Dialogue in fiction is not simply people chatting away about their day. It’s supposed to do a lot of hard work: characterize the speaker, advance the plot, convey subtext. In a writing workshop that I’m taking this fall, the instructor, author Adam Stumacher, gave us some great advice about dialogue that I wanted to share here. It comes from Junot Diaz, Stumacher told us, and it has three parts. After you’ve written a section of dialogue, take a look at what you’ve written and Continue reading
Look at this example from Jim Henry’s story, “The Flood.”
“When I got home from the gym there was a message for the other Jonathan Patrick from a guy named Willie who said he’d had a prophetic dream and absolutely had to talk to me.”
One sentence. Lots of stuff going on. Notice the use of the word “other.” The other Jonathan Patrick. Immediately you know the narrator’s name. You know there’s someone else named that, you wonder who it is. You wonder who Willie is. You also wonder what the prophetic dream was. This opening sentence is working on so many different levels, compressing time and info information a compact, intriguing sentence.
And this from James Salter’s “Foreign Shores.”
Mrs. Pence and her white shoes were gone. She had left two days before, and the room at the top of the stairs was empty, cosmetics no longer littering the dresser, the ironing board finally taken down. Only a few scattered hairpins and a dusting of talcum remained. The next day Truus came with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. It was March and cold. Christopher met her in the kitchen as if by accident. “Do you shoot people?” he asked.
From this paragraph, which is the story’s opener, we know so much. For starters, there was a “Mrs. Pence,” who is now gone. Notice the use of the word “finally.” The ironing board was finally taken down, as if it had been a point of contention during her entire stay. And then Truus arrives with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. Splotched! You have to love this word. And even though you don’t know right away who Christopher is, you understand immediately that he must be a child, because no grownup would ask such a question! Lastly, notice how much time is compressed in this short graph. We get this idea of Pence having lived there, of Truus arriving and meeting Christopher, all in 6 sentences. It’s truly amazing.
During revision, one of the things I try to ask myself is, Are the sentences working as hard as they can? Is each word doing its job? Would less be more?
This year I began with gusto reading literary journals. I paid for subscriptions to a couple, including Glimmertrain and McSweeney’s, to get a feel for what they had to offer. And then I sent a short story in to a contest at Redivider — the $15 fee giving me a subscription. But I also purchased a subscription through Journal of the Month, which sends you, based on the amount you pay, anywhere between 6 and 24 random journals a year. By joining, I’ve been able to sample literary mags that I might not otherwise have known about. Continue reading
I’ve had a pretty good year so far with writing. Some of the pieces I’m churning out, I’m proud of, other stuff, well….not so much. The time has come for me to review several rough, first drafts I wrote earlier this year and turn them into polished stories. But how? Continue reading
Last week I spent my time in Provincetown, Ma., at the Fine Arts Work Center. I was there to attend a workshop taught by Pam Houston. But I think I was also there to see what it was like to get away and write. I’m considering applying to some residencies and I thought my time in PTown would be a good test to see if I was productive or if I would go crazy. Fortunately it was the former. Continue reading
I’m learning a ton from Pam Houston here in Provincetown at the Fine Arts Work Center workshops. One of the most important things is how adopting a form or structure for your writing can set it free. Let me give you an example. In Pam’s latest book, Contents May Have Shifted, she decided to write 144 chapters, each of them taking place in some location around the world. She is a big traveler and constantly collects and writes about moments that resonate with her. She calls these moments “glimmers.” As soon as she decided (and it was a process much more involved than what I’m describing here) to write the 144 chapters, she felt relief because she knew where she was going. She also decided that twelve of those chapters had to take place on a plane. There were other “rules” she imposed on the writing to give it form, but that gives you an example.
I arrived in Provincetown yesterday by ferry to attend a one-week fiction workshop with Pam Houston at the Fine Arts Work Center. We had orientation last night and a brief meeting with our workshop group, which is wonderfully small. She asked us to introduce ourselves, talk about a piece of writing we thought was success, give her one word that described our writing and tell her a song that we wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with. Continue reading
I read this post from a friend of mine and was reminded of something John Cheever wrote in the forward to his collection of stories. He said, “My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud.”
At about the same time that a read that post, a poet friend of mine suggested reading my sentences aloud while composing. I’ve found that the technique works best when it comes time to hone and shape a sentence, not necessarily in the first draft. For me, the first ugly draft is about getting the ideas on the page as best I can. But at some point, I’m interested in crafting beautiful sentences that contain just the right words. That’s when it makes sense to start reading them aloud. Try it and let me know if it works for you.
Related Post: Sentences Are the Pack Mules of Literature
Photo: Wonderlane / Flickr Creative Commons
I’m a spare writer. I tend to write in scenes, moving the character forward through the action. But that kind of writing can go flat pretty quickly because I move too quickly past the details. Recently, I’ve come to love and admire Steven Milhauser’s writing. He has a gift for detail. In his short story, “The Room in the Attic,” I felt awe with his ability to capture the big and small of the world around his characters. Here’s just a snippet of the narrator, a high school boy, arriving at a house of one of his new friends. Continue reading