Guest Writer Michael Dellert Discusses the Challenges of Rewriting Dialogue

I owe a lot to Michael Dellert. Not only did his Matter of Manred series inspire my own Middle Grade fiction Middler’s Pride, but he’s also kindly bought me time–I mean, offered to write a guest post while I frantically grade end-of-term projects and revise my own short story, “Normal’s Menace.” Take it away, Michael!

wedding-of-eithne3Lately on my own blog, I’ve been concerned with the process of rewriting. My most recent work, The Wedding of Eithne, proved to be more challenging to rewrite than any of my previous books, so in an effort to help myself understand and work through that revision, I wrote a series of articles that explore my own rewriting process.

But the technical matters that fall under the umbrella of “rewriting” are vast and deep, and it’s hard to do them all justice. So I jumped at the chance to do a guest post for Jean Lee, where I could dig a little deeper into some of these matters of technique. And as a writing coach and an editor, I can tell you, one of the most important techniques to master is dialogue.

Study the Masters of Dialogue

The work of dramatists in theatre and film is entirely concerned with the realistic portrayal of believable and effective dialogue. A study of successful playwrights and their works can only improve one’s own dialogue in narrative fiction.

We Don’t Talk Like We Write

I recently had the opportunity to edit an academic paper for my high-school-aged img_2435daughter. She’s a good, smart kid, and she had all the information she needed to write an effective term paper. But, oh my gaaaawd, she TOTALLY writes like she tawks!

Conversely, people don’t talk like they write. They stutter, they digress, they misuse grammar, contract words, and speak in dialect, slang, jargon, argot, idiom, cant, parlance, vernacular, patois, and parole.

Language is a living, breathing thing, and it changes every day, every minute, with every utterance of every person on Earth. Just look at the difference between Shakespeare’s English and the script of the latest Avenger’s film. Believe it or not, linguistically, both examples are considered to be “Modern English,” yet most people today can’t understand even the simplest of Shakespeare’s lines without close reading and study.

So when it comes to dialogue, take the “rule book” and throw it out the window.

Principles of Dialogue

But just because there aren’t rules doesn’t mean there aren’t some principles to consider. Consider these principles as you look over your own writing and try to bring your dialogue to life.

The surest way to kill the living essence of your characters is by insisting that they always make sense.

When you follow the labyrinth of most conversations, you discover one constant: People are always trying to get what they want. But this doesn’t mean that characters are always clear in articulating their desires, or that they are being truthful, or that they must understand each other. Conflict thrives in the space between desire, truthfulness, and misunderstanding.

The purpose of dialogue is to reflect the life and death stakes for your characters. At the core of even the most mundane exchange is a yearning for something more. By staying connected to your characters’ driving wants, their speech will reflect an attempt to achieve those desires.

quote-i-think-we-communicate-only-too-well-in-our-silence-in-what-is-unsaid-and-that-what-harold-pinter-42-51-93Dialogue isn’t linear, nor is it logical. With each attempt, your characters are met with antagonistic forces. The tension builds through the scene as each character attempts to realize his goal.

If your prose feels wooden or transparent, as if you’re just trying to move the story forward, you should ask yourself, “What do these characters want?” Beneath the thin veneer of civility and the most banal conversation, life and death struggles are at work.

In rewriting your work, if a scene isn’t working, it doesn’t take long to pull out a fresh sheet of paper and write a stream-of-consciousness dialogue. Write it quickly. Surprise yourself with what the characters want to say.

It’s often in the rewrite that dialogue comes alive. You have a little more security with your structure and you can loosen the reins.

Language is a means of communicating desire. Whether it has to be seen and heard, to gain empathy, curry favor, get information, feel close, punish, win the girl, hurt, destroy, reassure, secure a position—we all speak in an attempt to get something.

But here’s the thing: we rarely come out and say what we really want, because within every scene is an antagonistic force. Your characters all have something at stake.

In real life, people rarely say what they think and feel. Why would you expect your characters to do this?

Until you get out of your own way, your characters are all going to sound like you.

Great dialogue contains tension. It understands what’s at stake, and it walks that line. Great dialogue is specific. A single line can tell a great deal about a character.

