Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Writing Realistic Dialogue

guest post by Michael Shay

The best advice I ever heard about writing effective dialogue goes something like this:
“Bad dialogue tells, good dialogue shows, excellent dialogue shows more than the writer intended.”
This comes from fiction writer David Milofsky, my advisor when I was in the writing program at Colorado State University. I haven’t been able to find this quote online, but think it’s from satiric novelist Stanley Elkin.

It tells writers a few things. Don’t use dialogue to impart information – the dreaded info dump. It looks and sounds artificial. Much better to show the characters interacting in distinctive ways.

Ernest Hemingway was a master at dialogue. He heard a lot of it as a newspaper reporter and a war correspondent. Journalists are always on the prowl for a meaty quote.

Hemingway wrote quick bursts of dialogue in his short stories. This is the opening conversation between two waiters in a café from “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” They are discussing one of their patrons, a deaf old man:

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said. 


"He was in despair." 

"What about?" 


"How do you know it was nothing?" 

"He has plenty of money." 

A few short words reveals so much about the story. The old man tried to kill himself. This perplexes the café’s waiters because the old man has plenty of money. He couldn’t possibly be sick or depressed or lonely. It raises a whole world of possibilities about the old man who hasn’t spoken yet. And it tells us a lot about the waiters and the café and the town. Did the author intend the conversation to be so loaded with meaning? Difficult to say until you reach the end of this short-short story and find out what troubles the old man.

In my short stories, I use dialogue to move the story along, to build conflict, and to flesh out the characters. Many contemporary stories concern themselves more with character than plot. The protagonist faces a dilemma. The dilemma is important. But it’s how the characters confronts it that is important. Inner (and outer) turmoil is revealed in conversation.

Here’s an example:

In my story entitled “Baggage,” an airline employee named Millie notices something odd in the airport baggage claim. Among the luggage on the conveyor belt was a black pool the size of a dinner plate.

“Uh oh,” she said. 

“What?” said a man wearing a white shirt and tie. He was the lone passenger waiting for luggage. 

“We may need Homeland Security.” 

“Probably not.” He held his suitcase in one hand, reached down and scraped his left index finger through the liquid. 

“Don’t,” she said. “It could be dangerous.” 

The man smelled his finger. He laughed. “Crisis averted.” 

“What?” He proffered his hand. 

She inhaled. “It’s sweet.” 

He drew closer and they inhaled together. She wanted to move away because she didn’t know this man and hadn’t really been with anyone since her divorce. The liquid’s sweet smell mixed with his cologne and confused her nose. Vanilla? Licorice? “Some kind of liquor?” 

“Smell again,” he said. 

She grabbed his hand and again inhaled the sweet smells of the evening. She noticed that his skin was warm, his fingernails trimmed. 

This happens early in the story. We get to see the two characters in action, get to know a bit about them. He’s an impulsive guy. She’s more cautious, for several reasons. The spilled substance may not be crucial to the story. However, this little incident allows our two main characters to meet and reveal some key elements about themselves through dialogue.

Short story writers are stingy with dialogue. Less usually is more.

But that’s not always the case. As in life, some characters are more interesting than others. It may be more important to hear more from some characters as what they say is crucial to the story. But avoid monologues. Have your character interact more with others. That also may boost the level of tension.

Novelists may need more room to flesh out their characters or to advance the story. In detective novels, cops grill witnesses and perpetrators. Imagine how long and mundane most of those discussions are. The writer wants to hit the high points, advance the story, and then move us on to the next chapter. If dialogue gets too drawn out, you risk losing your reader.

In Michael Connelly’s City of Bones, Detective Harry Bosch questions a doctor whose dog has brought home from the woods a human bone. It’s a chapter-long swatch of dialogue, filled with intriguing detail. But Connelly makes things a bit more interesting when he sends the characters out into the woods to investigate. One way to keep the story moving along is to have your characters converse while they too are moving along.

Write thousands of lines of dialogue and it gets easier. Your instincts take over. Study excellent writers such as Alice Munro and Elmore Leonard. Leonard may possess the most recognizable cadence of any American fiction writer. It didn’t happen overnight. Said Leonard in an interview: “It took about ten years before my ‘sound’ emerged. That’s about a million words.”

