Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Say It Again: Some Tips on Writing Dialogue

When it comes to writing dialogue, I find that people either love it or hate it. Those who love it, are usually good at it, and those who hate it, usually struggle. I could be wrong, it's just what I've observed.

I'm on the "love it" side, in fact, most of my first drafts look like screenplays rather than novels. I'll get the pages back from my critique buddy and there will be notes like, "only one line of exposition in this chapter" or "Who's talking? Where are they?" Why does this happen? Because when my characters talk, I hear them, even if I don't have a clear sight of them.

I attribute my knowledge of dialogue to my freelance work. After I interviewed someone for an article, I would transcribe it, one of the most tedious activities imaginable. But listening to the way the subject talked, how they would trail off or not use complete sentences, really showed me how to give authenticity to my characters' conversations. We take for granted our use of slang, sentence structure, the way we interrupted each other or change subjects abruptly. Authors like Elmore Leonard, Hubert Selby Jr. or Richard Price had/have a keen ear for that and it shows in their dialogue.

Besides reading the authors I mentioned, here are some good activities to strengthen your dialogue skills:
  • Overheard Conversation Go to a restaurant, bar or coffee shop and eavesdrop on someone's conversation. Try to record it, by hand, word for word. You'll probably only get bits and pieces, but just notice how people talk and interact. You can bring a tape recorder, but that could border on stalking.
  • Screenplay Challenge Ever tried to write a screenplay? Take a scene in your novel or a short story you've written and try to rewrite it as a screenplay. There's no space for exposition, no scene set up. Every tone and feeling has to come through what the character says. After you're finished, get someone to read it with you, or better yet, get two people to read it and you just listen. Does their dialogue seem authentic? Are they stumbling on the words or is it flowing naturally?
  • Same Story, Different Character We all don't speak the same way. Depending on our educational level, socioeconomic background, region in which we live, even our occupations, everyone speaks differently. Ever listen to fire fighters talk with each other? What about an Irish bricklayer from south Boston? A middle aged socialite from Manhattan? They all use different vernacular, different sentence structure, different slang. Take a familiar story, like The Three Pigs, and write it with three different narrators. How would an LA gang banger tell it differently than a rancher from Wyoming?

I think these activities are a ton of fun and help develop your dialogue skills. Because truthfully, as a reader, dialogue can make or break a novel. I've picked up books with great concepts and great characters, but the dialogue was nearly painful to read and I had to put it down. Besides, it's within the quotation marks that the characters jump off the page and are truly brought to life.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Windy City Times

My short story, Lesbian Failure, appeared in the Windy City Times yesterday. Unfortunately, no one told me so I didn't pick up the paper, but it's available online!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Stereotypical Writer

For the past month or so, I've been training for my first triathlon. I've never been much of a biker or a runner, but somehow I got it in my head that if I can swim, I can do a tri. In addition to my usual swims, I've been biking close to 50 miles per week and running about 10, determined not to be the last person to cross that finish line.

So, you can imagine my surprise when, at a party this weekend, my girlfriend tells me I'm not athletic. True, I'm clumsy, lazy, and have no coordination whatsoever, but I'd think with all my recent training I would gain some type of athleticism. When I defend my position, she replies with a laugh, "Come on! You're a writer! How athletic can you be?"

Her comment got me thinking about the stereotypes regarding writers: the overweight, anti-social, chain-smoking, alcoholic, recluse who hasn't seen anything but his typewriter in months. I picture Kafka or Tennessee Williams or Jack Kerouac. But contemporary writers aren't like that. They're extremely social, although they can definitely hold their liquor, I wouldn't say that most writers are alcoholics, only about half the writers I know smoke and most of them are in pretty good shape.
Writing is my passion, no doubt about it, but I think most will agree with me when I say that it's not the only thing I enjoy. I like visiting with friends, going on a long bike ride, seeing the light of day once in a while. Even though I love writing and can do it for hours, often losing track of time, I don't think I would be happy if that was all there was to me. I wouldn't be happy if I was a pale, overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic, but is that what people assume I am when I say that I'm a writer?
I thought most of these stereotypes were dead, ideas of the past only to be joked about among writers at conferences. But are these stereotypes alive and well? And do they stem from some truth? As writers, what stereotypes do you fit or defy?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Power of Three