One last thing: Your characters don’t have to speak. If they don’t want anything, keep them quiet until they tell you their heart’s desire.

mike5a

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in literary journals such as The Backporch Review, The Harbinger, Idiom, and Venture. His poetry has also appeared in the anthologies The Golden Treasury of Great Poems and Dance on the Horizon, and he is a two-time winner of the Golden Poet Award from World of Poetry Press. He currently lives and works in the Greater New York City area as a freelance writer, editor, and publishing consultant. He is the author of the heroic fantasies of the Matter of Manred Saga: Hedge King in Winter, A Merchant’s Tale, The Romance of Eowain and the forthcoming book, The Wedding of Eithne. His blog, Adventures in Indie Publishing, is a resource for creative writers of all kinds.

 

A Potluck of Kith

slideshow101933_2My father loved his Divine Calling, so much so that you could tell it took an effort for him to wrap up a sermon. Bo and I would play The Amen Game whenever we attended my father’s church: we’d listen for his dramatic pauses and tally how many times Dad could have declared “Amen” and therefore endeth the sermon. I believe Bo has the record–10 spots during one Lenten service.

Dad knew himself longwinded, and while most churchgoers didn’t mind (outside of football season, anyway), my grandfather, who was mostly deaf and therefore clueless about the concept of whispering, would always say in the greeting line after service, “TOO LONG, DAVID!” To which my father would always say, “Thanks, Dad,” smile and blink, and then roll his eyes as we hugged hello.

But to even get to THAT point, we’d have to survive the after-church announcements. They were like a second sermon sometimes, because of course, Dad just had to make a joke about so-and-so’s cookie bars at the potluck in the church basement, how well the playground fund is doing, reminders about the food drive for the community pantry, and so on. Everyone’s got their coats on, parents are anxious because the snack stores are depleted and the toddlers are restless. Even I’m raising my eyebrows at Dad with a clear look of “GET ON WITH IT, DAD!”

So I’m hoping today’s post feels more like the potluck of goodies awaiting us in the church basement rather than that endless list of announcements.

First, the bounty of crockpots (you may know them as slow cookers) filled with various baked beans, pasta and meat concoctions, and the one weird one with only vegetables that have gone an icky brown color for cooking too long.

I’ll skip that one, just for you.

Three writers have bestowed upon me some marvelous honors: Mike Steeden, A.J. Cosmo, and S.J. Higbee. Cosmo is a children’s writer and illustrator who invited me to write a couple guest posts on children’s literature; I’ll be sure to post an announcement when they’re up for viewing. He’s currently sharing a selection from my Lessons Learned collection–I do hope you’ll check it out!

Mike Steeden enjoyed my e-book Lessons Learned so much that he wants to write a review. I never thought I could market this book—I just enjoy giving it to others! So to know someone dug it so much they want to write about it was quite a tear-inducing moment. I’ll post his review soon.

Lastly,  S.J. Higbee is a sci-fi/fantasy author that has nominated me for the…

real-neat-blog-award

Thank you, S.J.!

Of course, accepting such an honor requires answers to certain questions.

No hamsters bent on world conquest are involved this time, so I SHOULD be safe. (furtive glance in Shey’s direction)

  1. If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?

Oh, heavens, Diana Wynne Jones, of course! I’ve written a few past posts about my childhood, as well as hers in my Lessons Learned collection. I would want nothing more than to sit with her by a fire, pet her dog, and just talk about the past’s impact upon the present. Sadly, she died only a few years ago, but she didn’t completely abandon us: Neil Gaiman was one of her dearest friends, and her sister Ursula Jones grew up to be an actress as well as writer in her own right. While I know their work is all very nice, all I’d want to talk about is Diana.

  1. Who is your absolute favourite character, ever? I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!

Gah, but I’m TORN! Okay, knee-jerk: Hercule Poirot. Sherlock Holmes was my gateway character into mystery, but reading his stories still makes me sad, for to read them brings my father back into the room as a ghost. Hercule Poirot was my own discovery; I do not associate him with any loss or grief. His mysteries are always a pleasure to read, one where the brain works, but not too hard—rather like a nice walk around the neighborhood and peeking into windows just in case one catches something out of the ordinary, like MURDER.

  1. What is your favourite series out of all the books you’ve read? The series you would recommend without hesitation.

Definitely Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. Or her Howl trilogy.

*%&$#@ Choosing is hard!

Okay, um, I’ll go with the Howl trilogy then, because the last Chrestomanci book IS, to me, not up to Jones’ usual platinum standard. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and The House of Many Ways, the characters are all full of flaws and quirks, and the stories aren’t just about Howl—the main characters change from book to book, so the story always feels fresh inside that universe. Just trust me on this.

  1. What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?

I teach online, so I stare at the screen enough as it is. Paper book, please.

