great amounts of imagery but she does a great job of making me feel I'm right in that doughnut shop) and a welcome break for my brain.
It never fails to amaze me when someone who wants to be a writer says they don't read. I shouldn't be amazed because it happens regularly. Sometimes in classes I feel like I want to chain the students to a shelf of books and not let them go until they've read every one. Instead I set assignments where they have to read at least 3-4 books before they can write reviews or analyses or whatever, but hey - 3-4 books is so minimal as to be laughable. There are so many things that I gain, as a writer, from reading that I just don't understand those who refuse to take it on board. And the complaint (also heard a few times) that they don't want to be influenced accidentally is also wasted on me - the more widely you read, the less likely you are to accidentally "copy" someone. It's actually quite beneficial to deliberately try to copy someone's style as a writing "lesson". Hey, I had a Sylvia Plath period just like a lot of other poets I know!
What do I gain? Insights about style, about how writers use words differently, how sentences can be put together, how description can be threaded into a story without bogging it down, how dialogue can show character, how pacing works, how cliffhangers work, how much to put into a chapter, how to use different narrative devices and structures, how characters can be shown effectively, how to foreshadow, how to subplot ... need I go on?
The trick is to read like a writer. No, it doesn't destroy your reading enjoyment. Well, OK, it might for a while, but then you just get used to reading differently, and suddenly you are seeing all these other things behind the story - you're seeing the bones the writer used to hold up the flesh of "what happens". For me, it increases what I get from the book tenfold.
And when Miss Snark runs her Crapometer, it helps me see what is not working with those submissions, and why, and how I might fix that kind of problem if it comes up in my own writing.
As for the dreaded query letter, if nothing else, the current 100 victims of Miss Snark prove that less is definitely more. Now, if only my submission had been one of the 100...