Wednesday, October 8, 2014

DIALOGUE: A BALANCING ACT


Today’s post is the first in what I plan to be periodic postings on elements of writing craft.  There are so many things to think about when you sit down to write a story.  For today, let’s focus on TALK.
DIALOGUE – A BALANCING ACT
         There are not many things a person can count on when it comes to living a writing life. (At least, some measure of rejection comes to mind, but let's focus on the positive!) One hallmark of strong writing is sharp, clean dialogue. Nothing conveys a sense of character more effectively than good dialogue. I don't think you can study the mechanics and fine points of it too much.  Some writers are masters at comic pacing. Elmore Leonard, Elinor Lipman and Betsy Byars come to mind. Others are admired for their ability to pare down the words until the white spaces ooze with meaning. (Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants is the example we usually think of in this context). 
             Pull out your writing how-to books and you will read that dialogue serves two purposes:
                      1. To reveal character
                                   and
                      2. To advance plot.
             I am not one for absolute rules, so I acknowledge that dialogue may serve other subtle purposes as well. Be that as it may, your dialogue had better reveal character and advance plot or it is not carrying its weight.
             Here's a bit of dialogue from one of Hilary McKay's books about the Casson family. If you're not familiar with these books, I highly recommend them. There are five books in the series, beginning with Saffy's Angel and ending with Forever Rose. They are about an "eccentric and muddled artistic family" of four children, (three girls and a boy). The children call their parents Eve and Bill. Eve and the children live outside the city, while Bill lives in a studio apartment in London. 
             In the first chapter of the second book in the series, Indigo's Star, McKay provides readers with a reminder of the back-story. Rather than slow down the narrative with a tedious recital of events already disclosed in the first book, McKay enlivens this section with dialogue, using it to entertain as well as to remind readers of the Casson family and their unique circumstances. She reveals character and, in a sense, advances plot, setting the stage for what happens next.

            Rose and Indigo were the two youngest of the Casson family.
            Saffron was fourteen, and Caddy, the eldest, was nineteen.  
            Caddy was home for the weekend, partly for Indigo's sake, because of going back to school, and partly in honor of Rose's new glasses. Caddy often came home, but the children's father did not. He preferred his studio in London, where he lived the life of a respectable artist, unburdened by family.
              "He comes home on weekends," said Rose's mother.
              "He doesn't," said Rose.
              "Nearly every weekend, when he can fit it in."
              "Only once since Christmas."
              "Well, Daddy has to work very hard, Rose darling."
              "So do you."
              "Daddy is a proper artist," said Eve, which was how she had always explained the difference between herself and Bill to the children.  "A proper artist.  He needs peace and quiet. . . .  Anyway..."
             "Anyway what?"
              Eve gave Rose a painty hug and said she had forgotten what she was trying to say.   

    

         In 94 words of dialogue, McKay has given readers a lot of information about Eve and Rose and the children's father. Notice how clean this text is. There are only two dialogue tags, exactly enough to identify the speakers. Nothing more. After that, the conversation flows without interruption. And look how much you learn about Rose and her mother and father.  
1. Rose thinks her father should spend more time at home.
 2. Eve thinks of her husband as a "Real" artist, while she sees herself as something less.
 3. Rose knows her mother doesn't take herself as seriously as an artist as her father does.  And McKay conveyed all this with 94 words! She didn't explain what her characters were thinking. She let readers figure that out for themselves. She used repetition brilliantly to show Eve's state of mind. "Daddy is a proper artist," Eve tells her daughter, and then again later, in the same bit of speech, she says again, "A proper artist," and readers feel the weight of that judgment. Readers feel that Eve is struggling with this. What is a proper artist? Is Eve herself not a proper artist? Is her life more mundane and tedious because she is something different from her husband? All of those thoughts (and doubts) are in there. 
             What can you take away from this example? 
             1. Use dialogue tags (he said, she said) sparingly.
             2. Avoid direct address, particularly when your dialogue involves only two characters.   Notice that McKay only has one instance of direct address in this passage. Eve says, "Well, Daddy has to work very hard, Rose darling." McKay has Eve address Rose by name for a purpose. It reveals Eve's character and her emotional state. Eve is working hard to justify her husband's absence, both to herself and to her daughter. Readers feel compassion for her because they can see this in the dialogue.         
             Dialogue tags, without purpose, are clunky. They detract from the scene. Look what happens if you add dialogue tags and/or direct address willy nilly, without intention or purpose to this same scene.
             "He comes home on weekends, Rose" said Rose's mother.
             "He doesn't," said Rose.
             "Nearly every weekend when he can fit it in," said Rose's
            mother.
             "Only once since Christmas, Mum," said Rose.
             All this does is add verbiage. We lose some of the zip and flair. We are slowed down by unnecessary words. 
         Renni Browne and Dave King's book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, contains an excellent discussion on dialogue.  Read the two chapters in that book and then analyze particular passages of dialogue in books that you admire.  Be daring when you edit your own dialogue.  Remember to leave spaces for the reader to add their own understanding of a particular scene.  This is another way of saying, don’t explain too much.  Respect your reader’s intelligence.  Part of the joy of reading is engaging in the process of deciphering human emotion and action by what is left unsaid.  It’s subtle, but vitally important.  The more you read dialogue with these thoughts in mind, you more you will appreciate the genius of those writers who convey enormous meaning in what is left unspoken.   