(That, and I LOVE the smell of books. Why isn’t that a cologne?)

  1. Who is your favourite animal character, and why? This can be a mythical creature like a dragon, or real, like Elsa in Born Free.

Oh, gosh, it’s been a while…and just because I’ve hardly made up my mind for the other questions, I’ll say I’m torn between Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mrs. Brisby in The Rats of NIMH. I’d mention Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle, too…did I not read of other animals when I was a kid? Huh. Odd.

ANYway, I always admired Reepicheep’s fearlessness, and Mrs. Brisby, a widow, goes through terror after terror to protect her children. Personally, I find her to be one of the most amazing mothers in literature.

  1. What is your most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?

New or old? Here, I’ll just cover all the bases:

Future: Michael Dellert intends to publish the fourth book in his Matter of Manred series, The Wedding of Eithne, by the end of the year. Since I’ve already devoured the first three books like a plate of chocolate peanut butter bars, I’m highly anticipating the next serving.

Present: Waiting for my copy of Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, which came out this year. Since it’s the memoir of Zolbrod coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse and its impact on her life, I know it’ll be a heart-gutting read. Still. It’s something I need to face and overcome in myself, so to see how another writes through it may help.

Past: For all my talk about Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, I realized I never finished that epic fantasy series, so I’m going to snatch those up toot suite.

  1. Imagine someone has given you a magical Audible account and you can order up your favourite narrator to read aloud the book you’ve always wanted to hear. Who would be narrating the book and what would it be?

Well if this was a truly magical account, I would request Alan Rickman reading anything. Seriously, anything. His voice was delicious. I suppose I could request something prolific, like Alan Rickman reading King Lear, I suppose.

But I suppose I should pick someone alive. Then I’d want to get a hold of Stephen Fry narrating Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know that product exists, but the magic involved HERE would be that I’d have time to listen.

So now here’s the mish-mash of cold salads and vegetable platters and the one fruit bowl with an odd-colored syrup….wonder if that’s from the same family. Lift up the bowl and look for the name in masking tape stuck on the bottom. It might be on the spoon, too. We Mid-westerners are a territorial sort when it comes to potluck gear.

At long, long last, I’m going to start up another Lessons Learned! I spent a good long while on Jones, and Eco…um…maybe I’ll get back to him sometime, but I officially exhausted The Name of the Rose…and exhausted myself of Eco in the process.

Why genre writing isn’t used more to teach elements of story is beyond me. In graduate school, genre writing was seen as the choice of imbeciles, those too dumb to write REAL literature. If you were going to write, it had to be about struggle, or death and struggle, or loss and struggle, or sexual deficiency and struggle, etc struggle etc. Make sure the ending’s sad.

GAG. That was a warm mayonnaise pasta salad with wilted broccoli if I ever smelled one.

So that’s another reason why I tend to study genre lit than “literary fiction.” Yes, of COURSE there’s plenty of good ones out there, but genre gets such a bad wrap in the writer’s learning environment.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. If you know a school that actually uses her as an example of GOOD writing, please tell me, because I’ve yet to hear of one. I have no intention of spending the same time on her as I did on Jones, but I am looking forward to studying some important story elements through two or three of her novels and some short fiction. No, not Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. Other ones.

Oh, look! The table overloaded with brownies, cookie bars, fruit breads, and cakes with frosting slipping down the sides! At least half of any congregation brings desserts, you know. And an obnoxious number of those people put nuts in their desserts. Philistines.

As many of you have said to me with greatest care and friendship, I should be taking time to write stories. But with kids and teaching and LIFE and writing here, I never thought I could take that encouragement very deeply. Sure, I’ll write fiction…in a few years…

But then Michael Dellert prodded me to take a character on his Tribe of Droma facebook page, a sort of role-playing realm based on his Matter of Manred series. I’d have to give her things to do, challenges to face.

I’d have to give her a story.

A what? I…I don’t do stories. I’ve read stories, and I’ve been writing about reading, but writing, myself? What? I haven’t done that decently in…shit, at least a year.

But then I thought of Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, and a story started to form in my head. This could be a coming of age story, a girl who wants to be treated as a grown up but must grow up first. A girl who’s got to battle one of the most dangerous enemy’s a human being can face:

Pride.

But the more I thought, the more I got wishy-washy about it. I never did this role-playing thing before, I won’t have a clue and it’ll show like the maraschino cherries on Grandma’s Green Torte. I can’t write in another person’s universe. I don’t have time to do the character justice.

