Writing

Talking shop: fiction’s missing girls, writer v. author, small towns, lyrics, + more

Happy to have had the chance to talk about writing and Sycamore with E. Ce Miller at Bustle and Sam Hankin at The Avid Reader Show (a podcast); Sam also owns the Wellington Square Bookshop (shop local and indie, y’all!). Many, many thanks to both E. Ce and Sam for taking the time to read and discuss and for their excellent questions.

Read and listen to the interviews here:

Bustle

The Avid Reader Show

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How to Write Suspense (subhed: Wait, I Write Suspense?)

Delighted to have a short craft essay, “How to Write Suspense,” up over at Publisher’s Weekly Tip Sheet related to Sycamore. Thanks much to PW for having me.

Back when PW asked if I could write it, my first response was to laugh. How to write suspense? I have no idea. Is that what I just did?

I mean, I  didn’t set out to write a mystery. I mainly thought I was telling the story of people’s lives in a small town, though yes, of course I knew I had a plot with unanswered questions to resolve. When I see the word “thriller” attached to Sycamore, I’m like, wait, what? Not that I’m not happy. Honestly, the fact that I apparently managed to pull it off both delights and baffles me. Then again, the process of writing always baffles me a little.

Anyhow, hope my own wrangling with suspense is of some use to others.

SYCAMORE pub day!

Hard for me to believe it, but Sycamore, my debut novel, lands in the world officially today.

Read an excerpt on LitHub
Listen to a sample of the Audiobook

You can borrow it at your favorite library (I heart librarians, as I wrote here).

Of course, you can buy it. I encourage you to shop your local indie (I’m thrilled that Sycamore will be on the Indie Next List for June!). Here in Charlotte, I recommend Park Road Books (I’m reading there tomorrow!) and Main Street Bookstore up in Davidson, which threw me a lovely event last week. Some other faves: Changing Hands Bookstore, Parnassus Books, The Tattered Cover, Powell’s, and Eclipse Coffee and Books. Yes, you also can get it at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, whose wonderful staffs include book lovers just like you.

The thanks? Oh, good lord, the thanks. The acknowledgements page is miles long and there are many more than I can include; I am moved every day by how much love and support flows my way.

Well, so far, I’ve cried twice, and I’ve only been up an hour. You can find me posting awkwardly on social media but mostly puttering out in the yard, trimming azaleas, trying to drum up some more stories in ye ol’ noodle. I may try to turn a cartwheel or two, so look out, neighbors.

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Sample audio from Sycamore

Incredibly cool to hear this audiobook snippet from Sycamore. Performed by the wonderful Cassandra Campbell, Steven Jay Cohen, Sara Morsey, Xe Sands, and Teri Schnaubelt. Thanks to them for bringing it so beautifully to life.

I can’t wait to hear all of it (out 5/9!)

Q&A: On being haunted, small towns, and cats in boxes

Was happy to do this interview with the wonderful novelist Caroline Leavitt over at her terrific blog, CAROLINELEAVITTVILLE.

Imaginary Soundtracks, Vol. 1

Mixing it up here at the old blog by, you know, actually writing on it.

“Mix,” in fact, is the word on my mind today. As in, “Get ready for a mixed-up, mixed bag of a post.” Or, “How many mixed metaphors can I throw into the mix today?” Or, “Our reckless, moronic loon of a so-called president and his spineless minions in Congress have really got us mixed up in some sh*t.” You choose.

Or, okay, more gently, mixtapes.

My beloved TW still makes these for me. Though technically we could share our music libraries through the click of a mouse, he still takes the time to select songs, create an order, and then haul out the CD drive and burn them (or at least download them on a memory stick). Long gone are the gritty little cassette tapes, pressing the recorder’s clunky Play and Stop and Eject buttons to fill the A and B sides, but the sentiment remains. Other dear friends also have shared so much music this way, and I treasure both the objects and the songs.

The first mixtape TW made me landed in my mailbox fourteen years ago in May, two months after we met (we were long distance). He called the disc “Imaginary Soundtrack No. 1” and handwrote the list of songs. The second volume followed the next month.