        

Friday, October 3, 2014

WV LIVING - "CONVERSATIONS"

Every now and then someone comes along who has a natural gift for conducting an interview.  Laura Treacy Bentley, who writes the "Conversations" column for WV LIVING magazine is one of
those people.  I was bowled over by the thoughtful nature of her questions when she emailed them to me some months ago.  In fact, she caused me to consider things I hadn't really thought about before.  The result now appears in the current issue of WV Living, which is available on newsstands at Tamarack and Taylor Books and Barnes and Noble in Morgantown and other places around the state.  
It is also accessible here in the digital issue of the magazine.  I'm so glad they included the photograph of my grandniece and me paddling a canoe on the Greenbrier River at twilight!  That is one of my favorite memories.
I am grateful to Laura for her questions and to Nikki Bowman, publisher and editor extraordinaire for her vision and hard work.  
As always, there are a number of great articles in the current issue.  Personally, I was happy to see the piece on Wolf Creek Gallery in Lewisburg.  It's about time to buy my 2015 Wolf Creek calendar.    I couldn't think of starting the new year without one.  


Friday, August 29, 2014

COFFEE AND CONVERSATION WITH LAURA BOWERS

Thanks to Laura Bowers for the invitation to Coffee and Conversation posted in the MD/DE/WV SCBWI newsletter here.

  
As Laura pointed out, there are only 22 days until the fall conference at the Claggett Conference Center in Buckeystown, Maryland. I'll be there along with these fine folks. 

Calista Brill, Senior Editor at First Second Books
Reiko Davis, Agent, Miriam Altshuler Agency 
Kirsten Hall, Founder of Catbird Productions
Ella Kennen, Agent at Corvisiero Literary Agency
Emma Ledbetter, Associate Editor at Simon & Schuster
John Micklos, Jr., Author
Miranda Paul, Author & Director of Rate Your Story
Becky Shapiro, Associate Editor at Scholastic
David Teague, Author
Marc Tyler Nobleman, Author
Ariane Szu-Tu, Asociate Editor at National Geographic
   
For more information and to register, click HERE.  September 20th will be here before you know it.  


Fall is a perfect time to carve out a regular writing routine.  Add the inspiration you get from a conference and you could be well on your way to accomplishing your goals.  
Hope to see you there.  

Thursday, August 28, 2014

REPEAT OF THE ART OF HENRY OSSAWA TANNER

Because several teachers have asked me where to find this information, I am re-posting my earlier entry about the renowned African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Apologies to those who have already read it.  I hope you don't mind.


One of the best parts of writing is doing research.  When I wrote All That's Missing, I needed to create a character who was an African-American artist living sometime prior to 1950.  I spent hours online and ordered used art history books and biographies.  The artist's stories were fascinating.  I loved looking at the work they created.  

Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Henry O. Tanner 1900

Ultimately, it was Henry Ossawa Tanner upon whom I focused.  I researched the details of his life in order to create a plausible biography for Solomon Brokenberry, the fictional artist in my novel. Solomon Brokenberry is not meant to be a stand-in for Henry Ossawa Tanner.  Rather, I relied upon the facts of Tanner's life to create what would seem real in a fictional character.  Purely by coincidence, it turned out that the first
View of the Seine, Looking Toward Notre Dame, 1896
 major American exhibition of Tanner's work was being mounted around the time I was doing my research.  As a result, there were new resources to consult.  The exhibit opened in January, 2012 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and traveled to the Cincinnati Art Museum  and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  (Here's a link.)  


I ordered a copy of the catalogue and pored over it.    
If you are interested in learning more about Tanner and his work, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  I included an Author's Note at the end of All That's Missing  in which I told a little about Tanner's life and included a list of resources upon which I relied in creating my fictional artist.  This book is included among those resources.


Tanner is the first African American artist whose work forms part of the White House art collection. His painting, "Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City", was purchased by the White House Foundation during the Clinton administration.
Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City 1885
Learn more about Tanner and the painting here.  (http://www.whitehousehistory.org/whha_tours/whitehouse_art/art_genl-sand-dunes.html)   

There is an audio clip accompanying the photo of the painting.  Please take the time to listen!  

According to several sources, Tanner's best-known work in the United States is "The Banjo Lesson," shown here.    

The Banjo Lesson 1893

It was painted after Tanner returned to the United States from Paris around 1892.  He had fallen ill and was forced to come home to recuperate.








As soon as his health was restored, Tanner auctioned as many of his painting as he could and returned  to Paris.  He received his first major recognition there when his painting "Daniel in the Lion's Den" received an Honorable Mention at the Salon in 1896.  

Daniel in the Lion's Den, 1896



Faith Ringgold created a beautiful picture book to accompany the exhibit, HENRY OSSAWA TANNER: MODERN SPIRIT.  It was published by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and provides an excellent introduction to Tanner and his work.


There are certain gifts which come with the hard work of writing.  One of them is the reward of accomplishing a difficult task.  Another is the gift of discovery that comes as a bit of serendipity along the way.  Discovering the story of Henry Ossawa Tanner and his work was such a gift.  If you do not know about him, here is a story you need to know.

Monday, July 28, 2014

BOXES AND MORE BOXES

I've been silent for a long time and, if you ask why, I can tell you in a single word.  PACKING.  

Rick and I have lived in our home for 17 years, a record for both of us and we have the "stuff" to prove it.  Now that we are moving, we are forced to confront those boxes we stuffed in the basement and the attic so many years ago, thinking we would get to them later, when we had more time.   Does anybody ever have more time?

We have cleared the attic and disposed of as much junk as possible out of the basement.  I have discovered treasures such as my father’s Army uniform and my mother’s Red Cross uniform.  They met at Fort Bragg when my dad came home from World War II and were later married in the Chapel on post.  They have both been gone for more than 15 years and it caused a tug at my heart to unearth these reminders.

I also found things I cannot believe have been saved for so long, including a letter to my grandfather from some public safety “official” in Florida reporting that the dog which had bitten him while he was on vacation had been released “in good health.”  The letter was dated November of 1961. I have no idea why we saved it or what it was doing in my basement.

When I finished my last job for the school year, a day of Professional Development for teachers in Braxton County, WV, I decided I needed to set a goal for the summer, so the move did not completely consume my life.  I vowed to write every day with the target of having a completed first draft of a new novel by the day we move.  So far, I’ve managed to stay on schedule.  Some days it’s pretty tense and there have been days when the final work for a given day was not completed until after midnight.  But, having this daily "assignment" saves my sanity and keeps me engaged with my characters and their journey.  I can tell you with complete honesty, that there have been days when escaping into the world of my novel has been a welcome refuge from the other work required on that day.  Did I mention how many boxes of books I’ve packed?

I have reached the point where I celebrate the discovery of a box of something which has been rendered completely obsolete by the passage of time.  Fifteen year-old highway maps, for example.  Hooray!  These require not one scintilla of thought or emotion.  I can toss them (recycle, actually) with abandon.  What a relief.


Most discoveries are far more complicated.  This afternoon’s find, for example – a poem written by my cousin when she was in grade school.  My aunt had apparently sent it to my father years ago and he had saved it in a special leather box he kept on his desk.  This one’s a keeper.  I'm going to send it to her today.  It’s a lovely poem.  I want to know when she wrote it.

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