Wordsmith Wednesday–Effective Dialogue

I have to guess that there are entire blogs devoted to the creation of effective dialogue and I’m sure that this will be the first of a series of posts that I write on this subject.

Think about what dialogue can do to make or break a piece of fiction. Through dialogue the reader can get into the mind of the protagonist but also can come to a greater understanding of other-than-point-of-view characters. Dialogue is an effective tool in pacing your narrative. Consider the difference between short, clipped sentences and those that are pondering, reflective. Dialogue enables the reader to understand a character’s motivation and emotional responses to persons and events. The writer can use dialogue to set the mood and the setting of the story.

Today I want to consider only one factor that contributes to effective dialogue: the importance of remaining true to the personality of your characters. The manner in which a character expresses his thoughts and feelings must be consistent with his temperament, background, education and occupation. Take a sample of dialogue from a novel or short story that you have written and use these criteria to evaluate the believability of your character. Then rewrite the scene from the point of view of a character who is:

  • A white woman raised in a wealthy family who completed law school but never went on to practice because of her shyness;
  • A black police detective who escaped the ghetto of his childhood in his altuistice desire to help his community rise above the culture of crime;
  • A neurotic 60-year-old divorcee who has no family or close friends;
  • An immigrant from Mexico who has worked hard to achieve success in spite of a lack of education;
  • An artist living in New York who’s creativity is fueled by alcohol.

If you prefer, use this scenario: The character learns from a sibling that his/her estranged father has died. If you want, use comments to post all or one of your characters and I will select some to add to this blog. More on dialogue next week.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process.

On Finishing a First Draft

Today I celebrate writing “The End” at the completion of my first draft of novel #2: “The Sin of His Father.” I feel a sense of exultation and accompilshment, although I realize the really hard work is still in front of me. What’s next? I need to let it lay dormant for a while–4-6 weeks, I suppose. Then dig in and rewrite/revise. Anyone who writes will tell you that’s a huge, but most important task.

Because I’ve written to an outline this time, I have a blue print to revisit and help me with the story arc. To be honest, the story took on a life of it’s own and led me in directions I didn’t expect. About two thirds of the way into the manuscript I barely consulted the outline. When I read it over, I’m sure I’ll discover a few things to enrich the narrative.

I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to enter that creative space where the Spirit drives me. It’s an amazing experience to read things you don’t even remember writing and to understand that it is driven by a Force you didn’t even know was at work within.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process!

Wordsmith Wednesday–Moving the Plot Forward

During the early stages of my writing I often got this critique: “Your writing is beautiful but it doesn’t move your story forward.”

You see, I’m in love with words and descriptions–a poet at heart, I guess–sprouting from a space of intuition rather than analysis (the old right brain versus left brain analogy). I came up with a simple solution to this problem.

For my first novel, “Winter is Past,” I didn’t work from an outline. The story evolved from the characters. When I finally accepted the fact that it was important to go somewhere in each scene, I began to outline using italics to identify the “purpose” of each chapter/scene. When it came time to rewrite the entire manuscript, that simple device made it easier for me to eliminate scenes that did nothing to advance the plot.

As an aside, for novel #2, I began with an outline that included detailed character and scene development. That’s not to say I’m following it to a tee, but it’s not a bad thing to work on developing the opposite side of the brain, is it?

Fiction Themes

Have you ever had a panic attack when asked “What’s your novel about?” It happened to me the other day in a large group but someone interrupted the conversation and I lucked out. Oh, I have a 25 word pitch that I’ve blurted out at writer’s conferences when speed-dating agents, but it seems so contrived in the course of a casual conversation. Besides, I’ve changed it so often that I’m confused.

I think the key is to be able to distill your story’s essence into a few words. Look at the big picture instead of elaborating on details of the plot (as I tend to want to do.) During a rewrite, jot down a few thematic words, chapter-by-chapter. For example, some of the key descriptives for my first novel, “Winter is Past,” include: fear, loss, hope, love, friendship, survival, forgiveness.

Next time someone asks me what my novel is about, maybe I’ll answer, “A woman who must confront her past in order to face her fear of the future.” Or hope. Or survival. Or something like that.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Active Verbs

I’m in love with verbs. Properly chosen, a verb can replace adjectives and add life to your manuscript. Here’s a suggestion for editing: Do a word search for boring, passive verbs–variations of to be, to have–you get the idea. Evaluate adjectives and adverbs. Is there a verb that will better create the desired effect and inject a shot of life into your work?