Here, take a look:

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I was already half in love with him at that point, but these pushed me right over the edge. I mean, good heavens, handpicked music, with handwritten liner notes—songs he loved, songs he hoped I would love? What a gesture. I can still feel the heat in my cheeks when I opened that envelope and it dawned on me: he made this for me. I played those discs in the quiet space of my central Phoenix living room, by daylight, by candlelight. I played them in the car, zipping along Seventh Avenue and down the wild curves to Canyon Lake. I played them while writing emails to him, while writing stories. The soundtrack of early summer, of early love. Many of them made it onto the wedding mixtape we made for the ceremony and reception.

I still have the objects, of course, but those songs—as with other art and literature—became part of me. In my inner ear, I can still hear the haunting plinking and lyrics of “Song of the Siren” (Long afloat on a shipless ocean…) and the buoyant, exhilarating drums of James’s “Sometimes.” They have become part of me, as have the words of countless stories, poems, and plays and the images of art. When we listen and view and read, we absorb those works, take them deep inside, into the intimate space of our imaginations. And they linger, emerging sometimes in unexpected ways and times (I wrote here about how art sticks around). Looking back at those Imaginary Soundtracks, I can recall the music itself but I’m also back in my house in central Phoenix with the smell of phlox and fading orange blossoms, pool-bright skies, the jacarandas in bloom. I’m in my early thirties, falling in love, aching with it.

And here I come to writing because I create mixtapes (okay, playlists—whatevs) for my writing projects. Soundtracks for the Imaginary, I guess you could call them. My (embarrassing) habit is that I play these mixtapes on repeat so they become entwined with my writing time; hearing those familiar chords and lyrics lulls me into and keeps me inside the story space. I don’t really have a plan or design when I create them. For Sycamore, I built the list out of works I’d been listening to and enjoying that had a certain mood and emotional resonance. Here it is (don’t judge me):Sycamore playlist.png

Many of these came from TW’s mixtapes, along with a couple from my BFF’s roadtrip mixtape (“Going to California”). The one at the top, John Doe’s “Golden State,” ended up being really influential in the writing; something about the juxtaposed voices, the opposing lyrics, the jangly, bittersweet sound, helped me open up the novel. In fact, I used the lines, “We are tangled/we are stolen/we are living where things are hidden” as the epigraph to Sycamore (with endless gratitude to John Doe for permission. Sidenote: I might have a done a giddy little omg-omg-it’s-john-doe dance in my office when his email popped up).

I have always thought of these lists as using music to help me write—because it does.

But I’m seeing now that I’m also giving this music to my writing. As an offering of love. In hopes that my writing will love me back.

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Here is the day

One of the first lines I wrote in the wake of The Vote was “I have lost my words.” I had gone mute with grief and rage and fear. But I had to teach, to stand in front of young scared faces who looked to me to tell them the world would not end. I tried. I found some, cupped them in my palm like pears, sliced and shared what I could.

Weeks have passed, and I still can’t find them. This scares me, since I know, I know, I know: words are the way out. I have known that since I was a girl who slept and woke with books in her hands, my mind and heart on fire. My faith in words has not failed, just my faith in my will. And in the world.

As I sit down to the page now, all I can think of is an old tip on how to write well: Go small. To the short words, those with one beat. Their strength lies in their good bones. I think of a prompt from those same years: Write a scene (or more) with all one beat words.

So I turn to them now, the small, lone, bright ones. I get low, slash through the brush and weeds and lo! There, like lost coins lodged in the dirt. I claw them out, dust them off, watch them glint in the sun. They smell of stars and mint. I scuff their curves with my thumb. They burst, tart as a bell chime, on my tongue. I taste their punch and hiss, their thrust and twang.

Here are some that I clutch hard as we ride out the last days of this rough and dour year:

Fire
As in breathe, go through, hair on, set the world on. Light. It. Up.
As in stoke: for warmth, to cook, to share.
As in The Fire Next Time, The Fire This Time, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, The Mind on Fire. Seek those who write their truths, and take heed.