You may have to sacrifice a good many of those million words to write dialogue as snappy as Leonard’s.

Mike Shay sitting at Hemingway's writing desk at Spear-O-Wigwam in the Big Horn Mountains

Michael Shay is the author of the short story collection, “The Weight of a Body.” He retired in January as communications and literary arts specialist at the Wyoming Arts Council.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Doing Anything, not Everything

Susan chimes in: I've long admired Jansen Curry's insights over at The Tall Mom. While this guest post of hers is not specifically about writing, it resonated deeply with me in regards to my own writing life. Too often I have tried to do everything, not realizing it was getting in the way of accomplishing the anything I most wanted to do. I don't have room to write if I try to take on the world. And even getting down to writing, I don't have time to write every single thing that pops into my head and still work on the big projects.

I've heard motherhood makes you focus on the most important things. I've not had that experience. I can learn from Jansen, though.

Guest post by Jansen Curry

Before I became a mother, I spent a lot of time romanticizing the notion of staying at home with my children. I was a personal trainer. I worked most days of the week, starting my day long before the sun would rise. I worked when my clients could meet—early morning, after the regular work day, and on the weekends. I had a handful of clients who could meet at “normal” business hours, but they were the minority. I enjoyed my job for the most part, but the fantasy of being home with my sweet babies was one I preferred to the grind of days upon days at the gym.

Then I became a stay at home mom.

My first birth experience was quite traumatic. After nine hours of labor, my daughter’s heart stopped. I was rushed for an emergency c-section. When the doctors extracted her from my torn and bleeding body, she was without a heartbeat and was not breathing. I will never forget the sound of counting as CPR was performed. She made a full recovery thanks to skilled medical personnel and God. In a showing of unequivocal naïveté, I believed birth to be the hard part. Little did I know… all her birth took was a miracle. The day to day raising of a child takes real grit and patience beyond imagining.

Ten and a half years and two more children followed. I continued to work as a stay at home mom. There were many moments of wonderment. More than I can count, in fact. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to my frequent imaginings of a career outside the home. I’ll even admit to my resentment of my husband’s “freedom”—his daily adventures to the office. His eight to nine hours each day spent problem solving with colleagues, lunch out, and most especially, the monetary and peer validation received with each paycheck, promotion, or recognition of work well done.

Some will read that last bit and think me shallow. Certainly the contribution of a stay at home parent—raising humans, is valid, whether recognized or not. My rational brain agrees. I chose to be at home with my small children because I wanted to be there. I couldn’t reconcile the idea of someone else doing those day-to-day tasks for which I reserved the right. This is not to say I think it the best choice for everyone. I’ll also note there are certainly others who do/did it better than I. That’s a simple truth. Still, I can live with the job I’ve done. And I can live with the fact that when the opportunity came knocking for me to transition from stay at home mom to working mom, I was ready to make the change.

Like I’d done in the past, I romanticized the reality of what a full time working parent’s daily life resembles. I can tell you this, in those first weeks…er…months, my house looked more like a war zone than an actual structure housing actual living people. Our laundry situation was…well…a situation. There were more occasions than I can recount when one or more of my children announced we were out of some essential item—milk, bread, toilet paper. And due to the nature of my new job, I put in an unusually great number of hours over a three week span that had my three year-old saying things like, “Mommy, are you going to live with us tonight?”

I found myself treading water. I’d cannon-balled into the deep end (like I tend to do), and while I’m a damn good swimmer, even the strongest eventually tire. A couple of months and several major projects in, I realized my mistake.

I’d bought into another lie: We (women/mothers/humans) can do anything! 

Well, yes. We can. But the distinction must be made…

We can do anything…but not everything. At least, not everything right now. And we most certainly can not do everything well. If I’m spending anywhere from 30-85 hours each week at work, which I enjoy and which benefits my family on many levels, I simply cannot be all the other things I was before…chef, housekeeper, laundress, homework helper, errand girl, treat maker, social planner, reader, writer, book club attender, volunteer, runner, etc. Something has got to give—not everything, but some things sometimes.

In the past, I’ve made the mistake of listening to lies about how I should be. This lie is no different. If I buy into it—believe it, I end up painting myself into a corner where nothing is good enough.