I’ll give you an example from “Winter is Past.” Claire, my protagonist, is with her donor, Kathryn, who’s receiving dialysis. I could have written:

I had memories of dialysis when I sat in a chair and chemicals cleaned my blood. There were lots of unpleasant side effects. I was waiting for a cadaver transplant.

While that sums up the scene, do you really have a sense of what Claire experienced? Here’s what I wrote, instead:

A flashback swamped me and I broke out in a sweat. Memories of hours bound to a recliner poured in: claret red blood cycling in and out of my body; chemicals dispensed by a machine that beeped and groaned; nausea, weakness, restless legs and insomnia; the thought that someone would have to die in order that I might live.

Now, let me show you how verb choices can enrich a poem:


About five-thirty

the morning of Friday before


light spills through blinds,

pools into discrete

silver puddles

at the foot of my bed.

Through the half-moon window

near the ceiling,

swatches of gray satin

unfurl across the sky.

Tears in the fabric

allow slices of blue to

peek through,

toss hope in my face.

In that shadowy space between

asleep and awake

ideas pelt my brain

so I can’t escape back into

my dream about the circus

where I rode barefoot,

standing on the rough coat

of a white mare.

I slip into awareness.

Cold smooth wood

greets my feet as I stand

and yawn.

My dog

shakes her silky fur, glares at

me for interrupting her dreams.

We stretch, enter the day,

touch life.

Writer beware. Don’t force it. If it’s stilted your writing will become cumbersome. He said, she said works fine most of the time. You don’t want to distract the reader’s by using words like retorted, exclaimed, insisted.

“Winter is Past” A Novel

I’ve created a page to introduce you to the theme of my novel, “Winter is Past.” The story deals with kidney transplantation, fear, loss, hope, friendship and love. I began writing it in Spring of 2003. While there are autobiographical elements to the narrative (I have received a kidney transplant from a friend who was a living donor) it is essentially fictional…a “what if” sort of novel in which I asked myself the question “What if something happened to Paula, my donor.” The plot evolved from the characters. The telling has undergone so many rewrites that I lost count. I invite you to take a look at the page for “Winter is Past” and read a very short excerpt from chapter one.

Showing Up and Writing

I just shared this short poem on Facebook:

Meditation is like
You have to show up
or nothing happens.

In a recent post about avoidance of writing, I outlined some of my well-practiced excuses and they’re all myths. Every day that I carve out time to write is a good day…most of the time I’m able to craft something I can use somewhere.

Easing into writing can be a challenge. My preferred path when it comes to poetry is to go out into nature and allow her to gift me with inspiration.

If I’m working on my novel, I usually jump-start my session by reviewing and editing my work of the previous day. This practice gets me in that space, into the heads of my characters.

Today in the desert it’s raining off and on–it’s the kind of day that leads to introspection and inspiration. It’s the kind of day to show up.

Do you outline your fiction?

My first novel, “Winter is Past,” evolved as the characters developed. I just began writing and the story line unfolded. Now I’m working from an outline for “The Sin of His Father.” I awakened in the middle of the night with the plot, jotted it down in broad strokes then outlined in detail. I still find the the story takes detours and encounters unexpected twists and turns. Both stories tell themselves and in the writing, I’m constantly surprised, inspired. “The Sin of His Father” has been easier to write, though. How about you? Is there anyone else who has used both methods? Which works best for you?

Character Development in Fiction

I’ve been reflecting on character development. I worked on “Winter is Past” for over six years. To a certain extent, I identified with Claire, the protagonist. She had a kidney transplant, she worked in hospice, she lost her job, she worried a lot–too much. Those experiences and traits mirror my own. In the first umpteen hundred writes and rewrites, her personality was flat and underdeveloped–perhaps giving a glimpse of how I view myself. When I finally exaggerated her mannerisms a bit, added in a few more defects and strengths, and mined the complexities of other characters, she began to finally emerge in her own right. Most of the characters contain aspects of people I’ve known over a lifetime–but mixed and melded in such a way that nobody stands out. My poor 89 year old mom was afraid I viewed her such as I created Helene, Claire’s domineering mother. Trust me, that is not the case.