Rise
As in, Stand. Don’t back down. Know your rights. Know what’s right. Know the facts, and that facts count. Stand with those you know and those you don’t. Hold them up when their knees go weak. Cling to them when yours do.
As in, Wake up. This is real. This is ours now.
As in to the test. Know your strengths. You’ll need them. We all will.
To the surface. Gasp for air. A space to breathe. Float on your back. Watch the sky and clouds and rain, the moon and stars. Then get back to work.
As in the sun will. Look: here is the day. Meet it. Some days you can’t. You just can’t. Oh, love, it’s fine. Hang on. We got you.

Art
As in, write and read prose and verse and script. Words that for me mean pray. The Bad One and his ilk shun this life of the mind and heart as if it is dull, a bore and a chore, when those of us who write and read know: here is where we seek and find hard and good truths. Here is where we find joy. Here is grace and hope. Trust in these acts, for the self, for the world.
As in make. Make films (big screen, small screen), make plays, make sets. Draw, paint, sculpt, print, glaze. Waltz, leap, spin. Bang a drum, sing, pluck strings. Teach and learn. Make waves.

Earth
As in, What on? For real. What the f*ck have we done?
As in dirt. Where we dig and plant and grow.
As in our home. Home to land, sky, seas, lakes, trees, air, beasts, fish, Home to homes, streets, farms, work where we live, die, love, fly, ride, bike, walk, hop, skip, dream, hope. Home we must save.

Heart
As in: Take! You are not alone. The world can crack this red heart of yours, but it can heal it, too. The arc is long. The fight is hard. Chin up, Love. Look back at those who blazed the way. Look now at your feet on the path, at the ones next to you, old and young. Look up. Keep on.
As in, love. As in the greatest of these is. We’re not dumb fools, we who have faith in love. To love is a grand act full of risk and hope and fear. Its wild force —how it wounds and heals, how far we’ll go in its name—is at the root of much great art. Say it loud to those who need to hear it: I love you. You with your flaws, you with your charms, you with your scars. You, you, you.
As in, not hate. To the Bad Man and his vile dolts: you will do much harm, or try to, in the name of hate. Its force is strong, too. But we will stop you. There are more of us. For god’s sake, love wins. (You would know this if you read.)
As in with your whole. All of it. To the edge of what you think you can bear, and one step more.

Beauty
Not a one beat word, but I can’t think of its match, not one that holds the same sense of art, god, thanks, good, and joy at once. At times, beauty is plain: the sky on fire as the sun slides out of the sky, a bare tree at dusk, a thumb on a cheek. For me, it’s best when it comes by chance, when we have to peer past what we know to see it: a man on shift who runs to a sick guest, kneels in puke to hold her head and hand; a shared smile on a train; a drop of dew on a bent branch. Some days, these can bring me to my knees, a bright hot bloom in my chest. We must look hard for them in dark days. They are there, even in the dark. Look, and look, and look. Share them. Keep them close.

That’s all I have for now. But just this act, this search for small words, brought forth more far more than I knew it would.

From my heart to yours. I can’t wait to see what you do.

BC

(pssst For those who like to keep count, there are four words up there (at least that I see) that break the short-word rule: surface, alone, greatest, and beauty. This does not mean the rest of the words are the right or best ones; I’m could find more apt ones, clean it all up, cinch it tight. But as a prompt, it was good work and made me test and push past my first urge. Try it!)

When the brakes fail, and other metaphors

The US election and its fallout coincided with our move across town. We’d spent ten months searching for a place in a bonkers housing market, which ran parallel with a total-barking-bananas election season. Finally we found a little house we could afford; we were thrilled and optimistic, even though the timing stunk (how could the semester get harder? Hey, let’s move!), even as we watched the country convulse and howl as the election neared.

As a writer, I dwell in metaphor, in double meaning. In both the move and election, I couldn’t help but see beyond the literal: houses, divided. On the threshold of a new doorway, hoping for a good life on the other side. Work, repairs, and changes, yes, but progress toward something better.

And then the Night of the Orange Terror struck.