Michael listened nicely, then not-so-nicely, and then finally told me to shut the f**k up and stop psyching myself out. Stop strangling the unborn story and DO IT.

So, I’ve started doing it. Not writing scenes yet, mind. Just freewrites based on prompts he sends me out of his #13WeekNovel. The way I figure it, if I keep myself on a timeline, I shouldn’t end up with another six-year-old WIP. You can even see some of my freewrites on facebook, if you’d like. Once I start writing scenes, I’d like to share them here, which is…well, utterly terrifying. I’ve never opened my fiction in public, not since grad school. And these’ll be extremely rough drafts, to boot. But I have wanted to try a Middle Grade story for a while now, one I know I could share with my children in a few years. The Middler’s Pride shall be exactly that.

To do this, though, something has to be cut in return. So I foresee my typical blog fare getting mixed up, or taking brief hiatuses, depending on where I’m at with this fictional work.

~*~

Some people can balance three plates’ worth of goodies from the potluck in one go, but I’m just not that kind of person. I’ve got to move by the tables as slowly as possible to figure out what I have to take (Mrs. Hildegard has no family to cook for so any compliment on her beans makes her day, ew what is that SHIT oh yes Miss Tigglesworth I’d love some pasta salad, oh ICK who put carrots in the jellow AGAIN?) and what I want to take (brownies brownies brownies GOOD GOD WHO PUT NUTS IN THESE).

Here, let’s take a spot over there, where the folding chairs aren’t too bent, the ceiling tiles not broken. It doesn’t echo so badly over here.

When I look around, I see such a wealth I could have never imagined. No, not money. These tables are as old as my dad, the plumbing moreso. This building is being held together by scraps at liquidation stores, duct tape, and prayer. No, this basement is filled with a wealth of talent. You all have so many gifts: the gift of language. Imagination. Kindness.

Thank you for sharing your wealth here, with me, and with the fellow writers here. When I see writers come together like this, I feel nothing but bright promise for what’s to come.

But don’t touch the coffee—church coffee’s always gross.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Mice Blind: A Q&A

secret-of-nimh

WAAAAY way back, Scotland’s gem of an author Shehanne Moore and her diabolical hamsters threw a ball full of questions my way. Tucked in among those questions was an award:

epic-blog-ward

I never realized Hamstah Dickens and his crew thought of me so highly, and my deepest gratitude to Shey for the honor. 🙂 Now, as for those questions…

What made you choose your current blogging platform?

Naiveté. After reading time and again of the importance of platform, and that all writers simply must have a website, I decided to see what forms were out there. After five minutes of half-assed research, it seemed WordPress was the most flexible with the imagery and text.

 Introduce yourself and tell us about your blog

(sheepish wave from the back of the room) Hi.

I’m Jean Lee. You meet me in the street, you’ll see me defined by marriage and motherhood. Appropriate involvement in church life and PTA. Part-time teacher.

But you’ve met me here, haven’t you?

Here, I struggle as many others do: to read, to write, to discuss both with an iota of intelligence. Also, in the hopes of easing the struggle of others, I share the music and landscape that inspire me so.

 Are you a once in a while blogger or a daily one?

Once a week is the best I can manage with the rest of life’s obligations.

 Do you wish to publish and if so, what type of book?

Publishing would be the shot to the moon, yes. As for type…not literary. That’s best as I can narrow down for the moment.

 What is your favorite thing to do besides write?

Read. The time to not focus on Life Out Here is one of the most precious luxuries a mother—and a writer—can have.

 ~*~*~*~*~

After these very professional questions, I came across the hamsters’ furry lines of inquiry.

What is your favourite line of poetry about a hamster? Oh okay, we mean a small furry creature, or animal.

Oh, dear. I’m not much for poetry…

Wait, dear hamsters! Don’t fly over the Atlantic and seek out my house! (stall stall stall) I will say that mice were primary characters in two of my favorite children’s books: Reepicheep in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcyle.

Whew! Found a line from Seamus Heaney’s Squarings I marked long, long ago:

 What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

-xxii

What was your favourite children’s book if it was not Mrs Tiggywinkle?

I didn’t know of Mrs. Tiggywinkle as a child (runs and hides). Seriously! When I was 8, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all the stories I read in my formative years, I latched onto those the most. They influenced my taste in mystery and the love of murder described with a foreign accent. Sure, I still enjoyed the ripping good fantasy every, but the mystery became the epitome of Good Story. I even tried writing my own when I was a kid. Kind of hard when one doesn’t know the intricacies of human anatomy and forensic science…

 You’re in the forest. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s mysterious. Suddenly, the bushes part and there snarling before you is a savage, giant hamster. What happens next?