Before I end up in that desolate and depressing corner of life, I’m conceding. I’m waving the white flag. I’m not giving up. I’m giving grace…to myself. I am great at a lot of different things. I’m just not going to be great at all of them at the same time. And that is perfectly okay…and not at all unlike my earlier admission of being comfortably unbalanced. I am ready to be at peace with doing anything I set my mind to, while also not doing everything.

In the future, when my children recount our family’s past, I hope they will remember that Mom did it all…but she didn’t do it all at the same time. She lived and believed simple truths. She believed…

It is enough to be able to pursue the doing of anything…and not everything.

Reposted from The Tall Mom


Jansen Curry is the creator and author of TheTallMom.com. She is also a multi genre writer currently working on various sub-genre fiction novels and a children’s book project. Her debut novel, Seeing Ione is available from Amazon. Jansen makes her home in beautifully underpopulated Wyoming, USA with her husband, three children, and two spoiled rotten Rhodesian ridgebacks.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Read, Revise, Relax: Six Steps to a Successful Retreat

Linda M. Hasselstrom writes poetry and nonfiction. She conducts writing retreats and email writing consultations on her South Dakota ranch. Here, she offers tips on making the most from any writing retreat you might choose to attend.

Guest post by Linda M. Hasselstrom
You’ve revised and ripped up drafts and read writing books and joined a writing group and sent out poems and received rejections and started a novel and thought about quitting this writing business and remembered how your high school English teacher said you were talented and read books on how to publish and watched interviews with successful writers who nod and look solemn while they give advice.

You’ve gone online to look at the websites of writing retreats from Maine to Malibu, from Switzerland to Saskatchewan, fantasizing about having a massage after a hard writing session, then relishing a catered lunch, followed by a nap, a glass of wine, and a stimulating discussion with other writers.

Now you’ve decided: what you really need is a writing retreat. You looked over the website and Facebook page, you’ve sent in your application and yes! You’ve been accepted.

How can you wring every last ounce of benefit from your investment?  Here are six suggestions for enhancing your retreat, no matter where you go.

First: Ask Yourself This
Will go to retreat alone or with someone else?

In most retreats, you may not have a choice; these businesses need a heavy income to provide any amenities they consider necessary to their business success. Working with a group of writers gathered for a writing retreat can be beneficial; having three or four thoughtful writers looking at your work means you’re likely to get more suggestions for improvement.

Consider, though, if you’ll work best if you are required to attend group meetings or if you’ll be tempted to chat more than you write. Be sure the retreat atmosphere allows for plenty of time on your own, no matter how it’s organized.

Second: Set goals
Your second priority should be to set goals for your retreat. Decide what you want to accomplish: finish that short story? Complete a rough draft of an essay? Arrange poems for book publication? Record your goals in your journal, and assess the plan at the end of each day of your retreat, so you can make changes in your schedule if necessary.

I suggest you choose a single project as your first priority, and spend time revising it before you go to retreat, so it’s fresh in your mind. Consider any resources you may need as you revise the piece; if it’s about family, do you need photographs, archives, letters? If it’s poetry, do you need your favorite reference works? Retreats usually have good libraries covering many facets of writing, but may not have the volume you like best.

When you finish preparing your main project, consider what you would choose to work on next. You might find it impossible to concentrate solely on one task, and need a change. Don’t take every rough draft you have ever written and piles of disorganized notes. Save the scraps to organize at home during down time, such as after work or before bed. Instead select one or two other jobs that are different from your main project, perhaps a book you need to review, or a few poems you are revising.

Third: What to Take Along
Once you’ve chosen a writing project and set goals for your retreat, turn your attention to the third, and probably most complicated aspect of preparing for your stay: what to take with you. For several days, as you move through your normal schedule, make lists of what you normally use that you will need at retreat. Will you sleep better with your own pillow?

Clothing should be simple and comfortable, with shoes for walking, slippers to keep your feet warm on chilly floors, and layers of shirts so you can adjust your temperature. Most retreats will have extras jackets and foul-weather gear, and even walking sticks in the closets, but be sure to consider variations in weather and take clothes for every variation.