Amid my weeping and gnashing and blaring of punk rock late at night out the windows of my Kia Soul (!) in hopes of waking sleeping neighbors (WAKE UP, YOU F*CKERS, I yelled, WAKE THE F*CK UP!), and trying to face my students to give them something worth holding onto (Art, I told them. Stories. Language.), I was glad to have something tangible and practical to do with my hands. I wasn’t ready for social media. I appreciated the calls for standing and fighting, but I had no fight in me yet, only despair and rage, a deep darkness that dredged up the 21-year-old grief of losing my father, of the days post 9/11, when I would look around at the bright desert sky and wonder how the world kept spinning on its axis. This time, I wrapped cheap plates and glasses in newsprint and stuffed them in bankers’ boxes and plastic bins. I tugged black trash bags over hanging clothes. I wrote in marker on the sides: Kitchen. Office. House (Fragile).

On moving day, two days after the election results came in, our movers, two young men, showed up in a truck. Strong, strapping young men, ready to heft our many boxes of books, our poorly manufactured bedframe, our shitty particle board shelves, while we middle-agers schlepped the smaller bins and blankets and scraggly bags. But the guys had forgotten the parking wedge for the 26-foot-moving truck, which apparently had a dodgy brake, and so they parked on the street, a long haul down the long slope of our driveway. I offered to drive and retrieve the wedge, to save their backs and legs, to save ourselves time. I felt a thrum of optimism when I found the wedge in the company’s empty lot, when I held it up to them through the windshield upon my return. A small triumph. In the face of the past few days—nay, eighteen months—of our country’s dumpster fire election, I’d take it.

They backed the truck up the drive, stuck the wedge under the wheel, and they were off. Lifting, loading, sweating. I suspected one of them was hungover (I’ve held enough office hours post-Thirsty Thursdays, y’all), but I was grateful for their strength and youth. I loaded our vehicles, making goo-goo eyes with the neighbor’s puppy (he was in a laundry basket!), trying not to think of the shaky voices of my friends and coworkers and strangers, the raw fear and anguish I’d seen in my students, especially my students of color. I tried to think of all the ways we’d fight back (donations, protests, calling Congress, newspaper subscriptions, local volunteering—things I’ve done for years), but right then all I could do was cling to the dumb metaphor I tried to cobble: moving forward. I embraced words, stripped down to the elementals: Books. Bed. Home. Belongings. Be. Longing. I looked in the young men’s faces, black and white, tendons and muscles strained with the weight in their arms, and I thought, Strength. Carry. Stand.

The truck grew heavy, three-quarters full with the burden of our belongings. It creaked and shifted as the young men went up and down the metal ramp. We were close, only a few boxes, a mattress, odds and ends.

But then: the small wedge under the tire, our safety barrier, my earlier triumph, wasn’t enough. It gave way. From inside the house, I heard the scrape of the ramp on the concrete, the shout of the hungover kid. I ran to the door to see the driverless moving truck flying down the driveway. It plowed over bushes, plunged into the busy street, ran up into the neighbor’s yard, and finally rolled back down into the street, rocking to a halt. In the tumult, our neatly packed possessions tumbled loose, their fragile parts splayed and jumbled on the floor.

We stood for a moment, speechless. Finally, I said, Is any one hurt? Is everyone okay? They were, we were. No one hurt. Cars pulled up and stopped in the road, inching forward with impatience, unaware of their near miss. The hungover kid, wide-eyed and awake now, got in the truck and managed to pull it to the side of the road. The cars rolled past. All that remained as testament were maimed bushes and tire tracks in the grass. Otherwise, like nothing happened.

Rattled, the young men finished the last of the load and drove the truck across town to our new house without any other hitches. Unloaded in a hurry, filling our garage and dropping most of the furniture in the living room since we’re having the floors done in the bedrooms. I gave them a hefty tip (but still need to call the moving company to tell them to fix their g-d brakes and stop endangering their employees). So far, all we’ve found broken is our footboard, with a ding and a crack. A cart missing the weird little plastic thingys that hold it together.