Summer is the time when movie theaters are infested with mindless films with tons of special effects and not a whole lot of plot. But this year, as I'm sure everyone has noticed, there seems to be a glutton of 3rds: Oceans 13, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shrek the Third, and, what Nicole and I recently went to see, Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I hadn't seen the first two so, being who I am, spent the previous evening catching up on my pirate viewing.

The first one was fantastic, but when I got to the second one, I was pretty disappointed. I know I should have expected it, when it comes to movies they usually get worse with each one. But the first one was so good that I was hopeful, and wrongfully so. First, if you hadn't seen the previous film, you'd be totally lost. They did little to no character development or explanation, not even a hint of what had happened to the characters previously. Not only had I just watched the first in the series less than an hour ago, but when it comes to movies, I'm very good at following along, and I was confused. I kept poking Nicole, "Who's that again? Why do they want that? What's going on?" But she didn't have the answers either.

So despite the shortcomings of the second, we still went to the theater to see the third and as expected, I was even more confused. No character development, overly dramatic scenes that bordered on corny, and the film itself was entirely too long. What a waste of eight bucks.

But this got me thinking. As a reader, I LOVE series. Harry Bosch, John Rain, Jack Reacher, Kenzie and Genaro, all great characters that I can't get enough of. And while I of course started at the beginning with each of these characters, I believe that a reader can pick up a book anywhere in the series and not be confused. The authors give enough character development so new readers know who these people are, but they aren't redundant enough to bore the veterans. Furthermore, the characters change over time. At the end of each book, the protagonist is changed in some way and therefore different in the beginning of the next in the series. In pirates, the characters didn't change much and if they did, it was sudden. We didn't see it build.

So why is it that books do it so well and movies continue to fail time and time again? Is it the industry? The audience? The screenwriters? I believe it is a combination of all.

First, I don't think that movie producers know when to quit. They see a movie that pulled in a ton of money at the box office and think, "We should do that again!" Lehane knew when it was time to retire Kenzie and Genaro. Connelly took a few breaks from Harry Bosch. Child created Reacher in such a way, that he may never run out of ways to get into trouble. Furthermore, I believe movie producers don't recreate characters, they recreate concepts. Just look at Speed or The Mighty Ducks or The Matrix.

Also, it's the writing. Screenwriters have about a third of the pages novelists have. They need to get in and get out. When words are taken away, when scenes have to be cut, what goes? Right, the character studies. Why would you cut a high packed action sequence (never mind that it's doing nothing for overall plot)? Books take a lot more time to build the world of the story, time that movies don't have.

Lastly, I do believe it's the audience, especially when it comes to action movies. People want to see high speed car chases, explosions, not what a character is feeling. To me, in books, the emotional factors make the action scenes all the more effective. When the stakes are high, both physically and emotionally, the scene is completely gripping. But, like in Pirates 3, if I don't care about the characters, I don't really care if they live or die.

If anyone knows of a movie sequel that was just as good, if not better than the first, please do let me know. Kill Bill doesn't count since, to my knowledge, it was originally meant to be one long movie. Otherwise, I'll stick to reading my series characters and avoid them in the theaters.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Recently Read

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno is a darling book and an interesting twist on the classical mystery. The story begins when Billy Argo receives a detective kit and proceeds to solve the mysteries of his small-town New Jersey home. The book chronicles his journey into adulthood, spreading a layer of comedy and magical realism over the dark tragedies lurking within the story. A very enjoyable read, plus, it comes with your very own decoder ring!