What writing materials do you need? Ask what retreat supplies, but plan to include whatever you use most: laptop and all necessary chargers and electronic paraphernalia. If you want to print copies of your work, take a printer, ink cartridges, paper, and cords. Take your journal and the kind of notebook you prefer, and your favorite books. Many retreats will have extra supplies of ordinary materials like pens and pencils, paperclips, rubber bands, erasers, Kleenex, and scotch tape.

What about food? If you’re at a retreat where meals are provided, be sure that the management is aware of any special requirements you have, such as allergies or preferences. If the retreat is self-catering and cooking relaxes you, consider taking ingredients for a special meal or two. Complex cooking, though, might create stress when you need relaxation, so consider keeping foods simple and easy to prepare. If you will have your own kitchen, ask about equipment to be sure that it has what you need. Coffee maker? Coffee grinder? What about the type of stove?

If you will be cooking, here’s a handy chart for calculating how much food you’ll need for each day. Count the meals you will eat at retreat, and consider whether to get foods on the following list for each day’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner as you plan your shopping.
  • beverages _______
  • grains _______
  • fruit/ vegetables _______
  • dairy _______
  • meat/eggs _______
  • nuts/seeds _______
Don’t forget that you will be using extra energy (remember studying for finals?), so take plenty of healthy, and probably a few unhealthy, snacks. Do you have a favorite brand of coffee or tea, milk, fruit or vegetable juices or other beverages? You’ll be amazed at how much nibbling you can do while thinking about characters or commas. If you enjoy a glass of wine or a drink in the evening, take what you want. And remember the advice of poet William Stafford: “Don’t write when you’ve been drinking, but if you do, don’t take it too seriously.”

Consider the drinking water. Sometimes a change in water can upset stomachs; ask if bottled water is provided, or consider bringing your own favorite brand. Remember, staying hydrated can help you sleep and work more efficiently.

Four: What You Leave Behind  
Of course you are an essential part of the lives of your family and friends, but your retreat is intended to benefit your writing by getting you away from these loving distractions. The people who care about you want you to succeed, so you need to organize events at home to minimize or prevent distractions from your work. Few people these days travel without a phone, so you won’t be expected to leave it behind, but try to behave as though you have. Notify friends and business associates that you are out of reach. You might even tell them—even if it’s not true—that the retreat rules prohibit phone calls and Internet connection.

Encourage the people at home to solve their own problems and respect the importance of this time for you. If your home situation might really require your attention, do your best in advance to see that it’s handled by someone else. If this isn’t possible, try to arrange for a specific time each day, after you have had a good writing session, to check phone messages. Give responsible adults the contact information for the retreat’s directors.

Naturally, you will be nervous as you work to get everything ready for your retreat, but try not to wear yourself out. Sometimes writers are so exhausted by preparations that they sleep most of the first day, wasting their own precious time. Don’t stay up late the night before the retreat; you’ve prepared well, and everything will be fine. Remind yourself that the point of the retreat is to improve your writing, and you should try to feel your best while you are there.

Consider the moment when you are finally alone on the eve of your first retreat. What will you do to ease into a good night’s sleep? Do you like hot baths and have favorite bath salts?  Ask if the retreat has bath tubs. Chocolate? Wine?  A favorite book or meditation ritual? A stuffed animal? Take anything legal that will help you relax into your stay. Please don’t compromise the integrity and possibly the operation of a retreat by taking illegal substances. Do take time to appreciate the opportunity you have given yourself, and remind yourself that you can do this; you can improve your writing with this retreat.

Five: You Are There
Here’s what you need to do on retreat: write, sleep, think, eat, write, think, walk, write, listen to comments on your writing, think while walking, sleep, write, eat while thinking, and repeat.

If your retreat involves conversations with other writers, take notes to help you recall verbal comments; conversations among several writers always bring more insights than you might have had as you reviewed your work. If you disagree with someone’s ideas, say so politely; discussion may lead to improvements no one else has considered. Even if you think the other commentators are wrong, take note of what they say about your work; at some future time, you may decide they made good points. Tastes differ, and experience in writing and publishing does not make anyone who comments on your work infallible.