For the past three days, as we wait to finish the floors, we have slept in the dining room. Mattress on the floor. We’d laughed about it when we’d planned it. Just like college! Kids again, like those young men who’d hefted our furniture, who’d come close to a tragedy.

Each night, I wake around 3 or 4 a.m., groggy and aching, my shoulder seized, terror and rage and despair in my throat, haunted by what could have happened in our driveway and what actually did in our country. I look around in the dim light of this strange place that is now ours, at dressers and desk and day bed muddled in the living room, our clothes in duffles on the fireplace brick, our beloved books and art supplies absent, languishing in the garage. A metaphor, I think, in my sleepy rage. Who knows what else we’ll find broken. Who knows when we’ll ever pull ourselves together again.

Joy outside the door

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu — John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy”

August. You again. I lamented your presence a few years back, and I stand by it. This year you also coincide with a hellacious US political sh*tshow featuring an overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic, hate-mongering, spray-tanned stinkbomb of a presidential candidate (not to put too fine a point on it). In short: Oh, joy.

Actually, it’s that short word snarkily employed up there — joy — that I’ve found myself ruminating on amid my late-summer anxiety and despair, and not in an eye-rolling way. Rather, I’m thinking about joy’s relationship to melancholy — thus the Keats. (To clarify, by melancholy, I’m not referring to clinical depression, only the temporary state of “having the blues” or “the blahs,” or “being out of sorts.” States of which, by the way, I currently am in. See: August. And the Cheetos candidate. Which is an insult to Cheetos.)

Anyhow, as I often do, I started with the word itself, perusing the OED in high nerd mode. Joy has a vividness, ebullience, and fleetingness that Happiness lacks. Joy is kinda like Happiness’s plucky older cousin (NOT to be confused with Glee or Bliss. Nobody wants those f*ck-ups at the reunion; they’ll only end up naked in the pool). Joy swings by the house on a lark with a fresh batch of chocolate-chips and a bottle of your favorite wine and daisies in her hair. You’ve been waiting by the window and fling open the door as she skips up to you. But, as ol’ Keats intimates, Joy’s on her way out the door as fast as she screeched into the driveway. With a wave and a blown kiss, she hops back on her moped, sunglasses flashing in the waning light of day. Watching her go, you want to hold her radiant perfection in your two hands. But then, she burns rubber, baby, and all you can do is watch the tires smoke, nibble a cookie, and hold the door frame for balance.

To seek a permanent state of joy is impossible, if not idiotic, unless you’re a Golden Retriever. The joy of joy is in its ephemeral nature (uh-doy, as my tween self would say). And there’s something, well, a bit embarrassing about an adult seeking joy, as if it is a simpleminded or insipid or sentimental pursuit. There’s nothing hip about Joy. She’s a little goofy, naive, even. Yes. She is. And maybe we need a few more conscious doses of her, especially when faced with so much rage and violence and fear in the world.

And I do mean conscious. It strikes me as I write this that some of my greatest moments of joy come when I’m writing, usually when something in a story reveals itself — the joy of clarity, of discovery. It also comes from the intensity of focus on words and sentences, trying to render them both logical and beautiful. Just writing this simple post has got my brain firing in a way it doesn’t when I’m passive, a mere recipient of my emotions. Here, I’m making conscious choices. I’m awake. I’m alive. I’ve flung open the door, and there it is: joy.

I’ve written before about humor and tragedy, an abiding interest of mine, and I guess I’m beating a similar drum. (Humor is Joy’s boisterous brother with the unlaced high tops, cracking wise over the cheese cubes). Joy likely won’t banish melancholy, and it shouldn’t (Melancholy’s tempestuous children are Art and Beauty). Anger serves an important purpose; sometimes we are right to be afraid. We have serious work to do, and joy won’t solve problems, or fight inequality, or make change. Yet joy can be part of the emotional equation, too. Like love and hope, joy can be trangressive, if we remember to look for it, if we remember to open the door.