I drop the giant vegetarian wrap I was gnawing on and flee, screaming my little girly head off. I’ll storm to the local Field of Care Wizarding office, pound the door until the bugger wakes up, and file a complaint while talk-gasping my way through the paperwork, and then refuse to let him go back to bed until he’s followed me out and found the thing and given it a good talking-to for scaring me.

 Is there any place in the world you would like to set a book or poem and why?

Honestly, I’ve always been content with where I am. I don’t understand the draw to writing about urban life. Not that it’s bad, mind, but I’m not at home in the city, so unless I need that out-of-place feeling for a character, I’d rather avoid it.

No, Wisconsin’s always felt like The Setting, with the forests and farmlands, its forgotten roads and secret rivers.

You can have dinner with your favourite book hamster character. Who is it and what will the first course be? Recipes are welcome. Of course if you can’t find a hamster, just choose another animal.

See, here’s the thing about being a frugal Midwesterner: everything’s a casserole, or something that can eventually become a casserole. If you can’t just throw it into a crockpot (aka slow cooker) for eight hours and top it with cheese, it ain’t worth eating.

So when I’m asked what I would eat with someone, I am so totally caught off here that I have no clue what to say, because I can’t just say “leftover casserole.” (Though I have a feeling that Basil of Baker Street wouldn’t give a toss about what he eats, so long as he has the energy to keep working.) Hmm. Best play it safe, and say Mrs. Brisby and her children from The Rats of NIMH, and that we would share a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup and a cup of cold milk, with chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert. (I, um, don’t do courses. It’s all and done.)

Forget all this hero stuff. You’re being cast as the villain and it’s your choice who you pick so long as they are from a book.

Well that’s full of all sorts of delightful potential. In terms of my reading experience, Livia from I, Claudius is the THE greatest spider ever to spin the villain’s web. She manipulates dozens of people over the course of several generations. As one character puts it, “Time means nothing to her.” Because her ambition is on par with her patience, she doesn’t care how slow others move, so long as they move in the direction she wishes and carry out the actions to which she leads them. Sure, the in-your-face-bwa-ha-ha villain is fun, and so long as he/she has a clear motive for being evil, I’m all for the volcano lairs and plans for world conquest. But the spider web…damn, that’s wicked fun.

What was the last book you read?

I recently finished The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, which was recommended on Fiction Advocate. A vivid and entertaining read, though I never understand when a writer refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue.

 How much of you is in your characters or your poetry?

 I…I, um…

<Stop squirming and just skip, the little dudes won’t notice>

 Who or what inspires your writing?

Back when I was a child, the answer “who” was simple:

My dad, first and foremost. As a pastor, he was always writing his own sermons, liturgies, bible studies, and hymns. So often I would visit him in his office, typing on that god-awful blue DOS screen of Word Perfect. His voice was always beleaguered by allergies and acid reflux, but never his real voice: writing in sickness and in health, for the celebration of a marriage or a life passing on through Heaven’s gates. Writing fortified the soul against life’s terrors. So I, too, wrote stories, endless stories, and shared them with Dad. We’d sit in front of that blue screen for hours, talking about character and plot, just him and me.

But then I grew older.

Time to set aside the childish things, prepare for God’s Calling. God’s real gift to me was in music. Time to go to school, learn to be a music teacher. Play in church. Sing in choir.

But then I grew older, and set aside the music instead for prose.

Well. God’s children need good stories about Jesus and the power of faith.

But then I grew older, and started to write about the tarnished base of shiny Jesus school.

Why are you writing about that? That’s not a good testament of your faith, Jean. That’s not what people need to learn about Jesus.

My dad stopped reading my stories. I stopped offering. There was no point in sharing them with someone who no longer had faith in my writing.