While you are on retreat, write. Write until your fingers cramp and your eyes cross. This may be the best uninterrupted writing time you have ever had, so let your thoughts flow freely. Don’t hesitate. If you are unsure that what you are writing is worthwhile, follow the sage advice of poet William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

Six: Your Retreat Is Over But Not Finished
 The day your retreat ends, or before, consider how you can create your own retreat at home. The greatest danger is that you will get home and immediately become immersed in the daily activities that kept you from writing before your retreat. You’ll feel guilty; do not give in to the voices that tell you you’ve been neglecting the dog, the children, your husband, the house or garden.

Before you leave retreat, think about how to establish a writing place and time at home. Think about methods to keep yourself focused. Don’t plan to get up in the dark and write for three hours before breakfast; find a time that will really work for writing, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day. Then gently, but firmly, establish this time as yours. I’ve heard that one writer has instructed her children that only if the blood is spurting, indicating a severed artery and not merely a blood vessel, are they to bother her while she’s writing.

Your rules may not be as strict, but for your own good and the good of your writing, establish them and stick to them.


Linda M. Hasselstrom, a South Dakota rancher who has roamed across miles of grassland with no company but her horse, is the full-time resident writer at Windbreak House Writing Retreats, established in 1996. Her writing has appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines. Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen won the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry in 2012 and was a finalist in both the High Plains Book Awards and Women Writing the West’s WILLA Literary Award. Bitter Creek Junction won the Wrangler for Best Poetry from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK. No Place Like Home: Notes from a Western Life, won the 2010 WILLA in creative nonfiction. Linda is an advisor to Texas Tech University Press.

Her newest book is The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, (Red Dashboard Press), challenges to inspire writing for two years. Learn more about Linda at www.windbreakhouse.com.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


re-post by Lynn

Sshhh! Don’t talk about it.

I was in a memoir writing group once with a fellow who wrote really good stuff during the free writes, in response to writing prompts. Afterwards, he’d read out loud what he had written and then say “I didn’t have time to write the whole story.” At which point he would tell us the rest of the story.

We always told him to write the story, that it was a good story and he could publish it if he wrote it all down. But somehow, he never did. He had lots of stories started, but he didn’t finish them. Or maybe, in his head, he had finished them, because he had told us the whole story.

Maybe this is why so many writers don’t share their first drafts with anyone or talk about their works-in-progress.

Margaret Atwood flat-out said, “I never talk about books I’m writing.”

Ray Bradbury said, “Don’t talk about it. Write.”

Never? Don’t talk about any aspect of writing? Really?

Marshall J. Cook, in Freeing Your Creativity: A Writer’s Guide, says it’s a matter of order.
“In the idea-gathering stage, you should let everybody know what you’re working on. They’ll contribute materials for the mental composting that helps you develop possibilities… as the idea gets ready to take specific shape and form, you must protect it from the corrosive effect your words could have on it. Your imp wants to tell the story… and does so strictly for the joy of the telling. If you let it blab the story now, the imp may lose all interest in telling it again, on paper, later. … Your first telling will likely be your best telling in terms of the richness of your invention. Save that first telling for putting words on paper."

Oh, it’s a two part deal, is it?

1. Part One: the gathering and composting phase. Feel free to throw it out to your friends that you are working on a story that deals with shamans, or guinea pigs, or Stonehenge, or whatever. Let them give you the benefit of their knowledge and experience with those things. You might learn something, get a lead, or find out that unbeknownst to you your good friend has a fetish about rodents that, frankly, you wish you hadn’t learned about.

2. Part Two: the story unfolds. This part should happen in two places--in your head and on the page. Nothing should come out of your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway also divided it in two, apparently. In a 1958 Paris Review interview, he told George Plimpton:
“Though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile, and if you talk about it, the structure cracks and you have nothing."
There is a lot of good discussion regarding this anti-discussion topic on the web, like in this New York Times article: “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka. And this one by Steven Pressfield titled, “Don’t Talk About It.

But personally I think Robert Frost said it best and briefest:

“Talking is a hydrant in the yard and writing is a faucet upstairs in the house. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.” 

I've decided that I’ll discuss writing—the art and craft of it—as much as you want. And if you have any good information on rattlesnakes, let me know. But don’t ask me about my stories and essays.

I’m not talkin’.

So, maybe you think this no-talking thing is a bunch of hooey. Do you go over your stories with a friend or clam up?