No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue’s vital role in fiction first came into focus for me when my creative writing professor at the time read aloud a passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, riveting our class with a hilarious yet touching car scene in which a father and son argue about whether it’s raining or not. When he finished reading, the professor tapped the book’s page and said, “Look at all the work DeLillo is doing here,” and I no doubt scribbled down the word work in my notebook; I’m sure I underlined it, doodled emphatic stars and arrows around it, imagining the author toiling over a typewriter, sweat dripping off his brow. It took me a bit longer (years) and many failed, frustrating attempts at dialogue in my own stories to get a better grip on what the teacher meant: Work means that dialogue, like other fictional elements, is contributing on multiple levels in a story. Good dialogue should always be about more than characters talking; it should be integral to readers’ understanding of those characters as well as to the movement and depth of the story.

I’ve been working on this handout for awhile (and wearing out my students, who at this point are like, Sheesh, Chancellor, we get it! Dialogue is important! and I’m all, But do you? Do you?) and did a craft talk on it recently at Tucson Festival of Books Masters Workshop, too. I’ve drawn from a number of resources, of course. Citations below. Still developing, but thought I’d share here.

No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue can be one of the thorniest story elements for writers, but when it’s done well—when it’s doing work—it can have tremendous impact. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Keep the story moving forward. A story’s arc hinges on movement, propelling readers toward something—a moment of crisis or change or resolve, or perhaps more simply, in John L’Heureux’s terms, “a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” Nothing in the story should stall that momentum, including dialogue. It always should tell the reader something, whether about character or plot or theme or facts; it should ratchet up the story’s tension. In other words, characters should not talk in a vacuum; they aren’t out chatting on a smoke break. Dialogue should be incisive, exact, and essential.

Reveal and distinguish characters and show relationships. What characters say, and how they say it, can give readers vital insights into that character’s personality and emotional state, as well as about the facts of their lives. Speech also is an excellent way to capture a character’s voice, including dialect that reflects region, community, or social group. Take care with dialect: It should be believable and natural to the character, not a caricature. It’s usually better to avoid phonetic misspellings and instead focus on rhythms and syntax to suggest accents. Each character should have their own voice. How your characters speak to one another reveals much about what’s going on between them.

Avoid exposition or detailed description in speech. These are better handled through narration—through telling, not through having characters say them. (Example: “Jerry, I know that you’ve been working hard at your job at the coffee shop, down on 15th Street, where the one of the red shutters is falling off the building.” Instead: I knew Jerry had been working hard at his job at that hellhole of a coffee shop with its hangnail red shutters. “I’m sorry, kid,” I said. “What can I do?”)

Weave speech, silence, action, and the sensory world. How characters respond or avoid response, as well as characters’ body language and gestures, can add great depth to dialogue. Body language brings more of readers’ senses into play, as does involving the concrete world around characters. Additionally, readers infer meaning in the interplay what is said and unsaid, between speech and gesture. The best dialogue operates both as text (what is being said and shown that contributes to the general events of the piece) and as subtext (what’s not said but what’s being implied or revealed, or the emotional undercurrent).

Yes, it’s like real-life speech, but it’s more pointed and dramatic. Though realism is something for which writers strive in dialogue, the kinds of banalities found in real-life conversations (e.g. “Hello?” “Hello, is Jerry there?” “This is Jerry.” “Hi Jerry, it’s Selma”) don’t play well on the page. Summarize or eliminate the niceties and hems and haws and get to the point. (When Jerry picked up the phone, Selma said, “You trust me, right? Do you?” “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”) It’s a realistic approximation, not an exact replication.

Think balance. Dialogue is one of the most visible story elements because it demands space. This visibility can be a strength, shifting momentum and making a story more active. But overuse of dialogue can be a problem. Direct quotation suggests something of importance, so save it for that purpose. Also, consider balance, pace, and texture within dialogue. Intersperse summarized dialogue with direct dialogue; alter the placement of speech tags or substitute action/thoughts as attribution; weave in characters’ thoughts, description, and exposition between direct dialogue; or keep short lines of dialogue in paragraph for quick infusions of voice without length.