Every Crooked Pot by Renee Rosen is one of the top books I've read this year. It's a coming of age story about Nina, born with a large birthmark over her eye, and her desperate attempts to look "normal". Growing up in Akron, Ohio with her quirky Jewish family, particularly her larger-than-life father, Artie, who is a musician trapped in the body of a carpet salesman, doesn't make being normal any easier. A perfect balance of scenes that make you laugh and ones that make you cry. Stay tuned for my Sun-Times piece on Renee Rosen, scheduled to run later this month.

The Rome Affair by Laura Caldwell was definitely a pleasant surprise. I'm not much for Romantic Suspense, but Laura is such a sweetheart that I had to read her book. It's the story of Rachel Blakely who is trying to put back the pieces of her marriage after her husband's affair. But while in Rome, Blakely has an affair of her own, not knowing that her actions have far more repercussions than she could ever expect. A perfect story of an ordinary woman thrown into extraordinary circumstances, the book is gripping and intriguing, even for those with an aversion to romance.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Queer Collection Update

The Queer Collection is coming out later this month, which includes my short story, Everyone Loves a Leo. You can place your orders online, but I'm not sure if it will be available in B&N or Borders. Honestly, they haven't told me much, but it should be a great read!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Back on the Query Go-Round

After a year of trying to sell Thou Shall Not, my agent and I have parted ways. The break-up was amicable and for the best and although there was something secure about having an agent, it is also a bit thrilling to be single again. As weird as it seems, I was actually a bit scared that Thou Shall Not would sell. My agent was marketing the book as the first in a series and since I wrote it so long ago, my heart is no longer with those characters and the last thing I'd want to do (at this juncture at least) is write another Mayah Goldstein/Ron Dennis novel. Also, there was a lack of communication and the way we work is quite different, so I am looking forward to finding an agent that I mesh with.

In a way, the publishing world is a lot like dating. Things change, people break-up, nothing is forever. Editors change houses, authors change editors, agents change authors, and vice versa. While some authors swear they'd never leave their agent, others go through three or four before finding that special someone, the one who can sell their book. Newbie writers receive rejection after rejection, enough to make you consider switching teams...I mean careers. Agents sort through hundreds of bad manuscripts, looking for that one that makes their heart race.

Like dating, finding the right agent has a lot to do with gut. Sure, you can look at their credentials, their previous deals, their response to your writing, but in the end, you go with your gut. For me, I had two offers: one from my ex-agent who loved my work but wasn't as big a name and another who was as big a name as you can get but wasn't as enthusiastic about my work and who wanted a lot of revisions. It was like in high school, deciding who to take to the prom. Do you take the nerd who likes you for who you are or the captain of the cheerleading squad who likes you and is totally hot, but could easily dump you for someone else? I took the hot chick to prom in high school and had a miserable time, so I went with my gut and went with the underdog.

The recent break up does not mean that I made the wrong decision. I could have been in the same place had I gone with the other agent. You live and learn and roll with the punches. For me, I'm excited to get back into the dating world, to get back on the query go-round. I'm excited about Street Walk (it should be finished in the next few weeks) and I can't wait to find that special someone, someone I can work with and who will be just as excited about the book as I am. But as with any other break-up, I'm not going to jump into another relationship too quickly. I'm going to take my time, get my new manuscript as polished as possible, before I go out looking for an agent I can commit to.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Chicago Sun-Times review

My first review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times today. Despite Raven Black's award winner status, the book just didn't quite measure up...

Friday, June 01, 2007

Crimespree Issue #18

Make sure to pick up your latest issue of Crimespree Magazine for my reviews of Dead Shot, Homeland Security and An Accidental American. Also check out reviews of The Liar's Diary and The Only Pure Thing written by my esteemed colleague, Darwyn Jones. It was also nice to see Laura on the cover. You know you've made it when you're photo is bigger than Stephen King's!