And, I guess, that’s when my own faith died.

~~~

There’s a line in a Christian contemporary song (as opposed to a 15th century hymn) that came to mind as I considered walking away completely. Just, let the blog die. Pull the WIP out of my room, and pack it up in the basement. Pack away the childish things. Grow up. Focus on the little hands tangled in my hair and punching my thighs. I once wrote about my focus being torn into strips. It was time to sew them together. To piece myself together. Wasn’t it?

Anyway. The song’s line: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Those who inspire me and support me now, I have never seen face to face. Yet I know them better than blood relatives. Each has such beautiful imagery to share, be it photographs or prose. Life dictates to them, and yet they somehow maintain control, and drive themselves forward no matter what Life demands. No criticism stops them. Every trial is transformed into a newly discovered strength. This is why I nominate them for the Epically Awesome Blog Award, which calls for them to answer the non-hamster questions at the beginning of this post:

Dyane Harwood: Birth of a New Brain
https://proudlybipolar.wordpress.com/

Michael Dellert: Adventures in Indie Publishing
http://www.mdellert.com/blog/

Inesa MJ Photography: Making Memories
https://inesemjphotography.com/

Nathan Filbert: Becoming Imperceptible
https://manoftheword.com/

Peggy Bright: Where to next?
https://leggypeggy.com/about/

Shey, who’s already received the award, lifts me time and again by showing me her own journey, and that the trials encountered on the Writer’s Road are worth pressing through for the tribulations that await.

Another name comes to mind: a college friend, the only one who also writes, who told me to take on a new name and write myself into existence: Ben Parman: https://bendanielparman.com/

The friendship formed through theater and writing, then he went on to film school, I to grad school. His faith and homosexuality fought inside him for years; few saw the bloodshed’s toll. But for all the counseling, rehabilitation camps, family and friends, it was writing, really, that brought about the ceasefire. That writing transcended into a play: Starlings. I attended, and saw the facets of my friend reenact their war.

Perhaps that is what I need: a bloodletting.

Somehow, I have to uncover the faith I lost in myself. I cannot be a fighter until I do.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.

Which brings us here.

Normally, this question shuts me down. After all, what was I working on? The same damn WIP I started a few months after my daughter was born. She just turned 6.

Six bloody years on the same story. Adding characters, taking them out, changing pov, changing plot points, changing descriptions. Never happy. Never sure. Never ready to walk away because it just needs one more change, one more time and then I’ll start something new. Whatever that is.

I look at my story, and all I feel is embarrassment. Shame. I don’t want it out there with my name on it, any kind of name. It’s not worth anyone’s time. It’ll prove that for all the talk about writing, I am only that, talk. When it comes to finally showing what I can do, I’ll show I can’t. And for all the wishful language of writing and story, I am incapable of drawing any imaginative life from inside me onto the page.

But I can’t let the WIP go. It got me out of postpartum. It was the closest thing to light I had in the fog of those years, even though now I wonder if it was merely a trick my eyes played on my mind.

Those who can’t do, teach. And I do teach, but it’s just basics. Remedial writing. Hey, this is how to write a paragraph! Maybe we should focus on sentences, first…no a verb doesn’t work like that…

The basics. As basic as it gets.

Maybe that’s where I need to start. Everyone moves forward from a beginning. It’s time I did, too.

So I looked to a writer who’s done more to instruct me than all my undergrad and grad years put together: Diana Wynne Jones.

(Hush, like you didn’t know.)

I compiled all my posts about her from the past year (Good God, it’s been over a year since I started this) into a single collection. Her stories are a marvel in craft and imagination, not to mention just plain fun.

Hmm. Not quite done. Not quite done reading, true, but it’s the blogging that wasn’t done, either.

So I wrote two new pieces on the influence myth and her own traumatic past have had on her writing. They’re not for the blog.

They’re for you.

Whatever piqued your interest about my site, I humbly thank you. You’ve read, shared, and commented on my rambles week to week. You’ve made me feel my words are worth something after all.

You’ve helped me uncover the embers of my old faith.

But like a fire fairy, they are fast and fragile. If I grasp them too roughly, they’ll crumble in my fingers. If I chase them too quickly, they will fly out of reach, and become indistinguishable among the stars. So we will move slowly, you and I, beginning here.

Next week’s post will offer my Lessons Learned collection to those who sign up to follow me. Perhaps a word or two in them will bring a fire fairy to you.

Don’t let it get away.

 

 

 

 

Guest Writer James DeVita on the Importance of Nothing Time

I first met actor, author, and playwright James DeVita when I was a scraggly four-eyed kid. My parents had taken me to his family play A Little House Christmas, and introduced me to him afterwards. He was the first author I ever met, and now I have the honor of presenting him to you here. 

River