Take care with attribution and speech tags. In reality, people don’t “smile” or “grunt” or “chortle” a sentence. Such verbs used as speech tags are clunky and draw attention to themselves. The attention should be on the dialogue spoken, not the tags. Dynamic verbs are good in narration, but not here. Remember: the speech tag’s only job is to indicate who is speaking. Stick with “said” or “asked,” or eliminate and let the speaker’s action indicate who’s speaking. Sometimes if you’re using other verbs as tags, you’re narratively trying to sneak in story work (dramatic tension, tone) that better happens elsewhere or through other techniques. Such verbs make the author intrusive, when—especially in a moment of dialogue, where characters are front and center—we want the author to disappear. Be sparing even with subs such as “told” “replied,” “yelled,” “whispered,” all of which stand out more than sit back.

Avoid “telling” adverbs. Adverbs often indicate the writer is telling rather than showing—which means a missed opportunity for work. Rather than falling back on telling the reader (she said emphatically), better to convey the emotion or inflection through the syntax or word choice of the sentence or a narrative addition—sometime known as a beat—of action, gesture, thought, or description. (“Stop that,” she said, slapping the table.) If you’ve done your work, readers will get it. Think of adverbs as a missed opportunity to do work.

Get technical: know your formatting and punctuation. Because dialogue is so visible, errors in format and punctuation stand out. They also can interrupt movement and pull readers out of the story. Reminders:

  • All new paragraphs and lines of dialogue should be indented, not left-justified. The speech tag or narrative beat generally should be on the same line as the person speaking.

indent   After escaping the prom, Juliette strolled the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly, looking for a late-night snack. Something salty. She was thinking about Conrad, imagining his pug nose pushed inside his skull, and didn’t notice when she stepped in the path of a man mopping an acidic orange puddle.
indent   The man said, “Excuse you.”
indent   Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. “Sorry?”
indent   The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. “I’ll bet you are.”

  • Make sure you understand when to use a comma or period and what to capitalize. A speech tag (said or asked) takes a comma when it introduces but a period if it completes a sentence.

No: Hannah said. “If you say so.” No: “If you say so.” She said.
Yes: Hannah said, “If you say so.”(introduces)
Yes: “If you say so,” she said. (completes sentence)

Also don’t confuse your speech tags and narrative beats. A beat (small gesture or action) takes a period as part of a sentence.

No: Gerald smiled, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: Gerald smiled. “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Gerald said, smiling.

Characters don’t smile a sentence. They say something; smiling is an action.

More here on punctuating from LitReactor https://litreactor.com/columns/talk-it-out-how-to-punctuate-dialogue-in-your-prose or The Editor’s Blog http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/

  • Go easy on the exclamation marks, ellipses, and dashes. Overuse of exclamation marks is like overuse of adverbs: you’re telling your reader this is dramatic! or emphatic! Instead, convey the drama or emphasis through the dialogue or a beat. Ellipses indicate a trailing off, but often writers rely on them to create a pause. However, ellipses are less specific than a gesture and thus a missed opportunity; further, a pileup of them interferes with speech rhythm. Same for dashes, which indicate interruption. If you find yourself using these tics, go back and look at them to see if you can eliminate or what other work you might do.
  • Writers also may opt out of using quotation marks, instead using dashes or nothing except the line break. In this case, make sure it’s clear what is speech and what is narration.

    Excuse you, the man said.
Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. Sorry? she asked.
The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. He said, I’ll bet you are.

Finally, dialogue is an instructive tool in the writing process. The act of writing dialogue can be a remarkable way to learn about characters, to figure out their troubles, to pinpoint what’s on their minds. You don’t always have to know what they’ll say before they say it. You can use dialogue as what Alice LaPlante calls a placeholder, or serviceable dialogue that gets down what you want to be conveyed. The finessing can come later; at first, it’s okay just to get them talking and see what they’ll come up with.

Works Consulted

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. “Dialogue Mechanics.” Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd Ed. New York: Harer, 2004. 82-97.
Kardos, Michael. The Art and Craft of Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
LaPlante, Alice. Method and Madness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York: HarperPerennial, 2007.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Laurel, 1991.