I fish the rivers of Wisconsin every year. I’m a wader. I like to be in the water when I fish. I always fish alone. It is my meditation time. My nothing time. My favorite seasons are early spring and late fall. It’s very quiet then. No one is around. Desolate. The trees and sky can be stunning. Being a writer, one might think I get a lot of ideas during my hours on the water. Actually, the opposite is true. No ideas come to me while fishing. One can either fish, or think. If I am doing one, then I cannot do the other. I only fish artificials (lures), so there is a repetitive nature to what I do. Hours upon hours of the same exact motion of casting — over and over again – a sort of physicalized mantra. This takes up all of my thoughts. So although I don’t acquire any actual ideas for stories, the outdoor time is crucial to my being a writer. It opens me up somehow to larger ideas –- things that can’t actually be thought at that particular moment – but they can be experienced and just sort of taken in. They come back later as ideas. When they are ready.

 

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Guest Author Michael Dellert Discusses the Land’s Influence on Writing

Time and Place: The Real World of Fiction

Hi, Jean Lee. Thanks for inviting me to write to your audience today.

You asked me recently, “How does the landscape around me influence my writing?”

Nothing anchors a work of fiction so solidly in a reader’s mind as knowing when and where something is taking place. Settings provide bases of operations for everything that happens in a story or novel, and these settings—along with the characters that will do things in there—provide writers with a means to actually tell a story, rather than simply report information.

I grew up in a small, rural farm town in the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by reminders of the US Revolutionary War, during the height of the US détente with the Soviet Union. Down in the valley, there are rolling hills, twisting streams, swamps, and small family farms with dairy cattle, sheep, horses, corn and other vegetables. Up in the mountains, where I grew up, there are worn, blunted peaks, steep drops, and tumbled collections of fractured boulders, deposited by the retreat of glaciers so long ago that the land didn’t even know a footprint when those stones were laid down. There are lakes in the low places on top of the mountain, most of them man-made in a time not so long ago when my town was conceived of as a close-to-home retreat for wealthy New Yorkers.

In the winter, the temperatures fluctuate, sometimes bitterly freezing for days at a time, during which the lakes ice over. Then at other times, the weather is mild and merely cool. On such days, the icy lakes suddenly melt, and fog rises, obscuring sight beyond a few dozen yards, and the black-barked, leafless trees loom through the mist. In the Spring (which comes late and slow to the mountains), those same trees suddenly riot with yellow-green leaf-shoots, and the blossoms of flowers in purple, yellow, and white. Summers are a time of blue skies and white clouds reflected on the still waters of the lakes, but also of drenching, earth-shaking thunderstorms. Autumn is a cacophony of colors, gold, red, brown, and yellow, as the leaves change. The temperature drops off in late September when the apples ripen on the trees, and then rebounds for a last hint of summer in mid-October before dropping off again and for good until the following Spring.

As a young man, I didn’t fully appreciate where I’d grown up. It was too familiar, and familiarity breeds contempt. I left that small town as soon as I could to see what this “real world” was really like. Since then, I’ve been a lot of places, and seen pictures of the rest. From city to wilderness, I’ve crammed a lot of travel into a short time on this blue-green marble of ours. And one thing I’ve always found? When I’m stuck for inspiration in my writing, one of the things I can do to break the block is go for a walk wherever I am.

The Credibility of Setting

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite all evidence to the contrary, we’re always in search of “objective truth,” a common reality that is beyond all dispute and argumentation. Why else is “based on a true story” such a great marketing hook? The idea that some strange, absurd, and fascinating story “really happened” carries a certain amount of magic, doesn’t it?

For this reason, every one of our stories has to really happen in the minds and eyes and ears of our readers. The worlds we create have to exist as surely in fiction as if they had actually transpired in fact. And this comes down to two simple things:

  1. Establishing our characters and their situations and the details of the setting so completely that it all could possibly take place; and
  2. Effectively conveying those characters and situations and details so that the story does take place.

One of the very best ways to ensure that both of those things happen is to pay close attention to the description of our settings.

For example, in my recent book, A Merchant’s Tale, I take the reader to a time before they were born and a place that never existed. Yet through the description and use of small details, the reader is actually there, seeing the things the narrator is seeing, feeling the chilly, early spring morning of a rural farmland:

The wagon rocked beneath my seat. The trail was rutted and pocked with holes and stones. The axles groaned as the old, grey-haired drover tapped at the oxen with a long, flexible switch and nickered encouragement. Ahead, the hills rose and fell. Early spring leaves on the scattered trees had recently broken bud, and flowers belied the hidden dangers lurking amid the shadows.

We passed through croplands. A ploughman and his ox-goader struggled to drive a team and their ard-plough through a fallow field. It had been cold overnight. No doubt the soil was partly frozen. Adarc told me it was hard work, but they might plough at least an acre that day.

Elsewhere, cow-herds mustered cattle through pastures and dogs barked and nipped at the herd to move it toward the best grazing.

The land rose as we passed through the village fields, bearing east into the hills of Droma. We could look down on the king’s village behind us. It wasn’t much more than a ramshackle collection of thatch-and-daub mud hovels clustered on a wide, shallow bend in the river. The tower was impressive, a three-story shell-keep on a tall hill, but otherwise, I’d seen much more civilized mud-holes.

For the reader, this event really happens, just as surely as the events in any “based on a true story” movie. Despite the distance in time, culture, and place from our modern world, this little scene comes through as clear and crisp as if the reader was standing on that trail on that chilly morning, looking across the countryside of Droma.

All fiction should seem that real to the reader. The only way to make it happen is to pay close attention to the details that you want, and only those you need, to convey your story. Then find the very best words you can to describe those details.

The end result will be a work of fiction that brings your readers in and gives them a realistic sense of where things will be taking place.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jean Lee!

—**—

Michael Dellert lives in the Greater New York City area. Following a traditional publishing career spanning nearly two decades, he now works as a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach. He is also the sole writer, editor, and publisher of the blog MDellertDotCom: Adventures in Indie Publishing. He holds a Master’s Degree in English Language & Literature from Drew University, and a certificate from the Cornell University School of Criticism & Theory (2009). He is the author of two fantasy fiction novellas: Hedge King in Winter and A Merchant’s Tale, which can be found on Amazon in print and for Kindle.

Guest Author Mary Relindes Ellis on the Spirituality of Untouched Nature

MaryREllis2Mary Relindes Ellis is a Wisconsin native and author of the award-winning novel The Turtle Warrior, which is set in the rural north of our state.

The Chippewa River near my birthplace has always been part of my childhood animism in that it is a deeply spiritual place. Ashland County is the poorest county in Wisconsin but that poverty has ensured that the county’s spectacular beauty hasn’t been developed.  One of the few beliefs I retain from my childhood Catholicism is that there is divinity in everything.  I can’t, however, hold that belief towards skyscapers and such.  But a river, particular the river of one’s birth, holds my soul.  We are nothing without such places.

Click here for more information on Mary Relindes Ellis and her work.

Guest Author Victoria Houston on Setting as a Character

VictHoust

Victoria Houston is author of the Loon Lake Mystery Series, a collection of murder mysteries based in Wisconsin, the author’s home state.

I grew up on a small chain of lakes just ten minutes east of Rhinelander where my grandparents had a log cabin that had been built in 1895.  Years later their cabin was demolished by a new owner, which broke my heart.  However, I was able to a full acre and 240 feet of lake frontage — the property abutting my grandfather’s.  On it is a 120-year-old cottage where I live all summer (as a kid I used to spy on the former owners because it has a wonderful sleeping porch windowed all around. My cottage has only 525 square feet of living space but it’s 20 feet from the lake.  I sleep surrounded by the sounds of the water and the wind, Great Horned Owls and eerie murmurs from cottages across the lake. I spend my days in the midst of towering red and white pine trees with eagles, Great Blue Herons, woodpeckers and lots of other critters.
This setting infuses my stories — the lovely sunsets, the terrifying thunderstorms.  And all my characters are people who live and deal with the beauty and the threats of the northwoods.  While my plots and people may be contemporary, this setting allows me to transcend the everyday.  My characters may be fictional but I feel as though they live nearby.
My lake world is haunting, often stunningly beautiful, seductive and, on occasion, murderous.  I love it.  I love living here.  I could not write the mysteries I write if I did not live here.

Guest Author Adrianne Lemke & Her Wisconsin

AdrianneLemke

This picture was taken at my home in rural Wisconsin. I love this setting because spending time outside riding my horse is the best way I have found to clear my head. When I get stuck in my writing, sometimes the best thing I can do is step away for a while and spend some time outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine are often the best cure for a block, and the beautiful farmland surrounding us makes for a great place to think. And if I have a story line or plot twist I need to talk through, my horse is always willing to listen.

Adrianne Lemke is author of Earthshaker Series, a YA collection about a runaway capable of commanding the very earth to protect him. She lives near West Bend, WI.

Click here for more information on Adrianne Lemke and her work.